The Sense of Place

By Delilah

EMAIL: Delilah

~oOo~

This is about stupidity.

Mine.

My stupidity.

You'd think with a score of 184 on the Stanford-Binet I'd be, oh, say, brighter. Swifter. More fleet of mind.

You wouldn't peg me to be standing in a line in the Podunk airport with the woman behind me thinking if she crowds my personal space and breathes on my neck hard enough it will force the security line to move from its crawl at the speed of a geological epoch. Hell, maybe she's just flirting. As if I'd know. Since I seem to be unable to tell the difference these days.

Seem to be unable to tell anything. I knew the military wasn't stupid. Okay, wait, generally I find the whole philosophical idea of finding yourself in war to be stupid. But not the guys in the know. The ones with their own agenda.

Like they wouldn't have been able to tell there was something unusual about Jim from the first moment they found him guarding the Quecha Pass.

Miss Hot Breath tries to become one with my backpack as the line shuffles glacially forward. I want to … well, let's just say that finding myself in battle is starting to sound appealing. I'm mad. I'm pissed. Jim's the king of repression. Not me.

I suddenly feel the weight of the files ensconced in the canvas pack. The ones Jack procured. The ones marked "classified" in red stamped finality.

I'm sure there's a hefty penalty for trying to get classified files through the security at Podunk airport, but I'm feeling cynical enough to think the security staff is too rube to not believe any tale I can spin.

Though obviously, to their trained eyes, the terrorist threat to Podunk must be much greater than a look at the local populace reveals. The skinny, hunched grandmother manning the access point fanning out to the grand sum of two metal detectors is diligently scrutinizing drivers' licenses with admirable non-discrimination. Particularly since the entire line is a credit to the genes of the pale and blue-eyed.

Two days ago I would have gotten an even more eagle-eyed scrutiny but longhaired Blair Sandburg has been replaced by shorthaired David Graves. I self-consciously run my hand through my now cropped hair. Feels like I'm petting a poodle. Having made it through the first hurdle I stuff the forged driver's license back in my pocket and dutifully slip off my watch and shoes. And standing in my socks, I wait while the woman in front of me dismembers her carry-on into different trays.

What the fuck is she doing?

Not that my getting aboard the sixteen-seater turboprop is going to get sorry-excuse for air transport aloft any quicker.

This was Jack's plan, not mine.

Driving twelve hours to Podunk and catching the spoke-iest part of the hub system into LAX. And I need to get to LAX. Need to get near Jim, even if it's still a hundred miles to the little dot on the map Jack circled in heavy black marker. I just … I need to be closer. For eight days he's been missing and I've been left with a silent loft. With a phone that never has the right voice on the other end of it. Left with way too much time to think about things not being right between us in a long, long time.

An appropriate time for me to think of baggage since the woman is still rearranging her damn luggage. She hands one of those cardboard cameras to what looks like a uniformed pre-teen and sets out dissecting the contents of several plastic bags. The "officer" observes her through sleep-clouded eyes. The rest of the line shuffles a little restlessly behind me, but it's a silent dance. Podunk is a polite little town.

Automatically I fall under the spell that years of serious anthropological study has bewitched me with. While part of my mind blatantly screams "Move you fucking bitch, I need to get to Jim" some other part is cataloging the behavior of the Podunk denizens. The way the woman sorts her possessions into separate scruffy gray trays. The restless politeness of the waiting line. The need to group, sort, cubbyhole. It's a very strong need in Jim - to master the chaos. Maybe it is to this woman, too, finishing her sorting according to a private Dewey Decimal system. She looks with anticipation at the sloe-eyed operator, like she's expecting praise.

I toss my stuff in the next piece of molded plastic and make it through the metal detector without so much as a beep. No flashing lights or sudden blaring of sirens. No PA from Big Brother screaming "Arrest that man. He's carrying classified documents."

No idea I'm a man on a mission, off to rescue the most important person in my world.

My heroics slam to a halt as I walk into baggage-woman, her ten carefully sorted pans coming to a crashing standstill behind her, as she, with the care usually reserved for rare Egyptian funerary objects, begins to repack.

I watch, both irritated and fascinated. The x-ray tech grinds the conveyor. Clearly, even Podunk's patience level has a dew point and it's reached saturation. She grinds the conveyor again, and obeying the laws of force and motion, the trays buckle and hitch. One of baggage-woman's carefully categorized collections crashes bottoms up on the floor.

The tray with my backpack bucks and climbs and, for a horrified second, I see classified pages spilling out over Podunk's cracked tiles. But the tray comes to a rest, catty-cornered on the cliff of the metal table's side, wobbling but safe.

Kinda like me.

I don't know that I need to carry the pages. God knows I know what they say. Have pretty much committed to memory the data there in black and white, supporting my previously preposterous thesis in excruciating detail. Data that would get me my PhD a dozen times over.

My hands are shaking as I recover my canvas-wrapped burden and I bump hurriedly past the woman with the packing fetish out toward Podunk's seven gates. It's 8 a.m. Simon's just now finding he's missing an observer as well as his detective. There won't be an APB out on me as well as Jim. Jack will take care of that.

I try to ignore the sudden chill reminding me that everything hinges on Jack. I know Jack. I trust Jack. To the point I've trusted him with the single most precious thing in my life.

I've trusted him with Jim.

I'm in the fucking seven-gate Podunk airport because that's where Jack told me to be.

~oOo~

The first lesson is to distance yourself, a lesson from your early days in the Rangers that has served you in the past. For you are not here. Here there is only someone named Jim. Someone distant from you who you observe from the relative safety of somewhere else … somewhere disconnected. Fists don't fall on your flesh. Unknown drugs are not injected into your veins. That brutality is reserved for Jim. For that other person you see from your vantage point floating somewhere above. This does not happen to you. You only watch as it happens to … him.

Something … buzzes.

Something thick, viscous and metallic spills from between cracked lips. That sensation is clear. Hot drops spatter on bare thighs. Jim's body feels like it's been jigsawed. A reconstructed mosaic of scattered numbness and pain.

He is behind his eyes. Even he … Jim, this detached part of you is partially separated, not quite in the flesh tied to the wooden chair, bent s-shaped from trying to curl around the pain in his stomach, which seems to be floating, adrift in the center of his body. A hard knot of cramped muscle.

There's something else.

Something you should think about.

But another slap rocks his head and the needle bearing the IV line is flicked by broad, hard fingers. The line burns as the contents of another hypo join the rush to his heart and lungs. The muscle in his chest beats overtime. His lungs spasm from the strain. The disorientation worsens as the drug speeds through his system.

Hard fingers take his chin in a bruising hold. The blood in his mouth begins to pool under his tongue.

There is something you should think about.

The fingers shake his head forcefully. The buzzing becomes briefly intelligible.

"… Chopec … tell us … cooperate … hurt … Sandburg …"

Blair.

Did they have Blair?

Please dear God.

Somewhat clinically you observe Jim swallow and try to form the words, choking on thick saliva. The fingers digging into his flesh release in anticipation. Hot, moist breath huffs against his neck and the shadow he can see through swollen eyelids bends closer, listening. Your doppelganger gives voice to the prayer you also repeat, here, in the half-numb distance.

"Pp…please. B-blair."

Where the needle pierces the skin of his inner arm there is a fresh surge of burning. His heart speeds again. His lungs bellow erratically.

They begin again.

~oOo~

Conspiracy theories always left me cold. But reasonable paranoia I'm starting to understand.
Unreasonable paranoia, too. Because although there are no grounds to suspect anyone on this plane knows who I am, I still shift nervously, studying the faces and toeing the backpack I've obediently put under the forward seat just to make sure it's still there. Still real. That it hasn't vanished like Jim did on his way home eight days ago. His truck found by the side of the road with its hazards blinking. In the midst of all my panic this so-typical behavior left me overcome by a fit of hysterical laughter - leave it to Jim to apparently put safety first, even while being kidnapped. My not-so-typical behavior left Joel and Simon eying me worriedly.
Jack and I used to have these conspiracy conversations. The Illuminati. The Vatican. My own ancestors. The military-industrial complex. Globalization. The UN. Groom Lake. Black helicopters harassing good conservative folk.
It was an intellectual game.
This is not.
For most people there is no sensible reason to think a government cadre is out to get you. For Jim there was. And we knew it. Hell, after Brackett, how could we not know it? But I'd always relied on Jim to know if they were close. If you can't rely on Ranger training and five heightened senses …
That my feeble attempt is going to be useless is not something I can allow to enter my mind.
What can be allowed and what I will do for the propeller shaking puddle-jump to Denver is to think about Jim's strong hands, his smile, the way it feels to stand beside him.
Because when the thing you're trying to avoid thinking about is utter failure, you are suddenly free to think about all you'd been trying not to think about before: that Jim has become the keystone of your life, holding everything else together. That it's more than you won't allow yourself to think he's been permanently ripped from you. It's that you simple can't. That Jim gone is the same you being gone, a concept your mind can't wrap itself around, like the thought of your death. The dissolution of your consciousness into … nothing. A vacuum that your soul cries out can't exist.
~oOo~

Words are waxing and waning. Jagged tones impale his ears and Jim tries to raise his hands but the bonds hold them fast against unyielding wood.

"Fucking idiots!"

Noxious breath huffs against his face. More hard fingers press his swollen checks. From the pain and the scents and moving of his head, Jim gags.

"What the fuck did you think you were doing?"

"Interrogating the fucker."

Released, his chin connects heavily with his collarbone. Fresh blood wells from where teeth tear the tender skin of his lip.

"That would be 'interrogating the fucker, Sir'."

From unknown depths a gurgling laugh rises out of Jim's chest.

"Fuck." A hand cuffs his head, causing him to swallow blood and bile. He gags again. "And what did you get out of him?"

In the resulting silence Jim gets enough control over hearing to start to identify the extraneous noises around him as requested by the encouraging voice in his head. The one that croons, "That's it, Jim. Catalog it and set it aside. That's it." He yearns momentarily for the touch that usually accompanies such words but there is no touch. After a brief pause he attends again to the soothing tones. "That's it, Jim."

Layers are stripped. Peeled away. Words become nothing more than another film of static to be laid aside. Finally, what he was after, the primitive most basic rhythm. A cacophony of beats, but still the voice quietly encourages him to count them. To name them and set them aside.

There are four bodies including his own. From the one standing nearest to him that reeks of coffee and onions, to the one furthest away that the smell of gun oil clings to, that rasps with every breath.

Four.

Slowly, having locked all the sounds into tight boxes he turns the key and releases them. Words filter back into meaning. Tone pounds against the membranes of his ears.

"Get him cleaned up and get the doctor to look at him!"

Hands then, viselike on his arms. Fumbling at the ties around his wrists. Lifting him up on legs too cramped to hold him.

Pain explodes at his knees. Fingers bite into the flesh of his inner arm. Vertigo spins him like a blind top. You are pulled back into the body, feel its agony up close.

As he hits the floor he whispers the only word you have left.

"Blair."

~oOo~

The last time I changed planes at Denver there was a pink-orange sunset tinting the Rockies that made me yearn for Jim's sight. This time there was only the sense of losing minutes. Any minute possibly being the one where Jim slipped away. Something I believed I'd know. And since I felt nothing but the unmuted panic I'd felt for the last eight days, perversely I believed he was, if not all right, then still within my grasp.

But then I've believed a lot of things in my life. Most of which I now believe in less wholeheartedly than I did before.

It's hard to explain what I felt when I first read Burton. Hard to explain why I, first, paid $4500 for one copy of the fifty-edition Sentinels of Paraguay and why, despite having periods where I desperately needed money for essentials like food and rent, I never even thought of reselling it. Even harder to explain is why I also paid nearly that much for a rare copy of The Arabian Nights complete with the even rarer 'Terminal Essay D'

That I felt it necessary to have both books. The only published work in existence describing tribal watchmen and their guides, and one of the earliest modern efforts to collect and make known cross-cultural and historical information about homosexuality.
I remember reading, fascinated, by Burton's ornate descriptions of the torrid, tropical zone that Burton named for Sotades the Obscene of Maronea, the poet of the third century BCE, inventor of the palindrome and synonym for sexual inversion.
No Addendum D existed in the Sentinels of Paraguay but there was, in its formal prose, a tantalizing hint of the same connection between the Paraguayan watchmen and their guides.
"There exists between a watcher and his guide (among the Paraguayan tribes, always a younger male) an affection which has its noble sentimental side. The Platonists and pupils of the Academy, followed by the Sufis or Moslem Gnostics held such affection, pure as ardent, to be the beau idéal which united in man's soul the creature with the Creator. Professing to regard youths as the most cleanly and beautiful objects in this phenomenal world, they declared that by loving and extolling the chef-d'œuvre, corporeal and intellectual, of the Demiurgus, disinterestedly and without any admixture of carnal sensuality, they are paying the most fervent adoration to the Causa causans. As watchmen are blessed, or may it be, cursed, by senses of the highest order, it follows that they should be desired to be in the company of that which is most beautiful."
I am far from beautiful, but there is some … pull … an instinctual attraction. Jim to me and me to Jim.

I read Burton for years. I only now know that I am the guide of which he speaks.

~oOo~

LAX is the usual zoo of tired Angelinos, star-eyed tourists who could have come with me from Podunk and exhausted international passengers, lounging heavy-eyed against their bags. The car is there, just as Jack promised, in long-term parking, a heavy, gray sedan, keys stashed in a small magnetic box under the right wheel well. I feel dwarfed in the immense interior. Sweat sticks my back to the leather seat after I ditch my jacket.

For the first time in days, I am finally warm.

I drive toward the dark circle on Jack's map. Through land as flat as the folded paper. Dry and brown and … lonely. The kind of landscape that gives a sense of place to eternity. Boundless and unchanging. Jim would be comfortable here, at ease.

Except I know he is not. I know with whatever connective sense exists between us that Jim is in pain. But this pain I silently beg him to hold on to, for it comes only to the living.

~oOo~

Jack doesn't scare me, but then he's a college professor in a chair. These two guys look every bit like the goons on some badly written episode of a Seventies' police show, heavyset and jowly. With a pack full of C4 and serious weaponry of the six-hundred-rounds-per-minute type that they used to … dispatch …the sentries patrolling the deserted parking lot.

This is Jack's idea of stealth? C4 bricks and a Colt automatic?

"Yo, kid."

Goon #1 takes out a pick and jiggers the alarm plate off. Wires are snipped in some precise sequence and then the lock is jimmied with a twist.

"Fifteen minutes. You don't come out, we blow the place."

Some part of my mind is screaming mightily. You think Jack might have mentioned something like this. Only he probably didn't want me hyperventilating all the way from Podunk.

Fifteen minutes.

I have fifteen minutes to get Jim out of this place, away from the people Jack only refers to in some secret code, like they belong to some government cabal - a shadowy star chamber, a black project with Sentinels on its wish list.

Christ. Christ. Christ.

Wrong religion, Sandburg.

Hermes, then. He takes care of those who break and enter.

The hall is dimly lit by EXIT signs at either end. The loud whooshing and thumping that makes me jump turns out to be my heart and my gusting lungs. Distracting as hell, but only dangerous to my cardiovascular system.

Six identical doors. Monty, Monty, Monty, I am walking down your halls. In a fit of anxiety my mind is spouting twenty-year-old song lyrics. Well, if Hermes is listening, my whole life does lie waiting behind door number three.

I unpocket Jack's universal keycard and give a brisk swipe through the reader and project at it desperately. Come on. Come on.

Jim would be cool as a cucumber right now. My palms are sweating. A small green light blinks and the magnetized door lock kicks slightly.

Please. Please. Please. Please.

Be here, Jim. And if you are here, please be unharmed.

I solidify my grip on the gun, also from Jack's stores. I can almost hear Jim's voice taking me through the entry. /There's a reason it's called the "fatal funnel", Chief./ I mentally rehearse sliding through the aptly-named tiny portion of hall visible to anyone waiting inside.

Here goes … everything.

~oOo~

There was some change in the basal hum that is … Jim's entire existence. Some code. Some rhythm. Faster than the beat of his own thrumming heart.

Automatically the body tries to draw in a deep breath, to sniff the air since eyes had long since swollen shut, but no breath could pass the distended tissue of the broken nose. His breathing made a choked, hitching sound as the familiar click of the door's metallic seal being broken resounded in the dark, scentless room.

They are coming back.

Escape, as it had been, no longer seems possible. The ability to disconnect is fading along with the rest of your … no, Jim's body. You are drawn back to it by some magnetic force, too weak to fight. Only one final way remains to take leave of this body and its sensations. Concentrating on the strongest sensation, the taste of the iron-laced blood that still fills his mouth, you lose yourself in the bitter, metallic flavor. You give up the ties to … Jim's … frayed nerves and zone.

~oOo~

"Jim." I try to find a safe place to touch him, a clear patch of skin not bruised or swollen tight. "Jim, please, man. You gotta wake up."

They've stripped him, leaving only torn boxers, and it is freezing in here. Or maybe I'm just shivering. My pocketknife makes short work of the nylon rope snaking around his wrists and ankles but I am afraid to cut the last vestige that loops around his chest, holding him upright in the battered rolling chair. The tight nylon has gouged channels in his wrists and around the knob of his ankles. I put a hand over his heart, the beat I find there slow, but steady. He breathes somewhat shallowly but there is no ominous rasping or wet-sounding inhalations.

"Hey," I cup his chin in my hand and lift his face. His eyes are mere crescents of white peaking through abused lids. Almost fearfully I stroke a light touch over the less swollen of his cheekbones. "Jim, come on. Can you hear me? I'll carry you if I have to, you know that, but it'll be quicker if you can help me out."

The watch on my wrist shivers, the vibrating alarm letting me know the minutes have dwindled to five.

Stop thinking.

Just … move.

I cut the last cord binding Jim and I kneel as he slumps, letting him hunch over my shoulder. Standing is an awkward dance of balance and strength and I crash us both against a nearby metal table that … God … holds a selection of objects clearly chosen with their effects on a sentinel in mind.

There can be no other reason to find a storm whistle sitting beside brass knuckles.

My mind wants to plunge into denial. This world is not real. This room is not real.

But I know it is. I know with the warm life seeping crimson through my shirt.

I will do anything to save this man.

One hand has a death grip hold on Jim. The other, an even firmer hold on Jack's gun.

If I thought I would never fire a weapon, I was wrong.

For this man I will shoot my way out if I have to.

~oOo~

Goon #2 smirks … goddamn smirks at me as I make the door with half-a-minute to spare, Jim a dead weight over my shoulder.

"Van," he orders from behind teeth clenched around a cigar so cheap even Simon in nicotine withdrawal would turn his nose up.

They burn rubber in the parking lot, like extras in American Graffiti, and the explosion lights up the night, giving me a brief second look at Jim lying bruised and battered on the hard flooring of the stripped van. I run hands up and down Jim's long limbs, gently lift his head, testing for signs of skull fracture. I feel nothing too … alarming. No obvious breaks. His abdomen is not tight. Small, raised, reddened welts reveal burns of some kind. The flash of streetlights as we pass reveals tracks in the sensitive inner bend of his elbows that cause me to shudder.

The van finally pulls to a stop outside a half-lit neon sign saying "S--e I-n", the major attraction in what is clearly a one-inn town. Goon #1 goes in and comes back with a key to the cinderblock room that will be our home until Jack gives the all clear.

I have a first-aid kit, a set of clothes for Jim and a cell phone that's only to be used to answer the call that Jack will send when it's clear they, the men who had Jim and those who hired them, are neutralized. "Neutralized" is Jack's term. "Neutralized" is too sanitized a word for what I imagine Jack will do to them. With my brutalized partner under my hands, it is too sanitized a word for what I want to do to them.

The sense of unreality isn't helped by finding Jim carried in and dumped atop a faded chenille bedspread under bare fluorescent light by the goons who go quietly into that good night, leaving me with gauze -- and disinfectant I can't use for fear Jim will zone. If he hasn't already. If this is just … unconsciousness.

Air conditioning wheezes down through the water-stained vent directly above the bed. A leaky faucet drips from the sink and I stand overwhelmed before the more rational part of my mind clicks in and, in short order, I do what needs to be done. I stop the cool air blowing down on my partner, feel the slightly fevered forehead with a unnoticed brush of my hand. In the fungus-ridden bathroom I gather rough towels, all of them.

He mutters and twists when I reach to cleanse the welts on his face. It is the burns on his stomach that worry me most - burns of a tazer or an electric prod. That and the unknown substance they pumped into his veins. I strip away the boxers, tossing them in the direction of the rusting wastebasket. Jim curls into himself, protecting his genitals and stomach.

Oh God.

"Shhh. Shhh." I am scared to speak more than that soft rush of air, not knowing where his dials are set. Not knowing if he has any control of them at all. His swollen eyes crack open a miniscule amount then are slammed shut. Shit. The lights. I turn out all but the bare bulb in the bathroom, but I close the door, leaving it open only enough to spill a thin rectangle of light on the faded tile. I don't think any of his injuries, by themselves, are particularly serious, but the sum total of blows and shocks, the multitude of them, shakes my resolve that we can wait it out, wait for Jack's call. I return to the bed, sitting carefully, and resume my litany of soft sound. Eventually I find myself singing, oh so low, a folk song sung long ago by Naomi.

I gave my love a dwellin' without any door
I gave my love a palace wherein he might be
That he may lock it without any key
How can there be a cherry without any core?
How can there be a dwellin' without any door?
How can there be a palace wherein he might be
That he may lock it without any key?
My head is a cherry without any core
My mind is a dwellin' without any door
My heart is a palace wherein he might be
That he may lock it without any key

And this is how we pass the night, Jim restless but never truly waking under my stroking hands, and me singing slightly tonelessly in the pressing air.

~oOo~

The news, when I work up the courage to turn it on, details a gas explosion in a rural, California town. Luckily no one in the building at the time.

No one alive, anyway.

Still the cell phone doesn't ring.

Coming down off the adrenaline high, my body decides to remind me that I haven't eaten since before Podunk. There's a cardboard box in the floor, filled with protein bars and water, and a rickety soda machine in the nearby concrete breezeway for a caffeine and sugar fix. I leave the door half open, after peering out carefully, so I can hear Jim, and sidle my way out with a couple quarters in my hand but the caffeine isn't enough to more than delay the sleep that I've gone without.

Depositing the empty can on the floor, I stretch out beside Jim, place a careful arm over his warm chest and rest my cheek on his broad shoulder, comforted by his presence even if he remains … elsewhere. Somewhere I pray is warm and peaceful and safe.

~oOo~

You have hovered, incorporeal, and watched as the body you are once more separated from is tended and tenderly stroked. You have wanted to return that touch, ease the haunted look in your partner's eyes but to do so a sacrifice must be made. You must bring yourself closer to the pain again dwelling, only distant and faint in … Jim.

Blair sleeps heavily, wrapped carefully around the body in the bed. This is not a zone. Not like one you've ever known, anyway. This is something far more subtle borne of training and desperation and the ability to disconnect that is some legacy of being a Sentinel.

Sentinel. Blair gave it a name. Brought to it a kind of dignity for which you are eternally in his debt. Gave reason to chaos. You love this man like no other. The way you have loved the ocean and the sky. Elementally. Past words.

Blair's hand curls slightly, fingertips brushing the bare chest of the body to which you fear to return. Yet you want to feel that touch. Even if, with it, comes pain. For that's the way it has always been - pleasure's inevitable partner.

Return is a warm, rushing sensation and, yes, the pain is there. Muscles taut with strain, hot patches of bruised flesh, burning on the abdomen where the shock stick was applied. You explore, for a minute, catalog so it can be blocked out. This, too, Blair taught you. Though it cannot be totally vanquished, it can be muted, dulled, pushed away until what you really feel is warmth against skin. Soft, heated puffs of breath. Silky strands of hair.

For a while, you aren't sure how long, you lie motionless, until the desire that is touch overcomes you. Overcomes the sluggishness of your muscles that protest the motion. There are liberties you have never allowed yourself. Quick flashes of desire you have steadfastly pushed back into the depths where you do not look. Risks that would not be taken when what there is to lose is … everything else.

Blair's lips are slightly parted. You raise trembling fingers, not quite touching the inviting, pink-tinged flesh. A thousand nerves firing information you sense as heat and the warmth moistness of exhalation. But that is not enough. Fingertips, even yours, are not enough. You have the desire of the very young, to process the world by taste and feel. A desire you almost never allow yourself to satisfy. It is too base, too instinctual.

Shifting slightly, ignoring the residual pain you cannot dampen, you experimentally press softly -- your lips to Blair's.

~oOo~

I didn't expect to wake to … this. For a second, unconsciously, I find myself kissing back against warm lips; find my hand moving upward in a caress.

"Uh … Jim?" That he is back, even semi-alert like this… I'll burn rams, throw virgins into volcanoes, fold a thousand paper cranes. "Thank God."

My hand does move, gently, to cradle the back of his head and hold him still so I can look at him.

"You okay, man? You here?" His eyes have a slightly glazed look. His face looks terrible. Eight days worth of bruises are now a rainbow of ugly colors. His eyes shine an almost colorless, glassy blue. "Jim, you with me?"

A finger traces the cusps of my upper lip. His mouth moves silently but I know the word. Chief.

"I'm here, Jim. It's okay. I've got you now." He seems disoriented, unsure.

"Don't ever let me go," he whispers, burying his face in my now-short curls.

"I won't." I promise wildly. "I won't let you out of my sight again."

He laughs a little, a nervous huffing against my scalp. "I didn't think … I thought I'd never see you again. That I'd die."

"I know they hurt you." God, I know they hurt him. The minor agonies piling up into what must have been a continual ache.

"No." Another soft kiss is brushed against my temple. I shouldn't let him. Jim's not … himself but, oh god, I … I need this. Need to be held, just for a moment.

"I'd die if they kept me from you." Jim whispers as he lays his cheek against mine. His voice hoarse and low. "I know that now. I need you … just to function. You're like my air, my water."

Jim closes his eyes as he draws away, but he doesn't free me from his touch. His fingers splay and chart my features as if I'm being memorized tactilely.

~oOo~

With reverence you move your fingers, gently over the curl of his lashes, more deeply over beard-roughened cheeks, seeking that which your fingertips' sensitivity will not satisfy. You must taste, must bring Blair as fully into your senses as possible. Must cover his skin with your skin, must let him fill your vision, your hearing. Your heart wants nothing more than to thrum with his heart. Your lungs to breathe with his lungs. You want nothing more than to share this pleasure that engulfs you, that vanquishes the pain.

~oOo~

This is beyond all explaining. A rightness I feel in the pit of my belly, the marrow of my bones. A yearning so strong that all concern is laid to rest, any questions I had about Jim's wishes, doubts I harbor that Jim is too hurt for this, vaporize in its rampage.

Jim's lips follow the path of his fingers, caressing my eyes, descending like velvet. I think I moan, awash in sensation so profoundly deep, there is no separation. No clear identity of whether I am touched or touching.

We are swept by the same compulsion -- that nothing must come between us - my clothes are stripped and abandoned, the rough covers pushed to the floor.

I am pulled atop him, sensitive flesh meeting sensitive flesh. Mouth to mouth. Hips rolling in waves of gratification. I am nearly overwhelmed … how does he? How does he master this? Pleasure nearly painful in its intensity.

Coherent thought is impossible. There is only … touch. Only taste. I flick my tongue over smooth skin. Salt and musk. This … this is elemental, primeval. This is sea and earth. A calling almost forgotten.

And the two shall become one.

~oOo~

You awaken again.

This time to a tangle of arms and legs, his and yours. Not to the blows, the strategic battering of anonymous fists. This place is cool and slightly musty. The past … hours, days … is a blur, but the taste of him is on your tongue and he lies frighteningly nude and vulnerable.

"Oh God, Chief." Moving is suddenly excruciating. Pain that you had managed to lock away is unleashed by the sudden memory of holding him against you. "Blair." You manage to untangle a hand from his grasp. "Blair, what have I done?"

Sleepy blue eyes open and study yours.

Then, amazingly, Blair smiles.

~oOo~

"Jim." My Sentinel. Mine. This new feeling of propriety runs deep and strong. A part of my mind clinically fits this into a theory of Sentinels and Guides. I want to reaffirm the bond sensually - by touch and taste and scent, but there is something indefinable, some warning in Jim's eyes and his jaw clenches spasmodically. "How you feeling?"

He stares at me mutely.

"You're hurting aren't you?" His blue gaze drops from mine. "Hey." I reach out a finger and brush his jaw. "It doesn't last, does it?"

His abused voice is almost a croak. "Last?"

"The endorphin rush. And I mean, hell, Jim. That was some experience. Burton didn't know shit."

"What?"

"Sir Richard. He … he missed it." I laugh because I want to, because a thrum of pleasure returns likes a ghostly frisson. "Hell, Sentinels are the poster children for the freakin' Sotadic Zone and he missed it."

Hands grab my own. "Blair. I don't understand." He looks around the room in panic. "What happened here? Where are we?"

"Oh, shit, Jim." I bring him to me, holding him carefully. "I'm sorry. Uh, Jack helped me get you out. He's going to call, when it's safe. When they're all gone."

Despite this he is wary. "What did I do?"

"You didn't do anything, Jim. You just were. Jack thinks it was a black project going outside its mandate. They wanted a way to create a Sentinel, so they took you. Jack told me where to find you and I came."

"No." Jim pulls away, curling himself against the furthest corner of the mattress. "What did I do here, Blair. What did I do here?"

~oOo~

"Nothing I didn't want you to do."

Not a lie. Not an obfuscation. His heartbeat doesn't so much as jump for a millisecond. He doesn't so much as blink.

"I didn't--"

Your senses are open wide, all trained on Blair, all waiting for the tell-tale spike in heart rate or respiration that will reveal your culpability. That you forcibly …

"No, Jim. You didn't. What went on we did together."

"I didn't … hurt you?"

"Well I was a little overloaded but, Christ, Jim. Is it always like that?"

You shake your head, mind still spinning. "No." It was never like that. Nothing was ever like that. "If what I remember … is real."

"Oh, yeah, man, it was real." He slides over, lays his head against your shoulder, the weight of him heavy and warm. You don't want to move. Don't want to take the chance this could all be an illusion constructed by your mind to stay sane in the midst of pain.

"Chief, why would you … why would you let me?"

He looks up at you, surprised, maybe shocked. "Because I love you, Jim. Because you love me."

"That simple, huh?"

You expect a lecture … some treatise on your genetic imperative. A convoluted dissertation on Sentinel survival strategies. An address on historical Sentinel sexual mores.

Instead there is only a steady blue gaze.

"That simple."

~oOo~

In the end it's not that simple.

Both of us know that.

When the cell phone rings, finally, late that night and Jack gives the all clear then David Graves and his equally well-identified friend, Stewart Reed, trudge back to Podunk via LAX.

Jack says he'll 'debrief' us which gives me the idea we're going to be tied up with a bright baby spot on us, but Jim assures me he's been debriefed by the boys in black many times and restraints will not be necessary.

And I feel … safe on the plane, this time, with Jim beside me. I still have the backpack, nestled under the seat in front of us. It has some damn fine information about Sentinels that just might come in handy sometime … way down the road.

Way, way down the road.

That we have to be more careful, that we shouldn't take for granted any minutes we're allowed to sit, side by side -- these are fears will stay with me for a long, long time.

Jim lays a hand on my thigh.

Tomorrow there'll be explanations expected. There'll be decisions to be made. What and what not to tell Simon. There's a long drive in front of us. And Jim, he won't admit it, but he needs to see a doctor - preferably one with a professional grade x-ray machine.

His fingers stroke a light pattern on my jeans but his eyes are closed, his head lolled back against the rest. In the dim light, the bruises look like shadows. He is using me to ground - against the vibration and the noise and the odors of cramped humanity.

If we are all truly blessed with a sense of place, a physical location that has shaped us, framed our explanation of our lives, then the place of my genesis is this. Is here, with Jim touching me. The purpose for which I am.

I still his restless fingers, clasping them in my own.

~oOo~

The loft is chilled with the slight mustiness of the abandoned and it is necessary to survey its boundaries, refamiliarize yourself with its rhythms - the grumbling of the heating system, the slight whistle of the breeze through the ill-fitting window, the echo of Blair's footsteps as he follows your well-worn path. You are what he says… all of it. The good and the bad. The little obsessions he allows you to indulge in - the nightly patrol of all 1700 square feet of your territory, color-coding the leftovers, your finicky habit of scrubbing the kitchen compulsively.

Not once since you woke has he left your side.

The stairs look like the climb to Chimney Rock, steep and overpowering, but he merely wraps a careful arm around your waist and eases you up each riser.

It is not a question - where he will sleep tonight or any other.

He ghosts a hand over your chest as you shrug out your shirt and merely looks with wide blue eyes as you strip off the boxers as well. The scent of the room where you were bound still lingers, clinging to your skin and hair. You collapse onto the bed, allow him to tuck you under the comforter, in a few minutes he is beside you and he pulls you against his chest, tucks your head tight to his shoulder. Strong fingers massage away the tension in your neck.

This is the first time … you think, perhaps, in years … that you have allowed yourself to feel this safe and you float, buoyed by the sensations. Your scent and his. Two hearts beating, slow and in time. Warm, soft exhalations that mean life. You could, if you allowed yourself, zone solely on that life-giving rhythm.

As if knowing this, your partner bends his head down, catching you in the twilight sector between awareness and sensory whiteout, holding you there, not giving you permission to go.

"Hey, stay with me Jim."

There is, in his eyes, a faint retelling of what the last days have been for him as well. If there have been promises made in the last two days that can never be kept, then this is no time to stop making them. You say what your heart would cry has to be the truth -- that never again would you be parted from the only thing you've met in this life that made it seem worthwhile.

"Always, Chief. Always."

end

BACK