A strong north breeze shook the leafy heads of trees and rippled the acres of grass in an undulating sea of greens and browns. It moved along the farmlands towards the edges of civilization, rattling a sign that proclaimed "Welcome to Leid Junction"
They had a saying in Leid Junction: when the wind was from the South, rejoice; from the west take shelter; from the east, batten down the hatches; and from the north, hide your loved ones. No one really knew where it had started, and in the brightness of day, people laughed and scoffed at the grizzled men who shook their canes in warning. But at night, when the chimneys whistled and the weather vanes swung north, even the bravest of souls stayed inside.
The north wind rattled the signs on the shops, kicked up dust clouds along the sidewalks, and swirled in mini twisters along the cracked pavement. In its wake, a Greyhound bus wheezed its way to a stop by the one pump garage. A belch of smoke and it was gone, leaving a young man carrying a book bag slung over a shoulder and a duffle bag clutched in one hand. He wasn't overly tall and his hair was curly, and long. Not with those dread-locks that the punks who threw cans through the windows of the corner store had, but clean and combed, tied back with a leather strap.
Frank Hobson, owner of the garage and sometime mayor of the small town, wiped his hands on a rag and ambled over to the stranger. The young man heard him coming and turned to face him.
Blue eyes. Deep, deep blue, and filled with a sorrow that Frank could only imagine.
"Can I help you?"
How the boy managed a smile, he didn't know. But he did, a friendly grin flashing across his face. "Actually, maybe you can. I'm looking for directions. Is Justin Summers' ranch near here? The directions I had were sketchy at best."
That explained quite a bit. Summers was known in these parts for his ways. But he didn't bother anyone, and no one bothered him. Occasionally they'd see him in town, sometimes with another man, though more often alone. This one would fit the bill, slim, but strong, and the hair. Summers did have a thing for long hair.
If it wasn't for the eyes. This was no lover passing through.
"He's to the north a ways. Three miles or so. Long walk."
The young man looked up at the rain clouds, pushed by the wind towards warmer lands. "I guess I'd better start then."
Frank shook his head. "Come on. I'll give you a lift."
The old clunker barely started and the young man tossed his bags in the back of the truck and climbed into the cab, firmly shutting the passenger's door behind him.
"Thanks." He brushed a tendril of a curl from his forehead. "It's been a long trip."
"Yeah. Washington. The state, not the city," he added as an afterthought. Then he went silent, as though lost in a distant memory. The rest of the trip was silent. The wind shook the truck, buffeting it back and forth like a puppy worrying a bone. The heater sputtered, but resolutely poured heat into the chilled air. The young man held his hands in front of the heater vents and soaked the warmth into his bones.
Summers' Ranch was a small spread. The man didn't raise cows, didn't plant grain. Biggest waste of ten acres Hobson ever saw. Not that he was judging or anything, but to let the land sit, unused, was madness. And nothing could convince Summers to break the soil or buy a head of cattle, he just kept saying something about writing his book in peace.
Hobson pulled into the dirt road that served as a driveway, stretching down a slope to the ranch house nestled in a small grove of trees in an ocean of grass, dotted occasionally with clumps of pines and maples. A single tree stood alone in the nearby field. Bare, it looked like it had died years ago, but it remained upright, bark strong against the elements, unwilling to give up the remains of its ties to life. The roots were large, large enough to sit against, a testament to its age.
"The hangin' tree," Hobson offered as he noticed the young man stare at the silhouette of the skeletal remains of the oak tree. "Story goes that some young'un hung himself there fifty years ago and no leaves have grown on it since."
A fine brow arched slightly and the head nodded, blue eyes tracking the dark shadow. There was no immediate scorn and Hobson's estimation of him rose. He might stay longer than the others, the city boys with their science and their contempt.
"Thanks again for the ride." The door was carefully closed, firmly but without a slam. "I really didn't want to have to walk."
"It's what we do." With a tip of his cap, Frank put the truck back into gear and started back along the driveway. It would do to be home before dark. There was a north wind tonight.
Blair set his bags down on the porch, wiped his palm on his thigh and rapped sharply on the door. His stomach turned flip flops as he waited. It was late, the trip had been exhausting, and he had no idea how he would be received.
The wooden door opened and curious eyes peered through the storm door's screen.
"B-Blair Sandburg? Oh, my god. Is it really you?"
Justin Summers was just as Blair remembered him. Fair skinned with a shock of black hair that fell heavily into his eyes. Tall and rangy, he was slim and elegant, even in thread-bare jeans and plaid shirt that matched his green eyes.
Blair managed a small wave and dredged up a smile. The storm door was pushed open and a hand pulled him through the doorway, where he was enveloped in a strong hug. He let himself relax into it. It had been so long. The craving for the touch of another person had sung through his blood like an addiction.
Then it was gone. Justin held him out at arm's length, raking him over with his eyes.
"Come on. I'll get us something to drink. You look like you could use it."
Blair didn't argue. He did remember to snag his bags from the porch, though, before following Justin through the house to the cozy kitchen. The potbellied wood stove poured heat into the small space and water condensed on the window panes as the air impacted against the glass.
Without a word, Justin pulled down a brown bottle and two shot glasses from high in a cupboard. There was dust on the surface of the flask, and Justin struggled to remove the cork from the neck. With a soft 'pop' the cork gave in, and Blair could smell the burning scent of homebrew.
"So. Blair. Tell me what brought you here looking like your world has crumbled." Justin poured the drink into the shot glasses.
Blair picked up the small glass, clinked the rim with Justin's and downed it in one gulp. Tears formed in his eyes and his throat burned. But it was worth it for the warm glow that spread through his belly, heating his insides which had so long been cold.
"I made a mistake..." Blair told him everything. About the dissertation leak, the anger, the betrayal, the partnership, Jim, Sid, Naomi, Simon and Megan, the university. He didn't say anything about Jim's senses other than to deny the truth of the rumours. At the end, the bottle was half empty, and he was barely able to hold his head up. And the world suddenly looked fuzzier, softer.
Damn fine brew.
Justin dried the tears from his face, gently wiping the salty streaks away with a soft cloth. Then he helped Blair stand and guided him to a darkened room. Blair watched with detachment as the lean man knelt and undid his shoes, unzipping his jeans and pulling them down his legs. He shivered briefly, left only with his boxers, but soon a warm bed with flannel sheets and a thick quilt enfolded him.
"Sleep, Blair." Justin bent and kissed him on the forehead.
"D-d-don't leave," Blair managed to whisper, grasping Justin's forearm desperately. He couldn't stand another night alone. He was tired of being alone. Justin gave in, slipping fully clothed beneath the covers and simply holding him until the alcohol in his veins dragged him into slumber.
He didn't wake up in the middle of the night. He didn't dream.
When he opened his eyes, regretting the melancholy that had driven him to drink enough to create a fuzz in his mouth and a headache, the sun had already risen. It streamed through the blinds. Justin was gone, but the warm spot beside him told him that it hadn't been that long ago.
He stumbled into the brightly lit kitchen. Justin stood by the stove and turned to greet him, still stirring a pot of what looked like oatmeal.
"Hey. Have a seat."
Blair watched as breakfast was ladled into two bowls, topped with brown sugar and milk.
"How do you feel?" Justin asked as he poured them both coffee.
"Human," Blair admitted. "I haven't slept that well in a while."
They ate in silence, spoons scraping against bowls. A blue jay drummed its beak against the windowsill as it broke sunflower seeds from a bird feeder. The peace settled in his bones.
"I've missed you." Justin said abruptly. "I never did find someone after you."
Blair grimaced. "Justin...I--"
"No. Don't apologize." Justin reached across the table and put a warm hand on Blair's. "We had a wonderful time together, but we both knew it wasn't right. And from what you told me last night, you've found the one who *is* right."
Blair felt the despair well inside again. "No. No, everything's changed."
"Do you love him?" It was blunt, and Blair wasn't ready to answer the question. It was too raw, too painful. Admission would be akin to killing himself. Justin huffed slightly. "Tell you what. Why don't you stay for a couple of days, ride the horses, commune with nature, and meditate. I'll ask you again in a week."
Blair nodded, grateful for the reprieve and the chance to delay facing the question that had hounded him for over a year and across three states.
So he did as ordered. He rode. He walked. He hiked. He ate well for the first time in months. He helped Justin repair a fence until he was sore and exhausted. He slept.
It was in the middle of the week that he found the perfect meditation spot. A small grove of trees, split in the middle by a slow moving brook, gave him shade from the midday sun, and protection from the chilling wind that rustled through branches.
It was there that he first felt it. A creeping sensation along the back of his neck as he sat cross-legged on a rock, hands resting palm up on his knees. It was like ice trailing down his spine. He stood so fast the blood rushed from his head, making him sway slightly.
"Hello?" He waited. "Anyone there?"
Only the crickets in the rushes by the stream and the squirrel scolding him for intruding on its territory answered him. There was no one. But his heart continued to beat rapidly, fuelled by adrenaline. He spun about, looking, searching, but there was nothing there.
He mentioned it that night to Justin, who merely nodded sagely, and told him that the wind sometimes played tricks on the unsuspecting. It was just the wind. Take a sweater next time, and don't sit so long in the shade.
It was just the wind.
He watched, waiting. He slept under the skies, took shelter in an abandoned shed, and hunted rabbits in the early morning.
He watched as the two men fixed the fence. He watched as the shorter sat motionless by the stream. Watched from afar.
He knew how to remain invisible, yet see all that went on. Sometimes, the loneliness almost drove him out. Almost made him want to scream of his pain and regret to the hills. But he didn't. He remained silent and shrouded in shadows. He let his ears and eyes bring the world to him.
And he watched. Yearning.
The week went by faster than Blair would have liked. The minutes, hours and days melted away and he suddenly found himself seated in the kitchen, across the table from Justin. Outside, the sky was dark, a full moon lighting the meadows with silver. The windows rocked with the force of the north wind swirling around the house.
This time the glasses before them were mugs, filled with steaming tea. The ginseng was lightly accented with mint, and the aroma in the steam calmed his mind, clearing his thoughts.
Justin cupped his mug. "Do you love him?"
"Yes." The answer was so clear. It rang like a bell in the air, crisp and clean. His soul felt lighter, but his heart still hid beneath the sorrow.
Justin smiled whimsically. "Well, then. Go to him. Tell him."
"I can't." The thought of having to face Jim was almost unthinkable. The things he had said, the things Jim had said...
**"Damn it, Blair. I thought we had an agreement."**
**"Jim, look, man, I didn't say I would go into the academy. I just caught the damn badge. That's not a promise."**
**"How else am I supposed to have you watch my back? Simon went to the wall and back for you. You can't just throw that away. You can't just throw me away."**
**"I'm not, Jim. I just can't--"**
**"Can't what? Can't be there for me?"**
**"Don't, Jim. Just don't. You don't know what it's--"**
**"Fuck, Sandburg. All I know is what it's like to have a supposed friend betray you. Have your boss and colleague, both damn good friends, almost die because of some academic incompetence on your part. And you expect me to believe I can't feel your pain? That I can't know what pain is?"**
"He hates me." Blair felt the sting of tears in his eyes and angrily brushed the back of his hand over them. "Things were so damn tense, even after we apologized. It's...it's not like we could just go on as if nothing had happened. But when I told him that I couldn't be a cop, couldn't do it, he just freaked."
Justin nodded, encouragingly. "Why couldn't you be a cop, Blair? I mean, I still have that letter you sent me a couple of years ago. You sounded like you loved it."
Blair bit his lip. "You still have that?"
Justin blushed. He blushed! "I kept everything you gave me. I guess part of me wishes things had worked out differently."
Blair grinned. "We were great together, weren't we? Remember that time we chained ourselves to the trees in the park? What was the headline in the newspaper? Oh yeah 'Anthropology undergrad and local musician, tree lovers.'" He laughed. "They almost got it right."
Justin's shoulders shook with repressed laughter. "Those were the good times."
"I guess...I guess I didn't want to lose myself. The academy wasn't where my path lies. I see that now, clearer than ever. I mean, practically speaking, being declared a fraud wouldn't do much for my credibility, which means prosecuting cases would be hell. But that aside, I just don't think I was meant to be a cop."
"Did you try to explain this to Jim?"
"Sort of. It just kind of blew out of hand. Then I was gone."
**"Jim, I'm saying that your senses have been more in control for the last year than ever before."**
**"So you don't want to help me.**
**"No, I'm saying you don't need my help as much anymore."**
**"Oh. I see.**
**"Jim, I can't do what you want. I can't be a cop."**
**"You know, Sandburg, I thought we had gotten over this whole 'all cops are pigs' attitude."**
**"Jim, for god's sake, you know that's not what I mean. Christ, if I told you that you should become a...a...a garbage man, would you just jump at the opportunity? No. Because it's not who you are."**
**"And who do you think you are, Sandburg? Because all I'm seeing is someone who's running away."**
"I left. I couldn't stand it. I thought maybe I'd be able to..." Blair caught himself before he mentioned Jim's senses. "...to stay his friend. But he threw himself into his work. He didn't want to see me. He stayed away, wouldn't talk. I had to leave. It hurt too much to see him hate me."
"Sounds like Jim was more afraid than hating."
Blair furrowed his brow. "What do you mean?"
"Oh, Blair. How can someone as smart and as brilliant as you completely miss what's in front of you?"
"Justin, if this is going to be more of your 'he was too scared to admit that he loves me and translated his fear of me abandoning him into irritation and unreasonable accusations' lectures then..." Blair trailed off. Justin merely arched an eyebrow. "Shit."
Justin reached across the table and cupped Blair's cheek. "You always were slow on the uptake when it came to men." He gave a small smile.
Blair whacked himself on the forehead with the palm of his hand. "How could I have been so *stupid*? I mean, we're talking *Jim* here, Mr. Repression. God. I'm such an idiot! Oh, god. And I played right into it! I left!" His lungs didn't seem to be pulling enough air, the warmth of the kitchen suddenly stifling, wrapping around him like a suffocating blanket.
Justin's hands were cool and efficient, rubbing his back as he encouraged him to lean forward. "Easy there. Breathe, just breathe."
"What am I going to do?" Blair moaned, clutching his hair in his hands. "I fucked it all up."
Justin didn't stop his hand from circling over Blair's back. "Someone once told me that if two people love each other, really love each other, then no matter how bad things got, they could always fix what went wrong. It would hurt, there would be pain, but they could get over it."
Blair took a shaky breath. Then he looked sideways at his friend. "It was me who told you that."
"See? You're not as stunned as you look," Justin dead panned. "Come on. Let's get you to bed and in the morning you can call Jim, tell him where you are, and tell him that you want to go home. Make the first move."
Blair let himself be led to the bed. This time, Justin didn't join him, but rather flicked the light switch and closed the door, leaving Blair to his thoughts, memories and dreams.
**The forest was cold. Not the warm jungle of his other dreams, but a bitterly frigid cold. Canada, maybe. A forlorn wolf howled in the distance, the echo pulsating in his veins. He was barefoot, but his feet didn't feel the cold of the ice.
"He doesn't love you."
Blair spun at the sound of the voice behind him. "Who's there?"
"He'll never love you."
Blair clutched the hem of his shirt tight in his hands, wondering why the bitter wind wasn't cutting through the thin flannel. "Where are you?"
"You don't deserve his love."
He clutched at his head. "No! Stop it."
"You betrayed him. And then you left. Just like all the others he trusted."**
Blair twisted and turned on the bed. The checkered quilt tangled about his legs as he thrashed.
**"I'm going back. I'm going to apologize!" Blair shouted into the wind.
"It's too late."
A violent shove sent Blair to his knees. Another one pushed him along the ground. That was when he realized he wasn't on ground, he was on ice. A sickening crack split the deafening roar of the wind. Blair froze. The wind whisked away the snow to reveal the rough ice. Web-like cracks began to form around him, spreading out like an infection. Then it gave way beneath his weight.
Icy water swallowed him whole. The water closed about his head, entering his nose, his ears, his mouth. The ice reformed above him, closing him inside his watery coffin.
*Panic. So cold. Can't breathe.*
"Die. Like all the others before you. Like all those who pretend to love," The voice intoned like a bell, resonating through the water as clearly as if it was air.
He flailed, but it was like trying to swim in molasses. The cold numbed his limbs. His hand impacted against the ice that trapped him. He smacked dully against it. Once. Twice. Three times. The fourth time his hand went through. His skin tore as he broke a hole large enough to pull himself through.
As he lay panting and gasping on the ice, praying it wouldn't break, a thin trail of blood from a scratch on his palm trickled wetly across his hand. One small drop formed at the edge..and fell. The perfect red hit the white-blue ice. And the world dissolved.**
The window sash slammed against the outside wall and the window flew open as a gust of wind thrust itself into the room. Leaves, torn from trees, swirled to cover the floor and dust sparkled in the moonlight.
With a gasp, Blair sat up, his lungs burning and heart pounding. It was just a dream.
He looked down at his palm. A red line, stark against his pale skin, traced along his lifeline.
"Justin, do you believe in ghosts?" Blair felt foolish. It had just been a dream, hadn't it? The throbbing cut on his palm belied his question.
Justin glanced sharply at him. "Why?"
Blair could feel the heat rushing to his cheeks. "Never mind." It seemed so foolish now that it was midmorning and the sun was streaming through the windows.
But Justin didn't let it go. "No, really. Why?"
Blair raised an eyebrow at the intensity behind his friend's voice. "I...I had a weird dream last night."
There was no censure, no scepticism in the other man's voice, so Blair forged on explaining the open window and the debris in his room.
"I wouldn't put much stock in it, I mean the window could have been forced open, right? But I dreamt I cut my hand and when I woke up, I had this." Blair turned his hand palm up revealing the slightly bleeding wound. "And no, I didn't cut myself without knowing it."
Justin moved from the counter where he had been lazily reading the newspaper. He carefully inspected Blair's hand, tracing the cut with a gentle finger.
"Damn. An actual manifestation."
"A-a-a what?" Blair stammered.
"Manifestation. Ghosts aren't able to just manifest themselves at will and affect things. They have to borrow their psychic energy in order to reveal themselves. And the only people they generally can borrow from are those who are... distressed in some way."
Blair was glad he was sitting down. "Justin, what the hell are you talking about?"
"Okay, let me rephrase that. When the hell did you become such an expert on ghosts?"
"I guess we never did get around to talking about why I'm here, huh." Justin smiled crookedly. "I'm writing a book. Music just wasn't paying the bills, and I left the band I was with two years ago. I have a friend who's in publishing and she was interested in publishing a book on legends and myths in the western States. We started talking and I thought, 'why not?'."
"So...what does this have to do with this ranch?"
"I heard about the stories surrounding this place, found out the place was up for sale and made arrangements to rent it for a bit. I've been here over a year now. I wasn't really expecting for my research into the paranormal to be substantiated, so I bought some horses and bred them. But can you imagine? All the myths and legends might actually be true!" Justin's face was alight with enthusiasm. "I might actually be able to get more than just some half rate paperback out of this!"
Blair felt his throat constrict. "Yeah. Yeah, I can imagine."
Justin's face suddenly became serious. "Blair, if the ghost injured you, then this is more serious than just simple haunting."
"What do you mean?"
"Most hauntings aren't a problem, according to the stories I've heard anyway. Whenever there's physical contact, there's generally a deeper problem than some spirit hanging around out of nostalgia." Justin paused, his brow creasing. "Wait a moment. You're taking this all rather blasť. How come you're not freaking out?"
Blair sighed. "Jim and I had contact with a ghost once. Well, Jim did, anyway."
Justin's eyes grew wide. "Really? Shit, you need to tell me where and when!"
"Uh, more pressing issues?" Blair waved his injured hand.
Justin had the grace to look embarrassed. "Sorry. It's just I've never met someone I can actually believe actually saw a ghost. Let alone two!"
"So. How do you get rid of one?"
Justin looked blank. "I haven't a clue."
He could feel something was wrong. He had awakened the previous night, the pounding of the heart deafening him. The smell of blood thick in his nose had almost driven him out of his hiding place and into the sphere of warmth that surrounded the house.
But he had easily seen that there wasn't enough blood to endanger, just enough to worry.
He wasn't sure what to make of the fleeting shimmer that caught the corner of his eye. He wanted to blame it on sleep. He didn't want to acknowledge the wisdom that didn't come from within, but that had been passed on to him by the one he protected.
He had seen the shimmer before. He had looked into the abyss, and the abyss looked back with eyes that saw into his soul, begging for help. This wasn't the first time the other world had appeared to him. But it was the first time that he feared what demands it would make of the man in the house across the fields.
Five hours of searching on the Internet for how to exorcise a ghost managed to serve up some old wives tales and superstitions, but nothing concrete. Blair cracked his spine in a long stretch, tensing and releasing tightened muscles. He accepted the mug of coffee from Justin.
"So. In order for the ghost to pass on we have to convince it that there's no reason to stay?" Justin settled himself on the couch by the computer desk.
Blair shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine. What do you know about the history of this place?"
"Not much. There's a legend that says someone committed suicide on the tree outside fifty years ago, but no one really talks about it much."
"Okay, let's work with that. We go find the records of who lived here, and then find out why the hell he's sticking around after all this time."
It didn't take long to find what they were looking for at the local library.
"Sean McDonald, died 1942, hung himself from the tree in the front of the house." Blair scanned the obituary. "Here's a picture."
The black and white newspaper photo was grainy, but they could make out two people, both young men. The taller one had an arm slung about the shoulders of the shorter man and they were both smiling broadly at the camera.
"Sean is the tall one. It doesn't say who his friend is, though," Justin noted from the caption. "He was survived by father Mark, and sister Donna. Hmm. I wonder if they still live around here."
Blair reached over and plucked a heavy tome from the shelves. "Let's let our fingers do the walking." He flipped through the pages, scanning the lines. "Yes! Right here, a Donna McDonald. And it looks like she just lives just down the road. Maybe she'll talk with us."
After photocopying the obituary and the photo, Blair folded the piece of paper and gestured grandly towards the door. "After you."
Their luck held. Donna McDonald was home and once she found out Justin was writing a book about the area -- only a slight obfuscation on his part -- she invited them in for muffins and teaa, willing to talk. She was tall and slim, with greying hair. And baked a blueberry bran muffin that melted in your mouth.
"So. Why on earth would you want to talk to me for your book?" she asked curiously as they eagerly accepted seconds.
"Actually, we were...that is..."Justin floundered.
Blair took pity on his friend. "We were doing some research about the ranch where Justin here, is staying and found out that one of the previous owners, a Sean McDonald, had committed suicide."
Her face went blank.
Blair forged ahead. "We found out that you were his sister, and we were hoping that you might be able to shed some light on the circumstances of his death," he said as circumspectly as he could.
"I don't see why that is of any interest to you." Her voice was cold. "Sean was just a normal young man. We were all shocked at his death."
Blair bit his lower lip and pressed on. "Do you know who this man is?" He pulled out the photocopy.
"That man was the devil, is what," she exclaimed, her eyes flashing. "He put fool notions into our Sean's head. Had no business coming here and feeding Sean all those lies."
"Lies? What sort of notions?" Blair asked gently.
"Sean was never that kind of man," she responded indignantly. "He was a good Christian. He wouldn't ever...He would have married that Johnson girl if *he* hadn't come along. It took years for the town to stop staring at Father and myself."
"What was the other man's name?" Justin couldn't restrain himself. He had to know.
"I'll never forget. Peter Rollands."
"Do you know where he lives?"
"Hopefully he's rotting in hell," she snapped. "I don't want you writing about our Sean and that devil. I won't have you besmirching our name for everyone to read. I won't!"
Justin held out his hands. "We're just trying to figure out what happened. We aren't looking for a scandal."
She sniffed. Then her eyes suddenly narrowed, raking over Blair's hair, and Justin's understated elegance. She rose quickly. "I think you'd best go. And mark my words, if I find you've been spreading foul rumours I'll have my lawyer after you!"
Standing beside Justin's truck, Blair let out a pent up breath. "Damn. That could have gone better."
"No shit. Look, it's getting late. I'm tired. Let's stop off at the library and see if we can't find an address or something for this Rollands guy and then go home."
It turned out that Ms. McDonald wasn't as far from her hopes for Rollands as they thought. Blair stared at the obituary.
"What?" Justin peered over his shoulder.
"Look at the date of this. Rollands died one week before Sean committed suicide. Oh, man. Check this out. It says here that foul play was suspected."
"Okay. So we've got one person committing suicide, another one suspected of being murdered the week before, the strong rumours that they were lovers and a ghost who won't go away." Justin ticked the points off on his fingers as they approached the truck.
"Sounds right." Blair climbed into the passenger seat and slammed the door with a vengeance.
"So. Now what?" The truck's engine turned over, coughed and caught, revving loudly.
Blair's lips thinned and his shoulders squared. "Now we go talk to a ghost."
He woke from his doze, the cold ground leeching the heat from his body and chilling his bones. Immediately on alert, he searched for the soft noise that teased at his hearing.
It was a soft rumble, not a purr not a growl.
A flash of black fur against black night made him rise to his feet. Something was wrong, very wrong.
It was time.
Blair wiped the palms of his hands nervously along his thighs. This was going way beyond his realm of experience. Not that trying new things wasn't his style. But he generally had some idea of what he was getting into. Talking to poltergeists just didn't have the same certainty as, say, being willing to be tied up and tickled with a feather.
Blair had a gut feeling this ghost wasn't going to want to tickle him. At least not in a fun, loving way.
They had decided to hold the impromptu seance in Blair's current room. Given that the ghost had manifested there once, the likelihood was that it could happen again. At least that was the theory. Getting theories to work in practice was Blair's specialty. And the urge to get to the bottom of this ghostly mystery was eating away at him, having replaced the deep depression and melancholy, at least for the time being.
The sun had disappeared behind the distant mountains, and the trees outside gently swayed in the wind. A branch ticked against the window pane in a slow and steady staccato as the two men lit a wide circle of thick, white candles on the floor.
"So what are these supposed to do, again?" Justin asked, shaking his hand to extinguish the rapidly dwindling match held between his fingertips.
Blair stared at him dumbly for a moment. "Ambiance."
"You're joking." Justin's face registered his disappointment. "Just ambiance?"
"Well, it wouldn't be right talking to a dead person without candles...would it?" Blair let a tense laugh cover his nerves. "Let's face it, I haven't a clue what I'm doing. Not that that's new or anything," he muttered. He settled himself on his butt inside the circle, his legs comfortably crossed in the lotus position.
"What do we do?" Justin whispered, clearly not wanting to disturb the atmosphere.
"Well, I don't know about you, but I'm going to see if we can't find out just who this ghost is." Blair squared his shoulders resolutely.
"Sean? Peter?" he called. "We know that one of you is here. Why don't you show yourself and we can talk."
It sounded reasonable. But no one ever said ghosts were reasonable, and the room remained silent, unchanged. Blair bit his lower lip. If only Jim was there, he'd be able to see things that neither Blair nor Justin could. He ruthlessly quashed the thought. Jim wasn't there. And if he was...
The branch outside began rapidly drumming against the window, leaves lashing the glass. Justin's gasp as the candles flickered in unison was overwhelmed by the sound of the window smashing inward in a shower of glass shards.
He ran on the wind, legs moving over the ground effortlessly. Adrenaline fuelled his flight. He knew that something was going to happen. The knowledge burned in his soul, and set his gut on fire. The wind plucked at his clothes, trying to slow his dash along the prairie. Brambles rolled in front of him, the ground seemingly shifting under his feet.
But he couldn't stop. He wouldn't stop.
He would be there on time. There was no other option.
"He won't love you. They won't let you." The voice from his dreams filled the room, and froze the blood in Blair's veins. He crouched in the centre of the candles, untouched by the glass, while Justin ducked behind the bed, watching with frightened, yet amazed, eyes.
"Who are you? Are you Sean or Peter?" Blair looked about, but couldn't see any other manifestation of the poltergeist.
"They killed me. They hated me that much," the voice moaned. "They hate you too. They won't let you love him. They can't. He can't. He won't love you."
Blair squinted as the flames of the candles flared brightly. "Peter? Peter Rollands? Is it you? We just want to talk, man. What's keeping you here?"
"They killed me, and he didn't care. They turned him against me. Didn't care at all. He knew."
Blair shivered as the temperature dropped. As he spoke, his breath misted about his head in a cloud. "Are you saying Sean knew who killed you?"
"Doesn't matter. I took care of him. Like I'll take care of you."
Blair threw his hands up as the wind howled through the broken pane. The candles extinguished, plunging the room into darkness.
A wolf howled across the fields. It pierced his ears, making him panic, sending even more adrenaline surging through his body. He heard a cry from the house. He could see through the window, the strange man reaching for the other half of his soul, only to be tossed against the wall by an unseen force.
And he was still too far away.
He couldn't watch, couldn't listen and run at the same time. Tearing his senses away from his goal, he ran, shadowed by a black shape that growled.
Justin scrambled painfully to his feet, not wanting to believe what he had just witnessed. The wind hadn't just blown through the room, it had blown through Blair. Literally. And in its wake, it left a man clearly possessed. If the blank eyes hadn't clued Justin in, the unnatural strength with which Blair had thrown him across the room -- without using any hands -- would have been enough.
The candles were strewn about, knocked over and dripping wax onto the carpet. More importantly, Blair was gone.
"Blair! Where the hell are you?" Justin shouted, staggering out of the room "Blair?"
He heard the front door open and slam shut. Making his way unsteadily down the hallway, he tried the handle on the door, but couldn't budge it. He was trapped. He hobbled to the living room, pushed aside the heavy curtain and looked out the window facing the road.
Blair was walking calmly towards the gnarled oak tree. The grass whipped madly about his feet and the wind made his hair fly about his head in a halo of curls. Justin squinted against the darkness and his eyes widened with fear as his vision cleared.
Blair carried a rope, knotted in a noose, tightly clenched in his hand.
*Oh my god. No.* Justin screamed silently.
His legs were beginning to tire. The lack of steady diet, and lack of sleep had exacted a toll upon his body. But he refused to quit. Refused to fail.
The field gave way to a road, and he was able to open up and run full tilt. No danger of badger holes or unexpected dips. The farmhouse loomed, and he ran.
Silhouetted against the sky, the oak tree rose up from the ground, reaching bare branches to a merciless sky that roiled with dark clouds threatening impending rain.
The wolf howled again, long and loud, mourning already. It was joined by a vicious roar from the depths of a jungle cat. Their despair rang through the night air like a bell, tolling for loved ones lost.
From the lowest branch, a good eight feet above the ground, hung a noose. And the body of his beloved, Blair Sandburg. His feet could not move fast enough, his arms were leaden, his fingers clumsy and thick. When he had the limp form clutched in his arms, removed from the strangling rope, no breath left the pale lips. He had failed.
He threw back his head, the tendons in his neck tight with tension, tears running down his face, and added his cry to that of the animals about him.
The door finally gave way beneath Justin's hand, opening to a scene that would be forever etched in his mind until the day he too gave up his last breath. The wind had died down, and rain now began to spatter the ground with fat droplets.
Blair no longer dangled hideously from the tree. Rather he lay on the ground, cradled in the arms of a stranger. A man dressed in black and dark green combat fatigues, matching baseball hat, with a thick unkempt beard. Justin slowly approached. The man moaned softly, rocking back and forth.
"You can't die on me, Chief. You can't. Don't leave me, Blair. Don't leave me. I'm so sorry. Please don't leave me." The soft keening broke Justin's heart. He had listened often enough to Blair wax poetic about his roommate Jim that he could recognize the man, even beneath the facial hair.
Blair was a limp bundle in the man's arms. Even in the darkness, Justin could see the angry red welt that encircled his neck where the rope had bitten into the fair skin. The curly head lolled lifelessly as Ellison shook the smaller man.
"Wake up. This isn't over. This can't be over. I won't let it be over."
"Ellison." Justin wracked his brain for his first name. "Jim. Help me get him on his back. Do you know CPR....of course you do, Blair said you were a medic. Come on, man. Help me!"
The cop didn't even seem to notice Justin was even there, but he allowed him to position Blair on the wet ground. Justin pressed his ear to Blair's chest, groping for a pulse at his wrist.
"I'll do compressions, you get him breathing!" he shouted above the noise of the rain on the roof, truck and road.
Ellison complied, bending his head over Blair's and parting the blue tinged lips. Justin began to count as he pressed against Blair's chest, desperate to feel him move beneath his hands.
"Come on, come on. Come on, Sandburg. Come on, damn it!" Ellison muttered as they paused to see if there was any response. Justin wasn't sure what happened, but a look of utter horror passed over Ellison's face. The anguish-filled blue eyes met his. "Oh, god. Not again. Not again!"
Then his large hands gently cupped Blair's face, stroking lightly over the pallid cheeks.
Blair sat up and looked about. He was once again surrounded by trees. But it wasn't snow beneath his bare feet; it was warm earth, crumbly and peaty between his toes. He stretched luxuriously. It was so warm and it had been so long since the heat had made its way to his bones.
Then he realized he was naked. His hand instinctively went to his groin.
"Hello? Anyone here?"
"You must die." The voice was a mere echo, barely permeating the leafy canopy. The strength of the spirit was fading, Blair instinctively knew it.
"Why? Why do I have to die?" he shouted, turning about with his arms outstretched beseechingly.
"You didn't care. You didn't care!" A wind tried to stir the ferns that brushed Blair's calves, but could only manage a small gust that sent the leafy fronds tickling his ankles. A grey mist slowly coalesced into a shimmering figure, vaguely resembling the form in the ancient newspaper photo.
"I'm not Sean, man."
"You don't care about him You left him, just like Sean left me. Left me to wander alone, caught here forever."
"He didn't leave me."
Blair almost jumped at the voice. He had dreamed of that voice, speaking to him in joy, anger, love and friendship. He turned, not sure if he was hallucinating. Hallucinating Jim, that is. He was pretty sure the jungle wasn't real. Although his grip on reality was becoming tenuous at best.
"Jim?" His voice was small, tiny and very, very much like a young boy finding a lost toy, not quite believing it was there. "Is it you?"
Jim was bare skinned as well, streaks of black across his cheeks, a bandana over his hair the only cloth to be found, accenting the blue intensity of his eyes. He was virile, strong, and powerful.
The intervening space simply disappeared and Blair was standing chest to chest with his friend. He stared up into the face of the man he had pined for, almost since the beginning.
"Is it you?" he whispered again.
"Yeah. It's me," Jim replied, placing his hands on either side of Blair's face, and tilting it slightly up.
"Last time we did this we had paws," Blair said dazedly. Jim's forehead creased, and Blair forged on. "Last time we were in the jungle," he clarified.
Jim closed his eyes briefly, anguish marring the smooth lines of his forehead. "This time we'll do it right."
If it were a movie, Blair would have expected it to be in slow motion, with the orchestral score swelling to a climactic crescendo. Time seemed to stand still as their lips gently brushed, warm skin on warm skin, breath mingling together. Their noses bumped slightly.
Blair felt his eyelids drift closed as he parted his lips in concert with Jim, his hands reaching up to grasp the back of Jim's neck. Such a gentle kiss, when they broke apart, Blair gave a small moan of disappointment.
"This time, no hiding. This is us together. Not spirit guides. Us." Jim moved forward, and their naked bodies brushed together. Blair gasped.
"No hiding," he agreed, letting his hand wander down to the dip in Jim's back. "No running."
"No running." Jim clenched his hands in Blair's hair and plunged down for another kiss. This one searing, electric, and volatile. The jungle erupted into a gale of wind, tossing leaves from the ground into whirlwinds that danced about them. Electrical current crackled between them, flashing bright blue across their skin.
"No!" Peter's spirit cried as the wind engulfed him, scattering the mist.
The world spun dizzily, and Blair closed his eyes as the ground beneath his feet melted away. The only reality was the feel of Jim's hands on his face, the warm breath against his skin, and the tingling of his lips where they had been so passionately kissed. That was his reality. That was his world.
"Chief? Blair? Open your eyes. Please."
Jim's voice was like a distant echo in Blair's ears. And he was compelled to answer his Sentinel's pleas. When he opened his eyes, Jim wasn't naked, and he couldn't quell a surge of bitter disappointment.
Blair blinked. His back was wet, and he was lying on the ground, half supported by Jim's chest, in the middle of a downpour. He muzzily looked up into Jim's face.
"Jim?" His voice was a horrid croak that hurt even his own ears.
"I'm here. You're okay." Jim's hands stroked over his cheeks, over and over, comforting, reassuring, although Blair wasn't sure who was doing what.
"What happened? I'm wet." Blair suddenly noticed Justin, kneeling on the other side of him, hair plastered to his skull and shirt stuck to his skin, eyes wide with disbelief. "Peter's ghost?" he managed to get out before his throat protested.
"Gone." Jim said with bold confidence. "He's gone."
"The pain he was in...it was so sad, Jim. No one cared he was killed. Not even his lover." Blair felt tears well in his eyes for the pain of a man long gone, discarded and abandoned in life and in death.
He let himself lean into the soft touches on his face. Jim's hands transferred warmth to chilled skin better than any hot water bottle. Their eyes met, and were locked. Blair couldn't look away, the love and desire surging between the link that had been forged in the maelstrom of the vision.
"Let's get him inside, Jim." Justin broke through their reverie.
Blair managed a grunt of indignity as Jim simply swept his body up into his arms, encouraging him to lock his arms around Jim's neck. Any protest was stifled by the soft kiss that Jim placed on his lips. All things considered, there could be worse things than being carried in the arms of the man one loved, so Blair gave in, nestling his head in the crook of Jim's shoulder.
Justin held the front door open, and they went into the light and heat, leaving the cold and the fear behind.
Jim wasn't letting Blair more than an arm's length away, and Blair wasn't complaining. Wrapped in a quilt, with a cup of warm tea between his palms infusing warmth into his chilled fingers, Blair couldn't tear his eyes away from the haggard looking man seated next to him on the couch.
"I...I can't believe it's really you," Blair whispered as he reached out to touch Jim's cheek. The beard was soft, despite its ragged appearance.
"It's me." Jim returned the gesture and then pulled Blair close to his side. One arm wrapped around Blair's shoulder while his other hand continued its journey over Blair's pale cheek.
Justin cleared his throat noisily, stirring from his post at the doorway to the kitchen. "I think I'm going to turn in for the night, seeing as how it looks like the ghost is gone. And you've got some catching up to do." He looked at Blair. "Remember what we talked about."
The two men watched as their host shut the glass pane doors behind him, leaving them alone. Together.
Blair began to speak. "Jim, I'm so sor--"
He was hushed by a gentle finger on his lips. Jim bent his head and once again placed his lips against Blair's. This time there was no electrical storm, merely the brush of weather chapped skin across reddened lips, the tip of a tongue teasing at the corners of Blair's mouth in the softest of caresses.
"I've missed you so much." Jim whispered. Blair was shocked to see the shimmer of tears in the older man's eyes. "Come home? Please? Be with me?"
There was no need to speak, Blair simply reached up his hands and pulled Jim's head down to rest on his shoulder, stroking the shuddering shoulders and patting the soft hair. He gave in to his own tears, feeling the salty tracks on his cheeks.
"It's okay, Jim. It's okay." Blair crooned gently. "I'm here. I'm okay. We're going to be okay."
The rain beat a steady tattoo on the roof, falling straight from the heavens. There was no wind. Ensconced within the warm blankets on the sofa, two souls made one reunited, purging sorrow and finding joy.
"This is the last one, Jim." Blair set down the cardboard box, and wiped his hands on his jeans. With a heartfelt groan he slumped into the chair, spinning it around on its casters. "Have I mentioned how much I really like these chairs?" He tilted it back, the springs giving smoothly.
"Only about a dozen times," Jim retorted as he climbed down the ladder beside the desk. "That should do it. Go flip the switch."
Blair hauled himself up and obediently turned the switch by the wall. The light hummed to life, casting its rays into the corners of the office. Blair had been adamant that the lighting tube not be fluorescent as it would bug Jim's eyes and ears, so the soft light was easy on the senses.
Jim folded the stepladder and stashed it by the wall, reaching out to snag Blair's belt and pulling him close. They stood, Blair's back pressed against Jim's chest, surveying their handiwork.
"This is it,"he murmured in his lover's ear as he smiled into Blair's hair.
"Yeah. I can't believe this is happening." Blair hugged Jim's arms tightly around his waist. "I should be more nervous."
The office was large enough for two desks, placed together, facing one another. The comfortable computer chairs, that Blair had fallen in love with, sat expectantly beside each desk. There was only one computer, but Blair had rigged an ingenious system whereby the monitor could swivel around, and two keyboards were attached to the CPU hidden beneath one of the desks.
Bookshelves were sturdily installed on one wall, and a large window adorned another, looking out onto a bright boardwalk, where pedestrians sauntered. The smell of fresh paint still hung in the air, from the walls and from the neatly stencilled letters visible on the window: Watchman Services -- Security and Private Investigations. Blair had been picky about the stencils, wanting strong, yet soft lines. Jim had been happy with freehand writing but acquiesced to Blair's desire to have everything 'just right.' And things were.
Chance, Lady Luck, call it what you will, had finally smiled upon Sentinel and Guide. The bakery shop downstairs had closed, the owner deciding to upgrade, freeing up a sizable amount of space for lease. A fresh coat of paint, a new floor and some office furniture later, Blair and Jim were prepared to launch their business.
They had debated about what to do. Blair arguing passionately about Jim's need to 'protect the tribe' through the police department, Jim arguing just as ardently about his need to be with his lover. So it became a compromise. Jim quit the force with Simon's blessing and became, much to Blair's amusement, a consultant to the department.
It had taken some time for Jim to get the private investigator's licence; time which they spent sorting out the pain of the past. No smooth journey, they had cried, laughed and loved. Licence in hand, wounds healed, they leased the retail space, moved in and cemented their partnership in word and deed. Signed on the dotted line in Blair's favourite ballpoint pen, co-ownership of mortgage, not only of the office, but of the building. It had been terrifying, scary and thrilling.
And now they were ready to step forward into the future.
Blair put out a hand to flip the sign on the door from 'closed' to 'open', when Jim's fingers suddenly descended on his wrist. He watched as his partner drew down the shade and turned the blinds on the large window.
Whatever he was going to say was lost as Jim claimed his lips. His mouth was invaded by Jim's tongue, hot and insistent. Blair grabbed Jim's shoulders as the bigger man moved him across the floor, pressing him against the edge of the desk Blair had claimed.
Now Jim was doing the claiming. Blair moaned as Jim ravaged his neck, nipping down and lapping eagerly at the collarbone. One of the great advantages of a Sentinel lover, Blair had discovered, was the way in which Jim simply dove into a sensory exploration of his lover. Getting sniffed, licked and felt had never been as erotic with his other lovers.
Jeans were unbuckled, legs twining together and making the task of pushing pants and boxers down difficult. But they managed, overcoming the obstacle like all the others thrown to them over the past two months.
His back impacted against the solid wood finish. Jim's hand on his sternum kept him still, hands fisted above his head. Blair lolled his head as Jim pushed and pulled until Blair's ass was at the edge of the desk. An insistent knee pressed his legs apart and he let his hips rise to push encouragingly against Jim.
Blair let his shirt be sacrificed, the rent fabric revealing the silvered ring in his nipple. A favourite of Jim's, the ring was lovingly tugged, sending jolts of arousal straight from the tightening nub to the burgeoning erection at Blair's groin.
Blair wasn't lax in his duties. His hands pushed Jim's shirt over his shoulders after dispensing with the buttons. Naked, they paused, Blair flat on his back, Jim half lying on top. Their frenzied hands slowed and they smiled. Jim bent and lapped at Blair's lips as delicately as a cat with a saucer of milk. His fingers gently cupped Blair's swollen cock, running up and down the tender veins. Blair stretched and managed to reach Jim's ass, cupping it possessively.
"Love you." Jim breathed, the air tickling Blair's ear.
"Please." Blair gasped back. He groaned as Jim obeyed, a long finger teasing at his balls and then back to his anus. The pop of a cap made him almost giggle. Jim, his boy scout, always prepared. Then all thought fled as the finger slowly invaded him. Jim let his fingers do the walking, tenderly breaching his lover. Soon, Blair was surging to meet the intruder, wanting -- needing -- more.
The world spun dizzily as Jim encouraged him to turn, bending over at the waist, his weight comfortably supported by the desk, his legs parted, ass bared. Blair was exposed, vulnerable, and safer than he had ever felt.
A shudder ran through him as Jim ran his tongue down his spine,
loving each vertebra, then plunging into the musky crease. Blair bit his lower lip,
sure that his cries would be heard outside.
"Jim, please. Need you. Please, love."
The sound of a condom being opened barely registered. Then Jim's breath returned at his ear as he was once again gently stretched.
"Now, Jim. Now!" Blair wanted it. The fingers, while wonderfully maddening, weren't enough. He muffled his cry of pleasure as Jim surged into him in one smooth stroke, aiming for his heart.
Jim's body blanketed him and Blair realized he never wanted this to end. Staying here, filled, loved, covered, surrounded by his lover, was all he wished. Small currents of pleasure radiated from his ass with every undulating thrust of Jim's hips. He tightened around the cock nudging his prostate with every movement.
Jim grabbed his hands, and their fingers intertwined, holding each other immobile.
"Mine," Jim growled, his nose buried in the crook of Blair's neck, thrusting strongly. His thighs impacted against Blair's and the sound of skin hitting skin was loud in the air.
"Mine." Blair reciprocated with another tantalizing squeeze around Jim's cock.
Their control slowly lessened, Jim allowing his thrusts to come faster and harder, Blair rearing back to take as much as he could and more. With a surge, Jim fell back into the chair behind him, pulling Blair with him. Blair's weight brought him fully down onto Jim, impaling him deeply. With dual cries they came, Blair's come spurting copiously onto the desk.
They remained seated, panting and gently petting each other. Blair flexed his internal muscles, wanting to draw each and every last sensation from being so completely filled by his lover. His inner undulations brought a groan from Jim, and miraculously, he could feel the cock within him harden once again. The sensation was the most incredible feeling.
Jim chuckled, and Blair could feel the vibrations in his back.
"What's so funny?" he asked, grinning at the infectious laughter and beginning to undulate his hips once again. His own cock began to show interest in the possibility of christening other parts of the office.
"I told you we should have gotten a blotter." Jim pointed to the splotches of semen on the desktop. Blair's snort of laughter was cut off by a pleasurable moan as Jim put his Sentinel touch to use.
The future was looking fine, the past mere ashes blowing in the invisible wind.