The Wrong End of the Story
by Julad and Calico

Julad's notes: I started this a very very long time ago. Like, 1998 ago. I dreamed this story, and then scribbled it down at three in the morning. But in trying to tell it, I had bitten off far more than I could chew at the time. I left huge plot holes and made massive mistakes, so it was abandoned over and over as a lost cause. Calico came on board, wrote huge sections, and got a lot of the story fixed inbetween months of neglect. Today I came over all TS-reminiscent, plugged a few words into the remaining missing scenes, and lo-- a complete story.

It's not what either of us would have written today, so consider this a blast from the past, a digitally remastered eighties film, newly released on DVD. The hair is bad, the fashion is worse, and the set design looks cheap, but if you're feeling nostalgic for the old excesses, enjoy the flashback.

Finally, I completely fucked up the timing on the semester and seasons, being from the wrong hemisphere and all. I tried to fix it but it was mostly too late. Close your eyes and pretend it's an Alternate Universe with a different calendar or something.

It was a dark and stormy night, and that was scary enough, but the storms that were flaying the landscape - with too-close lightning, with earthshaking, earsplitting explosions of thunder - were near ungodly. Freak violent electrical storms unlike anything the area has seen for fifty years, the newscasters would be saying tomorrow. Would be saying, Blair supposed, if lines weren't down and broadcasting towers not smashed like toothpick castles by the unholy gales pelting across the mountains.

He took a tiny sip of his cold roadshack coffee, and his tongue curled away from it. It was bitter and acidic and tasted more of swamp water than any sophisticated beverage, but they'd had a bust on a stakeout the night before and coffee was the only thing keeping his eyelids apart. Worse, the rest of this cup would have to last another four or five hours, until they could find a 24-hour truckstop somewhere on the outskirts of Cascade.

He shouldn't be drinking it at all, yet, but the air was chilled and taut, and staticky unease was creeping over the surface of his skin, and he was already two strikes down on the bugging-Jim-with-pointless-fidgeting score and really didn't want to get out and walk. If he rationed himself to less than one sip a minute, it would last, he decided. The taste peeled the skin on his tongue and the slick-rough polystyrene slipped squeakily under his gripping fingers while his other hand clung resolutely to his thigh.

Rain spat and gusted. There was no moon, no stars, and the trees looming over and around them blocked even the distant flickering illumination of lightning as storms continued to batter the coast. Even in the passenger seat, Blair found himself constantly trying to glimpse the invisible road ahead, trying to anticipate increasingly sickening bends, scanning for innocent surfaces of three-foot deep pools. They'd met too many of those already. As they twisted up the road, the headlights swung wildly, dizzyingly, from side to side. Blair tried not to watch as half-formed figures - grotesque leering faces and deformed man-beasts from primitive legend - leaped and capered in the harsh light and then vanished as the car sputtered past.

"They could have rented us something with a working stereo," he said, as he'd already said four times, more to break the silence than for any other reason.

Or - actually, no, it wasn't to break the silence, he realised, but to add continuity to the disconcertingly inconstant sounds of the car's rattles, the rain's erratic hammerings, the occasional violent crack of thunder amid random rumblings. The unpredictable wildness of it was an uncomfortable reminder, to a man whose life's study was the patterns of civilization, that life was a constant uphill battle against a universe hell-bent on entropy. It seemed to Blair, as more sudden thunder crashed over them and they skidded on another bend, that the planet was even inconstant in its orbit, slipping here and sliding there, looping in and out of gravitational law, so that the car's tenuous grip on the surface of the earth was nothing but a miracle of coincidence.

Beside the road, trees leaned and hovered briefly in the headlights. Most branches were bare, or packed with leaves too dense for the winds to tear away. Blair found himself leaning away from the car window, uneasy with the compact blackness that was pressing in from all sides. His fingers found the hard slash of seatbelt across his lap, curling round it tightly. It reminded him of night trips with Naomi, right back when he still felt dwarfed by the solid plush bucket seats in her Volvo. He had always gripped the belt hard, for a tangible bit of man-made security when there was just damply all-seeing darkness outside.

Deliberately, he relaxed and took silent deep breaths. He glanced at Jim's taut profile, then something flashed through the windscreen and his eyes darted furiously back over the road. No, nothing -- probably just a leaf, if leaves were long and white like mist-laden fingers.

Naomi never flinched away from the road. He'd always liked that -- that they could swerve round a corner and come face to face with a random sodden sheep, and she'd just squeeze down to a halt and wait for it to amble out of the way. He'd learned to drive young, keen to absorb something of her calm.

His memory unfurled, coasting through countless sleepy journeys, the reassuring glow of the dashboard lingering whenever he closed his eyes.

There was another flicker of light, and his shoulders jerked back into the seat. Those leaves... really were getting big. He twisted his head from side to side, feeling all sorts of little cramps complain in his neck and shoulders. Jeez, time to cut out the auto-neurotic impulses; he'd have no back left.

"Sandburg..." Jim growled, and Blair abruptly stilled again, reminding himself that it was still a very long walk to Cascade. He just needed to channel some patience, dig deep into his zen mine. Yeah. Patience, zen: good plan.

His neck carried on twitching, though, and the base of his spine felt sort of wrong, and he thought, you know, fuck this. He turned to Jim, relief murmuring in his back as he moved. "Can't you lighten up for a minute? I've driven across entire states with Naomi and she complained less in three days than you have in three hours."

Jim growled, for real this time, and Blair shrunk back into his seat, fishing frantically for the zen again. He knew total defeat when he felt it. Felt it a whole lot these days, actually.

Not like before, his brain whined. He stuck the lid on his coffee, wedged the cup into the lopsided cup-holder and glared at it. Hell, he missed driving with his mom. Even when the heater failed and they were left with pins and needles stabbing into frozen feet, and Naomi complained her fingers were numb on the steering wheel; even when he couldn't get comfortable or the headrest was too hard or low or at the wrong angle for anything human-shaped at all, even when he wanted nothing more than a nice bed and a long sleep and Mom could he please get out of the damn car-- there always used to be something good between them. Something worthwhile, companionable. She was a far cry from Jim, that was for sure. He sighed.

"Sometimes," he heard himself say, softly, "when we'd left somewhere in a hurry, we'd drive all night and the next day, and talk the whole time so Naomi would stay awake. We'd talk until we both lost our voices. I told her all my secrets, then, even though I would have died before I'd have told her, the day before." His voice came back to him surprisingly pensive.

"I hope you don't think I want to hear about your bizarre sex-life, just because we're in a car and it's night time."

Blair gave Jim the finger, with more genuine anger behind the gesture than he'd felt in years. He should've known better, he guessed bitterly; Jim was the Man of Stone, an impenetrable fortress of cold self-reliance, and woe betide the foolish anthropologist who tried to break out the chisel. Friendship only went so far with Jim - loyalty, companionship, sure, whatever. Seriously no time for bonding on the open road.

It was times like these Blair despaired of ever penetrating the surface and sharing with Jim, making a connection with him beyond the superficial, something beyond day-to-day life and an impromptu spiritual connection which was merely tolerated.

Naomi and he were never close when they were stationary - she had her agenda, and he had enough of her rebellious streak to not care what she thought of anything he did. But in the dark on the road, when they were heading towards somewhere they knew nobody but each other, they were closest friends, better than best friends, the kind of friends you only read about.

Blair stared outside, into the moving patch of light before them. He could see his own reflection, stillness superimposed on the flow of ghostly shapes, and there were circles under his eyes. Turning away from it, he leaned forward and put his head in his hands, trying not to sigh again. God. He was tired and chilled right through and, after forty-eight hours in Jim's exclusive company, unbelievably lonely.

Jim drew a slow breath. "In the rangers, when we had a 24/7 duty, or a night assignment, we told horror stories to stay alert. Urban myths, ghosts, serial killers, alien abductions - anything to make us too shitscared to sleep."

Blair recognised it as a conciliation and smiled wearily. "That's brilliant, man." His brain stirred obligingly. "And," he added, sitting up, a little brighter, "it can be argued that every culture is centered around storytelling. Whether it's folklore, religion, fables, or even boasts, or dance, the most basic tenets of that culture are dissipated through the stories they tell. The choice of violent and threatening tales in a culture of men devoted to defending -"

"It wasn't a culture thing, Sandburg, so don't get all anthro on me." Jim sighed impatiently, the faint undertone of placation, as always, already gone. "It was a practicality. We'd get ourselves so scared that we heard every twig snap in a hundred yards, saw the movement of every leaf."

Blair folded his arm across his chest and stared deliberately ahead. "That was just your senses," he said tiredly, "heightened subconsciously by-"

"Fear and imagination," Jim broke in, sounding strangely toneless. Blair wondered if the atmosphere was getting to him too.

"Yeah." Blair laughed, but the sound was hollow. The silence seeped back in, and he felt it cold and abrasive. "So tell me one of your stories, will you? I want to hear one."

Jim took a another curve. Blair barely noticed the swing of gravity; his stomach felt it, twisting in defiance. "I'm not about to fall asleep."

Blair resisted rolling his eyes. "Hey, I know that, you know that, but will you know it in ten minutes? Well, yeah, but it might get harder." He felt his voice veer towards whining and ruthlessly dragged it back. Hell, it was better to flirt than whine, and that was saying something. "C'mon, talk to me. Keep you focused. Hell, keep me focused-- man, I hate driving without a stereo--"

Jim groaned. "Can't we just play "I Spy" or something?"

"Fine," Blair snapped. "I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with T."

"Trees," Jim said. "You're not even trying."

"You do better then."

"I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with A."

"Asphalt. I spy, with my little eye, something beginning wiiiith... T."

"Fuck you, Sandburg. Alright, fine. I'll tell you a fucking story."

"Gee, score one for the anthropologist." Blair clapped his hands with false cheer. Jim was pissed off; let the gut-wrenching tale of grotesque mutilation begin.

Jim adjusted the mirror again, and sat up straighter in his seat. "It was a dark and stormy night," he began tonelessly, and Blair almost flinched at the icy vengeance in his voice.

"I've heard this one." Okay, no, this was not the kind of sharing he had in mind. There was nothing intimate about reciting god damn urban legends, especially in a context where he had good reason to actually get scared by them. The rain seemed to be hammering on his window harder than on Jim's, and the shivering white trees were leering at him as they shot past. Sucked in, they were saying.

Jim glared at him. "Sandburg, you can't even know which one it is. They all start like that."

"Is it the serial killer in the trunk? The honeymooners and the old couple in the mountain cabin? The hitch-hiking ghost? The babysitter and the dog under the bed?"

"No. I said, it's not one you've heard."

"Look, I've read a dozen studies of urban legends and I know them all."

"You don't know this one," Jim said, and there were layers of meaning there, clingling like fog to the weary hardness in his voice.

Blair glanced sideways at Jim. His face was as blank as ever, but there was a vulnerability in the lines around his mouth and the shadows under his eyes. "Okay," he said carefully, "hey, I'm sorry. Tell me your story, and I'll listen."

Jim smirked. "It was a dark and stormy night..."

Abruptly, they both chuckled. It warmed the chilly car for a moment, that sound. Blair squirmed back into the lumpy vinyl and tried to get comfortable.

"Two men were driving up a deserted mountain road."

"Oh, I like it so far. Real original."

"They were going home from a day-long conference in Seattle. They were meant to fly back, but electrical storms had grounded all air traffic, and all consecutive flights were booked solid. Stranded travellers had filled up every hotel and motel and caravan park, they were told, but they didn't need accomodation, they needed transport. The older man had to testify in court at eight the next morning, and the younger man had to give two lectures before midday, the last ones before finals."

Ha Ha Ha, went the trees, and a hairy feeling crawled up Blair's spine. Naomi Sandburg's son should have known to be careful what he wished for. This wasn't merely fiction plastered onto the friend of a friend last summer; this was here, and right fucking now. This was end-of-his-tether sleep-deprived Jim and the guy who had pushed at him, right in this creepy fucking car on this creepy fucking road in the middle of this creepy, quiet, dark, stormy night. Score one against the anthropologist.

"Trains had stopped for the night. Buses were parked in depots, with passengers sleeping in them. The roads were washed over, they were told. They were finally able to rent a car from a third-rate agency, after the older man showed them the map and explained that the backroad they were taking was well above flood level.

"The younger man was the more sedate driver, and got them through the hellish storm-thrashed city streets and byways. Once all streetlights faded behind them, the older man, who had better night vision, took the long shift in what promised to be an all-nighter."

Jim's delivery was toneless but rhythmic, as if he were reciting Latin verbs. It gave the words an eerie, hypnotic significance. It belatedly occurred to Blair that this was an ex-Ranger, a detective and a sentinel: a man who had seen more scary shit of more kinds than most other people alive. If he could frighten other hardened men with his stuff, then he could certainly do more than freak the living shit out of an already freaked-out Blair Sandburg.

"The five-hour drive had been drawn out into an eternity by the long detours around flooded passes. The roads were wet and slippery. The light was bad on the sharper turns. "

Blair looked over at Jim, not sure he wanted him to continue. The lights from the dash cast a green glow over the underside of Jim's face as he stared unblinking at the road rolling under them.

"It was midnight, on the cusp of midwinter," Jim intoned, and Blair realised with a bad start that it was. 12.13am on December 21. Mid-fucking-winter, thirteen minutes old. Man, no wonder he was freezing. "This would be the longest night of the year, when the darkest spirits rose from the underworld to tempt and torment mortals.

"In these times, few people believed that the spirits were anything but fear and imagination, but these two men had seen things and done things which had nothing to do with the corporeal world. They served a higher purpose, were guided by higher spirits and had travelled in a higher plane than the physical one. It hadn't occurred to them, though, that if there was a higher realm then there had to be a lower one."

With a nervous laugh, Blair slapped Jim's leg. "Jeez, you're good. But I'm really not in the mood for this. How about you tell me later?"

Jim turned to him with a wry grin, and Blair reflexively grinned back, and then as Jim turned the reflecting dashlight changed the smile into a sneer. Blair's breath caught, his face freezing, and then he was distracted by a blurry white shape materialising in front of the car.


They hit it hard, whatever it was, were thrown forward until their seatbelts snapped and caught and hurled them back again. Blair felt his fingers, already tight about the belt, burst into a hot flush of pain. He was aware of a hideous screeching to his right, Jim's hiss of pain or panic to his left. An agony was spreading warmly from his chest but he didn't care because the car was spinning on ice; a tree was looming and then shot past, grey-green fingers trailing on Blair's window. Metal crunched, glass shattered and sparks flew; frigid air exploded inwards and the car was abruptly at rest, and quiet.

Blair's shallow gasps were the only sound, the only motion. Jim was sittingly frigidly upright, gripping the wheel in white hands.

"Oh Jesus, oh Jesus. Fuck. Oh, hell." He didn't have breath for more than a whisper. "Jim, are you okay?"

Jim closed his eyes. "Something appeared on the road," he continued. "And they hit it. The car nearly went over the bluff, but the older man swerved just in time. They skidded across the road, and wrapped the car's rear end around a huge pine tree."

Blair looked back, even as he told himself not to. They had. It was a pine.

He turned back to face Jim, stabbing pains all over him as he moved. "What the hell are you saying?" He could feel his eyes too wide, jaw lax with incredulous anger. "Jim? What, what the hell are you saying-- I mean, no, I don't believe this, I don't believe you; we could be dead and you're going on with the fucking story?"

Jim turned his head to face him, then slowly opened his eyes. The dashboard was still glowing, throwing a pale green glint into his pupils. "There was a difference between the two men. Oh, there were lots of differences, but there was one... particular difference. One of them, the older man, he was used to--"

"Fuck the two men! Jim, are you zoning? We just crashed the car, and we're still hours from Cascade--"

"--Used to being in crisis situations, used to dealing with life-and-death matters when the only person who could save him was himself. He knew the second it happened how deadly the circumstances were. The younger one... however..." He blinked, a flicker of white skin over dark eyes, pausing and letting the silence gush back into their compact environment.

Blair waited, fuming, panting, torn-- why was he waiting to know about the younger one, why wasn't he just shouting and shaking Jim until he started talking sense instead of this fucking weird shit, his chest hurt like hell, why didn't Jim ask if he was okay--

"The younger one," Jim repeated, lingering calmly over the words, "however... he wasn't used to dealing with life. Not real life. He was an anthropologist. He dealt with communities, societies, civilization - humanity's triumph over primitive nature. He could get away with most situations, most remarkable stretches of city and tribal life, but he could always just pull out of things if they got particularly nasty. He could always retreat to academia, get in the car with his mother, walk to the airport and get on a plane and just leave it.

"But there was no escape hatch on this situation, no path back to civilization and safety. They could die out here in the wilderness, because their car, humanity's triumph over distance and time and the elements, was mashed around the old pine tree." Jim paused again, and raised his eyebrows a tiny bit. "The younger man couldn't help but see the symbolism in that."

Blair shook his head slowly, keeping his eyes fixed on Jim. "Shut the fuck up," he said quietly, wildly aware that his quiet-calm-scary voice didn't even cut close to Jim's version.

"The younger man was--"

"-fucking freaked out! Shut up, let me get my head together and work out what's going on, since you're so obviously not taking this seriously-- hell, man, you're supposed to be the army guy, the boy scout, you're supposed to be getting us out of this car, not telling me some fucking story for no fucking reason--"

"The younger man," Jim said again, exact same inflection, the tiniest bit more forceful, "was getting scared, scared he couldn't cope, scared the older man might leave him or even just not live up to his expectations."

Blair took a couple of deep breaths, resolutely ignoring the pain. Well, it was a dumb story; that wasn't what he was thinking. Of course Jim wouldn't leave him. He only mentioned it because, because, well. He didn't know why. He hadn't even considered Jim leaving him out here. Even though Jim didn't care that he was hurt. He didn't know why Jim had thought of it. To scare him. He felt cold, freezing cold. Broken glass, scattered across his lap, was tinkling and glittering as he shivered.

"The younger man was rapidly losing warmth," Jim continued, eyes shifting down his chest, then flashing back to his face. "Only the heat of his injuries gave his skin any colour. His face was dead white. Green, in the light of the dashboard."

Blair heard his own breath scratching the silence. Jim didn't seem to be breathing; the only life was in his sharp, calm eyes. Blair was painfully aware of trembling, chilled and damaged and scared and lonely. He pried his aching fingers away from the seatbelt and rubbed his palms against his knees, clumsily brushing off shattered crystal, trying to push some warmth around.

"The older man was concerned. He wasn't sure the younger man could cope -- but he wasn't going to leave a civilian to fend for himself."

Blair stopped focussing on his thighs, rounding on the older man. On Jim. Jesus, fuck, if he didn't hurt so bad he'd think this was a nightmare, his subconscious telling him to wake the hell up and keep Jim awake.

"For fuck's sake," he managed, quietly, rigidly, "you've had your fun, okay? You're totally scaring me, you're looking at one freaked out civilian, and I really want you to stop now." He could probably count every single hair on the back of his neck, right down his spine.

Jim tilted his head slightly. "Blair, I think the car is sinking."

"What?!" He started forward-- Jim's hand shot out, pushing his shoulder back down. Blair winced at the contact, but sank obediently back into the seat again.

"Careful. You might make it worse."

"Jim! If this thing is sinking, we've got to get out -- fucking hell, man, don't you realise that if it goes up over the doors we'll be stuck?" He started to gesture wildly; his chest cramped, and he gasped in pain.

Jim waited for him to catch his breath. He didn't move at all, except to take back his hand.

"Don't you realise?" Blair repeated eventually, panic sparking in his voice as soon as he opened his mouth. "It'll wedge them closed and then the future'll look pretty fucking nonexistent from where I'm sitting, not to put a damper on your story or ruin our lovely evening or anything--"

"It wasn't sinking that fast. Both men would get out."

"Don't start that again," Blair growled hoarsely, then leaned forward carefully to peer through the windscreen. Jim didn't try to stop him.

The headlights flowed into a tangle of thorns and black leaves like splintered moonlight. The light looked disconcertingly dim, to Blair's shortsighted eyes -- could be the way they were half obscured, thrust into an endless ragged edge of spiny undergrowth. He was still shivering, grateful for the solid bulk of vinyl under him as he sat slowly back down.

He glanced at Jim, irritating and terrifying in his sleek shroud of composure, then reached out with one hand to click open the door. The plastic handle was icy, already. It eased slowly, resisting, then suddenly put weight on Blair's fingers as the door swung open. He looked out, saw a glistening edge to the blackness below and knew the door had carved a groove in the mud. It would melt away in a moment, though -- such was the consistency.

"Come on, Jim. Please."

"Do you really think it's safer out there?" Jim's hand moved, flicking off the ignition, and darkness fell like a swamp. Blair tried to see his eyes in the blackness; failed. "Maybe you should think what's out there, before you put your foot down."

Blair paused, ankle resting heavily on the inner metal rim of the car, heel just lifted from the mud. "Can you hear anything out there?"

Jim's voice contained more air this time. "Oh, yes. It feels familiar." His tone broadened, slightly inflected with humour. "I can hear the spirits, Blair, just waiting for you to sink into their arms."

"Ha, ha."

"Come out this side. We're tilted; you're deeper."

Blair clambered over, fighting unexpected dread as he realised that Jim was a lot safer than he was. Jim was familiar with it, wasn't fazed by the lack of starlight or the flooded groves, had his senses to track down Blair and danger and keep himself safe. Jim was also, by current standards, invisible.

Blair found himself wondering, as he swayed in the darkness and tried to keep his boots out of the sucking mud, if that would mean keeping Blair safe too. His rational mind was taking slow breaths, and said of course it would. The younger man wasn't sure.

"There's a house up there."

"Where?" Squinting and looking, Blair could just make out the darker shape of the treeline against the sky, but nothing resembled a house.

"It's about three miles up the mountain."

Blair laughed shortly. "Oh no, nooo way. Not on your life, no chance."

"Well, it's that or stand here and freeze to death while we wait for a car to come by. Come on." Jim's voice came from a different direction, further away. Blair felt a tip of panic brush over him; he scrambled forward, torn by wet foliage, pricked by icy rain, until the ragged edge of asphalt slammed suddenly into his knees. "Watch the ground, it's rough," Jim said. "It's just a step up. Here, give me your hand."

"I would if I could fucking see your fucking hand," Blair snarled, voice steady with anger although it was a close thing, knees trembling with fierce pain that shot up and down his legs. He dragged himself up, taking his weight on his hands, then collapsed on the gritty surface and curled up small.

"Get up." Jim's voice was cold, almost as cold as Blair felt in this fucking sodden heap of heavy wet clothes and tangled wet hair and white wet skin and warm wet knees-- fuck, were they bleeding?

"I'm not walking that far," Blair said into the gravel, feeling a fleeting warmth as his breath curled back from the surface. "In case you care, which you obviously don't, but I've got what feels like a fractured rib here. And, you know, while I'm not a precious china doll, I'd still really rather not walk for a couple of hours up a mountain in pitch black, freezing cold, slippery wet dense fucking forest."

"You want me to leave you here," Jim said flatly. "Slumped on the road by a wrecked car, for the whole night, while I go and find help. Or else you want me to go for help and then come all the way back, so I can die with you. Great idea."

Blair rolled over onto his back, throwing an arm over his eyes. Not that he could see a fucking thing anyway, not that the arm was any sort of shield when it was so rasping and cold-soaked, but hey, it was psychologically like protection, so, well, fine. Meant he didn't have to search the darkness for Jim's eyes, at least. He dragged his voice up. "I feel like shit, man. I feel like freezing cold, torn up fucking shit, and I don't want to get up."

"If you don't, it'll get worse."

Blair thought about that. If he breathed shallow and clenched his teeth, he was still shivering enough to wear his clothes away on the rough ground in record time, and then he'd be even colder.

"And actually, I'm not going to leave you."

Blair let out a shaky breath. Even when Jim didn't sound very happy about it, that was almost a promise and now he felt unexpectedly relieved. "'Kay."

"So I'm stuck here with you. Or you'll come with me."

Blair grinned faintly, feeling his cheeks rub against the coarse material of his arm. "So lay down already. There's room for one more. Even for you, tall and everything... You could..."

"Blair," Jim said sharply, loudly, and Blair started abruptly out of a weird, mutely frozen daze. Fuck, he realised, he'd trailed off: his voice had just drizzled away and he hadn't even fucking noticed.

He wasn't so much shivering as trembling, now, just gently, getting weaker and weaker. "Mph," he said, masking another shake of fear.

"C'mon, up. It'll be warmer, I promise."

Blair allowed himself to be dragged to his feet, and worried distantly that he couldn't feel many of his injuries.

He wanted to wait for another car, but they hadn't seen another car on the road all night. They wouldn't see one before daylight, and both sides of Blair knew that. If there was one nearby, Jim would hear the engine... there wasn't one, then. Not now, not all night. That meant he'd be here, then. All night.

With a groan, he pulled his jacket on tighter and reached in the car for the last mouthful of icy cold, bitter coffee. The cup was missing from its holder, and he fought down another crest of panic. No, okay, here it was, on its side under the seat. Empty.

"We going, then?"

Blair nodded tiredly, staggering backwards out the car, then felt a ghost of Jim's arm stealing around his waist.

"You're okay," Jim said, guiding him back onto the road, across it, into the dark chaotic landscape on the other side. "It's okay, not too far. It'll be warm there, warm and dry."

They crunched along for a bit, sharing what little warmth they could. Blair found himself hazing a little, while Jim steered him under low branches and around rocks and crevasses, apologising for not doing more than that. Wet leaves slapped his face repeatedly, and that, together with the tight pain in his chest, made him feel like he was crying. But Christ, he was cold and tired and he hurt, and walking in the dark was scary. Even though Jim's firm hands on him were kind and reassuring, in a distant sort of way, some of the moisture on his face wasn't rainwater.

"You know there's a witch in these woods?" Jim said conversationally, his voice coming from somewhere above and behind Blair's ears.

Blair laughed a little, shaking himself from his self-pity. "Yeah, that would be the Blair witch, right?"

"Ha ha, Chief. Yeah, that's it exactly."

"What, it's a case of yours? 'Cause, you know, you mightn't have heard, but there's some new evidence come to light recently."

Jim cuffed his head. It felt strange in the darkness, but it was nice. "No, this is two hundred years ago. She was from the Sauk-Suiattle tribe, and lived in the reservation near Cascade, when it was just a shipping town."

Blair snorted, not entirely by accident. "The Patrick River Reserve, okay, I know." His hand struck a tree branch and he gripped it a moment, trying to catch his breath. "You've given a facade of credibility to your story, go ahead."

Jim gently disentangled his fingers from the bark and pushed him forward. Blair didn't have the energy to fight him. Left foot, right foot, breathe in, breathe out, ignoring how much his chest hurt, how hotly his other hand throbbed.

Lightning cracked again, close enough to hear the sizzle, before the thunder exploded, and the drizzling rain became a downpour.

"No, listen," Jim said, shouting now. "I'm serious. You know about the massacre of 1735?"

"White men attacked the settlement," Blair tried to say, but his teeth were chattering as rain dripped from his lips. Left foot, right foot. "Raped the women, shot the men. Never brought to trial."

Jim's hands came around his waist, guided him to the left and up, then vanished. Cold water was sticking his sodden sweater to his back. "That's it. Well, a few of them took party favours home. The witch was kept in a cellar in the sawmill for several months, used to service the men there."

"'kay, believe that." Blair shivered, feeling sick, genuinely sick. He'd studied the local history, and there was a reason Cascade was the biggest, baddest, and ugliest den of crazies and psychos on the west coast -- because it always had been. Jim had stumbled on a similar case in his Vice days, Blair knew, only it was Haitian women, not natives.

He seemed to be shivering uncontrollably, just thinking about the Hellmouth-like darkness Cascade harboured - or maybe it was just that he was soaked through with frozen rain, groping at black foggy nothings as they trudged past. Jim's voice carried through, loud and clear like a beacon.

"So the witch finally escaped her cellar by stabbing one of the men with the wooden stake she'd been tied to - and even though the histories don't give her name, we know the name of the man who died - and fled into the mountains. A week later the sawmill burned to the ground, but the strange thing was that when they pulled the bodies out, some of them had burnt stakes in their eyes, their throats, their stomachs and their genitals."

"Man." Blair rubbed his arms awkwardly, trying to think through an icy haze while putting one foot after another. "She got them back."

"You said it," Jim said, tired but heartfelt. "Anyway, the old sawmill site is about four miles down the mountain from the road we were on, and the locals call this the Virgin Slope. Because she haunts it."


"No, I'm serious," and from the sound of his voice, he was. "There's been a case or two every decade, men found staked to the ground in these woods. Usually lumberjacks, but sometimes poachers and hunters. I did training exercises up here when I first joined the service, my captain showed us the newsclippings before we left."

"Okay, okay, woods bad. You win, I get the idea, I'm walking." Blair made an effort to pick up his feet, responding to Jim's silent urgings and nudges, concentrated on counting his breaths to distract himself from the pain as he staggered up the slope. His calf muscles burned like lava against his bones, and he concentrated on counting down the pain: five steps until I can stop, four, three, two, one. Five more steps, four, three...

"Just a bit faster, okay." Jim's hand pushed harder at his lower back. "Don't make me call out march time here."

Blair would have groaned, if he'd had breath spare to do it. "Don't bother. Couldn't keep up."

Just another five, four, three, two...

"Sandburg," Jim said, sounding like he had in the car, and Blair felt himself shudder from the inside out as his feet came to a halt again.

"Keep talking?" he pleaded. "Please? Give me an incentive scheme here."

Jim made a short-breathed noise which could have been amusement or frustration, and yanked him forward again. Blair turned, uselessly, because he couldn't see anything but the moonlit edge of Jim's face. "Okay," Jim said, a few laboured steps later, "but you've got to walk fast. You're dangerously cold, Blair, I can hear your systems slowing down."

"Tell me what you don't tell me about your senses."

"You have to walk two minutes first."

"No way, man! That's not how it works. Answer now, then I'll walk."

"You forgotten the meaning of 'incentive', Chief? Reward upon completion. You walk, then I talk."

Blair stopped, trying not to gasp in the cold and the pain. Standing still helped; he could finally feel the warm flush of his face against the cold wind. "No, come on. Tell me one thing and then I'll walk all the way. But I wanna hear it before I keep going."

Jim grabbed him by the arm and dragged him along, cruelly. "That's the hypothermia talking. You're already losing lucidity, or you'd know that. You can't stop walking, or you'll die."

Blair was angry at that. "No, actually, you're just a stone-hearted prick who'll use any possible excuse not to talk to me."

The hands which helped him over the next rock weren't as gentle as they had been. "I talk to you," Jim said quietly. "You don't listen."

"When don't I listen?" Blair yelled, turning to face him, wet hair whipping on his face, only vaguely aware that this was neither the time or the place for this conversation.

"Right fucking now!" Jim shouted. "It's minus thirty-something on fucking midwinter night, and I'm trying to tell you you'll be lucky to survive the night if we don't keep moving, and you want to stand here and talk about our fucking relationship."

"You never tell me anything."

"Okay, here's how it's gonna be. We're gonna stop for one minute, I'm gonna tell you a fucking story, Sandburg, and you're gonna listen."

"Fine." Blair let his legs go from under him, and crashed to the ground. It was cold and wet, but it was saving him the effort of holding himself up, so it was a good thing. He rolled over and tried to get comfortable, cradling his hand to his chest, but Jim was shaking him, fingers tight in his knotty hair and turning his face upwards. He was talking very loudly and slowly.

"The younger man listened hard to what the older man was telling him, because it was important. At midwinter, the spirits were at their most powerful, because the membrane between the earth and the otherworld was thinned to near-transperency. They couldn't pass through of their own volition, but they could make themselves seen and heard to those who were looking for them.

"The moon was rising, and with it their power. Spirits were dancing around the two men as they talked."

From his back, the entire sky filled Blair's vision. And it was, the moon was rising, the blanket of clouds glowed black silver in the east. Full moon, he realised distantly, at midwinter. Potent.

"The younger man had died once before," Jim intoned, "so the spirits recognised him."

Blair sat up. "That's not funny."

Jim stood up. Blair heard the sounds of him stepping back, felt the cold of the night flood over what parts of him Jim had heated, and the warmth in Jim's voice sounded like glee. "They had tasted him once, too briefly, and they had a raging appetite for more."

"Jim, shut up. I mean it. This shit freaks me out." The moon slipped out from behind the clouds and the forest was suddenly filled with shapes of darkness and light, all indistinct, all leaning imposingly over him. None of them was recognisable. Blair struggled to his knees, hurting, turning, peering. "Jim?"

"The older man had a foot in the spirit world as well." The disembodied voice was moving, circling. "He could hear them speak when other men could hear only silence. He saw them move with the corner of his eye, where other men saw nothing. The older man had a path from the otherworld into his soul, worn by kinder spirits who had visited him in dreams. Vulnerability was the price one unwittingly paid for their assistance. Like the good ones could test you, grant and deny powers on judgement of your heart, the evil ones could control you, if you let them, if you had no strength to fight them off. They could corrupt your soul."

He didn't believe it; didn't believe any of it. He was too tired to believe anything, except that he already knew the parts which were true.

Thinking through Jim's logic cleared his head enough to realise that cowering on his knees in icy rain was a bad sign. Blair scrambled to his feet, shaking off Jim's disembodied hands as they tried to help. "Which direction?"

One of the shapes detached from the surrounding darkness, and stalked up the slope again. Blair followed, teeth chattering.

"Not that I believe you or anything."

Jim chuckled and took his hand.

Worthless to try and calculate time, Blair thought, in a sudden rancid anguish as his toe stubbed asphalt, but shit: Jim had lead him and bullied him and tugged him for thousands of torturous minutes back to the road?

"It's okay," Jim's voice came, close to his ear, "just step up, work with me, up-- up, Sandburg--"

"It's the road," Blair gasped, not even caring when his voice broke. "We're-- back-- at--"

"We're not," Jim interrupted.

Blair held as still as he could, lost.

"The car's about two hours back down the road," Jim said, his voice paced, Blair realised distractedly, that the words fell between the stutter of Blair's unruly breath.

With killing slowness, Jim's words sank in.

"We've cut across a wide loop," Jim continued, and Blair became aware of an insistent pressure at the base of his back, Jim's hands suggesting he step up onto the asphalt. "Shortcut, Sandburg. And we're about to do another one."

"Not very short," Blair managed, swallowing. It was his imagination that gave the soles of his feet that slow-mud-submerging feeling. He was almost certain.

"A lot shorter than the alternative," Jim said, and humour shimmered momentarily in the army firmness of his voice, then sluiced away again. "A branch of this road goes right past the house, but it winds like hell to get there."

House. House? Blair tried to picture it, it or the road, and couldn't, his brain refusing to settle. Nothing doing, his brain mumbled. Panicked, he rummaged through his recent memory, then his past, trying to centralise something, anything, but finding all images shivering inexorably into white noise.

His thoughts gave a final bubbling thrash and gave up, spluttering, and then it felt like his head was closed over by choppy waves, and calmness - all the calm of the underwater universe, man - glided across his brain. He relaxed. Jim was here. He'd have to take Jim's word. Jim was good like that, y'know. Honest man. Cop, even. Blair could trust him.

"Stay with me," Jim said, and Blair realised they'd somehow climbed onto the road and made it halfway across, that he was listing sideways to follow the faded white center lines rather than stagger into the scruffy darkness of the undergrowth beyond.

Not going in there. He stopped.

"No," Jim said quickly, "no, c'mon. Shortcut. You don't - neither of us have the strength to take the road."

That was meant to convince him?

"It'll be warm," Jim said, and the words came to Blair's ears bearing chocolate and big woolen gloves, utterly sublime. He held his breath, and heard them over and over, but wasn't sure if that was Jim chanting or just a spontaneous echo. Warm. Warm. Warm.

"'s cold," Blair heard himself say, and that was definitely a whine. He'd thought something profound about whining earlier. Couldn't remember.

Jim was nudging with the whole of his arm, and Blair had to cling to keep what little balance he had. "Just come with me," Jim said, and his lips brushed Blair's ear, and they were horribly cold and Blair ducked miserably away. Jim was cold? But--

He started actively pressing back against Jim's arm, refusing to go on while he tried to think. He realised slowly that he wasn't pressing back very hard, that he had barely any strength left at all. His fingers weren't available; he touched them together unsteadily, and couldn't feel anything, not even resistance. Maybe he'd missed; he didn't know. He swept them over his face, and it was like cold dead rubber on the end of his hands, clumsy and impotent.

He could feel Jim shivering, now, just a bit. Jim could probably hear him, both of them, clashing together.

Fuck, his thoughts were getting vague. Dangerous, this level of cold. A whole lot of fear went through him, adrenaline flaming over the numbness like sparks on spilt gasoline. He reeled, half-aware of Jim's clutching hands supporting him, trying to concentrate on making his lost feet move.

"That's it. Work with me."

Blair closed his eyes; not like it made any difference anyway. Warm, Jim had said. Work with him. Okay. Focus on that. "Mm," Blair said, letting the word fall from the side of his mouth. "Yeah. 'L be good."

"That's right."

Jim's voice sounded further away, but that was okay because he could do this. His feet started to obey him, he thought -- yeah, that's it, even though he still couldn't feel them, this was more of a straight-line-type-motion. Straight for the looming darkness, he was headed; go him. A perfect straight line. Except, uh, except for the parts where he had to go to the side because the slope was on an angle, heee--


Blair almost laughed, lips alien on his face, something remote and icy swollen. "Yeah?"

"Come on, take my arm. You need to stay next to me."

Blair tried to shrug, found his coat too heavy on his shoulders. "M'okay," he mumbled, letting his feet slow down.

"That's right."

They staggered uphill for a few minutes. "That's it, well done." This was Jim, was okay. All gonna be okay, alllll of it. "Now walk, okay?" Jim was coaxing. "With me. C'mon. It's not far now."

"What's not far?" Blair demanded, head spinning slowly while his thoughts peddled on broken cycles, lurching and circling and never getting anywhere at all.

"The house." Jim started to press him forward, and Blair let him, stumbling slightly.

"Whose house?"

Jim sighed. Blair could feel it, the heave of his chest, and clung to the memory of the sensation for as long as he could. "I don't know," Jim said, Blair could no longer imagine how it felt to feel him sigh. "It's okay, though," Jim said, and Blair's brain lurched to listen properly. Okay was good. "It's warm, and there's electricity and a phone, and it'll have a place for us to sleep, and we can get going in the morning."

"Ahh," Blair said, sure that it made sense somewhere. "House." He thought dizzily about houses, which seemed more like homes to his memory than they ever had at the time. The trailer in Mississippi, with a perpetually wilted vegetable garden beside it. He'd had to carry two buckets of water from the tap to that garden, every morning and every night. Then, just a couple of months later, the tiny apartment in New York where he'd had sat on the fire escape and read all summer, waiting for Naomi to bring home leftovers from the cafe where she worked.

His thoughts stuttered, and he let them surge up to date: the loft, central heating and wooden doors on his room, an unexpected luxury. Jim's military order and the chaos Blair tried to impose on it, the curves he threw at Jim's hard edges and the patterns he spilled into Jim's blank spaces, trying to make it feel like somewhere he lived. It should seem like home now, even though his colours were always pushed back, his clutter pushed to the periphery like Jim was insisting that was where he belonged. Home?

Blair's mind kept slipping back from the polished wooden floors, through the dark vacancy of the warehouse which he and Larry tried to fill, past the moldering green carpets of his undergraduate dorm room, to Naomi's last house in Cascade, before she moved on and he didn't. Patchouli oil and paisley fabric thrown across the brown corduroy couch. Crystals dangling in the window, reflecting idle rainbows on the mauve walls. Naomi chose their living quarters based on their vibes, and then decided how to afford the rent. She'd hardly needed to work at all, that year, because the place was falling apart at the seams, but she scrubbed it and furnished it and filled it with comforting sights and smells, and to Blair it had been paradise. Home.

"Sandburg, for God's sake!" Jim yelled, and spun him around, pushed him hard into the path of most resistance.

Fuck off, Jim, Blair thought, but didn't have the energy to say it. Fuck you, for making everything more difficult than it has to be, as difficult as it possibly can be. That's not my path, and I won't walk on it.

"Stand up, you little fucker!" Jim yelled, even louder, and Blair snickered and shook his head. "Get on your feet, now." He had never been trained to respond to authority, and Jim's orders wafting uselessly above him were amusing.

"Too bad, Jim," he said. He was Naomi Sandburg's son.

"Get up! For Christ's sake Sandburg, do it for me. On your feet!"

He made a wry moaning noise. Hah. Catch him getting up. Catch him even moving for the next two hours, for anything less than the sound of Naomi's footsteps bringing him, uh, bringing him chicken soup, hot and thick and salty, with chunks of...

Moist rustling beside him. Jim's hands, tender now. "Chief, c'mon. You've got to get up. You're dangerously cold."

"No. Comfortable." A wave of phantom scent drew over him, more tangible than memory; Naomi's bed in Mitchell, Illinois, a blanket up to his shoulders, sucking near-tongue-burningly hot soup through a straw. The cup clasped between his hands, warming and savoury. The odd crouton.

"Blair. Blair." Footsteps strode to the other side of him, too brusk to be Naomi. "Take my hand. Get up."

"I wan' soup," he mumbled. Rain was falling on his face, steadily running over his skin and bubbling between his lips and gliding into his hair to strike his scalp and chill it.

He heard a rustle of fabric as Jim crouched down by his head. "The younger man," Jim breathed softly, "was dying. Minute by the minute the hypothermia was stealing away his life."

Blair shuddered, tasting a fresh slick of water seeping between his numb lips. The smells of cooking were gone; there was just wet leaves now, and mud and grit and wet hair curling over his eyes and incessant rain and the older man's steady voice, back again.

A warmer hand moved the hair off his face, then took his fist and prised it slowly open. He felt like a bit of citrus fruit, a knot in a fine chain necklace, a diary in a lost language, being picked persistently apart and laid solved and vulnerable. What right did Jim's hands have to be warm? He'd been cold, a minu-- a time ago. Um. Jim shouldn't be so warm.

"The younger man stood up slowly. He wanted to go to the cabin, because the older man had seen a telephone wire in the distance, and thought the cabin might hold everything they'd need."

The voice was persuasive, hollow. Helplessly gripping the older man's hand, Blair felt himself uncoil into a sitting position, then up to stand. He was shivering uncontrollably, letting go as soon as he could, arms wrapping to feebly hug his chest. His eyes had hardly adjusted at all, and he could see crawling transparent shapes drifting around him, and that was enough; he didn't need to see any more, had to close his eyes, and he could tell he was swaying because of the resistance to the hard rain.

Pressure grew on his back, tugging him forward; he spun round, and there was abrupt bulk, and he staggered backwards and something caught him and shapes were swimming and he was weightless and helpless--

His shoulder jerked suddenly, trapped. He tried to pull away from the unseen grip, twisting and scratching, impossibly ineffectual.

"Blair! Snap out of it."

Blair paused. That, that was Jim? Jim wasn't that tall, Jim wasn't that strong; that was an inhuman strength. That couldn't be Jim. Blair stood silent, shaking, waiting.

"Hey," the maybe Jim said, gently. "You're getting really weak. You need to warm up and get some sleep." He sounded sincere. "Come on, come with me. It's not too far now. It's better than here, I promise."

That scared him though, somehow. Stupid, stupid-- he couldn't help it, that voice sounded too easy with circumstances, too earnest. He couldn't trust it. Although... it was Jim, he could trust Jim.

But the cabin, the invisible cabin. He hadn't seen it. Jim wouldn't lie to him, though. Though, though, Jim had lied about the witch. Jim, the older man, what were they doing to him? He wasn't going to keep walking all night.

"Come on. You're shaking. I'll help you."

"I don't want to," he said honestly, finding his voice hoarse. Fuck! Sounded like he'd been screaming, had he been screaming? Had he? He felt weak, wanted to trust his memory, didn't like being pressured, didn't like the cold, didn't like being the dependent one... "You lied to me."

"That doesn't matter, for God's sake. We can't stay here, Sandburg!"

"Why not? No. I'm staying."

"The escaped psychopath, remember? He was last seen running into the woods after the prison van broke down."

Blair knew nothing about a fucking psychopath. "You're full of shit."

"What's wrong with you, Sandburg?" Jim screamed, shaking him. "It was in the paper this morning. We have to get to the cabin. He'll cut off your fingers and toes and chew them like candy."

Jim didn't normally get this upset, Blair knew. But did that mean he was telling the truth? He might be overacting, since he didn't normally lie. Or maybe this was the older man, who knew what the older man was like when has was scared. But if the older man was scared, the psychopath must be here. Blair couldn't remember it from the paper. He couldn't remember this morning. Except wanting another tape for his walkman. And pancakes, he and Jim had promised one another pancakes for breakfast but they'd had no time. And a conference room with armrests on the chairs, which they didn't have either.

Blair, who wanted so much this morning, now wanted only a warm blanket and his mother. "Yeah," he said to Jim, although he wasn't really sure what he was agreeing to.

"Well come on!" Jim dragged him up by his arm and it really hurt, where he'd hurt his chest, when Jim and the older man had crashed the car. He shoved Jim away.

"This is your fault," he shouted, wanting to get away from this whole fucked-up situation. "You started it."

Jim slipped around him, brushing the hair off his face. "I know, I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to. But we have to go, now, I can hear him, he's snuffling into his sleeve, he's excited because he wants to cut off your toes and then we'll never get home."

Blair couldn't remember if Jim was still telling the story or not, or if the story was true. But he started walking again. Jim put his arm around him, helping him along. It was kind of nice, Blair thought. They were sharing.

"I'm lonely," Blair blurted out, suddenly. "You make me lonely."

"How?" Jim said, voice emotionless, hands pushing at him persistently, incessantly.

"I want my mother," Blair said, wishing she'd never moved on, wishing he'd never tried to follow a dream which wasn't, because they never were, anything like what he'd thought it would be. He'd found his subject, he'd proved his thesis, he had it all and nothing about it was right, nothing was how it should be, and maybe this was what it was like to grow up, but if it was then he wished he'd never done it.

"Blair," Jim said, tugging on him. Blair resisted, sullenly. "Blair! Your heart is still slowing down and you have to move faster. C'mon, buddy, jog with me for a bit."

Jim was holding his hand, and Blair let it go. "No, not right now, thanks. You can go ahead, I'll catch up."

With an intentness Blair recognised from somewhere, Jim dragged him forward a few metres. "No, you have to come with me. We're in a hurry, remember? We need to get to the house."

"Not the psychopath," Blair said. "That wasn't in the paper."

Jim feigned confusion. "Yes it was."

"No, it wasn't," Blair insisted. "You're just making this shit up because you're scared. But I'm not. I'm just going to" - he grabbed a nice friendly tree and clung to it - "stay here for a while."

"God, Blair, come on," Jim pleaded, "don't do this to me."

"Why not? You don't need me. You never needed me. Go do your Rambo thing and I'll stay here, out of the way."

"You have to come with me."

"No, it's okay." Blair said, enunciating as clearly as possible, waving him away. "I'll go to the truck and call for backup. You know how good I am at that." He tried to keep the bitterness out of his voice, but he was so tired; he didn't want the end to come now but nobody really got to choose when things ended, and right now seemed to be the time.

Jim, in the dirty light of the moon, rubbed his eyes.

"No hard feelings, honest. I mean, really, it's time we went our separate ways. I did my job and got what I came for but I'm not going to do it anymore." He was talking pretty softly now, barely talking aloud at all, but that was okay, Jim would hear him. "You'll be fine, really, but I think I need to," his eyes were shut, what was he saying? "Reconsider. I need to reconsider." He was barely speaking at all, but he didn't want to wake himself up. He was tired after all that pointless researching and observing and chasing the wrong dreams. He was going to just go to sleep, for a very long time.

But Jim was behind him, cradling him, and he wanted to pass out but something about Jim's fingers pressing into his waist and shoulder wouldn't let him.

"The older man could hear that the spirits were very loud now," Jim said, and Blair bolted upright. Shit, the older man, he'd forgotten about that crazy fucker. He tried to run but iron hands were holding him. "They promised a way out, a lifting of all his burdens."

"They're lying!" Blair shouted. He didn't know how he knew but he did; the evil spirits were very, very bad news.

"The older man's resistance was already weak, because he'd spent more than a day and a night in his friend's company. In all that time, they had been no more than an arm's reach or a soft word apart, but that length was a depthless chasm which couldn't be crossed, and instead of gentle endearments there was only a ringing silence. Now the younger man was keeping death away only a second at a time, and everything in the older man's life was about to turn into hell."

The pain in Blair's chest was back; it hurt, it hurt.

"The older man had never told the younger man how much he meant to him, that he needed the younger man and that the younger man had brightened his life in a way he had never thought possible. Soon it would be too late. The older man couldn't bear the fact that the younger man, who had already died once because of him, was going to die again."

"No, no. Shut up!" His voice was loud and angry but coming from very far away.

"The younger man was ready to walk again, but it wasn't enough. It wouldn't last, they weren't going to make it, and the older man despaired. But the spirits promised a way out, a lifting of all his burdens.

"So the older man, weak and fatigued and so very desperate for what was within his reach but not his for the having, thought to the demons as hard as he could, offering to make them a deal. The flickering shapes at the edge of the man's vision became straighter and harder-edged, their whispers spoke of interest and intrigue.

"They could own his soul, the older man offered, have an undefended pathway into it, if they would spare the younger man's life."

"Fuck the younger man!" Blair yelled, although he didn't know why that was the right answer. He was writhing in Jim's arms, panicked soul-deep in a way he'd never been before. "Let him die, he's nothing! Let him die, the older man will go to hell anyway, but not the demons Jim he's the Sentinel he's too powerful! Oh God Jim please not the demons..."

Blair could feel Jim swallowing, the movement of his adam's apple against the back of his head. When Jim continued, his voice was gravelly. "Despite the younger man's warning, the deal was struck, and the older man let the demons carve their pathway into him. The kinder spirits had been gentle, squeezing themselves into his subconscious through the path of least resistance. The demons showed no such restraint. They entered through his mouth and nose and ears, using claws and fangs to tear their way down his neck and into his chest where they claimed his heart. In less than a pained breath it was done. They owned the older man's soul. His strength was theirs to use for what they willed; his honour was theirs to dispose of how they wished; his desires were theirs and could be shaped to their needs."

Blair clung to the tree, sobbing. "Fuck you!" he screamed. "He wasn't worth it, you stupid bastard!" Bark tore at the skin of his hand as he slammed it against the trunk in fury. "He was nothing!"

"The younger man," and Blair shuddered at the voice now, richer and deeper and somehow immeasurably older, "didn't know about his own gift. The older man had a supernatural power, the demons knew, but they had others like him, and they didn't work well alone. The younger man, with a foot in the realms of the living and the dead, was a conduit to the otherworld through which that power could flow. The demons needed both of them; together they were the true midwinter prize."

Blair choked back a scream, feeling the oppressive horror of good intentions all around him. He'd wrought this, he'd pursued it and now what he'd wished for was turning to him with a face of evil consequences--what had he done?

"The demons had until sunrise to claim the other half of the bounty, or else wait for next midwinter to try again. But next midwinter, the younger man would probably be safe and cozy in bed; they couldn't tempt him, couldn't get to him. So they planned and schemed with the older man's heart, twisting love this way and desire that way, until they had another deal. They would make the younger man fall in love with the older man at sunrise, and he would have that love for one year. In return, when next midwinter descended, the older man would return to the mountains, and bring the younger man with him. Then, if it took all night, they'd do what had worked on the older man. They'd wear him down and wear him out and drive that devotion and pull on that love until the younger man agreed to be theirs too."

"No," Blair yelled, realisation hitting him like the bottom had fallen out of his gut. He was back in his body, he knew who he was. "I won't do it, that's me!"

Jim abruptly let him go. Blair turned to face him. "The younger man is me and god damn you, you're not getting me!"

The voice which came from Jim's mouth didn't sound like Jim. It was tenor-deep, and it echoed. "We'll see, pretty one. The trap is set."

"No," Blair insisted, and fuck, he was exhausted but he had to get away from here. It was cold and he ran, and he couldn't see and he ran, and he could barely lift his feet with each step and he could hear himself crying pathetically, pitifully, and his chest burned like there was a fiery stake through his heart, and he ran and he ran and he ran.

Jim was behind him, following easily, disturbing the undergrowth only enough to let Blair know how close he was. It wasn't fair, Blair screamed in his head, Jim made a deal, he had bad spirits helping him run and where was the fucking wolf when he needed it? Nowhere the fuck in sight, that's where. Jim was toying with him now, he had all the power. Blair knew how this worked; they would exhaust him and then catch him and then play him like the stupid fool he was. That's what they'd done to Jim, and his mind veered away from the horror of it--Jim, Jim, the soul of good, turned by evil to evil. But they had to catch him for their plan to work, and Blair mightn't be Jim's beloved irritation any more, but he still wasn't going to be a demon's puppet. So he ignored the fiery pain in his chest and the cramp in his abdomen and the branches grabbing his hair and clothes, slapped them away and kept running, vowing he'd die of a heart attack before he'd let the older man catch him and trick him and make him give up everything they'd worked so hard for.

The slope they were on was steep, uneven, and Blair hurt so much, his ribs and his fingers and his calf muscles all burned ice-cold. He fled stumbling upwards with the Older Man's heavy breathing right behind him, until a vine snagged his ankle and sent him sprawling.

"Stay where you are!" the older man shouted, closer than ever, and Blair scrambled to his feet. Oh, he hurt so much, and this nightmare just wouldn't end.

"Blair, wait, stop!" The older man staggered out of the trees to face him and then stopped, holding his side. "Don't move," he rasped. "We're there."

Blair knew what he had to do, and drew himself up. "Back away, man. I'm not giving in to them," he warned, with more certainty than he thought he had strength for. "I love you but I'll kill you first, I swear to God." He had his knife, when had he got it out? But he had it, that was the important thing, and it mightn't be much to fend off evil demons; it was nothing compared to all the power and strength of Jim on their side, but even if it didn't work it would still do some damage, or he could even cut his own....

Jim slapped his face, hard, and Blair dropped the knife, saw it vanish into the darkness as his eyes squeezed shut in terror. Jim's arms clenched around him and they toppled to the ground.

"You can't make me, I won't do it," he said, but the words had no weight to them; they were whipped away by the wind like a leaf in a tornado.

Jim kissed his forehead, kissed his cheeks, and Blair jerked violently away from those cold hard lips. "Chief, it's okay," Jim was whispering, voice hoarse. "I'm sorry I scared you, I didn't mean it, I had to keep you moving, but we're there now. Just this one more hill and we'll be safe inside."

"Get off get off get off!" Blair yelled, writhing desperately.

Jim was on top of him, holding him tight. "No, it's okay! We've made it to the house, we're safe now," and the moisture falling onto Blair's face was warm enough to pass for tears. The voice was so like Jim's, but cracking with grief in way he'd never heard. "You have no idea how close to death you were."

He was so cold, so cold, and Jim was warm from somewhere, was warm around him, soft light on his face, which was coming from... Blair turned around. A cabin.

He shivered again, pulse slowing. "You were lying to me?"

Jim smiled, then chuckled, then laughed. "I was lying like I've never lied before."

"Oh," Blair said, feeling warmth in his veins, on his face, feeling a heady mist of hope weave it's silvery way through his mind. "We can go inside now?"

"Whenever you're ready," Jim said with a half-smile, and hoisted him up.

Wrapped up in Jim's arms, they staggered to the door of the cabin Jim had been herding him towards. In his rational mind Blair knew that it was a hovel, but the small log construction, with the embers of a fire lighting up the windows, seemed like paradise.

Jim banged his fist on the door, yelling out to the occupants. A light came on to the side, and they swayed together, shivering, until the door rattled and pulled back a crack. There was an old man behind it, in a dressing gown over heavy pajamas, shotgun in hand.

"We crashed our car," Blair said, and some part of him wasn't back in his body yet, because he could see himself like a supplicant at the doorstep to this hovel, eyes huge, face wet and blue-pale, trembling as if he'd get down on his knees at the slightest signal, leaning hungrily into the light and warmth pouring out of the door.

"My friend's injured," Jim added. The man yanked the door open, yelling out over his shoulder as they hurried inside.

A plump, red-faced woman stepped out from the lit room, and gasped when she saw them. "You poor things, what happened?" she cried, taking Jim's arm and gesturing frantically to Blair. "Come warm up by the fire."

The warmth of the room hit Blair's frozen skin like the gates to hell had opened in front of him. The old man's gun glinted as the flames in the fireplace leapt up in response to the woman's vigorous stoking. Shying away, Blair stumbled into Jim, then tried not to trip over his own numb feet as he turned around to apologise. Jim's posture was unnaturally hunched, as if he'd been clawed on the inside.

And then Blair remembered that was exactly, word-for-word, what the Nice Old Lady said in the one where the Young Wife gets butchered and served to her husband in a hot thick stew, and he has three helpings before he goes to the bedroom to find that she wasn't asleep after all and the Nice Old Man was hiding in the closet with an already bloodied axe...

Blair's stomach twisted, viciously. They'd tricked him. Jim and the spirits. What had he been thinking, letting his guard down like that? Too exhausted to even scream, he turned and staggered from the cabin into the wet, black forest.

Jim's voice chased after him, screaming at full volume, and the man himself was right behind it. Blair picked up his feet and ran, the pain in his chest pushing him faster and faster, desperate to get away because he'd figured out the plan, Jim really had sold his soul, the old couple were a trap, Jim was going to chop him up and feed him to the evil spirits in a stew. Sobbing as his injuries burned him and bare branches slashed his face and neck, he fought through the pain, because it was nothing compared to the wasteful sacrifice of Jim for him, and it was nothing compared to the pain of Jim's betrayal.

Abrubtly, Jim stopped yelling. Blair staggered downhill, lost, cold, scared and wondering what the sudden silence meant.

Jim had sold him out. He'd thought that there'd been at least loyalty and companionship, there was that at least, but no, he'd got it all wrong. Wrapping his arms around his knees and rocking to keep warm, Blair found himself wishing absurdly that they were still shivering their asses off in a crappy rental car, coasting toward the outer perimeter of Cascade, and Jim - the old Jim - was still grumping at him. That had been paradise, how could he have not known?

The older man had all the sentinel abilities, that was for sure. So he was just being quiet, tracking him down by his heartbeat. Blair put his hands over his chest, knowing it was useless, but swearing he'd stop his own heart before he let the demons have it. Jim was probably close now, he should get up, keep running. Blair tried to get up but his legs wouldn't move. He couldn't even feel them. Maybe the psychopath had got them. But that was yesterday. Today it was the witch, wasn't it?

He was staggering downhill and could hardly lift his feet, but that was okay, because momentum was carrying him on, would keep him going and going until he tripped on something he couldn't see, fell and rolled and felt lashings of wet wood against his face as he continued to fall until the slope levelled out and he was at rest.

He was stopped now. He couldn't go any further. The older man was going to catch up with him after all, another demented sentinel come to claim him, and once more death was better than surrender.

Be careful what you wish for, Blair Sandburg. Curiosity killed many an anthropologist, many an adventurer, many an explorer; killed them by the dozen until the wilds were tamed and fools like him charged off, looking for new places to die in.

He was going to die at the hands of what he'd found, and just like last time he suddenly had nobody to say goodbye to as the world glistened black and final, nobody listening for his scream for help, there was unexpectedly nobody to wish would magically appear and save him. He was all alone. Maybe it was for the best, then. Blair drew in a breath to steady himself.

"Mom, I'm going to tell you a secret. I hope you get this because there's no other way for you to find out.

"I'm sorry things didn't work out. I'm sorry I didn't think it through. I'm sorry for my vanity, thinking I could dig something up, still living, and control it. I'm so sorry I didn't return your last phone call, because I really need to talk to you, and you won't know how much it matters to me, that you were there.

"Mom," he whispered, appreciating the warmth his tears gave his cheeks, "I thought Jim was going to be like you. I really did. But I was wrong and now I'm going to die. Again. For real this time. I'm so sorry." He pressed his head back hard, felt the bark of the tree digging his scalp, and the pain was appropriate but hardly enough.

"The older man," Jim whispered, "never had a friend like that."

Blair felt his chest convulse in fear, a gasping sob expelling itself, but there was no movement around him. Jim's voice was barely distinguishable from the hushed, muted sounds of the coming dawn. "The younger man was his best friend. He would walk barefoot on broken glass for him. He'd make the younger man walk barefoot on glass himself, if it saved his life. But he didn't know how to be the kind of friend the younger man needed him to be."

The sky was pale to the east, stars blinking out on the horizon, but Blair was shivering mechanically; he couldn't tell where the voice was coming from.

Jim sighed aloud, not an impatient sound but a broken one. "The older man... Blair. He wasn't such a good friend because he didn't know how. The older man didn't know how to be a friend to the younger man, because he wasn't a son or a subordinate or a superior or a colleague or a date. He tried to be all of those things at once, and never knew why it wasn't enough. He'd never realised that what he was to other people was only ever a fraction of the truth. He'd never understood that to be a friend, he needed to tell the younger man the whole story.

"So the older man told the younger man about the first time he'd ever had sex with a girl, and how she'd come twice and was so astounded by it that she didn't notice he barely came at all. And he told the younger man about how he'd come the first time a male hand touched his cock. And how he'd wept after giving his first blowjob, knowing finally and brutally exactly what he was, and that he was ruined for life."

Blair felt cold air slicing his throat, the constricting pain in his ribs, the aching of his hand, the futile shuddering of his limbs, and stayed very still, and listened.

"And the older man told the younger man that he'd get most often picked up in the pubs where the army guys hung out, and envied those men their comradeship. So when the time came, he signed up and became all that he could be, but still not all that he was.

"And in the end he found himself lost and stranded, nothing but an assignment, a purpose, which he duly carried out, because it was all that he could do. The..." there was a gentle rustling, a tiny shift in the moist forest. "The... irony... was that he found his true purpose, out there in the jungle, and for a while he thought that was enough."

A chilly but gentle breeze blew across Blair, and the heavy clouds above them thinned just enough to let wan light seep though.

Jim was sitting perfectly still, facing him from a lotus position a mere metre away. In the weak light he seemed to be carved from granite, a study in exhaustion and sorrow. Every line of his grey face was focused inward, plain and expressionless.

A little more light crept over them, pale and cool. Primrose, Blair thought distractedly, as his eye caught on the ghost of a frown, pressed into Jim's forehead, caught static. He blinked, once, twice, and sat a bit straighter. Jim didn't move, didn't seem to notice. There was something safe about that: if Jim even glanced over, Blair didn't trust himself not to turn and flee.

Although.... Jim didn't look like much of a pursuer, right now. Jim looked exhausted, defeated, like the last thing he was about to do was take an interest in the outside world. Blair stared mutely at him in the weakly wakening light, and wondered who they'd been for the last few hours.

The outside of Jim's left leg was coated in black mud. There were grubby streaks of dirt from his jaw to his hairline, and his shirt had leaves sticking to it. Scratches on his face looked alarmingly like they'd been put there by frantic fingernails.

And now the darkness retreated enough to let Blair see the trees surrounding them, shielding his peripheral vision, strung with vines and sparkling quietly with mist.

"The younger man had no idea how close the older man was to the edge when they met." Jim's lips barely moved. "He was seeing things, hearing things, convinced that he was going crazy because the desires inside him had built up until he couldn't restrain them, but the pressures surrounding him were immovable lead walls, and he himself was being crushed between them. But then the younger man appeared, wild and beautiful and all too straight, but he was open and generous and had already achieved the the impossible by healing the insanity, and transcended probability by becoming his friend. The older man found he could live with that; he could balance his desires and his duty on the thread of hope that the younger man would someday become his lover."

"Jim," Blair whispered, leaning helplessly forward. "I never knew."

Jim smiled a little, giving the statue a more piercing effect. A combined wry hope and desperation, captured perfectly in self-involved stone, lightly stole the remnants of Blair's forgotten breath. Then Jim blinked, head tilting a fraction away, and Blair somehow couldn't bear that, that this man, skin warming to marble in a new pass of dawn light, could ever look away.

"And he was crazy," Jim continued, voice a shade louder, a shade more disparaging, weight turned on himself: something lanced through Blair's heart. "Because his entire life had been fragments, projections, shapes in somebody else's mold. And he was crazy because all the time the older man was hoping the younger man would see what he needed and want to give it to him, he hadn't looked for what the younger man needed. And he was crazy because the older man, on discovering what the younger man needed, wanted to give it to him, should have been giving it to him for years. The halving of his own burden was right there all along, if he hadn't left sharing it until too late."

"Jim, no, it's not too late." Blair found his legs moving again, pushing him across the stark space that separated them until he was in Jim's lap with his arms around Jim's neck. "None of that was difficult, you know." He found his lips moving toward Jim's as if drawn by a current. "I can probably do a lot more." Somehow, he was on the verge of laughing, a wave of giddiness cresting inside of him.

Jim closed his eyes, exhaled softly, and was transformed to such a precise expression of retrieved hope that it made Blair's skin tingle everywhere. Dawn was finally breaking, casting warm gold onto their faces and breathing life into Jim's skin. Eyes opened briefly, and were shining blue, before they closed again as their lips met.

Blair's mouth opened eagerly, thankfully, tasting a soft flush of warmth that echoed beautifully down through his body when Jim's arms curled around him. He pressed forward heavily, desperate to make promises but impossibly languorous with the touch of the sun and wrung-through exhaustion. Jim's hands cradled him, supporting his back and his neck and fitting them together like sleepy cats, clumsy and pliable. The warmth kept spreading as Jim's lips skated against Blair's, Jim's tongue heating and lingering and moving smoothly against his own, and then their teeth were touching, locked and close, and Blair's mind swam dreamily with comfort for the first time in what seemed like years.

Reluctant to relinquish such warmth, but not ready to stop breathing just yet, Blair finally drew away. He gazed up, feeling dizzy and enthralled and semi-dissolved and seeing that same rapt lassitude radiating back at him, and then Jim's eyes went blank and hard and he stared right through Blair's forehead.

Blair's heart skittered and stopped. His breath froze in his throat. He didn't look up at the sky, but he didn't have to. He already knew, for fuck's sake, he'd Seen. It. Coming.

It was dawn, god dammit. The older man, that god damn sick evil fucking thing, had tricked him, and for real this time.

His mouth tasted indecent and bitter, like he'd swallowed sour milk, but even worse, because it hurt like hell. It was like his throat had closed up while his stomach needed to propel itself inside out, but like his whole skin felt that way. It was dawn, he'd fallen in love, been tricked by the demons it was dawn how could he have been so fucking stupid? The older man had fooled him with his story and they'd got him, snatched him, he'd been told and still walked into it, caught by the fading remnants of their night-time power. Weak, weak, couldn't he have remembered that and waited, just until dawn was over, until the danger was past? He'd just opened the pathway his own soul, and in a year the spirits would be hunting him down until he surrendered it.

God, all those exhausted, painful steps, every minute of just-one-minute-more... every single one been for nothing. He should have stayed by the road with the car, let his body be found frozen this morning, having not moved an inch.

Those warm arms felt like a vice around him and he hadn't the strength to squirm away, no fight left in his veins. He felt the year looming over him like a shroud, falling onto his mental vision of his life and suffocating it, limiting it, cutting it short.

His muscles gave out, and then Jim's arms gave under Blair's back, offering him a chance to crawl away backwards. Blair just lay on the ground, lacking the strength to run or scream or turn or even respond as the earth pressed up into him, into his hair, offering him fifty two weeks of haunted freedom before springing the trap he'd just stepped into.

Jim's eyes snapped back into focus and his lips twisted and broke in a smile, possessive and still wet from Blair's delusion, and his eyes burning like he knew he'd just gotten what he wanted and wasn't going to let it go.

He watched numbly as Jim heaved a huge sigh, moving forward and down onto the ground alongside him, arm hooking over Blair's chest and holding him down, dragging him closer. Blair pushed at him weakly, twisting in the dirt, rearing pathetically away when Jim's mouth nuzzled into his hair with breath hot and loud and frightening too close to his ear. Jim rolled Blair towards him with strength Blair had forgotten what it felt like to possess, fingers clawing on his side, and Blair couldn't fight it, couldn't defend himself as Jim's mouth came against his temple and pressed a kiss into his skin. "Everything's all right now," he murmured sickeningly, and Blair didn't have a breath to respond before he continued, "I can hear a search party coming."

"Oh," Blair said, almost unable to comprehend what that meant. He turned the foreign-sounding words around in his head, inspecting them wildly for small print and unspoken clauses. Okay. It was a good thing, he thought. Jim had been listening, faraway - yes, he was sure, a good thing, and that silly little moment of panic had just been the last leftover wave of the night-time horrors. He rolled over on his stomach, getting his knees under himself, pushing away from the earth with frozen fingers. Rescuers. Rescue. Such a magic word. Was this how Jim had felt when he'd rocked into his life, full of promises?

He crawled a few feet in the direction Jim had been staring. How far away were they? He'd have to find out, yes. How much further? For a moment the forest wavered and he was in the car with Naomi. Are we there yet, Mom? How long till we can get warm?

Jim gathered him up, jostling them both a little, letting heat from his body flow between them.

"God, Blair, we made it, we're alive."

And he was quite sure he was lucid now, wondering vaguely what had happened to them that night, but not really caring because what would happen next was much more important.

They called out to searchers and laughed voicelessly when cracked and brittle sounds came out of their raw throats.

"We'll have to walk there," Blair said, and took Jim's hand, dragging him onwards, pushing aside branches and scanning the ground ahead for the smoothest path.

Jim stopped, suddenly let go of Blair's hand. "I must be too tired to think," he said drily, and pulled out his gun. Blair didn't even have time to consider the implications before Jim flicked off the safety and fired a bullet into the nearest tree trunk.

The sound shattered the mute dawn like a hammer through glass, and when the echoes cleared from his ears Blair could hear voices calling to them. "Here!" he yelled, but his voice cracked into nothng again. Jim fired off another bullet and then grabbed his arm and they were running again, this time crashing through the undergrowth side by side, together. Shouts were coming at them loud and clear now, and glimpses of motion in the distance, unnatural colours and mechanical sounds growing stronger, and Blair caught sight of a truck, ugly and noisy, and laughed out loud at the loveliness of it.

And then there were rescuers, short on sleep and slapping their arms to keep warm; garish yellow uniforms which descrated the misty morning light. A wrinkled mouth pursed around a cigarette, a crooked nose and an acne-scarred chin, but they were all beautiful to him, not the least because they were carrying coffee, and it was hot, and they were giving it to him, telling him to drink it for fuck's sake; they were wrapping him in blankets and everything, and god, he loved these guys, and he didn't really know what he was saying but they were grinning back at him so it must be okay.

They offered to bring stretchers but Blair practically skipped back up the road, running ahead and then running back to clutch Jim, determined not to leave him behind. In the truck, Jim answered all the questions, while Blair crawled under his arm, too hot suddenly in the smoky artificial heat, but cold wherever they weren't touching.

There was a cluster of cars around their smashed rental as they approached, but Jim only stayed long enough to retrieve their luggage, before hustling Blair into the waiting ambulance.

"What the hell went down here?" one of the medics asked Jim, settling them on the narrow seats. "We got a call from a couple of hermits, said some city folk on death's door came knocking, and then took off again."

"Unbelievable," the other said, closing the doors.

"Mostly true," Jim said, and jerked his chin toward Blair. "He's got a cracked rib, fourth on the left, and his middle two fingers are sprained."

"What happened up there?" another asked, opening a first aid kit in seeming unconscious response to Jim's authority. Jim nudged him, and Blair lifted his arms so that Jim could take off his jacket and sweater. It hurt like hell to move, now that he had feeling back, but he found himself looking forward to the reassuring tightness of bandages around him.

"Can I talk to your driver for a moment?" Jim countered, producing his ID. "I need to get to court in Cascade as quickly as possible."

"You need to get yourself into hospital," the first man said shortly.

"You'll never get him there," Blair told them, flinching a little as they cut his shirts away.

"I'm the key witness in the Tony Patrucca case," Jim said calmly. "If I don't show, they'll argue for another mistrial. You'll take me there and then take Blair to hospital."

Blair shook his head. "I'm already on probation for neglecting my teaching duties. If I don't show, I'll never work there again, Jim. They'll make sure I'll never get tenure, anywhere."

"You need rest."

"So do you."

"You've been awake for three days straight now. No job's worth it."

"Yours is. And sleep deprivation is par for the academic course."

"You're being irrational," Jim snapped, familiar old end-of-his-tether Jim, and Blair leaned over impulsively, and hugged him.

"I pity your cross-examiner today," he said cheerily, and refused to discuss the topic for the rest of the trip back.

When Jim climbed out of the ambulance outside the courthouse, Blair felt a harsh pang of separation after so long at Jim's side.

"Are you sure you don't want to come home first? I think under the circumstances they could wait for you to take a shower."

"It's fine, I'm already late, I'll change at the courthouse."

Blair opened his mouth to argue, but Jim's familiar look of exasperation stopped him.

"I just want to get this over with, okay? And when I stop, I want it to be for more than ten minutes."

Smiling back weakly, Blair nodded. He'd seen that expression so many times before and never noticed what it conveyed--not "why do I put up with this," but, "I'd put up with this until the end of time."

It was too hard to say anything, with the media and the police and ambulancemen there. As the van pulled away, Blair couldn't stop himself tapping the rear window and then pausing, at a loss for what to say when Jim could hear him but everybody else couldn't. He touched his lips with his thumb and smiled.

Over his shoulder, Jim smiled back.

Blair's day was spent in ordinary tasks made otherworldly by a constant oscillation between crushing fatigue and extreme hypertension. It was like being stoned on speed, like moving from inside the purest trance, like living eternally in the moment of returning from the dead. He stumbled out of his car, huddled in his coat, and stalked across the campus to Hargrave Hall through the bitter cold wind. When he reached the sandstone steps, he stood there and stared up at the building, bewildered. The wind yanked at his scarf, and Blair brushed his tangled hair from his eyes as he studied the stone facade. He didn't know what he was doing here, didn't know what force on earth had got him out of the shower at the loft (beautiful loft!) and here in time for class. The clock by the lake chimed ten, and he shrugged to himself and pushed through the oak doors. Maybe he had to be here to find out.

The other Anth TA caught up with him at the door to the lecture theatre. Exam Administration, she informed him, in a move which exceeded even their usual indifference to the rational planning of examinations, had scheduled the final for the same time as the Psych 102 and two intro Sociology exams, and more than half her class was doing some combination of those subjects. And Winston, she added, running bitten fingernails through her dishevelled hair, had been off sick since yesterday with a headcold.

Blair could only sway on his feet, confused. His legs could barely hold him up, his ribs ached with every indrawn breath, his eyes were watering, the scratches on his face itched, and the co-ordinator of three undergrad subjects was staying home the week before finals because of a cold?

"You're kidding, right?" he said weakly.

"Fucking tenured assholes," Shelly said, shaking her head.

They stared at one another in mute agony, and then Blair said, "all right, I'll deal with it," and she said "good luck," like all the luck in the world would help even Jesus Christ the freakin' Saviour persuade somebody in exam admin to reschedule something, then ran for her own class.

After the outcry about the finals schedule, his first lecture went smoothly. Revision of introductory anthropology he could do in his sleep, and nearly did. His third-year seminar in ethnographic methodology was much worse - he kept stopping in the middle of sentences, having gone completely and abruptly blank on the issue he was trying to clarify. His students were more than sympathetic, though; they patted his shoulder and said couldn't they all get together on Friday with him? Or Saturday was better, could he possibly do a Saturday? Blair slumped on the table in relief. Doing a Saturday would suck, but it would be better than doing it today, which was probably what everyone else in the room was thinking too.

At the start of the semester that would have been it for the day, but right before finals he had consultations back-to-back until five. The early end of the seminar gave him an unexpected break, but Jim had it right - he had to keep going, because if he stopped now, he wouldn't be able to get started again. That didn't mean he had to be gracious about it, though. He walked over to Exam Admin and shoved his scratched and stubbled face into their bored ones, stared through indifferent gazes with shaky bloodshot eyes and let the raw edge of his overstressed voice abrade ear after ear until he got a new Anth 103 time scheduled. He walked out telling the section supervisor that his friend from Soc was calling next, and he'd better not be taking lunch today. Jim would have been so proud, Blair thought, with bitter satisfaction. Well, except for the part where they nearly called Security on him.

That reminded him, and he called Simon and got the rest of the week off for both of them. He'd hung up when he remembered he had to tell Simon about the smashed rental car, which was on Jim's PD credit card, uninsured. Calling back and listening patiently to Simon's ranting didn't hold much appeal, so Blair figured he'd sort it out behind Simon's back. He stared at the phone for a long time, unable to work out if he should call the rental company or the PD's accounts department first, then decided that a problem postponed was a problem solved, and resolved to make Jim deal with it tomorrow.

He tried to call Jim; his cell was off. Blair bought a sandwich from the caf and fixed the network printer in the department office on the way back, because God knew that exam admin would be calling up every student to check the timetable was okay before some poor secretary could persuade Tech Support to make a house call. She smiled and thanked him and he started flirting, then stopped abruptly. The room swam, she asked if he was okay, and Blair could have sworn he saw a vague white shape flitter across the carpet between them.

He muttered something about the time and retreated to his office to eat, trying not to notice his hands shaking as he lifted the sandwich. Fatigue, he insisted, but the tomato tasted weird and there was something creepy about the thick margarine, especially since he'd asked not to have any on it. Misha was the girl on duty; they'd been chatting away as usual but Blair was sure, he'd said "no margarine" and she'd laughed and said "Blair, I remember, okay?"

Yet there it was, a waxy yellow testimony to the bizarre chemical concoctions people were willing to force through their digestive systems. In his memory of the cafeteria, the harsh white glare of scrubbed tile surfaces hid any number creeping shapes. He forced down another half-hearted bite and then threw it away.

Then it was appointments, which he spent answering the phone, "yes, new 103 time," as he dealt with requests for extensions and special consideration: three undergrads, masters student, undergrad, and then one didn't show up and Jim still wasn't answering his cell. The radio had no news of the trial. Finally Blair gave into a morbid curiosity while he sat there, and hit the Cascade History Society website. Search on sawmill, limit to pre-1850 and there it was - burned to the ground, presumed arson, eleven deaths, no convictions recorded. But there was nothing about burnt stakes, nothing about the nameless witch, and something inside him whispered "conspiracy of silence," because he knew it was true. There was a picture of the sawmill, a newsprint photo tinged yellow before it was scanned, and the way the screen flickered hinted at an evil which pervaded even through to the electrons conveying the image. As he stared, the screen went black and reappeared; was it just him or was there a grey blur in the photo corner? Blair switched the computer off with muffled shriek, not caring that he hadn't saved or shut down. Then he gave into impulse and pulled the plug from the wall and the modem line from its socket. The phone rang at that instant, and choking on his own breath, he pulled that cord out as well.

In the sudden silence left when the computer stopped humming, the clock ticked far too loudly. He sat there waiting on edge for each tick, not knowing when it would come, holding his breath and then jumping every time it did. He waited through a whole minute of this, too panicked to even talk himself out of the building panic attack, until four o'clock when the sudden loud chime drove him out of the chair and halfway through the door. He tried to call Jim, still no answer. His next appointment wasn't there either, the phone had stopped ringing, and he wasn't the fucking co-ordinator, and he'd been in a fucking car accident. He was on fucking probation because police work was more important to him than academia, so what the fuck was he doing here? Nothing, except wasting time he could be spending with Jim.

And that, Blair surmised wryly, was what he needed to be here to find out.

That was it, that was the decision, and he felt it seep through to the marrow of the bones. After this week, he wasn't going to do this anymore, but it wasn't enough, and the panic attack wouldn't back down. The greyish-yellow walls of the hallway were still closing in on him, haunted by white shapes which might have been spirits or might have been papers. He just couldn't take it for another minute, his fingers itched and his stubble burned and the corners of his office seemed to loom in at him, and knowing it was burning the bridge to his longest-cherished dream, he stuck a note on the door and left.

A tic in his neck as he walked down the corridor made him want to turn his head and look over his shoulder. There were shuttered noises of academia in full gear, voices arguing and distant doors slamming, an electric kettle whistling and printers frantically spewing out paper, but there was nobody to be seen. The musty smell of the halls seemed more rancid than usual, and for some reason a spot on his shoulderblade felt soft and vulnerable, like it was about to be penetrated by sharpened wood with a violent crunching of bone and gristle.

Banging the door open and skidding down the steps, Blair breathed deeply of the fresh cold air. Clouds loomed even lower than the power lines, heavy and pregnant with violence and darkness. His car was in the staff park on the opposite side of the campus. And there was a nice taxi, glowing warmly. Saved.

The answering machine greeted him when he got home, red lights flashing softly in the dark. There were already three "sorry to call you at home" messages from students, two of whom weren't even in his classes. Blair ignored them all, switched the machine off and unplugged the phone. Nothing depended on anthropology except more anthropology, and he was off that boat forever.

He was tempted, sorely, to crawl into bed and let the world get on without him for a day or three, but he couldn't decide which bed to get in. If Jim found him in his own bed, Blair knew he'd assume that whatever happened was over and forgotten, and now that he had finally let his defenses down, Blair wasn't going to give him the slightest reason to resurrect them. Getting into Jim's bed, though, was a presumption Blair hadn't the nerve to make. He was sure that on a normal day, a decision like that would have been easy, but today he'd had to resort to tossing a coin between wholemeal and multigrain for lunch. So he had a long shower, mixed up a quick noodle salad, turned the television on and let himself drift, vampire sleep of vivid images sapped of signficance, blending with the sound of Days of Our Lives.

Premonition opened his eyes again a few seconds before he heard the jangling of keys outside the door. The lock clicked the door open and Jim stepped through, moving each limb carefully, like it hurt him to do it. He put the keys in the basket with exaggerated care, shrugged off his filthy jacket, looked at it for a long moment, and then dropped it on the floor.

Blair smiled at him. "Hey. Didn't expect you until after five." He struggled to sit up, but his muscles didn't have their heart in it.

"Blizzard coming," Jim said, looking almost pleased about it, "so the Judge wouldn't let the defense dick around." He kicked his shoes off and hung up his jacket. "No, don't get up."

With a sigh of relief, Blair didn't. Jim came over and hesistated before perching on the arm of the couch. "How did you cope today?" he said, a little cautiously.

Blair rolled his eyes. "All that matters is that I survived, man. Come here." He patted the seat beside him, and with a little twisted smile, Jim slid down into it.

Silence hung between them, awkwardly, and Blair was reminded of the first time Naomi had visited him in the dorms. She'd sat on his hard little bed and looked around at the dirty walls and not known what to say.

"Hi," Blair had said, smiling broadly, "I'm Blair Sandburg, student." Naomi had laughed tearfully and hugged him.

"Hi," Blair said to Jim. "I'm Blair Sandburg, newly unemployed."

Jim looked at him, and shock slowly animated his face. "You got fired?"

"I quit. I don't want that life. I'm starting over."

Jim was swaying a little. "Doing what?"

Blair shrugged. "Whatever you need me to do."

Jim was silent, staring at his hands.

"I thought about you a lot today."

Jim slid a little vulnerable glance toward him. "Yeah. Me too."

"I, uh," Blair said, and then found his arms going around Jim's neck and in a replay of dawn, crawled into Jim's lap with his lips on Jim's neck. Arms wound round him, so tight, and realisation crashed down hard that he was something else now, Blair Sandburg was something else now, Blair Sandburg was not the son of Naomi and not the student of anthropology but the partner of Jim Ellison, who had a purpose but needed everything else. Partner of Jim Ellison, whose only need, it seemed, was Blair Sandburg.

"Have I ever told you," Blair said, staring into Jim's face with eyes that felt brand new in spite of his tiredness, "that I don't worship you enough?"

Jim looked confused, and Blair kissed him again. "Adore you," he whispered. "Love you, all of you, everything about you," and Jim had him now and was fervently kissing him back.

It was good, it was right, but Blair felt a shudder of resistance in his arms as he pulled Jim closer. This wasn't what they needed most right now, he realised-- it wasn't their way of doing it. After years of slow evolution, this was getting too hot and heavy, too fast.

"Hang on, hang on," Blair pushed them apart enough that he could sit up. The haunted look came back to Jim's face, like he still expected the cruel twist in the scenario. Unable to stop himself, Blair kissed him again, tasting the fading echo of that despair that had dogged him, and feeling the growing golden warmth of the heart opening under him, thudding between their knitted layers.

When he drew back again, he didn't go far. "You're exhausted, you need to eat and then sleep. We can do this tomorrow."

With something like exasperation in his eyes, Jim pulled back. Staying upright without Jim to support him was too much to ask, Blair decided, so he let himself topple over and closed his eyes. "Noodle salad in the fridge," he managed, and had to prod Jim with his toe until Jim stood up.

"Why do I put up with you?" Jim asked, and Blair peeled his eyes back open, just enough to smile at his new purpose in life.

Jim opened the fridge and poked through the shelves, looking. "Where is it?" he asked, finally.

A purpose, apparently, which included playing Marge Simpson to Jim's Homer. "So much for Sentinel vision," Blair muttered as he hauled himself up and went to look. Jim's arms slipped around his waist, only barely keeping him upright while he sorted through the red and blue containers Jim had just moved around. It wasn't there.

Standing up and closing the door, Blair let the warm, hard body behind him take a little of his weight while he tried unsuccessfully to jolt his fuzzy brain into action. He could vaguely remember, as if through two layers of cotton wool, moving the mustard to the side. "It's definitely in here," he said, frowning. "In a blue container."

"Never mind," Jim said, maneuvering them out of the kitchen, a clumsy newborn creature on four legs. "Let's go to bed."

"No." Blair pulled away, ignoring Jim's annoyed expression. "I made the damn salad. I stayed awake to make the damn salad. So you're fucking well going to eat it." He yanked the fridge open again, trying not to notice the way the hairs on the back of his neck were standing up. It was getting really dark now, early as usual for this time of year, and the fan in the kitchen wall didn't seem to be making the right noise, but this wasn't some weird mountain, this was Cascade, and the loft, and the fucking lights were on...

"Here it is, cheese-brain." Jim held up a red container, opening it and sniffing hungrily inside.

"That's not it... oh. Where was it?"

"Next to the stereo."

"I didn't go near the damn stereo," Blair complained, but even to his own ears he sounded tired and confused. Jim was already eating it with his fingers, so Blair fetched two forks and they collapsed on the couch, eating half-entwined and half-slumped against one another, and they finished it in four huge mouthfuls each and then turned to one another before they'd finished chewing. Blair swallowed impatiently, barely tasting anything as he took fistfuls of Jim's warm shirt and drew them together.

"Still hungry," Jim murmured, tilting his head easily as Blair zeroed in and started devouring him. The chilli on Jim's lips tingled, finding the echo in Blair's mouth, heating his tongue and throat into a prickly awareness. The tang of lemongrass soothed and spiked, and Blair thought wildly that the flavours tasted so much more satisfying on Jim than they ever had on the real thing. Tender spicy sweetness that melted warmth in his mouth and throat and stomach. His mouth was watering; he was so hungry; he delved again into that hot flesh and moaned his need.

Blair got Jim down and wriggled himself on top, feeling a streak of need as Jim's legs spread wantonly for him and then closed, cradling and capturing his hips, dovetailing them together. He had to raise one hand to push his hair away from his face, and Jim took the opportunity to get a hand between them, fingers digging behind Blair's waistband until he had his hand down Blair's pants, palm cupped warm and hard around Blair's cock, the cuff of his shirt giving the tip a whispered fabric kiss. Blair bucked, sensation screeching through him, both hands flying to his groin and then hovering, not sure what to do. He needed more, needed relief, need to get that fucking shirt off...

He settled for a low moan, and ground his hips harder down against Jim's hand. Jim laughed breathlessly, detaching his mouth and whispering, "Can we move upstairs?"

Blair paused, with an effort keeping himself from latching back onto Jim's lips and humping them both into oblivion. Jim's bed, that meant... good things? Although good things were happening right here...

"Here's in a better vicinity," he announced finally, surprised at how distracted his voice sounded, amazed that he'd managed an arrangement of syllables more sophisticated than a modulated moan. Then he had to give in to the tugging of his body, and rubbed insistently again at Jim's slack hand.

Jim curled his fingers quickly and pressed back at him, starting a familiar glow of pleasure that made Blair want to purr... and fuck. He hissed appreciatively, quite content to continue indefinitely, but Jim removed his hand, smoothed Blair's hair back from his face, and nodded his head at the stairs. "C'mon."

Blair instantly squirmed closer again. "Why?" He didn't mean to sound petulant. But. There was way too much room in his pants without that hand stroking him. It was a fucking awkward time to stop, he thought, petulantly.

Jim smiled at him, brushed their lips together once. "After we're finished you're gonna pass out," he said, "and I've carried you about enough for one day."

Blair processed the words and then groaned softly. Made sense, and oh god, when they got upstairs Jim was going to make him pass out. Way too good to miss out on just because he felt slutty enough to go all the way on the couch. He groaned and nodded, and Jim shifted beneath him, and with a vague untangling of legs and a lot of unnecessarily indecent helping, they managed to stand up.

It was dark where the kitchen light didn't penetrate, and the stairs were camouflaged in a mosaic of gold light and black shadow. As blood swam back into his head, Blair felt the weight of the day threatening to crumple his legs again. But then he thought about his legs, and they were totally eclipsed by the ache developing in his cock, and the penetrating heat of Jim's hands on his ass, and that was enough to propel him up the stairs in front of Jim and onto Jim's wonderful, solid, successfully-in-his-vicinity bed.

Jim sat down next to him, eyes glowing. Blair looked up and felt pretty glow-y himself, as Jim started stripping them, apparently at random, selecting whatever he wanted to take off Blair's body and easing him out of it and then belatedly shedding his own clothes as well.

Blair tingled in the air, and his feet felt like ice, and then Jim's warm hand was on his leg, sliding up and pressing down firmly and then Jim was stretched out beside him, and the hand was on his inner thigh, slowly climbing, and Blair started to bite his lip, feeling his cock twitch, and then he felt Jim's breath on his ear and that was it, he was gone.

Jim arched into him when Blair twisted on the bed and tugged them together, wrenching a gasp from his own lips that sounded like surprise, probably because he'd forgotten that heat like this actually fucking existed. Jim was just distilled hotness, a mass of firm, moulded temperature, making little noises that sounded a lot like starved satisfaction, hands sliding their hips together, nails digging gloriously into Blair's ass.

Blair rubbed up against him, thinking wildly that yeah, at this rate, passing out, that was so happening. Then Jim twisted them, almost painful as he rolled Blair onto his back, and his sheer strength made Blair grin and shiver and go painfully dizzy as hands moved down his body and ignited places he'd thought he'd lost to the cold.

Jim's hands settled firmly around his cock, larger and more confident than a woman's hands, no careless nails no awkward grip no hesitation, squeezing harder than any woman would. Blair bucked up into it, and then almost growled because then the hands melted away and Jim was sliding down, swift and direct, and then sucking, sucking hard, so hard, and fuck, that felt good, and some part of him knew he was making surprised "oh oh oh" sounds but the rest him didn't care, the rest of him threw his head back and thrust up, into that blinding wet heat, knowing from the tight swallowing around his cock that Jim could handle it.

Hot sensation spiralled furiously, wrenching his mind into splinters and forcing his hands into sharp fists thrust against the hapless sheets, and this was good, fucking hell it was good, Jim was right, so right, and passing out was happening, was so on the agenda, was hurtling into him a lot like a freak electric storm--

He didn't pass out. He was tossed, boneless and panting and shivering madly and sort of laughing, as Jim's mouth drew away softly, and the ceiling spun when he could finally pry his eyes open. "Oh," he thought he repeated quietly, but maybe it was just echoes in his head. Another time he wasn't sure if he'd been screaming.

The thought settled and then chilled him, he didn't want a link back to the morning, not from this, and then he grinned and it fell away, because Jim was almost buzzing next to him, practically humming, and it was okay, this was a lot more than okay, this was fucking fantastic. This was one of those moments where the past crumbled to dust in the blinding light of a glorious Now.

He wriggled agreeably, moving blindly against Jim's body and enjoying the low murmur of approval. Jim pressed back, and then picked up Blair's hands and took them down, and then he was holding Jim's cock, feeling the heavy plush pulse of it, capturing all his attention, and then there was hot skin on all sides as Jim enclosed Blair's fingers in his own grip.

"God, yes," Jim muttered indistinctly, grinding his hips and rubbing his cock firmly through their fingers, exhaling hotly against Blair's neck. Blair mm-ed his assent, very willing but without the strength to do anything except hold on, and Jim didn't seem to mind that at all, Jim was moving in short tight pushes, faster. Jim had started gasping, moaning, blurting un-pieced-together words of need and desire, and then, with a shudder that sounded more like a sob, Jim was coming against his thigh.

Blair was thrumming warmly, feeling every tremble of Jim's body, the tightening of Jim's grip around his own. He felt light-headed, swaying stationary, feeling the firm ridges of Jim's abdomen shuddering tightly against his arms, arching up as heat splashed out onto his hip-- and then a moment later he was breathing again, and Jim was breathing too, and the world felt kind of malleable, and they were both panting and happily adhesive.

Jim's weight half-crushed him wonderfully, until he rolled off with a satisfied lung-deep sigh and slumped down next to him.

"Mm," Blair ventured eventually, surprised that even that came out audible.

"We better... clean," Jim mumbled, and then after a pause there was a shift in the bed, and Blair closed his eyes selfishly and smiled up at the darkness.

"'Kay," he agreed blithely. It would have been truly spooky if Jim had passively surrendered to the adhering forces of post-coital exhaustion.

He heard Jim chuckle distantly, then felt another twinge in the mattress. A hot, damp cloth moved carefully over his stomach, sweeping down, and then a towel was dumped over him and Jim went away again. Blair grinned, ignoring it. Mm. He'd quite happily just slip off into sleep right now, actually, caring little-to-none about the state of his nether regions. He'd shower properly in the morning, for chrissakes. Preferably with Jim, naked and gleaming, slick hard body pressed against him while he woke up in the most indulgent fashion.

He heard another noise of amusement, then Jim lay down next to him and rubbed the towel around his stomach and thighs, and then eased him round until they were both more-or-less under the covers and more-or-less comfortable. "Thank you," Blair managed drowsily, voice coming from somewhere in the distance.

"Any time," Jim whispered against his ear. He pulled them even closer together, wrapping his long arms around them both until they were crushed chest to chest, groin to groin. Then he tucked his head under Blair's chin and was fast asleep.

Safe in that circle of arms, Blair drifted, thinking vague contented thoughts about winter nights and warm bodies, and whether being Jim's lover gave him the right to steal Jim's soft green sweater, if only to wear at home. There would be things like sex for breakfast, goodbye kisses. He wondered if Jim would like having his belly rubbed as much as women did. He wondered what Jim would be like in bed, when he wasn't desperate and exhausted. He shivered faintly, and his ass tingled, thinking about whether Jim would want to fuck him. He imagined phoning Naomi to tell her about this, and felt a brief, stabbing pain that she had just been displaced as his closest confidante. He was nearly asleep until he realised he'd been nearly asleep for quite a while without actually dropping off. The very act of thinking about it forced him out of his fuzzy contented state and into consciousnes.

A little exasperated, Blair strained his head up until he could see the numbers of Jim's alarm clock. 6.56. He let his head drop back onto the pillow. It was too early to sleep, on a normal night, and he was obviously overtired. But it was pitch black already, so it wasn't like his circadian rhythyms had anything to bitch about, not that he was in the habit of paying attention to them anyway. And besides, he'd just come, for chrissakes. Falling asleep should not be a problem.

In his own bed, he could just reach over and grab a text from the table. Anything would probably put him to sleep in this state. There was nothing on Jim's bedside table except the bare practicalities. Even if he could reach further across to the shelves, there wasn't enough light and he didn't have his glasses.

He should have put fewer spices in the salad, maybe that was the problem. Why hadn't he made soup? Soup would have been perfect, and he could have left it simmering on the stove until Jim came home, not lose it in the damn refrigerator. Stupid, that's what he was - obviously so overtired and overstressed that his mind was playing tricks on him. He should have known he'd be too tense to sleep, he should have made some chamomile tea and brought it upstairs with him. But what with two sleepless nights and Jim's erection teasing his own, he hadn't been thinking much at all, and now he was reluctant to wake Jim up.

He considered the logistics of untangling himself so he could slip downstairs, fetch tea and a dull textbook, but as if he heard Blair's thoughts, Jim chose that moment to mumble something and pull him closer, irrevocably entangling his fingers in Blair's hair.

It hurt a little, the weight of fingers pulling at random strands of curl. And now that the endorphin rush of sex and the numb weariness of the day were wearing off, his chest hurt again, and his back felt chilled where he didn't quite have enough blanket.

There was a creepiness crawling up and over him, advancing further with every strange noise. The red numbers on the alarm clock put a ghastly red glow on the blankets beside him, and Blair couldn't bring himself to look at it, unable to shake the ridiculous feeling that the numbers would say "666".

"It was a blue container," he muttered half-heartedly, and for a moment the shadows of leaves on the window were faces, laughing.

There was nothing going on. He just needed to sleep. Blair recited Burton's Sentinels of Paraguay to himself, and got well into chapter three before he started getting confused. Did Burton discuss the Hopi before the Apapocura? No, it was the Hualapai, then the Hopi, and then the Apapocura, and then he knew the rest of the section and didn't get confused again until chapter five, which summarised the findings of... who? The Brazil guy, the one who found the ruins in... what mountain was it? The details slipped further and further away, until Blair wanted to get up and get the damn book, but he had a vague feeling it was in his office at Rainier, and anyway, he couldn't go look for it without waking Jim, and anyway, driving himself fucking nuts trying to remember wasn't the fucking point of this stupid fucking exercise.

He didn't need The Sentinels of Paraguay anymore.

The weight of Jim on his chest, pressing in on his lungs, felt suspiciously like a panic attack. He forced himself to breathe slowly, cupping one hand over his mouth, but the numbness of his fatigued muscles made it feel like somebody else's hand, gagging him. He was not seeing white things in the corners and at the top of the stairs, he was NOT NOT NOT seeing oh my god were they eyes? red and green like the dash and the alarm clock, at the foot of the bed, and paranoia and hallucination were classic symptoms of prolonged sleep deprivation, everyone knew that, and none of this was real.

But Jim's words were coming back to haunt him now: "If there was a higher realm then there had to be a lower one."

The sound of his own whimpering seemed to be coming from far away, and mocking him: "...Naomi, please ring, please, Mom, I really need you..." Why wasn't Jim waking up? Jim loved him, he hadn't said so but Blair knew he did, and Jim always knew when he was scared so why was he just lying there, not moving, crushing him like a sack of wet cement or

like a dead body.

Blair's bare feet hit the icy floor as his throat tore with a failed raspy scream, pain erupting in slashes across his chest and waist where he'd torn himself from Jim's locked arms. He tasted blood in his mouth, warm and wet and salty like Jim kissing him. But it hadn't been Jim, that much was obvious now. The past lurched into new focus, and there was acid in his throat and his mouth awash with bile, shudders spreading across the skin the older man had touched so possessively. He went to run down the stairs but the white things were there, he couldn't turn back because that was Jim's body there, his heart clawed out by the evil spirits, his blood soaking the sheet and the mattress, they really were real and he'd found out too late, not even giving him a year, they were really coming for him, but god, how could he do this without Jim, there was no fighting them, no point if Jim was already gone--

"...Blair? Blair?"

The voice was hoarse and a little confused. And the walls straightened themselves, the shadows receded, the rain on the roof became a warm and reassuring sound.

This was what it was like to come out of a zone, Blair realised, as the hallucination faded, leaving his heart hammering and his skin sticky with cooling hysterical sweat. This is how it is to be off with the fucking fairies, way the fuck out in la-la land and untethered to the earth, unable to land, and then, with a word from the right voice, no matter how soft, be right back. Secure, attached, and comfortable again in everyday reality.

"Oh. Shit, Jim, I'm so sorry."

Jim hardly had his eyes open, was stretching a clumsy arm toward him and half-rolling into the space Blair had just vacated. "Wha's matter?"

"Nothing, just a little overtired," Blair said, and found to his delight that he was yawning.

He climbed back into the bed and found it warm and welcoming. Jim smiled a little and kissed him sleepily, as he settled down, mumbled, "you're m-" and then dropped off again. Blair touched his lips, smiling. Jim was clutching him like a long-lost teddy bear and it felt good. It felt better than good, it felt right, to make Jim this contented with his very presence. Someone like Jim deserved to be happy. He had been through enough crap his whole life, and put so much of himself into keeping the hellish parts of life contained, that he had earned the unconditional adoration of somebody he loved, somebody wonderful. Blair snuggled closer, kissing the sleeping face softly, repeatedly, unable to stop.

"It's me," he whispered into Jim's ear, running his hands across the silken expanse of Jim's back, telling him his precious new secret. "I can hardly believe it, but that's me."

Jim kissed him again, still asleep, with a sweetness that made his heart want to burst.

Blair squirmed down and closed his eyes again, but opened them a minute later, utterly exasperated. Not asleep. Not sleepy in the slightest. Even more annoying, he'd been up, and had gotten back into bed without fetching any of the things he'd wanted before he'd started flipping out. And really, if he was gonna carry on like this all night, it was pill-popping time. Valium, and maybe a little codeine, extreme measures but all he cared about right now was that they were effective.

Jim certainly had both of those downstairs. Jim had a whole cabinet full of hardcore prescription placebos from his pre-Blair sensory problems: uppers, downers, stims, tranks, painkillers; medication for epilepsy, narcolepsy, schizophrenia, ADHD - such a dizzying array of different drugs that when he'd first seen them, Blair had wondered if he wasn't simply playing enabler to a fucked-up hallucinating post-traumatic soldier. But no, as it turned out, Jim was the real thing. Jim wasn't crazy, in spite of all the trauma he'd been though. He'd come through relatively fine, against remarkable odds. Really unbelievable odds, when you thought about it.

No, not unbelievable. Astonishing. Even if Jim did have gaps in his memory. Even if Jim did have extreme reactions to certain sounds, certain smells. Even if Jim did tell stories about himself in the third person. It was everyday, garden variety fucked-upness, Blair told himself sternly, suddenly shaking. Jim was not dissociative, and the older man was not a splinter personality who considered himself possessed by spirits and contracted to kill Blair.

Jesus motherfucking flagwaving Christ, Blair thought, staring down at the man sleeping beside him.

The older man had Jim's body, Jim's senses. The older man had sold the younger man's soul, but then Jim had said it was just a story. He'd believed the story, though, with a fervour in memory which overshadowed how he'd believed in Sentinels on first reading them. So in the story, the older man was in love with the younger man. Jim hadn't said he loved him. Jim wanted him, though, like he'd never seen Jim want anything.

It wasn't true. It couldn't be. There was a piece missing, a key or a cypher which would unravel the narratives and reveal the heart of the matter. Trying to ignore that his chest was pounding again, that Jim was totally immovable again, Blair chewed his lip and revised.

He could be rational about this. Okay.

Hypothesis one: Blair could be completely fucked in the head from sleep deprivation. Occam's Razor--simplest explanation; fit the facts.

Or Jim could be nuts, and Blair could be feeding his delusions, but right now, who cared? If the older man was a splinter personality, that was just fine by Blair--or at least, it was something that could wait until they'd slept before they dealt with it.

Or else the demons were real. He had good reason to believe there was something out there, and yeah, okay, if there was a higher realm, then there could well be a lower one. He could accept that. And if Jim had sold his soul--and deep in his heart, he knew Jim would do it--then he had a year to get it back again. Rainier had the the biggest collection of arcane bullshit in the northwest, Blair had a dissertation which was going nowhere anyway, and even if he'd lost his teaching job, Jim could support him while he milked his library card and his ABD status to deal with it. Not a problem.

If there was something wrong with Jim, then he, Blair Sandburg--intelligent, capable, and tough as hell--would fix it. It was his newly discovered purpose in life, and it was something he was already very good at. So what the fuck was the fucking problem?

In annoyance at the stupid clock, he grabbed it and turned the display to face him, stared at it as if daring it to do something weird or scary. But one by one the minutes ticked by, and Blair didn't take his eyes off the ghastly red numbers, barely even blinked, hoping to grow sleepy but instead getting more alert with every changing digit. He stared down the clock as if he were staring in the face of Time Itself, until he was feverishly awake, monumentally pissed off and nearly hysterical again because he was more exhausted than he'd ever been in his life, and he couldn't, couldn't, couldn't sleep.

It was only when the clock clicked over from 11:59 to 12:00 that Blair realised what was wrong.

"Jim," he whispered, and shook Jim's arm gently. Jim didn't move, and God, Blair didn't want to do this, but he had a feeling Jim wouldn't really mind. Much. "Jim," he said a little louder, and Jim shook his head slightly, but didn't open his eyes. Blair climbed on top of him, feeling like a kid again, enjoying the feeling of once more having somebody in his life he could wake up and pester and complain that he couldn't sleep. God, he was fucked up and needy and waking Jim right now was pretty goddamn cruel, but this was real; these were the things which made a relationship the kind you only read about. Jim flickered his eyes open, and stared up at Blair, looking seriously pissed off.

"I can't sleep," Blair said, kissing him and grinning goofily, and Jim's ire shot up to outraged disbelief, and then faded to disgruntled, and then, as Blair kissed him again, morphed into fond exasperation.

"Why not?" he said, squinting owlishly. "What's wrong?"

Blair got back under the covers and put his head on Jim's shoulder, and Jim's arms came around him, and his fingers came up to stroke his hair. He huddled down into it, until he felt warm, and safe, and treasured.

"You didn't tell me the end of the story."

"I-- what?"

"Jim," Blair whispered, "please."

"Shhh, Blair, it's okay. We're okay." Jim squeezed him tighter. "Jim and Blair got home safe and sound, and nothing was wrong that they couldn't make right, so they both went to sleep and lived happily ever after."

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