Bracing himself against the wall on the landing, John took a deep breath and tried to hide a grimace of pain from Bruce. His bad leg, after being trapped so long in Bruce's PT Cruiser, was not happy, making the climb up the stairs of the Miss Betty's Bed & Breakfast an ordeal he would have skipped if he could. In fact, he would have skipped Miss Betty's all together if it had been possible. Not only did he hate sleeping in any bed but his own, but Miss Betty, who was remarkably like Aunt Bea from Mayberry - on speed - talked incessantly, asking questions he'd rather avoid.
An early season snow storm, an extremely depressed ex-patient of Bruce's, and a conscience that wouldn't let him turn down a plea for help from Bruce had all conspired to bring him to this tiny village in Vermont where Miss Betty's was the only housing for miles. It could have been worse, John supposed. A beseeching look from his friend had convinced him to brush his fingers ever so slightly over Willis' wheelchair shortly after they arrived. They had been right to come, despite the drive. Without the pep talk from Bruce and the very believable promise from John that it *would* be worth it in the long run, Willis would have committed suicide that night.
Miss Betty paused on the third story landing, hands fluttering nervously, drawing John from his thoughts. "Oh, I am *so* sorry, Mr. Smith. It's just that the other rooms are all booked, and even if the people who did can't make it because of the storm, well, it wouldn't be right to give away the rooms they reserved."
Finding a smile, John said, "I understand perfectly." Hand on the wall, he got a sudden flash of the next morning - a breakfast table empty except for him and Bruce. For a split second, and only a fraction of one, he considered telling her that, then decided the peace of *not* being recognized was worth the ache in his leg.
"John, man," Bruce murmured guiltily, coming up behind him and murmuring in his ear, dreadlocks brushing over John's shoulder. "I know you hate playing the handicapped card, but maybe, this once...."
"It's not hurting that bad," Jim murmured back, waving Miss Betty on and beginning to climb again, making a show of not leaning too heavily on his cane.
Flashing him a real smile, rueful as it was, Jim said, "It's not as painful as the alternative, trust me."
"You know, just once I wish those visions of yours would show something nice. Like me on a beach in Tahiti with two lovely ladies and some coconut drink with an umbrella and enough alcohol to pickle a pirate." Bruce patiently stepped up behind John, unobtrusively putting himself in a position to catch him if the leg gave out.
That bit of reassurance - and typical complaint - was enough to fuel last few steps, and John finished the climb, studying the large attic room with its odd shape and slanting ceilings as he stepped across the threshold. Two old-fashioned brass beds, covered with hand-made quilts in what John vaguely recognized as Grandma's Garden pattern, were fitted into their own nooks, dark walnut nightstands beside them, antique trunks at the foot. A door stood between the beds, and another was to his right, next to the stairs. Dormer windows, covered by heavy forest -green brocade against the cold, stormy night, were opposite each other, about halfway down the wall toward the bed.
Thankfully falling into the over-stuffed chair next to the small round table in the center of the floor, close to the stairs, John said, "This is really lovely, Miss Betty. Like stepping back in time a hundred years or so."
"Thank you, thank you," she burbled, preening her hair and apron in quick darting movements. "The bath - right through there - isn't at all old-fashioned though, despite the claw foot tub. Plenty of hot water, too, if you're wanting a good, long soak. Closet is on the left there, not that you'll need it, getting caught in this like you did."
Catching Bruce's eye and getting a regretful negative shake, John said, "I think bed is the best bet, right now. What time is breakfast in the morning? Maybe I can sneak in a bath before then."
"I'll be downstairs with hot coffee any time after seven, and I'll serve you up until nine, but not a minute later," she said, briskly moving into the bath, turning on the light and pointing to a cupboard tucked in a corner. "Towels in here, along with spare blankets and whatnot. You'll be needing some toiletries; I'll see what I can scare up, at least in the nature of toothbrush and soap."
"Tha..." John started.
"Guests leave odds and ends of clothing behind all the time, so I might be able to help you with a change of shirt, if you feel you really need it," she went on with the inexorableness of a rain-swollen stream, flitting about the room to unnecessarily straighten the curtains and dust off invisible specks. "Not pajamas, though. Seems men nowadays don't feel the need for decency the way they did when I was young. Guess it makes no nevermind to them that if there were an emergency, like a burglar in the house, that they'd be caught in their unmentionables."
"We really..." John tried again.
"Normally I save this room for families, bathroom's more than big enough to use for changing, you know, and the light's good in there because of that big window. Privacy glass makes such a difference, don't have to worry about curtains getting all moldy from the steam, not that most people wouldn't prefer the view, which is spectacular, if I do say so myself, but they don't have to do the laundry, do they?"
With a final tug and pat to a quilt, Miss Betty turned to leave. "Well, it's late, and I can't stand here chatting with you all night. Home-made biscuits and sausage gravy take time, so I'll be getting up a good dealer earlier than you will, I'll wager. Give me a few minutes to find those toothbrushes for you."
She said more after that, but her voice faded as she shut the door and headed downstairs. John couldn't help but catch Bruce's eye and grin. "I don't think I heard her take a breath the entire time she was in here."
Flopping down on the nearest bed, Bruce said, "It does beg the question as to whether she's *Miss* Betty because of her ability to talk non-stop, or if she talks non-stop because she's never had a husband for an audience."
"If I've learned anything over the past year it's that people generally have much more interesting stories of their lives than we give them credit for." Johnny couldn't help looking wistfully at the bathroom door, kneading the muscle in his upper leg.
"Hers probably includes an unfortunate incident in her youth with a used car salesman, professional auctioneer, and itinerant evangelical preacher," Bruce said dryly. With a dramatic sigh, he stretched out, then said to the ceiling only a few feet above him, "I know that bath sounds really good to you, but it's hard for a person with two good legs to safely get out of those claw-foot tubs."
"Most people don't have a physical therapist for a traveling companion." John heard the wheedling note in his voice, but didn't really care. Bruce had heard worse out of him - hell, had seen worse from him - when it came to the torture and abuse necessary to get him back on his feet after six years in a coma.
"Hey, shouldn't we at least check it out before we go passing judgment?" Hiding the pain it cost him, John heaved himself out of the chair and went into the bathroom, leaving the door open so Bruce could hear his commentary. "Okay, so this is a problem. Tub's on the side, under one these low-slanting ceilings. On the other hand, it's the size of small swimming pool. Maybe I could do one of those lunge-up-and-out-of-the-water moves?"
At Bruce's snort, John admitted, "Okay, not a good idea. Which leaves me with a small problem since the shower is a hand-held affair. Or should I say, for you, since you have to share close quarters with me for the next while."
That got Bruce up and moving. "I *hate* baths," he muttered. "And the only thing worse is trying to use one of those things without freezing to death or clubbing yourself with it while you're trying to soap up."
Perversely pleased that Bruce was going to share his misery, John left him to his unhappy grumbling and sat on the bed opposite the one Bruce had chosen. It was softer than he expected, and he tilted toward the headboard. Throwing out a hand to steady himself, his fingers closed over smooth, cold brass and
** trembling, weak with pleasure, barely able to stay upright, but I want to keep looking down at him...he's so ready...so eager... God, I've never seen his eyes like this...vulnerable, heart showing in them so clearly... but he's waiting for me... hands gentle, helping me stay up because that's what I want... never had anyone treat me like this...reverent, privileged to touch me, almost worshipful..."
Worried him, why? Oh, his palms on my face, the new ring cold and startling ...my cheeks are damp ... I'm crying?
"Blair, what's wrong?"
"Nothing." Gasping sob. "Just, never, you know, thought this could exist, that I would have this. It's like finding sunshine after a life in the dark, being told there's no sun."
Oh, that hurt him, but he's pushing it aside to reach up and kiss me - fingers in my curls, petting, soothing, trying to ease *my* hurt, make me feel his love for me, the connection between us...soft lips, teasing, tasting just right... yes, more, please...don't ever... **
"John, man! Let go of it!"
Blinking away tears, John shoved away the fragrant, candle-lit bed and its occupants, and focused on Bruce, who was kneeling in front of him, hands on his shoulders. "Wow," he breathed, struggling to straighten himself. "That one packed a punch."
"Vision? From the bed?" Bruce asked unnecessarily, probably just to make sure that John was completely back with him.
"Honeymooners, I think," John nearly mumbled, suddenly feeling every minute of the day like a lead weight on his shoulders. From somewhere he summoned a smile. "Don't suppose you'd mind if we traded?"
"No, of course not." Bruce helped him stand, hands under John's elbows until he was sure he was steady. "No chance of getting some details?" he added with a mock-leer.
"I'll leave it to your extensive imagination," John said with equally false primness. "Dibs on the bathroom." Bruce let him get away with the retreat, but only because Miss Betty was knocking on the door. A few minutes later he handed in a toothbrush, toothpaste, and hairbrush, and John pushed away lingering emotions from the vision, wondering why envy was part of them, to take care of personal matters so he could crawl under the covers and into oblivion for a few hours.
As he did, the wind picked up outside, wailing and screaming with the fury of the blizzard, and the dim light from outside was slowly blocked by snow plastering itself over the glass of the window. A chill crept into the room, making John wonder just how insulated the attic was, and he hurried through washing up. As he crossed the threshold back into the main bedroom, a loud crack and boom startled him into stumbling, and he fell against the headboard of the bed he'd rather avoid, into
**lying under him, the weight precious, watching him through passion-sated, lowered eyelids as he finally allows himself release...beautiful, so beautiful...thought so from the first...trim, buff, but not muscle-bound...long limbed, graceful...never seen such graceful, capable, knowing hands.. glad doesn't wear his hair in that military cut anymore...soft under my fingers as I carefully cradle his face in my palms...
"Blair! Oh, oh my...Blair! Love you, love you so much, my Blair, my Blair...God!"
"Love you, too, my spouse, my mate, my other self."
Yes, all that and more to me, always with you now, the way it should be, why did we fight this so hard for so long...oh, yes, let go, give yourself to me...oh! oh..**
"Come on, John, this is no substitute for a hot date on a Saturday night." Despite his joking words, Bruce's expression was grim, and he had worked his fingers under John's to break the connection with the bed.
"Don't think I've ever had that much fun on a Saturday night," John said, trying to match Bruce's tone as he gratefully sagged onto him. There was more truth in the words than he meant, though, it rang dully between them.
Thankfully Bruce decided to ignore that for the time being, and manhandled John onto the other bed and efficiently stripped him down to undershirt and shorts. With studied casualness, he asked, "These visions seem more intense than normal."
"I have a normal?" John asked lightly, turning to his side and gratefully drawing the blankets over himself. "Considering some of the twists that have turned up since they started. Talking with a Native American Shaman from the past who had a dead zone, too, that whole thing with the group visions from the blood transfusion...."
"Point," Bruce conceded, slowly straightening, as if there were something else he wanted to do.
Sleepily, John asked, "What was that loud bang, anyway?"
"Bang? Oh." Bruce looked back over his shoulder toward the rear of the house. "Sounded to me like the wind took a tree branch down and onto something in the back yard. Want me to check?"
Already almost under, John murmured, "Don't worry about it. I'm sure we would have heard Miss Betty, in full voice, if it had been anything important."
Whatever reply Bruce had to make to that was lost under a thick cushion of sleep, and John willingly let himself be buried under it. Unknown hours later, he drifted back to awareness, vaguely realizing that he was uncomfortable, but not sure why. About the time he woke enough to question, Bruce said quietly, "Are you awake? John, please tell me that you're with me."
"Sorta," John said muzzily. "Wha's wrong?"
"We must have lost the power. That or Miss Betty is trying to kill us with hypothermia during a blackout. I'm freezing!"
"Now that you mention it." John shivered, a little disconcerted by how dark the room was. "Do we make our way downstairs and see what's going on?"
There was a long pause - long enough that despite the chill creeping around him, John started nodding off again - then Bruce said, "Three flights down and no guarantee that we won't panic her if she's deep asleep. I do *not* want to get shot because it's too dark for her to know it's a guest stumbling around her living room. Don't particularly want to be groping around in pitch blackness to find the extra bedding she mentioned, either."
John considered that as best he could, but kept losing his chain of thought to sleepiness. Finally, he said, "We could just share. Bed's big enough. Between doubling up the quilts and body heat, we should be okay until it's light enough to get around without a flashlight that we don't have."
Another pause, shorter, and Bruce said, "I guess it's that or see if we can use your visions as a way to navigate. No chance there, huh?"
"Fraid, not. If for no other reason than, cold as I am, it's colder outside this bed. Get on over here, okay, so I can get some sleep?" John turned clumsily to his side, facing the wall, not surprised at the small flurry of action from the other bed shortly after he did. The welcome weight of more blankets landed on him, then a corner of them was pulled aside and Bruce slid in beside him, a polite distance away.
"Thanks," Bruce said, teeth chattering. "I won't keep you awake, I promise."
"Don't know if you can," John said truthfully, already halfway back. There were a few odd jounces and bumps as Bruce made himself comfortable, and his pillow brushed across the back of John's neck. He had a brief flash of
**feels nice, no better than nice, what's a good word...arm over my waist, snuggled against my back... secure...safe...loved...happy... happy**
that he wasn't even sure was a vision and not a dream.
When John gradually woke again, a gray light filled the ice-cold room, and he was alone except for fragmented impressions left over from sleep. Glancing over at the other bed, he found it empty, though he could have been wrong, given how many quilts and blankets were piled on top of it. As many were covering him, both squashing him ever so slightly and making him feel very snug, despite his cold nose and cheeks. Deciding that sleeping in couldn't hurt, he burrowed into his nest a little deeper and closed his eyes, only to reluctantly open them again when a knock came to the door.
Not waiting for John to answer, Bruce popped his head in. "If you want breakfast, you're going to have to get up. Apparently Miss Betty is not going to change her schedule just because the power's out."
"Cold cereal is not much of an inducement to move," John muttered, playfully pulling the blankets over his head.
"I think she'll do better than that. Come on, the snow's stopped and the roads should be clear enough to head home by noon."
"Once we dig the car out," John said morosely, adding the pillow over his head for good measure. "Cold, wet, no change of shoes or clothes. I'm telling you, just spending the rest of winter right here is looking better and better."
The pillow was snatched out of John's grip and used as a bludgeon, pelting him around the head and shoulders until he managed to get a hold on another to swing in retaliation. Bruce had the advantage of superior position, but John held the more defensible one, since he could always duck under the thick layer of blankets, making any blow a moot point. That didn't stop Bruce from landing a solid one on John's head more than once, though his aim was increasingly spoiled by how hard he was laughing.
John had the same problem, and about the time he was going to have to surrender just so he could get some air in his lungs, Miss Betty yelled loud enough to startle them both, "Boys!! What are you doing up there?"
"Male bonding ritual," John shouted back down promptly, then completely dissolved into laughter.
Laughing so hard he literally couldn't stand, Bruce staggered and dropped heavily to his backside, smothering his guffaws in his former assault weapon.
"Well, mind you don't do a damage." She had more to say, but the actual words were lost as she moved away, though the scolding tone came through loud and clear.
For some reason, Bruce found that even funnier and he almost suffocated himself trying to contain some of the noise. Finally he gasped, "Mothering instinct, even Miss Betty. Can you *imagine* if her unfortunate past with the itinerant preacher..."
"...or used car salesman..." John choked out.
"...had had issue?"
"The true scandal of the Clinton administration. He was an illegitimate adopted child - hers." John put his pillow over his face again and howled, not sure why the joke was so funny except that Bruce seemed to think so, and that was enough for him.
Apparently needing to breathe in the worst way, Bruce thumped him - hard, even through the padding of blankets - and lurched out of the room, shutting the door firmly behind himself. For the longest time John could hear him in the stairwell, chuckling, mostly sobering, only to start chuckling again before he could go more than a few more feet. John would have given him a hard time about it, but he was having the same problem, except he was simply trying to get out of bed.
It was easier than it had been for many a morning, despite what could only be called uncontrollable giggles, and not just because the exercise had loosened up his usually stiff leg. Shuffling into the bathroom for morning necessities, still sniggering to himself, John took care of matters and was soon shivering from the cold room and even colder water, despite the body heat he had generated from laughing. Dressing quickly, he took one last, wistful look at the tub, and patted it
**a body could drown in this much comfort...well loved, well laid... warm all the way through, every muscle loose and limp... he makes such a great back rest... if I weren't so worn out what his hands are doing to me would be the stuff of wet dreams... cherished... what a wonderful word... better feeling... uh!... bite my neck like that again... please... what're you doing to my ear?... no... don't stop...
"Like that? How 'bout this?"
Uhn! Nipples are sore... still that's good... good...god... not that tired after all... love having him touch me...need to have him touch me... never get enough, don't want to get enough... oh, oh, OH!**
Desire, strong and potent, jolted through John, knocking him out of the vision and leaving him confused as to whether or not the need was his or Blair's. His body had definite opinions on that; he had seldom been so aroused.
All traces of his earlier good humor gone, John limped downstairs, images from the varying visions of the newlyweds plaguing him all the way. It wasn't the first time he'd been caught so thoroughly in the passions of another person through his gift, but even on that occasion he had sensed that there was a point, a purpose to being drawn in to the degree it was hard to tell his emotions from the person he was 'seeing.' What reason could there be to see this couple over and over?
Bruce took one look at him as he sat down at the table, but wisely waited until Miss Betty had filled their juice glasses, apologizing all the while for the inconveniences from the loss of electricity, and bemoaning the loss of the portable generator she kept in a shed - along with the shed - out back for just this problem. Promising that even cold her home-made muffins and applesauce were delicious, she hurried into the kitchen.
Impatient with her chatter now, instead of amused, Bruce leaned in the second she was out of ear shot and asked, "Again? Same people? Why? Are they in danger?"
"I've been asking myself the same question," John said as quietly. "I'm not getting anything like that. Just romantic honeymoon stuff, all from her point of view."
"Maybe it's time you give me those details so we can work out what you need to be doing here," Bruce said, sitting back sharply.
Miss Betty interrupted him by bringing in a tray of assorted pastries and fruit, complaining all the while about them missing the wonderful breakfast she had had planned. She seemed to take their lack of participation for granted. Setting the food down, she perfunctorily checked the levels of their glasses and left, not once addressing them directly.
Waiting impatiently until she was gone, Bruce took up where he'd left off. "Tell me what you learned about them. Names, descriptions, anything."
Picking up a muffin and idly tearing it to crumbs, John deliberately kept his gaze on his actions. "Her name is Blair. I don't know what she looks like because I'm always looking out of her eyes. When I do that, I see *me* even if I'm being her; you know that's how it works sometimes. She's never used the man's name while I've been 'seeing,' and everything they've said to each other has been standard heat of the moment stuff."
That wasn't exactly a lie, but it bothered John like it was one. The newlywed's feelings for each other were deep, beyond consuming in a way that he didn't understand; yet saying that out loud would have felt wrong for reasons that were even more inexplicable. He stole a peek at Bruce to see if his friend was buying it, and though it was obvious that he hadn't, completely, he was also going to let it go for now.
"So describe the husband," Bruce said encouragingly.
That was easy to do as his face rose instantly in John's mind. "This side of forty, wearing it really well, brown hair just beginning to bald, handsome in a classic American male kind of way, incredible blue eyes, great smile, works out so he's well-built but not to the point of narcissism, long fingered, aristocratic hands that are calloused, not soft, prissy businessman's hands, but not rough, construction worker hands either."
Eyes that had drifted shut to visualize better popped open, and John fought down a blush. "Ah... guess I was channeling her a bit."
The sharp look Bruce gave him didn't bode well, but it mellowed after a moment. "Nothing very useful there. How about the room? Could you get a clue from something you saw with them in there?"
Miss Betty came back in and inspiration hit John. "We could be going about this wrong." He raised his voice slightly, as if continuing an entirely different conversation with Bruce. "I can believe she's usually booked solid, even if she is off the beaten track. This is a beautiful place and the food is just fantastic." Belatedly remembering that he hadn't actually eaten any, John popped a morsel in his mouth, chewing enthusiastically.
"Oh, Harpers Ferry isn't that remote, Mr. Smith," Miss Betty said proudly. "Why, the interstate is only fifteen minutes away. I get plenty of leaf peepers in the fall, and skiers in the winter who don't want to pay lodge room prices, especially college students."
"I can believe that the casual tourist would enjoy using this as a home base while they take in the fall colors and local festivals," John said sincerely. "In fact, I bet you sometimes get honeymooners, too, who're just driving the back roads and seeing the sights, glad to have a homey place to come back to in the evenings."
"Now and again, now and again," she said happily. "You know, I can't cook properly, but I think if I look around, I can find some camp gear left over from this and that. Should be some things we can use to turn the fireplace into a cook fire to heat up some coffee, at least. Doesn't that sound good?"
Campfire sludge passing itself off as coffee was the last thing on John's mind, but he smiled as winningly as he could. "That would be appreciated. Great memory you've got there, Miss Betty. Do you remember everyone who stays here?"
"Not *everyone,*" she said, sitting down and helping herself to an apple turnover. "The bad ones stand out, of course. And my repeat customers - got more than a few of those, I'll tell you."
Apparently guessing where John was leading her, Bruce put in, "Families, too, I'm sure. You can probably tell us every family who's used the third floor room. Like, um, let's see, what was the name of the newlyweds to use that room last?"
"Newlyweds up there? Oh, no, I've got a special room on this floor just for them. Looks out onto the back property, got a private deck and its own fireplace." Finishing off her snack, Miss Betty tilted toward Bruce and confided, "Much, much more romantic, if do say so myself." An idea struck her and she got up to bustle away, calling over her shoulder. "I know, I'll get my guest book. I make little notes in the margins to nudge me along for repeat calls and that sort of thing."
"So maybe they didn't tell her they were on their honeymoon," Bruce said, watching her go. "I wouldn't."
"Can't say as I'd argue on that." Absently eating another crumb, John focused on the first vision he had had upstairs, trying to shove away his awareness of the woman herself to see the room clearly.
Bruce closed his fingers around John's forearm. "Don't work so hard at it; it's there. You just need to relax, put yourself back in the bed again, in the same position. Did they have the lights on or off? It's drafty up there; was the room hot, cold?"
The light touch made it easier to concentrate, almost as if it gave John a frame of reference for reality, allowing him to reach deeper into his mind. "Night, all four times. Candlelight, even in the bathroom, and there's just enough chill in the room to feel good when you're hot and sweaty."
"Four?" Bruce quickly changed his surprised, worried tone and added more soothingly, "Either wearing anything special at any point? Distinctive jewelry, watch, naughty lingerie for a wedding night?"
"Just wedding rings. I'm self-conscience about mine. It feels heavy and cold, a little alien, but I already would miss it if it were gone." Abruptly John focused on Bruce. "Naughty lingerie?"
"Hey, the really good stuff is expensive. We could maybe trace it back through the manufacturer or something."
"You've been watching too much Law & Order."
"Which one of us asked how much of it was available on tape after watching an episode with me?" Bruce grinned, then waved in the general direction of John's head. "And don't change the subject. Neither of us are being voyeurs; this could save the lives of some people who sound like they're really in love."
"Got me," John murmured, dragging a hand over his face. "Look, I know I wouldn't be tapping into their lives if it weren't for a good reason, but it *still* feels like I'm prying into something I have no business getting anywhere near. The way he looks at her, touches her, the way she feels about him - I get the feeling they went through hell to get to where they are, and it's more than rude to invade their privacy, it's, it's violating."
"Whoa, John, whoa. Just me here, only trying to help."
With an effort, John reined himself in, sitting back and breaking contact with Bruce, but not before squeezing his hand in passing in apology. He manufactured a smile for Miss Betty as she bustled in, thick ledger-style book in one hand and battered camp cooking pot in the other. For want of anything better to do, he ate another crumb, hardly tasting it at all, but she all but beamed at him, putting the book down beside his plate.
"There you go. Notes in the margin are my own little code, but not too hard to puzzle out. Room number on far right, next to is a slash for skiers, star for leaf peepers, dash for antique hunters - this part of New England we get a fair number of NYC dealers taking trips to check out the junk shops and what-not, though it's not as easy to fool the owners as it used to be. Everybody thinks their trash is worth big money thanks to that E-bay and gullible city folk, and most of them wouldn't know carnival glass from Fiesta dinnerware." She kept talking, but went into the living room, and John tuned her out.
For reasons he didn't truly understand, he was reluctant to touch the book, to take another look into the married life of two people who deserved their privacy. An encouraging nod from Bruce put him in motion, though, and he flipped the ledger open at random, fingers skimming lightly over the entries written there.
**Coming in from outside, taking off my gloves, stomach rumbling with hunger, looking forward to the stew I can smell over the smoke from the fireplace and that wonderful 'autumn in New England' smell... he's beside me, looking like a doofus in that knit cap, wearing that smile, the one that says life is good... so rare to see it... makes my knees weak and tummy quiver when he sends it my way... oh, he's noticed... smile's changing... knows I'm not hungry for food any more... wonder if she'll notice if we go upstairs first....**
Reality coalesced around John as Bruce stood to lean over him, finger tip running down the list of names on the page. "Fall of last year - she was pretty busy, but I don't see a Mr. & Mrs. for the third floor. At least, none without 'and family' added."
The last thought from the vision wandered by, and John said, scanning the list, "I think you're right about them not telling her they're married - and not all married people use Mr. & Mrs. either. Miss Betty might not object to un-married couples sharing a bed; here's an Ellison and Sandburg."
Miss Betty sailed back through the room in time to hear the names. "I remember those young men; delightful guests. Half-brothers? Step-brothers? No, maybe neither. Well, anyway, they were here to visit relatives up at the Retreat. Or was it an old friend who was ill? A relative who was ill? Not that it matters; such polite, well-mannered gentlemen, don't see many of those. Present company excepted, of course. You wouldn't believe some of the riffraff I get."
Her monologue continued as she went back into the kitchen, and John couldn't help shaking his head and smiling. "You have to wonder if she has entire conversations when no one is here, or if she even notices if she has a listener."
Not ready to be distracted from his hunt, Bruce leafed through the pages, scanning them quickly. "Are you sure of the time of the year?"
"And recent, like within the past five years?"
John thought hard about that one, but couldn't really put a finger on why he had that impression. "Could be wrong on that," he admitted.
"Up to trying again?" Bruce asked, closing the guest book and drumming his fingers along the spine for a moment.
Holding down a sigh, John took the book from him and repeated his actions, getting a repeat of the first vision from it, though with the details more filled in. The book was lifted from his hand, and Bruce said, "Same page. Could the bed have been moved from another bedroom to the third floor?"
"Wasn't just the bed," John said unwillingly. "Bathtub, too."
Bruce's glare was cut off by Miss Betty traveling through again, this time carrying a container of water, hot chocolate mix, and marshmallows. On the pretext of helping her, he and John let themselves be carried along, trying their best to question her about her guests without seeming too nosy or overly interested. By the time she retired back to her own quarters, cup of hot chocolate in hand, leaving them ensconced on a couch next to the fireplace with their own mugs, John was ready to pound on something in frustration.
"I'm beginning to think they were never here at all, or were so long ago that I'm being haunted by their ghosts," John said tiredly.
Staring down into his cup, Bruce said, "Maybe you should give this one up. It's possible that for once you're just picking up the strong emotions, and not potential trouble."
"That's happened," John agreed. "It's just that they might need my help, and I don't try everything I can think of to find them, it's going to nag at me." Reluctantly John got to his feet and cruised the room, fingers hovering over various objects, occasionally dipping down quickly to test them before moving on. Nothing hit him until he reached a book case on the far side of the fireplace, then his hand started trembling as he came close to a vase filled with dried flowers on the top of the shelf. It was a clue that he was onto something, and he touched it firmly, just at the base.
**...don't laugh, don't laugh, he won't think it's funny, but his face, man, the expression on his face...
"No, I don't think she'll notice if you move it out of here while we're downstairs. Just don't forget to put it back."
"Are you sure you don't want me to find out what you're reacting to in the arrangement?**
Bracing himself against the book case, John shook his head. "No help there, unless knowing he has allergies can lead us somewhere." As if the vase had a mind of its own, it wobbled from John's departing touch, or perhaps from his weight against the shelves, and tumbled. He made a grab for it, but it was just beyond his reach, and with a sense of inevitability he watched it hit the carpet and shatter, though the surface was hardly hard enough to warrant such destruction.
As if on cue, Miss Betty came in. "Bless you, now don't worry about that. I thought an arrangement up there would look so nice, and it does, but I can't reach it to dust or clean unless I drag a stepladder in here. Some nice man, I forget who, put it up for me ages ago, and I don't think it's been touched except with a feather duster since." She bent and started picking up the broken pieces at the same time John did, efficiently gathering them into the folds of her apron except for the one piece that John slipped into his own pocket, gingerly holding it by the broken edge.
"I've several very lovely things that I can put in that spot if it looks too bare that I won't have to worry about breaking if I bump it into reach for tidying. Being a tall man, you probably don't realize what a trial it can be to be a short woman, always having to improvise to get to things overhead."
She stood, holding the bottom of her apron up to contain the shards of glass. "Now, will you be staying on another night to give the crews a chance to clear the roads or will you take your chances on making it home?"
Ushering her toward the kitchen, John said winningly, "We'll need to discuss it. Give us a few minutes, please?"
"Of course, of course - I need to be seeing about reaching Fletcher to come see to the damage to my shed and the generator there. Aren't cell phones the most convenient things?"
As soon as she was gone, he and Bruce exchanged a knowing look. "Fingerprints?" Bruce asked.
"You heard her - it hasn't been touched since she put it up there - that she knows of. But I know that Blair's spouse moved it because it was making him sneeze. Walt Bannerman won't mind checking it for me, I hope."
"Nice having the sheriff owe you several good-sized favors," Bruce said dryly. He glanced at the ceiling, and added, "So no need to go upstairs and check out the third floor for more information."
John tapped his cane against the floor, honestly of two minds about going back up. The thought of seeing the newlyweds together again was almost addictive to a part of him that hungered for the same feeling of connection. It wasn't as if it weren't for a good cause, he rationalized to himself, and the very need to do that made him uneasy.
On the other hand, the prints might not be in the system or Walt's people might not be able to lift any at all. Since he was trying for visions, he could direct them better - he'd discovered that almost from the beginning. And he had Bruce with him, though he couldn't explain why he found that reassuring. Following Bruce's gaze, John said uneasily, "I think we'd better, just in case."
"I must be catching your conscience," Bruce joked weakly, leading the way. "Deliberately looking in on them in the bedroom is bothering me, too."
The climb was shorter than it had been the night before, but not long enough for John. He hesitated on the threshold, and only went inside because of Bruce's sympathetic hand on his shoulder. Trying to smile assurance, he crossed to the bed, staring down at the rumpled blankets. More for a delaying tactic than because he really cared, he asked, "Did you move back here when it got light enough to find the extra covers? I didn't think I snored loud enough to send you out of warm bedding into a freezing room and colder bed."
Not looking at him or even in his direction, Bruce said, "Two beds, piled high and messy, says we spent the night in our own place, despite the outage. With you constantly in the eyes of the press, I didn't want Miss Betty cooing the wrong ears about her famous guest and his secret lover."
"My love-life is the *last* of my concerns, as far as the press goes," John said absently. "I've already been accused of siring a child on a woman inhabited by the spirit of Elvis. Being accused of spending the night with a gay companion would be nice and normal, in comparison." An uneasy shuffle from Bruce brought his attention back, and John grinned. "Since you're not considered a 'public figure,' you could sue if they use your name and get that Mercedes you've had your eye on."
Something about the smile Bruce sent his way wasn't quite right, but smile he did, along with a wave at John to send him back to the matter at hand. With a nervousness he hoped wasn't too obvious, John slowly reached for the brass rails of the headboard and stroked the frigid metal.
**lips against mine, soft, sweet...tongue dancing slowly over tongue...not to arouse, but just to kiss... forgotten how good it can be to kiss for kissing's sake...like this position...he's sitting, I don't have to stretch up and he doesn't have to bend down... knead his shoulders, down into his back, only want to touch more... cannot get over how hard and muscled he is... stupid harness is in the way... love it when he reads my wants without a word... taking it off... open my eyes long enough to help him... **
With an incredible act of will John divorced his mind from Blair's, looking around the room as much as possible while she had her eyes open. "Nothing," he murmured. "Two suitcases on the other bed, unpacked, no markings, only difference, except for the gun Blair's putting on the stand."
"Gun?" Bruce whispered, almost in his ear.
"Don't know what kind, but I think I could recognize it later. She's setting it down next to a wallet. I can see a flash of gold..."
With a jolt John was back in the here and now, arm stretched out toward the nightstand, holding an invisible shoulder holster. "Cop. He's a cop," he said with absolute certainty.
"That explains... John!"
Bruce caught him as he collapsed, and all John could do was let him. Every ounce of strength he had drained out, and his sight grayed around the edges, warning him of the very real possibility of passing out. Inured by his years as a therapist, Bruce got him to the other bed and stretched out with a minimum of effort and fuss. With what small resources he had left, John clung to Bruce's sleeve, irrationally alarmed at the idea of being unconscious in this room.
"Not good, this is *not* good," Bruce muttered, pulling blankets over John. "I've seen you have an extreme reaction to a vision, but nothing like this. You look like you just ran a mile over bad roads."
"Or survived one of your more grueling therapy sessions," John joked weakly.
Firmly, sounding more like a worried spouse than a medical professional, Bruce said, "No, more. I mean it. If you haven't got enough by now, you're not going to, not from here. We'll see where the prints take us, and worry about what to do next after that."
John wanted to tease him about the 'we' business, but truthfully, he was too tired to think of a good quip. Curling in on himself a little for warmth, he said, "No argument from me. I'm going to take a few here. Maybe you could start to dig out the car? I'll pay the bill and meet you out there to give you a hand in a little while."
For a moment it looked as though Bruce was going to argue, but he stepped back with a single hard nod. "Sounds good to me. If you're not with me in fifteen, I'm coming looking for you and the next stop will be the hospital in Cleaves Mills, hear me?"
"I hear you, I hear you. And if I'm not out in fifteen, it's because Miss Betty is holding me captive or talked me back into my coma, so I would appreciate the rescue." Cheery words notwithstanding, John wanted nothing more than to dig deeper into the bedding and sleep, maybe hibernate the winter away like a bear.
"Why do you think I'm shoveling the snow?" Bruce said, finally lightening up. "You can't drag me out if I'm the one in a coma." He turned to leave and at the door, added, "Fifteen."
John shooed him away with a single hand, then, much against his better judgment, let himself drift, almost dozing in spite of the frosty air in the bedroom. A loud thump, and cheery call from an unknown male voice roused him, and he mentally kicked himself in the backside to get moving. The first minute on his feet was ugly, and he had never been more grateful for the support of his cane, which Bruce had propped against the headboard at some point.
Thankfully Miss Betty was busy with Fletcher, the handyman she had called, and John was able to complete his business with her with a minimum of delay. Despite that, Bruce was almost done cleaning off his Cruiser, which he'd already started, and the sharp look he sent John's way warned that he'd missed his deadline by at least a few minutes. When he tried to help finish, Bruce simply pointed at the passenger side and said, "Sit, keep warm. The drive's going to be hard enough on you without spending the first half of it cold and wet."
John knew from the tone of his voice that argument was a waste of time, and he did as told, peevish that he was being treated like an invalid and contrarily relieved he could take it easy. In the short time it took for Bruce to finish, he nearly nodded off, then spent the rest of the trip alternately napping and mindlessly watching the snow-covered landscape slide by. Once they reached the main roads, they made good time, and they arrived home early enough for John to be able to drop off his carefully wrapped glass fragment at the Sheriff's office. Walt gave him an odd look, but took the piece with a promise he'd have the results by early the next day.
Though Bruce didn't seem very happy about leaving John on his own, he dropped him off after extracting a promise that he would eat something, which John fully intended to do until he went into his bedroom to change his shirt. He toppled onto the bed and was asleep before he could finish dragging blankets over himself. Late the next morning, he snapped awake, feeling better than he had in a long time, and after the long, hot shower he'd been longing for, made himself a huge breakfast and ate every bite.
Once the distraction of cleaning up after himself was taken care of, John puttered around the house, trying to wait for Walt's phone call. He couldn't focus on anything, though, and after staring into the refrigerator for the third time for no reason than because it was there, he gave up. Leaving a message for Bruce at work in case he tried to contact him, John got in his Jeep and drove to the sheriff's station.
Walt was on his way out as John pulled into a parking space across from the building, and immediately detoured toward him, taking the glass piece from his pocket. Opening the door, John waited for him, leaning on the frame of his vehicle and worried about the angry look Bannerman was sending his way.
Once he was close enough, Walt said fiercely, "You want to tell me what kind of trouble you've gotten yourself into? We got some decent prints off this, ran it like I said, and this morning some joker from the Department of Defense calls wanting to know why I'm looking for the man they belong to!"
Startled because he *knew* the man was a police officer, John said, "Defense Department? What did you say?"
"That it was just routine check of trace evidence on a case I'd already made; didn't need the fingerprints, already had my man and if they're not his, I wasn't interested in anyone else." Putting his hands on his hips in pure exasperation, Walt added, "I'm not going to wrangle with the government for you, John. Whatever's going on, you're going to have to be on your own, unless you can get the good Reverend Purdy to lend a hand."
"I wasn't expecting anything like this, I swear," John said. "Here, give me that. Anybody asks about it again, you can put the blame on me any way necessary to keep yourself in the clear."
Obviously not even remotely mollified, Walt still handed the bag over to John, and the instant he touched it
** he was standing in different place, in a different city, and the vehicle behind him was a truck, he could see the bed of it out of the corner of his eye. In front of him was a tall building, at least seven stories, and police cars and uniformed officers were moving all around it, some coming and some going. Walking away was a tall man with broad shoulders that he knew even though he'd never seen him from the back, but even as John recognized him, he turned, expression alarmed, then shocked, then grim, all so quickly it was nearly a single emotion. The man broke into a run and was in front of John in an instant, roughly grabbing him by the upper arm. "Who the devil are you?" he demanded, "And where's Blair?" Astonished, John wrenched himself away, and the world went black and silent except for the screaming roar of a big cat**
echoing in his ears, Jim caught Blair between the truck and his own body as his partner crumpled, easing him down as gently as possible, calling out to Simon Banks as he passed to call an ambulance. Pushing aside image of the stranger that he had seen in Blair's place until the moment he touched him, Jim concentrated on Blair's heartbeat, relieved to find it beating regularly, if too fast. But he wasn't breathing, god, he wasn't breathing, and old, agonizing memories of another time when that had happened threatened to swamp Jim.
Mercifully training kicked in while reason was floundering, and Jim automatically put Blair on his back and tilted back his head, one finger sweeping his mouth to make sure of his airway. At the edge of his attention as he breathed for Blair, he could sense Simon kneeling beside them, murmuring something prayerful as he began chest compressions. Sound became muffled and distorted for Jim, and the entire world narrowed down to the pattern of exhale and inhale, fingers on the pulse point in Blair's neck.
Just as Jim thought that magnificent heart would flounder under respiratory distress, Blair's back arched violently, and he sucked in a deep lungful of air directly from Jim. Hands on his shoulders, Jim touched their foreheads together, listening to his partner's rapid panting and racing heart slow. Blair's eyelids fluttered up to show pure panic, and he fumbled until he could grab Jim's wrist.
"I'm here, I'm here, not going anywhere, neither are you," Jim crooned, not caring who heard. Something in Blair's eyes said that was exactly what he needed to hear. He shut them again, expression smoothing out as he lapsed back into unconsciousness, but the grip on Jim's wrist never lessened. If anything it tightened, and that was fine by him.
Paramedics arrived, immediately hustling into their routine, and Jim all but ignored them, shifting enough to accommodate what had to be done and not an inch more. More than once they tried to shuffle him off to one side, but he refused to be budged, not bothering to argue, let alone acknowledge their efforts. In the background he heard Banks deflect the worst of it, telling the EMT's that his officer was a trained medic who kept his certification up and knew better than to get in the way or interfere.
A distant part of him made a note to find a way to let his friend and Captain know that he appreciated him running interference for them. It wasn't the first time since Jim's senses had re-awakened, nor was it the first time he'd been more friend than commander since his relationship with Blair had evolved beyond being partners. But he couldn't and wouldn't spare the attention or energy to tell Simon that right now; everything he had, all five senses, every ounce of heart and spirit were locked onto Blair, willing him to stay.
Eventually the churning chaos around them relocated to the back of the ambulance, the medics now disregarding Jim as studiously as he disregarded them. From there it moved to the emergency room, staying beside Blair became harder because the security guards there had their own agenda. One went so far as to try to force Blair to break his grip while another pulled Jim away, and Jim simply shrugged the one on him off, grabbed the other by the wrist and squeezed hard. "You hurt him to make him let go, I hurt you. Understand?"
Something in his tone got through to the guard - or the doctors. Jim was left alone after that, and he did his best to oblige whatever orders were shot his way as the staff did their thing, including answering their interminable questions. No, Blair didn't have a history of seizures or neurological problems. Yes, he seemed in good health that morning. No complaints of weakness or headache, nothing like that. No drugs, no alcohol abuse, no recent head injuries, but a history of trauma because of his position as civilian consultant to the police department.
It wasn't until they began talking to him very earnestly and anxiously about the tests that needed to be done that Jim swam up out of his semi- fugue. "I understand that I can't go in with him for the MRI and whatever. But I am *not* going to force him to release me."
One nurse, Chambers by her nametag, exchanged a look with the doctor, and stepped closer to Jim. "Could you coax him into letting go, just long enough to do the tests, I promise? The doctors say he isn't really unconscious, just unresponsive to anybody but you, so you could do it, if you tried. Please? It's really important to get a look at what's going on inside his skull."
Jim looked her over carefully, judging her sincerity and wary of false promises just to get him out of the way. Reluctantly he admitted they seemed to have Blair's best interests in mind. "Give us some privacy for a minute, will you?"
Looking offended, the doctor huffed away, but everyone else just left, letting the nurse draw the curtains around the bed. Bending over until his lips were against Blair's ear, Jim whispered, "Chief, listen to me. I don't know what's wrong, but if it's something the doctors can fix, we need to know. That's not going to happen if you don't let them do their thing."
He stroked Blair's forehead, fingers catching and playing with a curl. "That's usually your line, and I usually refuse to cooperate, and you can rib me all you want about that later. Right now, I need you to let go, just for a few minutes, I'll never be more than a few feet away." Trying for a joking tone, Jim added, "One unhappy sound from you, and I promise to maim whoever caused it, okay?"
For a moment it seemed as though he hadn't heard him, but then Blair sighed forlornly. "'Kay," he said so softly even Jim had trouble hearing him. "Close?"
"Practically in your lap."
With the faintest of smiles, he weakly tugged once on Jim's wrist, then let go, fingers slowly folding away like drooping flower petals. Jim took up the duty of maintaining contact, taking Blair's hand in his. "Now would be a good time, if you're going to do those tests," he said loudly to the room in general.
Everything after that was an endless trip through miles of corridors, making what felt like random stops to answer more questions, fill out more forms, and wait for some machine to do its thing before returning to the corridors. Because the results concerned Blair, Jim listened in on the technicians, no matter where they made him wait, trying to make sense of their chatter. For the most part it was generic, but gradually a note of bafflement began to creep into their comments, and they ran the same tests more than once, muttering to themselves and the doctors about the results.
Hours later, or so it seemed, they transferred Blair to a bed in a private room, giving Jim the luxury of a chair to rest in. Apparently sensing that the ordeal was over, Blair turned to his side, latched onto Jim's wrist again, and fell into what Jim's senses told him was a natural sleep. Resting his head on the mattress beside their linked hands, Jim took his first deep breath since Blair passed out, and started trembling, chest tight and aching. The irrational notion that someone or something was trying to drag his mate away from him receded, but only far enough to allow him to suddenly realize how *tired* he was.
Without meaning to, he closed his eyes, rejoicing in the steady thud of Blair's heart and easy breathing. Practically hypnotized by those life-assuring rhythms, Jim drifted in and out of a zone, coming out of it totally only when Blair ran a thumb over his cheekbone.
"Hey," Blair said softly.
"Hey, yourself." Jim kissed the back of the hand he still held. "All the way back with me?"
"Mmmm. Tired, though."
"Too tired to tell me what happened?"
A spark flared to life in Blair's eyes, and he said excitedly, "I was watching you go into the station, like I always do when I drop you off, and suddenly I was in another town, standing next to an older model Jeep, talking to a man in a uniform - cop uniform of some kind, I think, but I didn't recognize it. State Trooper, maybe, but not for Washington. Nametag said 'Bannerman.' He said something to me, I didn't hear what, because I crashed, hard, like the very next second."
Rubbing at his face, Jim said, "I think someone took your place. Your vitals changed drastically, and I turned around to see what was wrong. Another person was standing where you had been a second before; he was medium height, fair complexion, light gray eyes, dirty, rusty blond-brown hair - like a redhead who toned down as he grew older. I don't know who he was, but I'll recognize him the next time I see him."
The last was said so grimly that Blair's enthusiasm waned slightly, and he squeezed Jim's hand. "There's no reason to think that this was an attack of some type." He looked at him questioningly. "Unless you picked up on something with your senses?"
Grudgingly, Jim admitted, "I only saw him, and only for a second. Scent and everything else was yours - you under stress, but you."
"Huh!" Blair turned inward, obviously thinking furiously, and that calmed Jim more than any words from doctors or Blair himself ever could. As long as his partner's mind was moving at light speed, as usual, nothing that drastic could possibly be wrong as far as Jim was concerned. He waited patiently, and after a minute Blair said slowly, "The tests they did, the MRI and such - they've read the results?"
"For all the good it did them," Jim said, reflecting the confusion the staff had shown. "One doctor kept insisting that something was wrong with the machine because the scan readings were just so much garbage in his opinion."
"Or maybe it's just that they've never seen a brain working the way mine was for a while," Blair said thoughtfully. He came to a sudden decision, and hitched closer to Jim to catch his shirt in a fist. "I need you to destroy all those records; the tests, the results, the doctor's notes, everything. The only thing I want left is the billing information. That means you might have to dump the memory of the computers that run the machines; can you learn how to do that safely? Without getting caught?"
Puzzled, but resigned because it would be useless to argue, Jim said, "How soon?"
"Now, tonight. The fewer people who have a chance to see them, the better." It was Blair's turn to sound grim, and he frowned, thoughts racing again.
"Going to tell me why?"
Blair's eyes closed as if in pain, and his hold on Jim's shirt became nearly frantic. "Because we've seen up close and personal what happens when the wrong people learn that something remarkable has happened, and have tangible proof that it's not illusion or trickery. I won't make that mistake again."
"You don't think all this was because of me?" Jim said in shock, locking his own hand over the one clinging to him so tightly.
Expression gentling, Blair tugged him close so he could bump his forehead into Jim's chest. "I don't know for sure, and I'd rather be safe than sorry. And before you start beating yourself up, I Was Not Hurt. This isn't exactly the weirdest thing we've dealt with, either." His tone changed back to the excitement he'd shown earlier. "Man, wouldn't it be great if this were the first step to a whole new aspect of your abilities?"
Dryly, but not really meaning it, Jim said, "Only you would find a trip into the Twilight Zone fascinating, Sandburg."
"Hey, you have to embrace the wonder or life gets waaaay too boring." With a playful kiss to Jim's chin, he nudged him away. "Go. Do the big, bad, cov-op ranger thing."
Releasing him very reluctantly, Jim managed to answer Blair's playfulness. "Better for you than for Uncle Sam - pay's better, perks too."
A one fingered gesture sent him on his way, but he didn't try to keep up the 'everything is back to normal' pretense once he was out of Blair's sight. If possible, he was more on edge than when his partner had been unconscious and circumstances didn't show any sign of improving at all. His mood didn't improve at all as Jim made files vanish, though he was sourly amused at how very easy it all was for him. Even the machines turned out to be a snap, thanks to the company's convenient web-based instruction manuals.
In remarkably short time he returned to Blair's room to find him sitting on the edge of the bed, half-dressed and amicably arguing with the night nurse. "Yes, I can. It's called Voluntary Discharge Against Medical Advise, and I'm going. Now am I going to finish taking off all these wires by myself or do you want to take care of it?"
Clearly exasperated in the way all nurses had when faced with a patient who didn't quietly do as told, the woman looked at Jim. "The doctors are concerned about neurological problems and want him under observation. I don't think he can be trusted to make a sound decision about his own care because of the possibility of mental confusion."
"In that case, his medical power of attorney would place the decision in my hands, and if he wants to leave, he leaves," Jim said calmly. "I know what to be on the lookout for, and have more reason than you to make sure it gets done."
"And if he has another seizure?" the nurse asked sharply.
"I took care of him during the first one until help arrived; next time won't be any different." Carefully removing the oxygen canula, Jim whispered, "You sure, Chief?"
"Absolutely. It *has* happened again," Blair answered, strictly for Jim's ears. "This is the last place I want to be if there's a third time."
Jim wasn't as sure - having a doctor a shout away could make the difference in a life and death situation - but had no choice but to trust Blair's intuition and his own instincts. Ignoring them had led to disaster more than once in the past, and it was a lesson he did *not* need a repeat of. The nurse stormed off, probably to inform whoever was in charge, and Jim made short work of unhooking Blair from monitors.
As soon as she was gone, Blair said quietly, "I hit the call button to get her in here so she wouldn't freak when her station alarms started going off because I was removing things. The second she got through the door, she started protesting, and bam! there I was in another hospital room, some place else, and a woman was using the exact same words to tell 'me' to stay put. She wasn't a nurse, though, unless her ward doesn't require uniforms. Um, pretty, middle height, dark brown hair, cut pixie style, brown eyes, this side of thirty."
"Nothing stand out about the room - anything from a window, for instance?" Jim asked, guiding Blair as if he were a witness on a case.
"Um.... no, I wasn't there but for a blink or two, and she was pretty mad, insisting 'I' stay put, pretty much commanding my attention." Blair yawned, hugely, leaning into Jim for support. "It happened so fast, I don't think the nurse here noticed, but I tell you, my body did. I want a nap. Right now."
"Maybe," Jim started.
Despite the huge yawn Blair punctuated the demand with, Jim yielded, suddenly wanting nothing more than to have him in their big bed, safely tucked safely against him. It was hardly the first time that urge had hit him, but it had never been so powerful and unquestionable. In very short order he had Blair in the truck, then home and upstairs, foregoing the usually mandatory shower to get rid of the day's accumulated scents. Blair stayed barely awake all through it, and was snoring before the blankets were pulled around them.
Surprisingly, sleep came easily for Jim as well, though he expected to spend half the night prowling, trying to pinpoint who or what was attacking Blair. He woke from a sleep so deep he didn't even remember dreaming, and then only because his innate awareness of his mate told him that Blair was waking, too. Uncertain what time it was, and for once not caring at all, he lay in the warm comfort of their bed, listening to the pitpat of rain on the roof and enjoying simply holding his partner. Blinking drowsily against the gray light provided by the overcast sky, Jim seriously considered spending the day right where they were, though he had no clue how to convince Blair that it was a good idea.
As luck - or hormones - would have it, Blair himself provided the best persuasion. With an enormous yawn he stretched hugely, limbs and torso gliding over Jim's in a way that a dead man couldn't help but respond to with a hard-on. He was all wiry strength and luscious skin, and the soft hairs of his body stroked over each, individual nerve ending in Jim's flesh, sending tiny tugs of arousal into his gut. With a barely voiced, 'mmmmm' of appreciation, Jim returned the accidental caress with a deliberate sweep of hands over the planes of Blair's back, coaxing him into pressing in closer.
"You feel soooo good," Blair breathed sleepily. He kissed Jim's throat just where it met his collarbone - the one spot guaranteed to send Jim into overdrive. "Tasty, too."
Jim answered him with a mock growl, but lifted his chin to silently ask for more. Blair was more than willing, making a little noise of satisfaction and pleasure that was as arousing as his touch. Gasping, nipples tight and dick aching, Jim happily endured Blair's tender attention as long as he could, but finally had to do something about the hunger that his lover had stirred to life. Opening his thighs, he turned to his back, taking Blair with him so that he was on top. With a quiet moan, Blair rocked into him, bringing their cocks into alignment.
"Deeper... god...want you in me," Jim groaned.
He fumbled in the nightstand to find the lube as Blair straightened his arms and locked his elbows to rise over Jim enough to be able to look down between them. "Damm, damn... no matter how many times we do this, it always gets to me," Blair warned. "I'm not going to be able to hold off long."
"Don't think you're going to need to," Jim muttered, fighting to get the cap off. Finally succeeding, he squeezed a bit onto his fingers and coated Blair's cock. "Just opening me would be too much right now."
"Hey," Blair protested, rearing back before Jim could pull him in. "Not going to risk...."
"Now, Chief, need, please."
Drawing further away, Blair shook his head and as shockingly abrupt as that it wasn't Blair over him, but the man Jim had seen in his place before. Moving at top speed, Jim slid out from under him to sit against the tension wires at the head of the bed, gun in hand, without him consciously deciding to do any of it. For a split second he and the stranger stared at each other, then Jim barked, "Who the hell are you?"
Plainly astonished at the question, the stranger jerked up onto his knees, looked wildly around the room, then focused on Jim's gun for a moment as if he couldn't believe that it was pointed at him. Like a bubble popping, he vanished, leaving Blair in his place, flinging out a hand to keep himself from toppling over.
Moving faster than he had when Blair had left, Jim caught his mate up against himself, then turned them both so that they were lying on their sides, face-to-face. "Blair?"
"I'm here, I'm here," he panted, beginning to shiver violently.
Grabbing the blankets that had been kicked aside during their love-making and pulling them back over them both, Jim hugged him close, absently kissing his forehead and combing the fingers of his free hand through his curls. "Same guy; think I scared him."
With a snort of laughter, Blair chin-bumped the gun Jim still held. "Wonder why?" More seriously he asked, "Was it just an image or was he really here?"
Mentally reviewing the brief instant he had seen the other, Jim said slowly, putting his weapon away, "Image, like before. No new scent, your vitals, he wasn't, ah, turned on. What did you see this time?"
"Big office, with a picture window that looked out on a campus," Blair said distractedly. "I could see students with books and packs, that sort of thing. Someplace with a lot of snow. A man - older, portly, distinguished. He looked familiar."
"Someone you know personally, or just someone you've seen?" Jim kept his voice gentle, almost whispering, not wanting to break Blair's focus on the image he held in his mind.
"Just seen, like on the television. The news; I've seen him in the news." Sighing tiredly, Blair buried his face in the crook of Jim's shoulder. "How much longer before we have to get up? I could use some more sleep."
"No idea. In fact, I was thinking of sleeping in and not going to work at all today. More than likely, Simon won't be expecting us, especially after he finds out we checked you out of the hospital a.m.a." Jim expected at least a token protest, but Blair just muttered something even he couldn't make out, and relaxed into him, already out cold.
Intending to stay awake to monitor him, a nagging worry that there was a true medical reason for Blair's exhaustion, if nothing else, Jim nodded off himself, despite the rest he'd had. This time there was no peace for him in slumber, and broken, jagged dreams haunted him, rousing him to partial alertness time and time again. Finally after living through a nightmarish fragment of Incacha's death where the Chopec Shaman and Blair kept metamorphosing into wolves, then back to human again, Jim groggily rolled away from his lover, trying not to disturb him. Away from their shared cocoon, the sheets were cold, making him aware of the nip in the air.
Since his heat-loving partner would need to get up sooner or later to tend to bodily functions, Jim decided to get up first to turn up the heat. And if he was going to start moving, he might as well see about some food; for the life of him he couldn't remember when either of them had eaten last. Willingly submerging his worry and confusion in the mundane necessities of day-to-day life, Jim kept himself occupied, senses half-trained on the loft bedroom, until Blair began restlessly tossing and turning.
Carrying a mug of hot chicken broth, Jim climbed the stairs, reaching the top just as Blair sat bolt upright in bed, swatting at something only he could see. "Easy, easy," he said, sitting on the edge of the mattress, using his free hand to block a swing at his head. "This is hot, and I don't want to spill it."
As if the very practical words were a trigger, Blair went still, though he blinked once or twice as if to make sure Jim wasn't an optical illusion, and took a deep breath. "Whoa. Seriously bizarre dreams there."
"Yeah?" Jim said encouragingly, offering the mug.
Blair took a deep appreciative sniff, then sipped until it was nearly empty. Finally, staring down into the cup, he tapped a finger against it as he listed what he remembered. "The side of a mountain blowing up, a Native American man, one of the northeast wooded nations to judge by his clothes, Washington DC in flames, the woman I saw through the other man's vision, dying a dozen different ways." He hesitated, slanting a look at Jim from the corner of his eye, then went on. "A black man, about my age, dread-locks to his shoulders, beard and mustache. I kept seeing Incacha imposed over him, for some reason."
Something cold and unpleasant dragged its fingertips over the back of Jim's neck at hearing his lost friend's name said aloud after dreaming of him himself only a few hours ago. "Did he look angry? Incacha, I mean. Or disapproving?"
"You, too, huh?" Blair asked sympathetically and suddenly grinned. "Good. This is *supposed* to happen to you. *I'm* supposed to be the one keeping *you* from going off the deep end, not the other way around."
As dryly as possible, Jim said, "Maybe the whole point of this is to give you a taste of what I go through occasionally."
"In that case, I promise to never, ever, again, under any circumstances, give you a hard time when your senses take a left turn into the supernatural," Blair said solemnly, holding his right hand up. The effect was spoiled by the laughter Jim could see in his eyes, and the smile on his lips he was trying so hard to suppress.
Thinking that he'd much rather be appreciating those lips up close and personal than trying to unscrew the inscrutable, Jim leaned forward and kissed Blair, licking his mouth a little and chuckling at the salty taste of chicken soup on him. Blair did the same, nuzzling his nose against Jim's. "We did kind of get interrupted this morning, didn't we?"
"Worse than having Simon call." He kissed Blair again, more thoroughly this time around, not breaking away until they were both moaning and straining against each other. Absently taking away the mug and setting it aside, Jim pressed him down onto the bed, all the frustrated passion from earlier swiftly flowing up and carrying him to the same level of hunger. "I still want," he started, then jerked away, staring down at Blair.
Even as he broke all contact with him, a faint image of the stranger touched Blair's features, and was gone as abruptly as a light going out. Jim had felt him displace Blair this time, and though he didn't have words for exactly what the sensation was, he had known when Blair had flickered away from him
Frustrated, and using that to hide fear, Jim barked, "Is that going to happen every time we try to make love?"
"Not if I have anything to say about it," Blair said stubbornly, winding his arms around Jim's neck and pulling him back down.
Jim went willingly, grumbling, "This guy is asking for a punch in the nose."
"For what it's worth, I don't get the feeling he's doing it on purpose. If anything, he's as freaked as I am."
Though he spoke lightly, his tense, trembling body told the truth, and Jim hugged him close, desire forgotten in favor of comforting him. Oddly, knowing that Blair wasn't as calm and collected about it as he wanted to appear made it easier for Jim to hold onto his own composure. Nuzzling at his curls, he said, "If that's the case, then he can do the right thing and sedate himself or something and give us a few minutes privacy."
"Just a few minutes?"
Mumbling something he didn't understand himself, Jim inhaled deeply, relieved to find the scent of a warm, happy lover, and none of the fear or pain he'd worried he'd find. Despite it all, Blair apparently really did want to hide away from his confusion in Jim's arms, and Jim was more than willing to let him. Finding an earlobe, he tugged gently on the earrings in it, delighted when the come-back to whatever he'd said was broken off in the middle on a pleased murmur. Settling down for some serious nibbling, he drew the tender flesh into his mouth, and nearly jolted off the bed completely when the phone rang loud and unpleasantly in his ear.
Jerking up his head to glare at it, Jim said a few words that he normally didn't use, even when royally pissed. "I swear if it's our mystery guest, I'm arresting him for harassment."
Shaking with suppressed laughter, Blair picked up the phone and handed it to him, deftly twisting so that he was curled in on himself, back to him to hide his face. Not seeing the humor in the situation at all, Jim snarled and hit the 'on' button, swinging his legs around so that he could sit on the edge of the bed. "Ellison."
The mechanical recorded message he heard killed everything but a cold determination that he knew would underlie everything he did until he got to the bottom of the intrusion into their lives. Slowly, carefully putting down the phone as if it were a bomb that could explode, Jim said expressionlessly. "A Sheriff Walter Bannerman in Maine ran my prints."
Sitting up himself and shoving his hair out of his face, Blair asked, "How do you know?"
"Because being paranoid can pay off. Ever since that business with Brackett, I've had my files covertly flagged so that if anybody looks at any of them, I get a secret notice of who, where and when. Bannerman got his hit on me the same day you were attacked for the first time." Jim looked over his shoulder at Blair, not bothering to hide his resolve. "Why in the hell would anybody in Cleaves Mills MA have my prints? I've never even been there."
Not answering him, Blair scrambled out of bed and into his robe. "Cleaves Mills, Cleaves Mills... I know that town. An email from my mom...." He ran downstairs to her office, and Jim could hear the laptop hum into life.
Jim looked down at the hard-on sticking up from his lap, slapped it lightly once, and sighed in exasperated acceptance. If that call hadn't put a damper on it, the damn thing was obviously going to be around for a while, and all he could do was wait it out. Dragging on a soft, worn pair of sweats, he followed his spouse, for once wishing he was capable of the same mercurial mood changes Blair was.
By the time he reached the office, Blair had found the email, and was re-reading it, muttering under his breath. "...showing your anti-Christian bias there, Naomi ...not that you could seriously be called bigoted... got a real tendency to discount anything that comes out of that camp, though. Can't say as I blame you given your past, but this time... yes!"
Without changing gears, Blair called up Google and typed in 'Reverend Gene Purdy,' getting quite a few hits almost instantly. A few mouse clicks brought up a photo, and Blair sat back in his desk chair. "That's him; the man I saw through our guest's eyes this morning. Part of the Heritage Faith University, which is based near, you guessed it, Cleaves Mills. Mom despises him because he's one of those religious leaders who apparently doesn't believe in the separation of church and state. Always using his position to influence political figures."
"Including the local sheriff," Jim said grimly.
"That's not the interesting part." Blair made the computer screen switch several times, reading so rapidly that Jim didn't have a chance to see exactly what it was that he was searching through. "There; I thought I had it right. Purdy's got his own private psychic working for him. Mom dismissed him because she doesn't think the real thing would have anything to do with someone like Purdy, but I'm willing to bet that she's missed the mark this time."
Reading over his shoulder, Jim picked out key words and phrases while Blair sped through the entire article, then did the same as he jumped from site to site, getting various newspapers in the immediate area. Used to how fast he read, Jim managed to keep up well enough to get the gist of it all. "Huh. You'd think the guy was legit, if you go by the serious press."
"There's a good chance he is," Blair said matter-of-factly. At Jim's inelegant snort of disbelief, he added in exasperation, "How else would you explain what's been going on?"
"Sandburg, I would rather believe that a karmic transference of persona is taking place due to the proper alignment of Mercury and Venus in the house of Aquarius than believe that some crank in the middle of nowhere is peeping into our love life to get his jollies."
Grinning hugely, Blair turned around and socked him solidly in the middle of his chest. "Jim! You actually listened to one of mine and Mom's conversations!" At his rolled eyes, Blair punched him again, much more gently, sobering completely. "Believing that would be the easy way out. I think he's reaching out for help, maybe instinctively, maybe without knowing why he's doing it, or even that he's responsible for what's happening to us."
Not giving him a chance to argue, Blair brought up another photograph, and simply waited. Grudgingly, Jim admitted, "That's him; the man I've been seeing in your place."
"And Purdy's psychic - John Smith." Returning his gaze to the screen and apparently giving it all of his attention, Blair gently added, "Remember Alex Barnes? From the first, despite my concerns and uneasiness, I wanted to help her. And in the end, despite everything she'd done, you tried to do the same. We both failed, but I think that's because of her choices, not ours. At the same time, I can't help but wonder if we'd been able to do more if we'd been together then; worked together instead of at odds with each other."
Old anger and shame that he had never quite been able to dispel swam sickly in Jim's middle, and he snapped, "What has she got to do with this?"
Still not looking at him, Blair said bluntly, as if to refute once and for all the arguments they'd had on the subject, "The Temple of the Sentinels was a test. Just before she went there, Alex reached out. Clumsily, selfishly, but she did try, first with me, then, in a uniquely sentinel way, with you, but couldn't or wouldn't listen to either of us. She failed the test; you didn't. Why?"
He had always known the answer to that, and said just as bluntly, but with all love he felt behind it, "Because of you."
That made Blair look back up at him, and he blinked once, in surprise, before correcting, "Because she needed what I was to you - teacher, friend, shaman, whatever name you want to give it - and couldn't see past her selfishness to find it."
"Beloved," Jim said, and this time it was *his* tone that brooked no arguments, and he wondered, not for the first time, why Blair always retreated into his researcher persona when it came to giving their emotional connection credit for all that they'd be able to accomplish.
Smiling a little uncertainly, Blair looked away again and waved at the computer screen. "Maybe this time I'm the one being too skeptical. See anything these photos have in common?"
There were five photos, all candids of John Smith on his way to or from someplace, credited to different sources. It only took a moment's study, and Jim pointed to a young black man that could be seen near Smith in all of them, occasionally providing unobtrusive support for him with a discreet palm cupping an elbow. "This guy."
"He's the one I dreamed of last night, though he doesn't have his dreadlocks in all the shots." Blair started closing down windows, leaning his forehead into one palm and looking very, very tired again. "There's a chance that's the person John needs, and they're not making the connection for some reason."
"And we're being dragged into his life by his subconscious to help him fix that." Jim knew he sounded as if he were way past skeptical, but truth was, the theory was hard to swallow, even for a man who could see ghosts and have visions of his own.
"Or some other force," Blair said softly, but this time it was his tone that allowed no argument. More persuasively, he asked, "Can you really refuse to help?"
Jim looked at the picture of John Smith that his partner had left up on the computer screen, and it was as if he was looking at the man himself, meeting his eyes across time and space. Much as he wanted to blame an over-active imagination, there was a loneliness in that gaze, an aching sense of isolation and alienation that he knew all too well. Even if the man were a quack or self-deluded, he didn't deserve to suffer through that; not if there was someone who was ready to stand beside him.
Unwillingly, Jim murmured, "We have all the advantages. He's a public figure, so is Purdy, so we can do a background check on them, go in with all the info we need to handle the situation to our advantage. If it goes bad, they're the ones who will be in the more vulnerable position, if they want to stay clean in the public eye. Right now, I doubt either of them know much about us or they wouldn't be so clumsy about doing a check on me."
"It might be best to eliminate the good Reverend from the picture entirely, if we can," Blair said thoughtfully. "The sheriff, too, if he's a tool of Purdy's. Just deal with John and his un-named companion. That way, if we're wrong or need to keep it all under wraps, it won't be too hard to manage."
Distractedly, still watching the screen, Jim said, "You do the research, I'll make travel arrangements." He didn't think they were wrong, not this time. Maybe the unknown man wasn't the person Smith needed, but someone was. Every sense he had told him that. His *heart* told him that, and thanks to Blair, he finally trusted that enough to listen when it spoke so clearly. Staring into John Smith's eyes, he tried to shrug off the feeling of kinship with him, but if anything, it intensified, becoming a palpable sensation, a drowning sensation, as if he were being pulled underwater. Suddenly alarmed, sight fading as if from lack of oxygen, he threw out a hand to find Blair, finding nothing, feeling nothing
* * *
then a body was there, warm and solid under his touch, and John jolted awake, gasping for air, half-blind from deep sleep. More than a little fearful, he froze, but even as he did, he realized that he was in his own bed, warm and snug under a weight of blankets, and that he knew who was beside him, snoring in his ear. Recognizing Bruce's spicy scent as much as the sound of that distinctive snore, John relaxed, though it took several long minutes to convince his heart and breathing to slow down to normal.
For a moment he grasped after the fragments of the dream that woke him, but they faded without leaving so much as a single image to explain his terror. Frowning, he finally gave up, and only then did he realize that he didn't know why Bruce was in bed with him or remember going to bed in the first place. He leaned up on one elbow, scrubbed the last of the sleep out of his eyes so he could see, and looked down at his friend, and frowned deeper.
Bruce was completely dressed, feet hanging off the edge of the bed as if to keep his shoes from dirtying the bedding. Though he had a comforter pulled over his shoulders, he didn't look comfortable, and he had a strong grip on John's shirttail, despite being out cold. Pushing down the blankets, John checked himself out, discovered he was fully dressed as well, though his shoes were gone.
"Last thing I remember is being in Gene's office, being read the riot act for getting him in trouble with the federal government for 'making improper inquiries into sensitive areas,' as he put it," John said to himself. Scrubbing at his head, he fought to recall more and got only a few disjointed bits and pieces that didn't make much sense. Then his mind locked onto a vision of Blair kissing her husband, one that had been real time, not a one of their past, and moaned his misery.
"Please tell me that didn't happen while I was with Gene," John unintentionally said out loud. "Or that I at least didn't talk about what I saw."
"Never had a chance," Bruce said sleepily. "Dropped like a rock, sending our Reverend Purdy into a complete panic."
All John could do was moan again, sitting up completely so he could drop his hands in his face for a second. "So why aren't I in a hospital? And why are you here?"
"You came out of it, made a huge fuss about needing to go home." Bruce yawned, snuggled farther down under his blanket. "Second time you hit the floor in less than twenty-four hours, Gene wasn't inclined to listen. Lucky for you I was hanging out in the E.R. and heard the call come in. Rode in with the ambulance since I know your medical background better than anyone, even Sarah."
Dryly, John added, "Not to mention she probably called you and told that I'd checked myself out of the hospital the night before and to keep an eye on me if I'd let you."
"That too," Bruce admitted, unperturbed. "Anyway, you were pretty blurry, but between us we managed to convince everyone that home was the best place for you to get the sleep you insisted you had to have." He peeked out over the top of his blanket, and added somberly, "Not that you slept that well, man. Talk about nightmares. You'd calm down when I came in, go back under, start yelling again a little while later. Finally just laid down beside you just so that I could settle you down when the thrashing got started, and maybe we'd both get some rest."
Remembering the state he'd been in not that long ago, John said apologetically, "That's above and beyond - sorry."
"Don't mention it." Bruce sat up, plucked at a non-existent piece of lint, and asked in a carefully nonchalant tone, "Seemed some of your nightmares might have been more visions about Blair and company."
As if his words were a trigger, John saw blue eyes staring into his and a voice demand, "Who are you? As quickly as it came, it was gone, leaving him sitting on his own bed, unsure if it had been vision, memory, or both. "He saw me," he said, shocked. "Blair's husband, he looked right at me, knew I was there, more than once. My god, what if that's the reason I've been getting flashes about them without touch - because he's like me."
"Whoa, whoa, you didn't say anything about that, yesterday."
Twisting to sit on one hip and face Bruce, John said with rising excitement, "I haven't had a chance to think it all through before now. It makes sense. The tests showed that my dead zone is more active in different ways. What if that's why? Because *he's* having visions of *me* at the same time I've having ones of him and Blair?"
Crossing his ankles and looping his arms loosely around his knees, Bruce said skeptically, "It's a big jump from an accidental peek into a honeymoon to finding another psychic who's tuned in on your wave length."
"Don't you see? That could explain everything. Why I'm so tired all of the sudden, why the flashes are coming out of nowhere, even in my dreams because he's awake when I'm not." John leaned over and put a hand on his arm, needing Bruce to understand. "It's not like something like this hasn't happened before."
Not meeting his gaze, Bruce said evenly, "I can't argue that, but from where I sit, it looks more like you're trying to justify what's turning an obsession, even after two different sources have told you that dropping the search is a good idea."
Exasperated, John mentally cast about for a way to explain better, but when he opened his mouth, what came out of his mouth, was, "The doorbell's about to ring. Apparently Sarah and Walt want to make sure for themselves that I'm going to let it go."
Scrambling out of the bed, Bruce picked up a juice glass from the nightstand. "Let me answer the door, then give it a few before coming down, like the knock disturbed you."
Catching him by the wrist, John said, "Hey, what are you worried about?"
That stopped Bruce cold, and for a second his expression was almost agonized. "John...when a preacher's kid rebels, he really rebels. I've done some things that I don't want you get tarred by."
Guessing, but oddly sure of his guess, John said, "You don't have to be in the closet because of me."
Bruce studied him, expression completely neutral for the first time since John had met him. "Not because of you, John. For you."
The sound of the doorbell interrupted anything John could think of to say, and Bruce fled, leaving John staring after him. The distant sound of voices pulled him out of his introspection, and he shook his head at himself, trying to get back into gear. Glancing down, he decided that changing his sleep-wrinkled shirt would be a good idea, and he quickly stripped it off, slipping out his bedroom door as he pulled a fresh one on.
From downstairs he heard Bruce say, ".... wait? I'll call when he gets up."
Trying to take the stairs with something of a bounce in his step, despite the cane, to give the impression he was well-rested and, more importantly, mentally alert, John called out, "Who is it, Bruce?" Not giving him a chance to answer, John looked up from his buttons and paused mid-step. "Sarah, Walt! Good morning, if morning it is. Need me for something?"
Sarah and Walt exchanged a startled glance, then she said, "To be truthful, we were looking in on you. Gene told us about yesterday."
"I'll call him later and let him know I'm better," John said as cheerily as he dared, mindful that Sarah could still see through him occasionally. "Starving, but better. I was just going to put together something for breakfast; join me?"
Both of them stuttered through polite refusals at the same time, and behind them, Bruce smiled and shook his head at John. On the heels of their babble, he came the rest of the way down the steps, smiling. "Mind if I go ahead, then? I swear I can hear an omelet calling my name."
Surprisingly it was Walt who pulled himself together first. "Actually, we can't stay very long, but we need to talk to you. This'll just take a minute, I promise."
Keeping up his cheerful front, John said, "Sure."
As if on cue, his stomach growled loud enough for every one to hear, and Bruce chuckled. "What if I go start you that breakfast? You can add cook to my bill, along with chauffer."
Waving the Bannermans toward the living room, John looked over his shoulder at Bruce and winked at him. "Only minimum wage; I've tasted your cooking before."
"Funny, haha... Just for that you get microwaved breakfast burritos."
"My stomach thanks you," John said solemnly, his good humor real this time. He sat down in a chair opposite the couch, not surprised when Walt and Sarah perched on the edge of it, not even taking off their coats, and trading another 'married' look. Without thinking, he turned his head toward the kitchen and called out, "Use the potholders, Bruce. That's what they're for."
He turned back to be pinned by a worried stare from Sarah and a stern cop one from Walt. "What?"
"Johnny," Sarah said, "What's *happening* to you?"
"Just a new aspect on the visions," John said promptly, easily. "Don't always have to touch something, now." Settling back into his chair, he summoned up a confidential tone. "Have to admit, I'm having some trouble getting a handle on being hit out of the blue. At least, before, I could always choose not to touch."
Expression closed, Walt asked, "Visions in general, or just the ones about the guy you had me run that print on?"
Thankfully Johnny was spared answering that. Instead he got to his feet, trying hard to make the movement smooth and seemingly effortless, and headed toward the front door. "Looks like I won't have to call Gene after all." He paused, head tilting to one side and added, "Why is Dana with him?"
The expressions on Gene and Dana's faces as John unexpectedly swung the door open before they could knock was comical, though he was careful to pretend he didn't notice anything out of the ordinary. "I'm *fine,*" he said, waving them in. "As I was telling Walt and Sarah."
Recovering his composure quickly, Gene said, "Surely you understand that I would like to see that for myself. I have seldom been more distressed than when you collapsed without warning, practically at my feet." He sank into the remaining easy chair, elegantly crossing his legs, and Dana prowled around the room restlessly, clearly unwilling to sit. He nodded a hello at the Bannermans, and Walt returned it, though Sarah gave a little half-wave, not lifting her hand completely from her lap.
For a moment John debated remaining standing himself, to give the impression of control over their impromptu gathering, but elected at the last second to sit again, deciding a relaxed attitude would be more convincing. "I'm getting the feeling," he said jokingly, "That you're ganging up on me again."
At the startled look that chased around the room from person-to-person, he realized with a sinking heart that was exactly the case, and the smile he'd been hanging onto vanished. "I do *not* need to be in the hospital. Yes, my dead zone is acting up, but not in a life threatening way. It's just wearing me out a little. Yes, the visions are changing, growing, needing less to be triggered. It's hardly the first time my so-called gifts have taken an unexpected turn."
Obviously choosing her words carefully, Sarah said, apparently for all of them, "It's not the visions so much as where they're leading you this time, Johnny."
Truly curious, he asked, "Have you gotten more warnings to back off?"
Dana spoke for the first time, though she kept her back half-turned to the room and addressed the top of an end table. "My job is finding newsworthy stories, and I keep a professional eye on you, Walt, Gene and some others, to see if anybody is asking about you, poking around for stories of their own that should be mine. Someone is very circumspectly, very discreetly investigating you, me, Cleaves Mills - all of us - and doing such a good job of staying out of sight that I'm just barely sure that it's not my imagination."
"And you think it's related to my most recent round of visions?" John asked with some disbelief.
"You don't?" Dana parried quickly.
Bruce saved Johnny from answering immediately by coming with a filled plate and napkin, the sight of which set John's stomach to loudly gurgling again. John sheepishly said, "Excuse me," to the room in general and reached for the food, only to stop midway. He looked up at Bruce and, half-teasingly and half-seriously, asked, "What's the point of having a psychic for a friend if you don't listen to him?"
Bruce guiltily jerked his left hand away, but John caught it in both of his, lightly laying his palm over the injured area. No flashes of complications; instead he saw/felt Bruce's shock of recognition as he opened the front door only moments from now. "Oh, shit," John said in tired resignation. "Go let him in, please, Bruce."
The doorbell rang amidst small sounds of worry and surprise from the others in the room, and, slanting an odd look John's way, Bruce went to do as asked. The air of tense expectancy didn't lessen when he returned, leading a tall man, dressed in a thousand-dollar suit, equally expensive overcoat and hundred dollar ray-bans. Despite the sunglasses, John recognized him immediately as Blair's husband, but his sight wasn't colored this time by her love and understanding of the man.
What he saw - along with everyone else in the room - was a powerfully built man, dressed to accentuate that strength, and carrying himself with almost arrogant confidence and authority. Even the hand-made Italian kid leather gloves he wore, which could have looked pretentious, only served to emphasize his elegant self-assurance. Without removing his glasses, he said in a voice devoid of betraying accent or background, "I believe we need to talk, Mr. Smith."
For the life of him, John couldn't think of a thing to say, but he wasn't the only one. Taking the silence for granted, his guest gracefully shrugged out of his coat, laid it over the arm, and added icily, "Privately, sir."
That awoke a babble of protests from nearly everyone except John, and his guest ignored all of them, sitting in the chair Purdy had left. "If you must," he said, tone cutting through the chatter, "have a witness to my good behavior, I suggest Mr. Lewis."
"Why?" John asked without thinking, apparently voicing the question for everyone.
His guest simply waved a hand at Bruce, who had somehow managed to put himself between John and him. "You know why, if you stop to think about it. If you wish to explain to your...associates....I suggest you do so at your leisure, not *mine.*"
The last word was spoken with slicing insistence, and John found himself hustling the others out, saying heaven knew what to reassure them over their complaints and all but pushing them bodily out the door. Once it closed, he leaned on it, taking a deep breath, grateful for the reprieve from dealing with them. Not that what waited for him promised to be easier, but at least he could hope there would be less emotional fall out from it later on.
Bracing himself as best he could, John went back toward the living room in time to overhear Bruce as he said tightly, "Why me? And don't give me any bullshit about me already knowing, cause my opinion on that and yours don't necessarily meet."
Taking off the sunglasses to show the blue eyes that John was so familiar with, though they were hard and impenetrable at the moment, the stranger said with surprising gentleness, "Because you don't have a hidden or personal agenda like the others do, and you were the only one to step forward to defend him, if need be. Before you dismiss that, let me remind you that one of the people in the room was a cop, who had every reason to think I meant trouble."
Bruce looked away, muttering, "You see a lot deeper than John does."
"My gifts aren't the same as his."
Wanting to free Bruce from a conversation that he clearly wished he hadn't started, John came in and sat in the other easy chair. "Is that how you found me when I couldn't find you?"
Not responding to the question, the stranger took the phone from its cradle, dialed, and handed it to John. "Please tell the sheriff that he does *not* want to put a watch on this house while I'm here, or try to tail me when I leave."
Putting the phone to his ear, John heard, *Bannerman.*
Needing to share his surprise, John glanced at Bruce, but said simply, "Don't, Walt."
"Don't what?" he said with the false innocence of man caught in the act.
"Just don't," John said firmly, and hung up, automatically returning it to his guest.
The man dialed again and gave it back. "No snooping."
This time the voice was Gene's, and John said sharply, "You do not want to sic Dana on my guest."
Irritated, John said, "No, Gene. I mean it; do whatever you have to to convince her that this isn't a story that needs told. Too many lives depend on anonymity."
"Perhaps you're not the best judge of that," Gene said with the faint hint of condescension that always put John's back up.
"If you can't trust me on this, you can't trust me on anything." Resisting the urge to throw the phone, John carefully, precisely put it down, glaring at it as if it were the cause for his irritation. Trying to smile, he looked at his guest. "He really does mean the best."
"The best in *his* opinion," the man said. "He's not necessarily the best judge of that, himself. He's the one who made a celebrity of you; why do you think it was so easy for me to find you?"
Despite it all, John couldn't help feeling a whirl of excitement. "Then I was right. You did see me!"
His guest inclined his head in admission, and said, voice cold again, "From my point of view, you were taking my spouse's place."
Wincing, John said hurriedly, "It wasn't intentional, I swear. Please, tell her that for me."
Unexpectedly his guest frowned slightly, expression growing distracted. Catching Bruce's eye, John asked with an upraised eyebrow if that was what he looked like when he was hit by a vision, and received a tiny negative shake. "There *is* no easy way to break it to them," the man said to no one, beginning to tug off his gloves, puzzling John even more. "We don't have the time to spend finessing the situation, either. Smith's orders won't hold off Purdy or Bannerman for long."
Resisting the urge to look around for the person his guest was speaking too, John started to defend his friends, but was interrupted by a rich baritone voice drifting in from the kitchen, growing louder as the speaker came closer. "Gotta be a better way, Jim."
Holding out his hand, wedding ring flashing brightly, the stranger - Jim - said, "I honestly wish there were."
The newcomer took the outstretched hand, clasping it between both his, matching gold band gleaming as he raised their joined hands to brush a kiss over Jim's knuckles. With a growing sense of dread, John yanked his sight away from that tender gesture, sure he would find hidden mockery meant for him in Jim's expression, but saw only the love and reverence he'd always seen there before, aimed at the person touching him. Wanting to believe it was some sort of trick, he dragged his gaze back to the newcomer, taking in the strong, trim, obviously male body, dressed casually in jeans, blue sweater and tan corduroy jacket.
"Blair?" John asked, disbelievingly. The compassion in the dark blue eyes that turned his way was the only answer he needed, and he bolted, running from the room as fast as his bad leg would allow him.
Behind him, Blair said, apparently to Bruce, "Don't jump to the conclusions, man. Give him..."
The rest was cut off by the bathroom door slamming behind him, and John grabbed the vanity, locking his hands on the edges as he bent over the sink. Shame, self-disgust, self-loathing, and a dozen other horrifying emotions surged through him, making his stomach swim, making him vaguely grateful he hadn't actually eaten breakfast. Against his will, he replayed the moments that he'd been in Blair's place, this time seeing the subtle clues that should have told him everything, but which he dismissed because it had simply never occurred to him two men could be connected so deeply.
As he was beating down the urge to vomit out of sheer revulsion with himself, Bruce tapped at the door. "What did I tell you about locked bathroom doors being a bad idea for a man with a bum leg?"
Blindly John groped to hit the lock, then Bruce was beside him, helping him stand while he fought dry heaves. Winning, at least for the moment, he lurched toward a chair kept in bath for when that aforementioned leg gave up on him, barely aware that he was trembling. Bruce dampened a washcloth and knelt in front of him as he handed it over. "Way to make an impression on your guests," he said jokingly.
Gulping against a fresh wave of bile as he pressed the cloth against his mouth, John blurted, "What kind of disgusting pervert am I? Bad enough to be peeping in a man and his wife; that's, I don't know, tolerable, if barely. Part of the human condition, prurient curiosity - god, even plain old every day Peeping Toms are better than the kind of man who *spies* into a gay couple's bedroom. Especially a couple who had to go through as much as they did to be together. I'm no better than a rapist."
"You're overreacting; it's not that much of a difference," Bruce argued.
"Think about it," John said, waving away the understanding Bruce was trying to send his way. "A man looks at a woman with that kind of love, everybody ooo's and ahhh's. A man looks at another man that way, and the rednecks start blustering, the fundamentalists start preaching, and the average guy looks the other way, repulsed.
"Not to mention, I'm certain that Jim's a cop of some kind or another. How well do you think being gay goes down with his fellow officers, because I'm telling you there's no way he could hide what he feels for Blair well enough to stay in the closet. Their honeymoon was a thing of beauty, special, just for them, away from all that hatred and bigotry, except now I've got all the intimate details. For all they know, I could be planning to blackmail them."
Not dissuaded, Bruce said, "Look, if the two of them weren't willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, Jim wouldn't have met you in your own home, surrounded by your friends. He would have found you in a quiet, dark place and introduced himself with a punch in the nose."
Clinging to the truth in that, John slumped, relieved when Bruce lent a shoulder to prop him up. "How am I going to face them?" he mumbled tiredly, swiping at his mouth again.
"The same way you've done all the hard things since you came out of that coma," Bruce said. "You're just going to jump in and do it, best you can."
"Not like I have much choice." John swallowed hard, letting Bruce take all his weight, just for a minute, more thankful than he'd ever been at whatever had brought him into his life. When he'd indulged as much as he thought was allowable, he made himself struggle to his feet. "If Jim does decide that a punch is warranted, you go get the ice. No defending my honor, got it?"
"Yeah, right. My nose is probably next just because I'm there," Bruce muttered.
"*You* can run," John pointed out reasonably, finding a real smile, small as it was, and leading the way back to the living room.
Blair was sitting on a hassock in front of Jim, their hands still loosely linked, Jim's fingers absently twirling Blair's ring. They were talking, so quietly that John couldn't even begin to guess what the words were, and both looked at him expectantly when he collapsed back into his own chair, Bruce hovering protectively behind him. Not hiding his extreme embarrassment, John said, "I suppose an apology would be pretty weak, under the circumstances."
Turning so they were face-to-face, Blair brushed that aside with a gesture, oddly not seeming to want or need John's contrition. "From everything we've learned about you, I'd say your visions are usually pretty serious. Save a life, stop a disaster, that sort of thing. So if you're flashing onto us, we have to think there's a damn good reason."
"That's what I told myself when I went looking for you," John admitted. "What, I can't even begin to guess, because, and I really am sorry for intruding, all I've ever picked up is the two of you together. Never any sense of impending danger, or hint of trouble waiting for you. Could be the powers that be just wanted us to meet."
Obviously elected spokesman for the pair, at least for now, Blair said, "That could be. One way to find out." He offered both his hands to John, fingers curled over his palms. "I've been seeing through you, just like you've been seeing through me, and yeah, I collapsed into exhaustion, too. Maybe we should try looking directly at each other and see what happens."
That *felt* right to John, resonating in the same way an object would when he needed to touch it for a vision. Without considering it, he took Blair's hands in his own, seeing Bruce dive for him out of the corner of his eye, Jim already in motion to intercept him. They moved slower, even slower, then
time leaped back to normal for Jim as he caught Lewis, barely preventing him from interfering. He didn't know exactly what would happen if Lewis did touch Blair and John under the circumstances, but every instinct he had screamed that it wouldn't be good. Leaving a portion of his senses' attention on Blair to monitor, he manhandled Lewis into the kitchen.
The man fought back, but with more emotion than skill, though Jim guessed that didn't necessarily have to be the case. Corralling him in one corner, he leaned back against the kitchen counter, arms crossed over his chest, and waited for Lewis to settle down. Much like Blair would in the same circumstances, inadvertently earning Jim's sympathy, Lewis bounced around the small space, muttering unintelligibly.
Finally he ground to a stop in front of Jim. "What the fuck do they think this is going to accomplish except to put them both back in the hospital, maybe in a coma?"
"Like Blair, Smith is a teacher, right?" Jim said more calmly than he felt. "So the really good ones never stop learning themselves; it's what makes them teachers instead of babysitters pushing kids through the paces for a paycheck."
"And Blair's teaching John?" Lewis asked skeptically. "*What* for God's sake?"
Shrugging, Jim braced himself to wade in where he didn't want to go, doing it only because Blair had slowly convinced him Smith and Lewis needed to be bound together, aided by Jim's zone on the aching loneliness he seen in the man. And that it was their job to make it happen. And from everything he'd seen, Jim admitted privately Lewis already cared and was hiding it just the way Blair had speculated. Taking a page from his partner's book, he turned the question back. "What do you think he needs to learn?"
That literally knocked Lewis back a step, confusion taking place of the ire that barely concealed his fear. "Why ask me? You're the one with the gifts."
"They don't necessarily provide all the answers, as you well know," Jim said dismissively. "You know him better than anybody; that makes *you* most qualified."
Physically shoving that idea away, Lewis said, "Sarah knows him better than I do. Or Gene Purdy. They've been with him practically forever."
"Correction, they knew Johnny Smith, teacher and Vera's son. They're his past, which makes them great backup, but the funny thing about history is that it can be a support - or it can be a weight that holds you back, stop you from seeing where you are now. Who you are now. Those two fall into that category." With meaning to, Jim's drifted into memories of his own past, giving his tone a weight that caught and held Lewis' attention.
Encouraged, he went on. "You're with him now. You're helping him because it needs to be done, because you believe in what he can do." Jim paused, gauging the moment, and added, "Because you *want* to help him for his own sake. That makes all the difference. Trust me, I know. In my book, that makes you his partner and nobody knows a man as well as his partner."
Unexpectedly, Bruce grinned. "John was right. You have got to be a cop."
Grinning back, finding he liked this man, Jim intoned in his best on-the-witness-stand manner, "I plead the fifth, your honor."
"I can see where a psychic cop might want to keep his abilities deep undercover," Bruce said, only partly joking.
"It wouldn't be possible without someone like Blair," Jim said matter of factly. "He's been riding with me almost since I went online, covering for me, doing what he could to make it all easier." His jaw tightened, and he added, "At times it's like getting maytagged - all of it just crashes on you, dragging you down with no idea of where up is. Then Blair is just there, sturdy, strong, giving me something to ride the waves on, flexing with my every move."
Jim reined himself in, surprised that he had spoken so honestly to a stranger. "Partners are always close; you depend on each other for safety and support. But when you depend on someone that much, you either learn to hate needing them so much or come to love them more than life itself for giving so unselfishly. Lucky for me, somewhere along the line I realized that Blair couldn't do so much, be so much, for me, if he didn't feel pretty much the same."
"I can see where you're going with this," Bruce said. "It's not that way for me and John."
"It could be. Maybe it should be."
"No way, no *way* is that going to play!" Bruce burst into motion again, refusing to look at Jim.
"Why? Because you're not willing? I don't think so." Jim tilted his head to one side, letting Bruce's misconception of his abilities work for him. "You're already in deep."
Bruce shouted, "Look at me, man! I've three strikes against me without even opening my mouth!" Furiously ticking off on his fingers, he went on, almost getting in Jim's face as he spoke, "Poor, black, male."
Jim shook his head. "I wore this suit for effect, but I can afford it. Blair, when I met him, was poor, Jewish, and male. You know what? None of that was ever an issue between us. The things that got in our way was what gets between every couple: trust, honesty, and sharing real intimacy."
"Yeah, right, like your fellow cops didn't have a problem with you," Bruce said derisively.
"Of course there were outside problems, but that was what we faced together, not what kept us apart. I'm willing to bet that no matter who John gives his heart to, Purdy and company would be anything but supportive. And all that would matter to John was that his lover see him for himself, not some preconceived character based on a lost past and personal agendas. That she - or he - understands what his gifts do to him and can live with it."
"And I'm telling you that I'm not...."
Twin screams ripped through Bruce's words, and Jim spun instantly, one hip on the counter as he slid over it rather than waste precious milliseconds going around, hitting the floor at a dead run. Bruce was right on his heels, and they both tried to summon more speed as a second set of screams flayed at them. It wasn't enough, he wasn't moving fast enough, he had to get there but time slowed down so that his feet were dragging through mud up to his thighs. They finally, finally reached Blair and John, both in the same position as before except for heads thrown back to voice the pain he could see clearly etched in their faces. Bruce reached, and Jim blocked him, sensing that they have to move carefully, very carefully, almost as if they were
frozen in place, which was pretty normal for a vision, giving John the freedom to move around and pick out details. It was, however, the first time one of the people in his vision wasn't frozen with everyone else, and he almost lost his grip on Blair as he looked around the room in pleased amazement.
"This is so cool. Is it always like this for you?" he asked, exuding an enthusiastic admiration that was partly amusing and partly flattering.
Caught up in it, almost against his will, John shook his head, smiling. "There's a good bit of variation. Real time, living the present as someone else far away does, or living the past with them as they did. Freeze-frame, like this. It can be 'me' living, or I can be watching. Every time I think I can fully grasp what I'm capable of, something new happens to me." He nodded at the room in general. "Case in point."
Blair nodded in clear understanding, still visually roaming. "Jim calls it sneak-attack and hates it with a passion."
"Believe me, I can understand that," John said seriously. That pulled Blair back to him, and he found it more than a little disconcerting to be the focus of his full attention. To dilute it a bit, he asked, "Have you ever shared Jim's visions?"
"His gifts don't work quite this way, but, once, yes we did." Blair's smile turned impish, and he added, "You see, I died, and he couldn't let me go, so he pulled me back into life. We shared that experience through images, one in particular."
"You died? Clinically?" Not waiting for an answer, John said thoughtfully, "I wonder if that's why I could connect to you? A Native American shaman from ancient times I saw once in a vision said that it was his death that allowed us to speak and understand each other."
Expression lighting with pure delight, Blair asked, "A shaman? The real deal from pre-Columbus times?"
In answer the room around them swirled and shifted, images of a mountain blowing up, people fading as if they had never existed, a small cave lit by a fire, an ancient hand-made drum with Johnny's silhouette on it, and the man John had met only in that cave, through his dead zone. As quickly as the memory formed, it left, and they both gasped at a shared pang of an indescribable sensation.
"Wow," Blair murmured, eyes closed. "*Seriously* cool." Lifting his lids as if they weighed tons, he said, "Jim thinks of me as his shaman. He's not serious, but he is, too, at the same time, if you get me."
Again the room changed, morphing into another living room all together, and a blood-covered man, wearing red and black paint in patterns that reminded John of South American, grasped Blair's hand, covering it with his own blood, murmuring in a language John didn't understand.
"Incacha," Blair whispered sorrowfully. "A Chopec shaman who was Jim's first teacher, passing the way of the shaman onto me as he died."
John's own living room came back, accompanied by that same pang, much stronger now. Exhaling on it, he said, "I don't think this is good for us. I was in a coma, not dead."
"Changes to the brain and functional patterns were probably similar, or share similar traits, but they're obviously not identical," Blair said after a slow, controlling breath of his own. "Making this possible, but only if necessary, would be an intelligent guess. So why was our meeting necessary?"
Not without some exasperation, John said. "Believe me, I've been wondering the same thing since I flashed onto you and Jim while staying at Miss Betty's Bed & Breakfast."
"Miss Betty's," Blair repeated, voice colored with the kind of fond nostalgia usually reserved for one's weird uncle or dotty grand-relation. "We needed a place close to the retreat where my mom was staying and wound up having the kind of honeymoon that romance writers dream up."
His expression grew dreamy and sensual. "We'd been riding together for years, you know, before the incident when Jim brought me back. Things were so bad before and right after, that when I finally had time to sit down and *think,* the first thought that hit me was why in the hell did I put up with that kind of shit from him. I'd hardly framed the question before I had the answer; because I was love in with him - completely, devastatingly, unredeemably in love with the big jerk."
Unable to resist the wonder in his voice, John prodded him into talking more. "You confessed to him right after that?"
Laughing quietly, merrily, Blair said, "Not a chance in hell. The last thing I wanted right then was to be in love with anybody, let alone this buff Adonis who lived and breathed his job. I wanted to find the right person to be with; someone who could travel the world with me, shared my passions, and only when I was ready for that kind of long-term. You could say that I staked a huge claim on a certain river in Egypt!"
Truly interested in spite of himself John asked, "So what changed that?"
"I died again," Blair said with only a trace of sadness. "Professionally this time. Killed my career to protect him and let him do what he was literally born to do. Thought I dealt with it pretty well, then he tried to 'bring me back' again, by offering me a job. Right after he did that, in front of all our friends I might add, I bolted, angrier than I'd ever been in my life. He caught up with me, of course, and I just *exploded* with every resentment, annoyance, frustration and grievance I'd ever had against him."
"Ouch," John said, wincing sympathetically.
For some reason that brought Blair's focus back onto John, but he finished his story. "Went I finally stopped ranting and threw a punch at him, he took it, just took it full on the chin without so much as moving. When I came in for another, he caught me, and kissed me like he'd saved up a lifetime's worth of kisses just for me. Later - a *lot* later - he told me that the only reason he could think of that I would have stayed with him if I was holding all that back was because I loved him. And he wanted a chance to have that love and return it. Took a while before we worked it all out, enough to get married anyway."
"Not your typical love story."
"Nope, and it brings us right back to the start. Why did you get pulled into it?" Gaze sharp and penetrating now, Blair asked, "You picked up on us at Miss Betty's by touch right? Then you just started flashing onto us. Ever when we were at the job or even doing something as mundane as grocery shopping? Or was it only when we were intimate?"
"The first time we dropped cold was when I flashed onto you dropping Jim off at work," John said, mystified.
Blair's smile took on a bit of a smirk. "While I was seriously admiring his ass and wishing we'd had time for me to get a piece of it before work."
Something heavy and hot rolled low in John's belly, and he muttered, "Another misconception out the window."
"Yeah, a lot of people find it hard to imagine anything but me as the bottom. It may be TMI for you, but we like to trade off."
"Is it really that good?" John blurted, surprising himself with the question.
"Oh, God, yes," Blair said, smirk widening into incredibly happy smile. "First few times, it's an exercise in patience and love, but after that, I tell you, it just keeps getting better and better. You ever think about giving it a chance?"
The innocent-sounding question caught John off guard, and the room filled with images of Sarah in all the ages and phases he'd known her. Blair looked at each of them in turn, barely wincing at the now-expected hurt, each vanishing as he moved onto the next. "First love - in some ways the strongest." He fixed his gaze on John. "But not necessarily always the best. You need to move on, man."
Scrubbing at his face to try to hide both his physical and mental discomfort, John said, "I honestly thought I had."
"You can tell me to mind my own business, if you like, but has there been anybody but her?"
More women appeared, though not that many, including a few indistinct ones that John realized had been passing fantasies for one hand or perhaps dreams that had the same purpose. It was hard to see Kate again, even this way, and the sight of Dana brought a flush to his face. All faded away as abruptly as they appeared, and John didn't need to be a shrink to know that was a reflection of how brief their time in his life was.
Expression questioning, Blair looked at Dana, the last to go. "You know that she was probably acting on Purdy's orders."
"Going in," John answered with a shrug in his voice. "I guess... I guess I was just grateful for a chance to see if I was still a man. The accident, the therapy, it all has a way of leaving you questioning that."
Sarah flickered into existence again, but Blair let John's partial explanation stand. Instead, he asked, very, very gently, ""I'm telling you, man, I can't help but think you're not seeing the forest for the trees."
Truly baffled, John asked, "What do you mean?"
"Okay, I'm going to take the long way around, to give you a chance to catch up to me." Blair fell silent for a moment, finally releasing John from the hold his gaze had on him by looking down at the floor as he thought. Before he could start to fidget, Blair said, clearly choosing his words very deliberately, "Jim told me that your reaction to finding out about us wasn't because you're a 'phobe, but because you're genuinely distressed by invading our privacy. Is that right?"
John couldn't help but blanch. "I truly am sorry. I know that doesn't help much...." He trailed off; Blair was shaking his head.
"It's a non-issue; we both know you didn't have a choice," Blair said firmly. "The reason I asked is because it *was* us that you flashed on. Not just any married couple. Not just any gifted man and his spouse. A gay couple who share a bond that goes past love and into something more. Doesn't that tell you something?"
Not sure where he was heading, John said hesitantly, "There can't be that many people out there who have abilities like mine. I guess I was thinking that was the critical element involved in triggering the visions between us. That and what you just told me about dying."
"More than likely it was a factor," Blair admitted, grudgingly, John thought. "But your tolerance probably was, too. I mean, it wouldn't have done much good for us to meet if you threw us out or threatened to get a shotgun because we were 'god-damned preverted faggots." He hesitated, then said, "Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?" At his go-ahead nod, he asked, "Obviously your heart has been fixed on Sarah for a long, long time. Hormones are something else entirely, though. You're bound to have had the occasional fantasy that reached beyond the usual. That or you were off-scale for normal before your coma!"
Smiling at the joking tone, John still gave the question serious consideration before answering. Embarrassed, but deciding that Blair deserved the truth, he said, "If you're asking if I ever thought about trying what the two of you do - yes, once in a while. That's why it felt so much like my visions were turning me into a Peeping Tom, why what I saw disturbed me so much."
"Studies say most people have the occasional thought, at least," Blair said reassuringly. "The vast majority would never dream of acting on those impulses, for a thousand different reasons. I'm thinking, maybe *you* should be the exception to that." He looked up at Bruce significantly. "It's pretty obvious he's not disinterested in you."
John followed Blair's gaze, studying the tableau in front of him, unable to deny the honest fear on Bruce's face as he strained against Jim's restraining hold on him. "I know he cares for me."
"No duh," Blair said dryly.
"He's my friend!"
"That's a good starting point for a more intimate relationship."
With shocking suddenness, Blair's point struck home, and a twist of something deep in John's gut told him that he was right. Holding in a gasp, he said sharply, "I can't."
Unfazed by the almost automatic denial, Blair said, "Because he *is* your friend and you don't want to risk losing that, because you count on him for help and understanding, because you know how much grief and pain is waiting for him if you reach out for him. There are more excuses, but trust me, that's all they are. Excuses to cover fear."
"You're wrong," John said bluntly, adopting the stern, immovable attitude his mother would have when he was a kid, wanting the impossible or ridiculous. "Just...wrong."
"Am I?" Blair asked very, very softly. "Am I really?" As he spoke the light around them dimmed, leaving them in a tiny pool of light with only shadows beyond the sharp edges of brightness. "Running from the truth doesn't work, John. Not for long. It just comes out in other ways, more destructive, harder-to-fight ways."
The illumination holding them began to fade as well, and Blair murmured, "Welcome to my nightmare," his voice breathy, as if he were
**running, running desperately, running despite the stitch in his side and the painful spikes of exhaustion in his legs, running and never getting anywhere. Every alley in this maze of back streets and forgotten lanes looked exactly like every other one, and no path that he could find led to his partner. He had to find Jim, had to, he was in this filthy, gloomy labyrinth without backup and with a gunman after him. Who, he didn't know. It didn't matter. The gunman knew this territory; had every twist and turn memorized. He could bide his time, wait until Jim was tired, distracted, zoned on god knew what, and take him out.
It would be so easy, so *easy* in this environment. Sound echoed strangely, distorted by the stone walls of so many heights and thicknesses; light shifted madly, with no rhyme or reason as the street lights flickered fitfully, neon bright colors cutting through them unexpectedly from odd angles. The stench from garbage and human filth cut through the close, stifling air; almost an entity in and of itself, filtering from lungs to mouth to choke and suffocate.
Jim needed him beside him, to keep him focused and talk him through the obstacles. He'd try to do it on his own, try with everything he had because he wouldn't want to fail him, because it wasn't in him not to do everything in his power to survive. In the end, though, his own abilities would let him down. There was no question of that. There never had been. He had always, *always* known in the farthest corner of his mind that sooner or later, Jim would die in the line of duty, betrayed by the very gifts that let him save so many others.
No now, please not now. Not this time. Let him get to Jim in time. Let him find him in this frustrating, infuriating, terrifying morass before it was too late. Please. Please. Please, please, please, please....
He stumbled around a corner, nearly falling as he over-corrected for speed and the sharpness of the turn, and thank all that was sacred, there was Jim, weapon out, turning slowly in a five-way intersection, squinting at the changes in light from each of the lanes. Too short of air to call out, he clung to the brick wall, sharp edges from it cutting at his hands, waiting for Jim to spot him.
A glint of something - of motion, of darkness taking shape, of evil intent - caught Blair's eye. It was behind Jim, in a place where he had just looked and dismissed, and there was no way he would turn back to it soon unless it gave itself away. That wasn't going to happen. What warning could come from a hand coming up slowly, gun already cocked and ready, aimed at Jim's head? How could he possibly even suspect that the shooter was there, grinning gleefully, pulling the trigger.
From somewhere he found enough air to scream, wanting it to be the warning the shooter wouldn't give, but he was too late and his voice held nothing but pure horror that sounded as though two voices from two different directions loosed it. The inevitable happened. As Jim spun, trying to pinpoint him, the shooter fired, and Jim went down, he went down in a spray of blood and brain matter, the force of the bullet carrying him forward almost to his feet, and he knelt, mind silent screaming his pain, too much for any man to bear, John couldn't bear it and he *was*
John, John, not Blair, this wasn't his partner, not his loss, but even as he formed that denial, the body in front of him melted, becoming smaller, skin darkening, hair turning black and tightly curled. It was Bruce, surprise and agony the only thing left in his dead eyes, his hand flung out toward John as if in supplication. As if to ask, "Why didn't you See this and stop it? You've save so many; why were you too late for me? I know you're not god, can't change everything, that sometimes you See what can't be changed just to reinforce that nasty bit of truth, but you could have made an exception for me. Couldn't you? Wouldn't you? For the person who is the other part of your soul?"
"The other part of my life," John murmured, tasting the truth in the tears pouring down his face.
"What good does it do to tell that to my corpse, man?" Bruce asked, standing whole and untouched beside his own body. "What good does any love do if you push it down, smother it in fear and doubt? Why love at all?" He kicked his own body, blood beginning to bloom from the front of his chest, turning the wheat-colored sweater he wore brilliant red. "If you don't love, you aren't human any more. You're just as dead as this hunk of meat; you just don't have the good sense to lie down and let the undertaker come for it."
"Bruce," John whispered through a raw throat. "I...I..."
As if not hearing him, Bruce kicked his body again, this time gloomily, frowning at it as if its condition were its own fault. "Why waste time loving a dead man? Why'd I even try?" With a last kick, his entire front wet with blood now, he turned away, shoulders hunched as if to contain some huge pain, disappearing into the blackness in the next instant.
Kneeling up, John reached for him, an enormous agony blossoming, not in his heart where he expected it, but in his head. It was exploding, just like Jim's had from that gunshot, and he tried to clap his hands to the sides of his head to hold it in one piece. He couldn't. Strong fingers had a grip on his wrists, a painful hold that made sparks dance in front of his eyes, creating light that showed his living room, Blair sitting in front of him. A scream of agony that he was echoing distorted his face, and they jerked free of each other falling
but Jim shoved Bruce aside and stretched out to catch Blair before he could hit the ground. He was a dead weight in his arms, and he rolled with him because he was too over-balanced to keep his feet, using his own body to cushion Blair's fall. They wound up flush against the couch, Blair's back against it, and Jim stretched out an arm to snag his overcoat to drape over them.
Fingers against Blair's throat, he measured his rapid pulse, automatically noting how fast and shallow his breath was. Pressing the thumb from his free hand against the artery in Blair's upper arm, Jim gauged his blood pressure, finding it way too low for his liking. Worst of all, he was clammy and cold, as if going into shock, and this was not a town where he wanted him to be hospitalized.
If there was no help for it, then he wasn't going to gripe. He'd just have to deal. Jim twisted his head to ask Bruce to dial 911, but even as he moved, Blair took a deep breath, his vitals slowly sliding back down to normal. Which was all for the good since it looked as though Bruce had his hands full, himself.
John was as pale as only fair-skinned former redheads can be, eyes rolled into the back of his head so that only the whites showed. Faint tremors shook him, and Bruce was wrapping an afghan from the couch around his shoulders, quietly saying his name and scolding him with every other breath. As Jim listened, though, John's heartbeat returned to normal, and he dismissed him from his mind, turning his attention back to Blair.
Instinctively seeking Jim's heat, he squirmed closer, fitting himself perfectly along Jim's front, reminding Jim, despite everything, how long it'd been since he'd been able to enjoy his lover. Innocently taking pleasure in his solid form, he stroked Blair's curls and waited for him to recover, listening with half an ear as John did the same. Before very long his eyelashes fluttered up, and he murmured appreciatively deep in his throat, squirming again, with time with very deliberate intent.
"Behave yourself," Jim murmured against his ear.
"You're not," Blair pointed out, reasonably, speaking so only he would hear.
"By now you have to have learned that he's got a mind of his own. Ignore him; sooner or later he'll go away."
"Only if you promise he'll make a return, even bigger and better than before." At Jim's chuckle, Blair added more seriously, "And because this floor is anything but soft."
"We'll get up in a minute, soon as I'm sure you're okay." Reluctantly Jim went back to business. "How much did he learn about us and the sentinel thing?"
"Not enough to be useful. Face it, though; if he really needs to find out about us, he has the tools to do it," Blair said.
"We can arrange for that to be on our terms. Give Bruce your card - the Dr. Sandburg one." He considered a moment, replaying what he knew of Purdy and Bannerman. "And I bury our records so deep that even people who know they should exist can't find them. Been meaning to do that for a while now."
Goosebumps of the unpleasant kind swept over Blair, and he shuddered once. "Yes, I think you should."
Leaning back enough to meet his eyes, Jim saw a hint of something unblairish, but it faded quickly, hopefully never to return, leaving Blair bruised and exhausted looking. Time to get going. "Can you stand?" Jim asked in a normal tone of voice, alerting Bruce and John that they were going to have to deal with their guests again. "Sheriff Bannerman is already pushing at the edge of the envelope; the second squad car in ten minutes has just gone by here."
John got to his feet, leaning heavily on his cane and Bruce's supporting arm. "Want me to call him again?"
"No," Blair said, speaking for both of them. "It would be better if we left. Sooner we go, the easier it'll be to cover our tracks."
Jim drew him to his feet, then went to the kitchen to fetch the duffle bag Blair had brought in with him when he came in the back way, along with Blair's heavy coat and the spare jacket for Jim. He returned to find the three of them taking turns staring at each other, clearly not knowing what to say. That worked for him; he used the tension as an excuse to swing into action. Toeing off his dress shoes, he sat and took his boots out of the duffle.
Without waiting for direction, Blair took out a cable-knit sweater and put the shoes in for him, then began neatly folding the overcoat, compressing it as much as possible to fit it in as well. Putting on his own coat, he took a knit cap out of a pocket for Jim to wear, and within moments Jim had transformed his appearance enough that he didn't think Bannerman would recognize him if he followed them all the way back to the borrowed car parked half a mile away.
"Just like that, you're going to leave?" Bruce blurted, indignation making the break through for him. "No more flashes?"
For an answer Blair unhooked an earring and dropped it into John's outstretched hand. "Nothing," John said, not without some relief.
Boldly plucking it from his palm, Jim put the hoop in his own ear, earning a nudge from Blair at pilfering one of his earrings yet again.
"Just in case," Blair said, digging into his wallet and giving it to Bruce. It was a battered card, both because it would look as if Bruce had had it for a while and because he *had* carried it so long, and John acknowledged his purpose with a wry grin.
Hand on Blair's shoulder, slumping a bit to look more at ease and grinning, Jim said, "Better have your security upgraded. A baby could have by-passed it." He guided him toward the back, Bruce and John trailing behind. Not troubling with a goodbye, he left through the kitchen door with his partner, half-turning once to see John staring at where his hand rested comfortably on Blair, and not imagining the wistfulness he saw in the man's face. Mentally wishing them the best, he bent to whisper a kiss over Blair's ear before they were too public.
"I can *not* believe you're just letting them go like this," Bruce grumbled. "Nothing but first names, some theories that we couldn't prove if our life depended on it, and a business card that I do not have to be told shouldn't be used unless lives depend on it."
"We'll see them again," John said, watching his guests go, wishing he didn't feel so much envy at their laughing happiness, especially since he knew full-well how much it cost them.
"I thought you said no more visions from them," Bruce said, turning on his heel to glare at him.
"Not a psychic prediction; a very human bet based on past experience." Forcing himself to move, John went to the refrigerator to pull out the ingredients to replace his long-cold breakfast.
Automatically taking out a frying pan, Bruce said, "Yeah?"
"Human nature. Sooner or later, for whatever reason, they'll need what I can do, and since they know I'm the real deal, they won't be able to *not* contact me."
"There is that," Bruce said, sounding more cheerful as he turned on the stove. "Hard to ignore the services of a psychic when trouble comes knocking at your door. No doubt those two see more than their share of that."
"Mmm," John agreed noncommittally, pretending great interest in the cheese he was grating for an omelet.
Just as casually, Bruce said, "So, are you going to tell me why you and those two were connecting?"
Sagging a little, John paused mid-scrape, stubbornly keeping his eyes on his task. "Yes, but give me some time to think it all through, will you? It was pretty...intense."
"No bull," Bruce muttered, but let it go.
Surprised at his easy acceptance, John flashed a glance at him, but Bruce's expression reflected only trust. Not for the first time, he knew, but for once, John saw it as more than the patience a therapist had to have, or a good friend with experience at knowing when to push and when to back away. He saw it for what it was and could be, and truly wondered if he had the strength to turn away from it now that he could no longer delude himself about its existence.
Bruce looked up from his cooking and caught John staring at him. "What?" Immediately he set aside the pan, face filled with worry. "Another vision?"
"No," John said quickly to reassure him. "In fact...." He considered for a moment, then added, "In fact, I think the ones without touching weren't me at all; I think I was picking up on what Jim does."
Bruce studied him suspiciously for a moment, then went back to melting butter for omelets. "Said his gifts were different."
Watching Bruce's hands move fluidly, gracefully in a way that made him ache in interesting places, John murmured to himself, "Maybe not that different - not the gift that really counts."
Please post a comment on this story.