Jim didn't know when he was going to get over it. He hoped soon, but that was looking doubtful. Three months already and no sign of relief. It was like a physical pain, the way his heart lurched every time someone knocked at the door. And the thought that always flashed through his head. Blair! But it never was Blair, nor would it be anytime soon. Maybe not ever again. An then the pain would come, the crushing weight in his chest that was not a heart attack because he wasn't that lucky.
This time the non-Blair person was a young woman. Had she said something? Explained what she was doing standing at his door? He got distracted so easily these days. He could keep it together at work, but otherwise, his mind was somewhere else entirely.
Of course, it must be about the room.
"I didn't realize the ad had come out already," he said.
"In the Gazette? For the room I'm renting out. I thought it would be in tomorrow's paper."
"Oh. Well, I got an advanced copy. Is that okay? For me to be here now?"
"Sure. Yeah. I guess I was expecting people to call first. But what the hell, you're here. Come on in," he said, stepping aside to let her in.
It was the first time he'd really focused on her, and he couldn't stop staring. No. It was not possible. Now he knew he had finally lost whatever shred of sanity he'd managed to keep after Blair left. There were times already when he imagined hearing his partner's voice, late at night, no distinct words, just a sorrowful sound, as if Blair were missing him just as badly. Of course that was only wishful thinking. And now he was seeing things. She couldn't really look like Blair, could she? No, not possible. Not possible.
"I'm sorry. What did you say?" he could see she was waiting for an answer, an expectant look on her face.
"I was wondering if I could see the room. That I'd be living in. If I moved in."
"Oh, sure. Of course. It's this way. I'm afraid it's not very large, but..." He didn't know what else to say. So he stopped talking and let her look around. She smiled at him, not seeming to notice he was acting like a fool. Or pretending not to. She looked like the polite sort who would ignore a certain amount of eccentricity.
He watched her check out Blair's...the spare room, inspecting the closet, opening the drawers, looking out the window, testing the bed. Was it just her hair? So it was long and curly, and a little wild, like Blair's. So it bounced around her face like punctuation, underscoring everything she said and did. So it glinted in the sunlight. It wasn't the same color at least. A bright coppery red, instead of warm brown. Of course, Blair's hair did have auburn highlights. Oh, shit.
"Would you need the first and last month's rent and a security deposit?" she asked, twisting a strand of that hair around her finger, looking worried.
He tried to concentrate on what she was saying. Money. She was talking about money. Another student. Like Blair. God. Students were always poor. Money would be a concern for her. No, it wasn't just the hair. She had the same wide-eyed innocence. Blue eyes. Lighter than Blair's, but just as big and round. And that open, expressive face. It would show everything she felt, like her worry about the money.
"I don't think all that's necessary. Let's start with the first month's rent. If anything gets damaged, we'll work it out. I'd rather not bother with a lease. You can stay as long as you want. When you're ready to move out, just give me a reasonable amount of notice. Does that sound okay?"
"Well, yeah. Of course. So, you're saying...does this mean I can have the room?" Her face lit up.
Oh God, just like Sandburg.
"If you want it. But there are a few things you should know first. Some house rules. If you're still interested, you can write me a check and move in whenever you want."
He catalogued all the house rules he'd ever tormented Blair with, throwing in a few new ones, just for good measure. He wanted her to know exactly what she was getting herself into. He didn't want to come home one day and find her gone, fed up with him and his difficult ways. Like Sandburg. Okay, so Blair hadn't just disappeared. So he'd gotten a really good offer to do field work in Madagascar, something that would do a lot for his career. So his leaving hadn't come out of the blue, since Blair had talked it to death, just like he did everything else, before accepting the offer. So Jim had had months to prepare for the inevitable. So? Blair was still gone. And knowing his nomadic ways, it was hard to tell when or if he'd ever come back to Cascade. And Jim could not stand being in the apartment alone anymore. He wanted the person who moved into that room to stick around for a little while.
Jim gave the young woman credit for patience. She listened to the whole diatribe very carefully, really taking it in, nodding at some things, looking a bit puzzled by others. She paid such close attention to what he was saying he could almost feel her concentration on his skin. He didn't know anybody who paid attention like that. Well, at least nobody who still lived in Cascade.
"I think I got it all," she said. "And I don't have any problems with it. It's just that there are so many details. I might forget some things at first. If you don't mind, you can just jog my memory from time to time."
Her earnestness made him smile. "I'll be sure to do that. So when do you want to move in?"
She looked funny for a moment and then said hurriedly, "I have my things outside. I was hoping I could move in now. Actually, I don't have anywhere else to go."
He frowned. "Your family"
She shook her head. She was alone. Just like he was.
"I'm sorry," he said. And he meant it. She was much too young to be all by herself in the world.
"Thanks," she said softly.
"Well, I guess today's the day you move in then. Go get your things."
Her face flooded with relief and gratitude. "Oh, thank you. Thank you so much."
She dashed out the door and returned a few minutes later with a large suitcase and a duffel bag.
"Can I help you with the rest of it?"
"This is it actually."
He knew his jaw must have dropped. It made him think of another student who'd been able to fit his entire life into a backpack. Oh, God. Maybe it had been a mistake, letting this girl move in when he couldn't look at her without thinking of Blair. He'd been acting purely on impulse when he offered her the room, and that was not at all like him. He didn't actually know anything about her. A complete stranger, and he'd invited her into his home. Just like that. What the hell was wrong with him?
And here she was with all her worldly possessions in two bags. So easy just to pack them one day and leave forever. Like Blair. Oh God, Blair.
The girl put her hand on his arm, just for a moment. "I want to thank you again. For taking me in. You won't regret it. I promise."
He didn't understand why, but that calmed him.
"Well, welcome then..." he hesitated, slightly embarrassed. "I'm sorry. Your name..."
She smiled, and it was luminous, alive with kindness and laughter. How he had missed that.
"It's Molly," she told him.
Molly sat cross-legged on her small bed, thumbs curved against her middle fingers, breathing in a slow and controlled rhythm, concentrating on the stillness at her center. Whenever Jim was away, she meditated, and this evening he was on a stakeout. She had been searching for answers, a way to break through the defenses for more than three weeks now, but there had been no change. Or possibly it had gotten worse. Not that she had ever thought it would be easy to make this her home, at least not the way she wanted it to be, her expectations were so high. But the resistance had come from an entirely unexpected quarter. Jim, she'd had no problem with. He'd accepted her into his house and his life with an ease and graciousness that still surprised her. Maybe it was because he was so sad and lonely. It had leapt out at her the moment he first opened the door:a gaping wound in his energy field, the slow leak of his life force. Since she moved in, she'd been able to cheer him up a little. He seemed to like having her around.
But the loft itself, now that was another story entirely.
The house spirits couldn't stand her. She had trouble even admitting it to herself. House spirits always liked her, if only because she was one of the few people who sensed them and took the trouble to make friends. But the loft wanted nothing to do with her. It had even taken to playing mean little pranks on her. So far, she'd lost three toothbrushes, a lipstick, and most upsettingly, the silver hairbrush her grandmother had given her. They'd all just completely vanished without a trace. Every time she did laundry, she ended up with more mismatched socks. God only knew where the mates had gone. And worst of all, whenever she was in the kitchen by herself some item of houseware flung itself off the counter or out of the cupboard, shattering into a million pieces. It had gotten so bad that Jim teased her about being a danger to herself and others, and soon she was going to have to buy him a whole new set of dishes.
It had taken a while to figure out what the problem was. She knew she hadn't done anything to make the spirits angry. They'd been hostile from the moment she arrived. It had finally dawned on her that maybe it wasn't about her. Someone else had lived here once, and the spirits did not want to let this person go. Not that this realization exactly told her how to fix the problem, but it did at least explain what she had sensed from the moment she first crossed the threshold. There was a strong and pervasive energy imprinted in every corner and on every object in the apartment. This had been his home for some time. His? She was pretty sure it was a man. It felt like male energy, gentler than most perhaps, but male nonetheless. And it was still very strong. What had Jim said when he'd shown her the room that day? Sorry. It's a little dusty. No one's been in here for a couple of months.
As she concentrated, she could almost hear this mystery man's presence, singing along the baseboards, collecting in deep wells in the shadows. Months. It shouldn't still be so palpable, especially after she'd burnt the sage. Energy dissipated over time, that was its nature. Even the house spirits couldn't have prevented it. But the presence seemed to be growing more powerful. That wasn't possible, was it? Unless. Oh, she said out loud. Love. It must be.
She concentrated on the love, looking with the special vision she'd always just known how to use. And suddenly she could see it everywhere. It filled the room like an ocean, whorls and eddies, crashing in a variety of colors, so many different kinds of love. A gentle yellow, warm and invitingthe color of friends, of partners, those who trust one another without reserve. There was also pink, pale and opalescent, signifying deep affection, an attachment of the heart. And swirling beneath that a bright amethyst, the color of family ties, those born of blood, as well as those freely chosen. But there was still more. She could see the red of passion, unacted upon, churning and seething, the energy of frustrated longing. And throughout everything, white light so intense it was almost too painful to look at, the purest of all connections, the bond of a common destiny, the love that would sacrifice everything for the beloved.
Molly felt something like anguish hit her in the solar plexus, knocking the wind out of her, and she was surprised by the sting of sudden tears. There was something else here too, something dark and ponderous, cowering beneath the light. Fear. But of what? She concentrated. Fear of speaking the love aloud. Fear of consequences. Fear of the world's opinion and its danger. Fear for the beloved. Fear of the beloved, his rejection and anger, his scorn if the secret feelings should be revealed and go unreturned. And there was shame, too. She could smell it, a sour odor, the uneasy sense that there was no right to love, that to do so was wrong, not allowed, a betrayal of some sort.
She lay down on the bed, breathing raggedly, overwhelmed by sadness. She had opened herself up to the energy, and the loss felt like her own. She concentrated on bringing her center back to a place of balance. No wonder there's such terrible damage to Jim's psyche. She curled into a fetal position, rocking herself, grieving for her new friend's pain.
That was when it happened, so unexpectedly. She could hear the house spirits rushing and wailing around the room, their agitation making a sound that was almost language. She closed her eyes and listened with all her senses. They were trying to tell her something, but it was still muffled and indistinct. She listened harder. There. A word. Blair. One agonized syllable, filled with the spirits' despair. And again. Blair. Stronger now. And there was so much more they wanted to say. Molly opened up her intuition as far as she dared and listened intently as they poured out the whole sad story.
On the floor beside the dresser something glittered in the orange glow from the lamp. It was her grandmother's silver hairbrush.
Blair didn't know when he was going to get over it. Not today. Okay. So that had been established. He was seriously freaking. His heart was so out of control and his breathing...well, he couldn't really breathe at all. Man, it was like his first day of teaching all over again. Only today his nervousness wasn't from being up at the podium. He liked teaching. After all, it was only talking. No sweat. Talking was like his best thing.
Except today. At least this was his intro class. Thank God she wasn't in his seminar. First-year students didn't know what to expect, but anthro majors would wonder what the hell was wrong with him. And if she were in one of his small classes, he'd never get away with staring at her like this.
God knew he obsessed over Jim way too much, but this was more than a little crazy. Jim was a big, tough cop, a seasoned ex-military man, with a buzz cut and shoulders that looked like they could carry the weight of the world. You couldn't get a better definition of masculine if you looked it up in the dictionary. There was certainly nothing manly about the young co-ed sitting in the third row. Small frame, long, curly hair, delicate complexion. A little vulnerable perhaps. So why did she so completely remind him of Jim?
Because he had finally lost his mind. Gone. Poof. Bye-bye. Adios to the last of his grip on reality. There were nights he laid awake tossing and turning, truly believing he would go mad from missing Jim. And now it had happened. How many times had he wished one of them were a woman so it might have all worked out happily? So he wouldn't have had to leave him. Leave the loft. His home. God, he missed that too. All of his life shifting from place to place, no permanence, no roots, no one and nothing to call home, and when he did finally find the place he belonged, it was complicated as shit and he couldn't stay. God, he couldn't breathe. Yep, this was a panic attack. Shit. He tried to get his breathing under control, inhaling for six counts and then exhaling in the same rhythm. In, out, in out. Yes, that was working. Okay. He could finish class. He could get through this. Really.
But she looked like Jim. Reminded him of Jim. Those eyes. A perfect sky blue. How often did that occur in the nature? And not just the color, but the steady, level quality of her gaze. How often had Jim watched him just like that? Thoughtfully. Evaluating. And the fine bones of her face, like she had been sculpted out of marble. And something beyond any physical characteristic, just her whole way of being. The way she sat there in his class, quiet and observant, self-contained, taking in everything but revealing little of herself. And still somehow leaving him with the feeling that there was so much more beneath the surface, a mind and heart and spirit that felt things deeply, a sense of honor and a purposeful intelligence, making him want to ask her a million questions, find out everything there was to know.
Oh God, who else affected him like that?
She was new to Rainier, a first year student, enrolled at the beginning of the second semester. When she'd come to ask special permission to take his Anthro 102 class without the prerequisite 101, he had not been able to take his eyes off her or even to speak coherently. It was as if the world stopped, just for a moment. Along with his heart. His reactions to her were all over the place. She seemed so familiar, as if he already knew her. But not her exactly. And then he realized it was the same intuitive sense he had of Jim. The connection that allowed him to guide his Sentinel. His mind raced in so many different directions, he didn't even remember to warn her how difficult it would be to catch up or encourage her to wait to take both parts of the course next year. He had no idea what he'd said, or if he'd said anything at all. He'd just signed the form and stared at her in disbelief.
It was almost enough to make him wish he had stayed in Madagascar. Okay, so not really. Every moment he'd spent there had been a new agony. Too far away. Jim and his home and everything that meant anything to him had been so far out of his reach. Even his work had seemed remote. It wasn't enough to be an anthropologist anymore. He needed to be an anthropologist focused on Sentinel research. Those were the only insights and discoveries that gave him any real sense of satisfaction anymore. The expedition to Madagascar had been yet another chance of a lifetime, and he'd never been able to work up any real enthusiasm for it. The whole time away had felt like precious time misspent, taken from what was truly important.
Because the work that mattered most to him was being Jim's guide, his partner.
When he left, he'd said it was because Jim could get by without him, and that was technically true. But it didn't mean there weren't whole new realms of mastery Jim could acquire over his senses, subtle and refined skills they could develop together. There was no work more satisfying than that, even if he never made a dollar from it, even if he never published a page about it. The Mikea of Madagascar could not hold a candle to working alongside an honest-to-God Sentinel.
But not anymore.
He'd lasted a semester in Madagascar. It was supposed to be a year, at the least. Shit, he was going to develop a reputation for being unreliable, not jumping on opportunities when they came up. Especially after he'd already turned down Borneo. Oh hell, who cared? Every day in the island's western forests had been out-and-out torment. He couldn't stand it. If he couldn't be in Jim's life, sharing his work, living in the loft with him, he could at least be in the same city, knowing that Jim was somewhere close by. Coming back to Cascade had given him that measure of comfort.
Except Cascade wasn't the same without Jim. He'd never liked the cold, the way it settled into his bones and made him feel closed off forever from everything that was warm and comforting and alive. Outside the glow of Jim's company, the winter felt bitter and unremitting and hopeless. Sterile. Like his new apartment. He should feel lucky to have it. It was not a bad space in a neighborhood that was safe enough. It had built-in bookshelves, lots of them, more room than he'd ever had for his books in his life. The bedroom was kind of small, but he was used to that. The living room was comfortable enough, a good place to work. And he could afford it. All in all, it should have seemed like a god-send.
But it didn't.
And the luster had gone out of his routine around the university too. Reading his anthro journals and teaching his classes and working on his research dulled in comparison to his life at the station, despite all the paperwork. But he hadn't just lost his enthusiasm for work. He had a hard time getting interested in anything lately. Since he'd moved out of the loft and Jim's life. He had no appetite and had to force himself to eat. Sleep was impossible. God, he sounded depressed. Who was he kidding? He was depressed. And it was all his own fault. He was the one who walked away. He was the one who hadn't called Jim in the month he'd been back in town. He was the one who had let his feelings get away from him and take him to places he wasn't prepared to go. But then again, he hadn't really let it happen. It just had. He was powerless to go back and incapable of going forward. Staying away was his only real choice.
And now he was seeing Jim in the faces of his students. Well, just this one whom he found weirdly compelling, whom he couldn't take his eyes off. And he didn't want to be having these feelings about one of his students. People thought he was a hopeless hound when it came to women, but the truth was that he had very definite boundaries. And this young woman was strictly off limits. And she moved him, even though she was only a presence in his classroom, a pair of sky blue eyes watching him from the third row. And that was so not all right.
And she reminded him of Jim. And that wasn't even possible.
Simon couldn't believe Jim had managed to find himself a female Sandburg, but there she was, sitting in the chair by Jim's desk waiting for him to go to lunch with her, just like Sandburg used to, taking in everything with unabashed curiosity, fidgeting all the while, a veritable whirlwind of energy, barely restrained, just like Sandburg.
Lord help him, she even looked like Sandburg. Well, sort of. If Sandburg had been a pretty young woman, instead of a...well, pretty young man. He noticed that her attractiveness was not lost on the other members of the squad. Rafe had fallen all over himself to get her a cup of coffee. Brown was perched on the edge of Jim's desk, regaling her with war stories, being rewarded with a barrage of questions and a big smile. The high voltage kind that lit up the room. Another thing she had in common with Sandburg.
They'd all been wondering about Ellison's new roommate since she'd moved in a month ago. It had come as quite a shock to everyone that he'd decided to rent out the room again. Hadn't he just been doing Blair a favor, after his old place was blown up? Yeah, sure. That's why a temporary arrangement had lasted three years. Simon knew Jim missed Blair. Since the kid left, his best detective had once again become a pain in the ass to deal with. Blair had been a good influence on him. Simon hadn't given him enough credit while he was still around. But Jim must have gotten really lonely to let another stranger into his territory. Blair had left behind an emptiness when he'd gone, that was for sure. Hell, he even missed Sandburg. All that bouncing enthusiasm was pretty irritating at the outset, but it kind of grew on you after a while. Okay, so he liked the kid. No one was going to get him to admit it. And it was too late anyway.
Jim never told him what happened, at least not the real story. He'd gotten the sanitized version, like everyone else. Sandburg had gotten restless, needed to devote more time to his anthropology, had gotten a great opportunity to do field research out in...where was it again?...Malawi, Madagascar, some M- country that sounded horribly far away. A once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing Sandburg couldn't pass up. Yeah, right. And Borneo hadn't been that kind of opportunity? Sandburg hadn't had any trouble staying put back then. But that was when he was still researching the Sentinel thing, Jim had insisted. Now he had enough material for ten dissertations. Simon sometimes wondered how stupid Ellison thought he was. As if Blair hung in there for three years, putting himself in danger time and again, just for the research. Not even Sandburg would put up with Jim's rotten temper day in and day out solely for the sake of scholarship.
Of course, Ellison had an answer for everything. Sandburg didn't want to leave while he was still having trouble with his senses. Now that they were under control and he hadn't zoned in recent memory, Blair had been free to go. Jim didn't need him anymore. Oh, yeah? Then how come Ellison went around looking like he'd just lost his best friend. Because he had. The idiot. He'd finally gotten fed up trying to talk to Jim about it. Lockjaw Ellison wouldn't budge. But he'd been keeping a close eye on his friend. He couldn't help feeling afraid for him.
Until Molly came along. He considered the pretty young woman sitting in his squad room. She looked like a nice person. Calm. Despite the youthful energy. That was good. Jim needed a calming influence in his life. If not Blair, then Molly. He'd noticed a definite improvement in Jim over the past month. The desperate expression in his blue eyes had faded, the ice thawed. He still looked like a man with one hell of a broken heart. But then, that's exactly what he was. Or so Simon suspected.
He couldn't help laughing a little as he watched Ellison trying to look busy when he was actually watching Brown like a hawk. There was already plenty of speculation about the nature of Jim's relationship with his new roommate. Just like there had been talk about Sandburg. People always needed something to gossip about. Jim's behavior was only going to egg it on, just like it had with Sandburg. Of course, his co-workers didn't know he could hear every word of their whispered conversations. He could just imagine how crude some of the comments were going to be, and he didn't like to think about Jim's reaction. Not a pretty picture. He literally radiated overprotectiveness where Molly was concerned. Just like he had with Blair. Of course, that was a Sentinel's job. To protect.
He would never admit it out loud, but he also wondered about Jim and his roommates. He'd had his suspicions about Blair. He was intrigued by Molly. She was important to Jim, he could see that. Like they'd known each other all their lives, rather than just a month. And Jim definitely didn't appreciate the other detectives gawking at her. But was it jealousy? Somehow, he didn't think so. It looked more like a mamma bear protecting its young. Besides, Jim was a serious person, an honorable man. He wouldn't get involved with somebody so young and alone, if his affections were still engaged elsewhere. Plus, there just wasn't that spark. Not like there had been with Sandburg. Simon smiled to himself. Sometimes he wondered if he knew more about Jim and Blair's relationship than they did. Hell, he'd been a detective once and a damn good one too. He still had his instincts.
And they were screaming at him about the scene developing out in the bullpen. Jim looked like he wanted to beat Brown to a pulp. And now Rafe was back, making a production of giving Molly her coffee, staring at her legs with very little subtlety. He sighed. If he didn't pull Jim away soon, it was going to get ugly.
"Ellison!" he bellowed. "My office. Now."
He saw how hesitant Jim was to leave her there with the vultures circling. But she smiled and said something, and Jim managed to pull himself away.
"What's up, Captain?" he sounded pissed at being dragged away from guard duty. Simon could see he was keeping an eye on her through the window, although he couldn't imagine what he expected to happen in the middle of a police station.
"The Edwards case. Where are we?"
"The ME's report just came back. It's the same as the others. Pretty grisly. A ritual killing. Elaborate knife wounds, cut into some kind of pattern while the victim was still alive. Death by exsanguination. Probably over a period of hours."
"We have officers canvassing the area for anyone who might have seen something. The victim's family has put together a list of her friends and acquaintances, the places she frequented. Brown and Rafe are following up on it, looking for connections with the other two women. I sensed an odd odor at the scene. Something strong and herbal, like an essential oil. I thought I'd go down to the herbal apothecary. See if I can figure out what it is. Maybe that will shed some light on whatever this bastard is doing."
"Good. Keep me informed. Someone in this city is butchering young women, Jim. I don't have to tell you the kind of pressure I'm getting from the Mayor to put this one down."
Jim nodded gravely.
"Oh, and Ellison?" he called the detective back.
"Just when exactly were you planning to introduce me to your new roommate?"
His friend stopped short, actually blushing. "Sorry. I guess I didn't think of it."
"Uh-huh. Well, don't just stand there, Ellison. Go get her."
When Molly returned with Jim, she shook his hand, a nice firm grip, while Jim made the introductions.
"Captain Banks, it's so nice to meet you. Jim talks about you a lot."
"Call me Simon, please. I've been looking forward to meeting you, Molly. To thank you for helping turn Jim here into less of a grump. He's lucky to have you."
He could see Jim start to protest and then his shoulders slumped. What could he say? Jim had to know his mood had never been more foul than since Sandburg had left.
Molly laughed. "No, I'm definitely the lucky one. Before I moved into the loft, I was pretty much looking at homelessness. It never occurred to me that every apartment in town would be taken."
"Starting mid-year can be hard. I take it you're not from Cascade."
She shook her head. "Back east. I was taking care of my grandmother until she died last summer."
"I'm sorry to hear that," he said.
"Thanks. You know, I just missed her too much to go on living in her house. So I decided it was time to make a change. Go back to school. Go west. Luckily, Rainier came through with a scholarship."
"That's great. And how do you like our city so far?"
"I love it. Jim's been great, showing me around and stuff. There's so much more to do here than in the little town I'm from. It's nice to have so many options."
"Well, you make sure Jim shows you everything. You hear that, Ellison?"
Jim only nodded, looking more embarrassed by the minute. He had to struggle to hide his amusement.
"Why don't you come to dinner, Simon? I love to cook. Only I have to warn you since Jim and I don't exactly see eye-to-eye on these things that I do believe food should have nutritional value. So if that doesn't scare you, maybe next Wednesday? Don't you have that night off, Jim?"
"He most certainly does. And I'd love to. It's been a while since someone made me a nice home-cooked meal. And I've never shared Jim's taste for Wonder Burgers. Should we say seven o'clock?"
She smiled. "Sounds good."
"That okay with you, Ellison?"
"Sure Cap'n," Jim mumbled, steering Molly toward the door.
"Nice to meet you, Simon," she said over her shoulder, as Jim hustled her out.
"You too, Molly. See you Wednesday."
With Jim's Sentinel hearing, he had to wait until they were safely out of the building before letting out a deep chuckle. Maybe she wasn't Sandburg, but she had Jim wrapped around her little finger just the same.
Jim wondered how he let her rope him into these things. He scowled, but not very convincingly. Jesus, Ellison. She asked you, that's how. Your problem is that you just can't say no to her.
Who did that remind him of? He sighed. No, he wasn't going to think about that tonight. It was Saturday, his well-deserved time off, and he was spending it with Molly, just the way he liked it. So he hadn't gone out on a date, had sex or pretty much even looked at a woman in six months. So he chose to spend most of his free time with his beautiful twenty-three year old roommate for whom he felt only the warmest platonic affection. So he was sitting here in the theater with his head already throbbing from the sound, even though he'd dialed down his hearing as far as he dared. So he was watching a film about gay men in a Nazi concentration camp, just because she had liked the play and wanted to see how the movie compared. So what? It might not have been anyone else's idea of a life, but it was holding him together.
Who would have guessed it when Blair moved out all those months ago? When Blair left him. Isn't that what really happened? The kid finally just got fed up or lost interest or whatever and took off at the first opportunity. Looking back now, he could see that he hadn't exactly made it enticing for Blair to stay. He'd been a pain in the ass a lot of the time. He guessed he'd always kind of hoped the kid would see through it. Would just know he was important to him. But how? He himself hadn't fully realized it until Blair was gone. God, he'd been completely unprepared for what a terrible loss it would be. He'd never had a friend like Blair before, never allowed himself any connection like that, not even with Carolyn. Blair had become essential in some way that she never had and all without his even realizing it. And then Blair was gone. Gone. No, he wasn't thinking about that now. Not tonight.
So Blair had left, but Molly had come along. Like a god-send. And he did thank God for her. He never imagined he'd have somebody like Blair to look after him, to care about what he ate and if he was sleeping, who'd make him talk when he didn't want to, even though getting through to stone-faced Ellison could be such a thankless task. And he certainly never expected there'd ever be another person who'd care about him like that. It was more than he deserved. He knew that. But he was keeping it anyway. He was keeping it this time, damn it.
He smiled, remembering the first time Molly had taken charge of him. It had been, what, her second day at the loft? His smile grew wider. That was Molly. She didn't hesitate to voice her opinions, and she was persistent as all hell. God, what was it about that personality he couldn't seem to resist? No. Not tonight. Remember? Just his luck though that he'd get another health freak for a roommate. She'd come out to the kitchen that morning to find him eating cold Chinese leftovers several days old right out of the carton.
"Now there's a breakfast of champions," she'd said, making a face, and she then had actually taken it away from him. Taken it out of his hands, tossing it in the trash, just like that.
His reaction had shocked him. He'd just sort of sputtered angrily. But he hadn't done anything about it. He hadn't gone to the refrigerator for more junk food. He hadn't yelled at her or thrown her out. He'd just stood there while she blended up fruit smoothies for them both, put the granola and milk on the table, sliced strawberries and bananas, brewed coffee for him, mint tea for herself.
"You don't really want to be the buffest dead guy in the history of the world, do you?" she'd asked as she sat down, gesturing for him to join her.
And he'd done just that. He'd sat down at the table with her and eaten her Sandburg-style breakfast and enjoyed it thoroughly. Just like he had with Blair. And he'd grumbled and complained the whole time, making faces at his delicious yogurt shake, calling the granola horse feed, refusing to admit he liked any of it, certainly not deigning to thank her. He'd given her the Sandburg treatment.
No wonder the kid had left. God, why did everything invariably come back to Blair?
It was not long after that he'd decided to do things differently with Molly. So he wouldn't drive her away too. If that meant going to movie he didn't want to see, well okay then. She was at least neater than Sandburg, and that took away a whole arena of contention. He never found her school books scattered around the loft. She never left a dirty dish in the sink. Actually she was the most orderly, self-contained person he'd ever met. More so even than he was. He never believed that possibility existed in the world. But honestly, he wasn't even in Molly's league.
Not only did she never leave anything out of place, but somehow she could put things back so it looked as though they'd never been disturbed in the first place. Even to his Sentinel senses. That was some trick. He'd come into the kitchen after she'd just been there, and there would be no trace of her left. No sense of her heat lingering on the things she'd touched. Not a whiff of her scent. Or air currents from her movement. Nothing. Like she was some phantom he'd dreamed up. But then he'd hear her singing under her breath to something she was listening to on her headphones while she studied in her room, and he'd know he hadn't just imagined her. It was like his senses had a blind spot where she was concerned. Not all the time, but often enough. He had no idea why. Maybe Blair could have figured it out. He winced. Could it really be this hard not to think about one person?
Well anyway, Blair wasn't there to untangle the mystery, and he didn't care enough to try. It didn't really matter that he didn't understand Molly or her weird effect on him. All that mattered was that he wasn't quite so alone anymore. He did still dream about Blair every night, but somehow it didn't make him feel quite as close to the abyss as it once had. He no longer took out the gun in the middle of the night when the pain and loneliness were at their worst. He had stopped sitting on the edge of his bed with the muzzle pressed against his temple, trying to decide if it was bad enough yet. It had to be unendurable, that was his rule. He was not a coward, except perhaps when it came to Blair, and he would not end his life out of cowardice. If there was any way to live, he would. And Molly helped. When he awoke frenzied and desolate from the dreams, he would reach out with his hearing, somehow in those moments he could always find her, and he would listen to her beating heart until the darkness passed. Her sound did not fill him the way his guide's once had. But it was still beautiful, so innocent, if that was something a human pulse could be.
And it was enough. The lovely and pristine music of her life gave him something to concentrate on while he fought the demons of his imagination. Now the gun stayed locked in the chest where it belonged. The question had been answered. The one reason to live had been taken away, but there was another. Not that it was the same reason or the same feeling or even something he could explain. Blair had been his partner, that was a bond he understood well. And while he knew Molly had become critical to him, he could not begin to describe the nature of that connection. He was not in love with her, of that he was certain. Just trying to see her that way twisted up his insides, making him terribly uncomfortable. No, it was more like a very close friendship. But even that didn't quite cover it. Maybe he was learning to feel something entirely new in his middle age. He was quite sure both Molly and Blair would think that was a very good thing.
He could feel her squirming beside him, and it startled him. God, did I zone out there? The movie was well underway, and he really couldn't remember much of what had happened. I didn't have that drifting feeling though. Must have just gotten lost in my thoughts. He stretched his legs out into the aisle and tried to figure out what was happening on screen. There was a crowded train car, prisoners being shipped off to a concentration camp. The German soldiers had singled out two men who were lovers.
"Ooh," Molly said, grabbing his arm and held on.
He turned his attention to her and grew alarmed. She was deathly pale, pupils dilated. Her heart sounded like it was going to explode in her chest, and she was on the verge of hyperventilating. Damn it! Of all the times to tune out his surroundings. He took her hand. It was shaking and icy. On screen, he watched what had to be one of the most gut-wrenching scenes of torture and murder he'd ever seen, the guards forcing one of the men to take part in killing the other. Molly broke out in a sweat. He could smell her panic.
"Jim, let me up. God, please hurry."
He didn't move fast enough, and in her desperation, she climbed over his legs, nearly running out of the theater. He followed, on full protective alert, only stopping at the ladies room door. Oh, hell! She needs me. Thankfully, the bathroom was empty except Molly. He found her doubled over the toilet, retching, the sharp scent of bile filling the air. She had thrown up everything in her stomach, but the muscles were still heaving. Her shoulders shook too, and he could hear very soft sobbing. He knelt beside her, pulling the hair away from her face, rubbing her back, murmuring reassurances, kissing the top of her head.
"You're all right now," he said. "Just relax. Keep breathing. Slow and steady. Like when you're meditating. It's okay. I promise. Everything's all right."
The tension slowly eased from her body, the tremors subsided. She sat back, and he wiped her mouth with toilet paper. He could still feel her shaking, but her pulse and breathing had slowed back down to normal levels.
"I'm sorry," she said in a small voice.
He took her tear-streaked face gently in his hands. "Why? For not being able to watch the kind of brutality that turns even an old cop's stomach?"
"I'm not good with violence. Other people's pain is too real to me. If I'd known the movie was going to be so explicit, I wouldn't have dragged you to it. The play's not like that. Still sad, still scary. But that whole scene happens off stage. You don't have to watch characters you care about being tortured, being forced to witness and commit atrocities to save their own lives. I just couldn't sit there and watch that. Because I didn't even have the luxury of telling myself it's only a movie. Because it's not. It happened. To lots of people."
She started to cry again, and he hugged her to him, stroking her hair comfortingly.
"That's my worst nightmare," she said, softly enough to tax even his Sentinel hearing. "To watch people I love suffer and be powerless to do anything to help them. To live in a world where people are tortured and killed just for being what the Spirit made them."
Jim didn't know what to say to that. It was pretty much the same as his worst nightmare. He would have loved to reassure her that the world was a safer place than that, but if he couldn't bring himself to believe it, he'd never be able to convince her. So he stayed quiet and just hugged her tighter.
She sighed heavily and pulled away. "I'm okay now. I don't think I can go back in there though. Is it all right if we just go home?"
"Sure," he said, helping her to her feet. "Just one thing though. Next time, I pick the movie."
She smiled, looking more like herself again, and he felt relieved.
The ride home was quiet. He had bought Molly a soda before they left the theater, and she sat curled up in her corner of the truck, sipping her Coke, staring out the window. It suited him. He was always more comfortable with silence. Molly's heart was back to its normal relaxed rhythm. She seemed serene once more, and that put him at ease. There was nothing that needed saying.
Back at the loft, Molly went to brush her teeth. He knew her stomach would be empty and sore. He searched the cabinets and refrigerator, looking for something he could make her.
"My guts hurt," she complained, joining him in the kitchen.
"Not surprising. You need to eat something."
"Don't think I can."
"How about a smoothie?," he asked, reaching for the yogurt and fruit, "That would be light."
She laughed. "Let me get this straight. Are you offering to make me...what did you call it again? A crunchy granola excuse for a milkshake?"
"Hey, as long as I don't have to drink it," he said, smiling. "How 'bout it?"
"Sounds good. Do you want me to"
"Go sit down. I've watched you make the stuff every morning for two months. I think I can figure it out."
Jim set up the blender, spooned in the yogurt, cut up fruit, poured in juice, added ice, hit the button to liquefy. He put it in a glass and brought it over to Molly, sitting down with her.
"Mmm. It's good. You're a quick study."
"That's what they tell me."
She smiled and covered his hand with hers. "Thank you. For this. And at the theater."
Jim shrugged. "That's what friends are for."
He could see she was pleased, and that made him happy. They both lapsed into silence, while Molly drank her smoothie.
"Molly? Can I ask you something?" he said, his voice sounding thunderous in the silent apartment, at least to his sensitive ears.
Jesus, he didn't even know what he was going to say next. Whatever it was, it felt like life and death.
"You can always ask me anything, Jim."
"I know the movie really upset you. And my God, it should have. It was horrible. To see things like that done to people. Nothing like that should ever happen to anyone for any reason, ever," he paused, not sure how to continue. "But are you sure...do you really believe...two guys can...love each other?"
God, where had that come from. It just leaped out of him.
"Sure. Don't you?"
He shifted in his seat, growing more uncomfortable by the second. He couldn't believe this was what he wanted to know, that he'd been the one to bring it up. He didn't want to consider why it suddenly seemed so important to him.
"I have to be honest here, Molly. I was raised to believe homosexuality is wrong, plain and simple. Disgusting. Not to mention unmanly."
"Yeah," she said, sipping her smoothie. "I guess that's what a lot of people were taught to believe. Sometimes I forget the way I was raised isn't all that typical. My grandmother was...well, I'd guess you'd have to call her unconventional."
Jim flashed briefly on Sandburg's mother and wondered if Blair and Molly had been separated at birth or something.
"My grandmother wasn't exactly religious, not in an organized sense at least. But she had a philosophy about how things work. It had room for all sorts of love in it. The things she taught me, they just make sense to me. They seem right. I look at the world through her eyes, and there are fewer contradictions. More things are beautiful."
"Tell me about what your grandmother believed," he said, his heart leaping with a sudden hope he couldn't yet examine.
She looked surprised he was actually interested. "Well, she taught me that being a man or a woman, that's just a physical thing. It doesn't really define who we are, not our essential selves at least. Souls don't have gender. We go from life to life, changing sexes and ethnicities and every other circumstance you can imagine, looking for the souls who have been important to us in the past so we can work out with them all the things we left unfinished before. Not that we have the same relationships with each another from one life to the next. The soul who was once your mother may now be your son. Or husband or sister or best friend. So you can see how homosexual or heterosexual wouldn't really matter. It's the connection that counts."
"So you're saying that if two men feel something for each other, it's because they knew each other in a past life?" he asked, unable to keep the extreme disbelief out of his voice.
"Possibly. Or it might be that they share a common destiny in this life. Everyone comes to the world with a mission that's unique to them. And a particular way they can best accomplish it. Some people are meant to work alone. Like me. I find my power in solitude. But others need to be part of a group. Maybe the government or an institution of some sort or just a bunch of friends. While others find their centers in family. And some in partnerships, whether business or love or both. They can only accomplish their goal if they find that other soul who's on the same mission."
Jim swallowed hard at that, but didn't interrupt her.
"Or two men may love each other simply because they do. That's their way in the world. The trick is to figure out what your course is and stick to it. And that's why the movie upset me so much. No one has a right to tell you that your way is wrong. Sure, it might not be right for them, but then they don't have to do it. There are as many paths as there are people in the world, and the Spirit intended them all."
Something about what Molly said resonated with him. There was so much to consider, and he got lost in plotting all the angles. When he came back to himself, Molly had finished her smoothie, washed her glass and put everything away. He had no idea how long he'd been sitting there, but once again she'd managed to make everything look as if it had never been touched. She held out a beer to him and put her hand on his arm. "How 'bout we see what's on TV?"
He nodded, still feeling disoriented.
They settled on the sofa. He drank his beer and watched her flip channels. His mind was filled with questions, doubts, new possibilities, but for the first time in six months, he didn't feel agitated. A strange lassitude hung over him, which might almost have been peace. He let his senses go a little, relaxing into the comforting blur of television, night sounds, traffic, Molly's vital signs. As he drifted off to sleep, he had the realization that the world might not be quite as bleak a place as he had thought.
Blair shifted uncomfortably in his seat and put down the newspaper, trying to absorb what he'd just read. Three dead college girls in three months. God, that was horrible. He hadn't known any of them personally, but still he felt a profound sorrow for their families and friends. He knew enough from his own experience working with the police that the story in the paper was just the tip of the iceberg. The authorities never released the most gruesome details of a crime to the media, out of respect for the victim and the people left behind. Just reading this one had turned his stomach. He didn't want to think about how bad it must really be. Surely this was one of the worst cases of ritualized serial killing ever to hit Cascade.
And Jim was the lead investigator.
He felt a little guilty that this was where his attention kept turning, rather than to his regret for the young lives so brutally taken. He couldn't help it. His Jim was involved in a very dangerous situation, and that sent his guide instincts into overdrive. Hold on a second. His Jim? Yeah, hardly. And the depth of the bitterness he felt at this simple truth surprised him. Jim had never been his and never would be. To pretend otherwise would be to live in a fantasy world.
It was also useless to pretend that the only impediment was on Jim's side. True, he was terrified by how Jim might feel. Half the reason he left was because he expected Jim to figure out his secret any day and throw him out on his ass. It wasn't all that easy to hide things from a Sentinel who monitored your vital signs just as a matter of course. And it would have shattered him to watch Jim's reaction: shock giving way to anger giving way to disgust giving way to the icy remoteness Jim used to shield himself from intolerable truths. Just thinking of Jim raising those defenses against him made his insides hurt. Hell, Jim wouldn't have had to kick him out. He would have run screaming.
But the other half of it was that Blair was freaked out by his own feelings. Way freaked. Geez, he knew people sometimes got the wrong idea about him, what with his long hair and earrings and his offbeat interests and hippie free love attitude. But he'd always been totally and completely and in every other way straight. He hadn't even experimented or had a crush on a best buddy in junior high. Not that he'd ever been in one place long enough to have a best buddy. Or any friends at all, really. Until Jim.
And that was something else that tortured him. Maybe what he was feeling was actually an intensely strong and emotional bond of friendship. There were many ways to love people, he knew that. He also realized that he was a novice at each and every one of them. He made lots of casual connections and tended to stay in the shallows where everything was uncomplicated and comfortable and no one would be seriously hurt when things ended. But not with Jim. With Jim, he dove head first into the deep end. And sure, part of that was because he was Jim's guide. But it wasn't all of it. He loved Jim. That he knew for certain. And it was easy to get love and sex confused. Maybe he'd just misinterpreted the intense care and affection he had for his partner.
That would be nice to think. He just loved his best friend. Nothing wrong with that. He could call Jim today and move back into the loft. Return to the life he loved so much and missed with every fiber of his being. The problem was that he was full of bullshit. Naomi would not be proud of him. She would not understand how she'd managed to raise such a hung-up son. She'd taught him to be accepting and open to alternative lifestyles, and so he was, as long as it wasn't his life. Just imagining himself with Jim messed with his self-concept in so many ways he couldn't count them all. Even if it did also excite him beyond belief and fill him with wild longing. Still. He was not gay. And he didn't want to be gay either. But he did want Jim, and he didn't know how to sort out that contradiction.
It was obviously no coincidence he'd fallen in love with the straightest man in America. God, he was so messed up.
He had to laugh at himself sometimes. Only friendship, my ass. He'd nearly fainted with sensual shock seeing Jim naked in the shower on the oil rig. That did not happen if a guy was only a friend and you didn't want anything more than that. In fact, he could remember every time he'd been treated to the sight of Jim's smooth bare skin. Every time Jim had come out of the bathroom with nothing more than a towel around his waist. Every time he'd come to breakfast in his boxers. Every time. Who was he trying to kid? It wasn't just being face-to-face with a real live Sentinel that had made his heart race during their first encounter in that hospital room. It was being faced with Jim himself, the missing piece of his life he hadn't even known he was searching for.
And after he'd found it, he had fled to Africa. How much more ungrateful could he be?
And now Jim was in the middle of the most dangerous case of his career, and he didn't have his guide beside him. That gnawed at Blair's conscience. He would never forgive himself if something happened to Jim. How could he? A Sentinel protected his guide, that was hardwired into every instinct. But it was a two-way street. A guide looked out for his Sentinel as well. And he'd deserted his. God, how could he have done that? Jim would never have abandoned him in a time of need. And all because it got hard and he was hurt. What about how hard it was for Jim to deal with his senses all by himself?
Not that he'd seemed too concerned about it when Blair was deciding to go to Madagascar. He'd just slapped him on the back and said whatever he wanted to do would be fine with him. Of course, Jim wouldn't have asked him not to go. Just like with Borneo. That wasn't his way. He wouldn't have wanted to hold Blair back, and it was very difficult for him to admit he needed help. With anything. Shit. Maybe he had completely misread the situation. Jim had just seemed to take it all in stride. Blair had assumed it didn't really matter to him whether he stayed or went. But then again, Jim said the least when he cared the most. Maybe Jim had wanted him to stay all along?
And if Jim hadn't come clean about that, what else hadn't he told him about? Like maybe problems with his senses. Maybe he should call Jim and let him know he was back in town. Or he could just go down to the station. He felt sure his observer status hadn't been rescinded. Simon would have seen to that. He could just go down there right now and start back to work. With Jim. Take up where they'd left off.
Or maybe it was all just wishful thinking. Maybe Jim really didn't need him. And maybe all his doubts and struggles over his feelings made him an unsuitable guide anyway.
Shit. He really didn't know what to do.
"Blair? Is this a good time? Or should I come back later?"
A curly red head peaked around his office door. Molly. His favorite student. He motioned her to the chair beside his desk. Well, at least there would be one bright spot in his day. Half way through the semester and she'd never once missed stopping by during his office hours. Whatever strange reaction he'd had to her at first was under control now, and he could just enjoy her company, appreciate her intelligence and delightful curiosity. That was the best part of being a teacher after all.
"I wanted to talk to you about my paper."
He smiled. "Okay, but you know it's not due until the end of the semester."
"Yeah, I know. But I don't like putting things off. Plus, I've been thinking about it already. So I figured I might as well get going."
He had to laugh. This was the kind of youthful enthusiasm people were always accusing him of. Like Simon. And Jim. Shit, he just couldn't seem to stay away from that subject.
"So what are you thinking of writing about?"
"I'm really interested in taboos," she said. "I just find it so curious that aside from a few very primal taboos like incest, ones that have a basis in biology, what's forbidden actually varies a lot from one culture to another. Doesn't that seem strange to you?"
"Well, yes and no. No, because some taboos arise out of historical experience that may not be the same from one group to the next. But yes, because there are so many taboos that we really can't explain. What makes one group of people fearful of a woman's menstrual blood and another see it as something powerful? We don't know. The human mind is a macabre place. And that's why it's so cool to be an anthropologist."
He watched her smile. He couldn't help doing a little advertising for the field. She had a real gift, and he hoped she pursued the subject further. Maybe she'd even go to graduate school, get a Ph.D. He would be pleased and proud to count her among his colleagues some day.
"You know which taboo I find the most fascinating and difficult to get a handle on? The proscription against homosexuality. Because the role of biology is kind of indeterminate there. I mean, some people argue that a society condemns gay sex because it has a vested interest in men and women getting together and creating offspring. But in certain animal species there is homosexual behavior, as a way to control the group's population and ensure its survival. And there are certain cultures in which homosexuals hold a sacred position within the group. With all these contradictions, I'm hoping there's a paper topic in there somewhere."
She was watching him expectantly, waiting for a response. God, why this of all possible subjects? It was some kind of horrible take on Murphy's Law. You try to avoid thinking about what's tearing you apart, but it just keeps coming up in new and innovative ways.
"Yeah. I definitely think you have something there. Just need to narrow it down some. Did you have a particular approach in mind?"
"Well, I don't know what you'll think of this. Maybe it's too political. But I get very upset by how narrow-minded our culture is, like we can't quite decide that everyone's rights should be protected no matter who we sleep with. So I wanted to do a cross-cultural comparison of American attitudes about homosexuality versus cultures that are more gay-friendly. To kind of bring some of our fears and prejudices into sharper focus."
Geez, he could be a case study for her paper. Not a happy thought.
"That sounds really interesting. I look forward to reading it."
Her face lit up. "Great! I'm so glad you like it. Actually I have to admit I've got an ulterior motive for writing it."
Oh God, was she going to come out to him? If it were under any other circumstances, he would be more than happy to listen and counsel her. And it would have been easy. Anyone she loved would be lucky to get her. But he didn't think he could deal with someone else's sexual identity crisis on top of his own.
"You see, I've got these two friends. Two guys. And they're really in love with each other, but they're both too terrified to admit it. They're kind of manly men, these two, so it really fools with their perceptions of themselves, this wanting another guy thing. The saddest part is that they used to be best friends, but they're not really in contact anymore because of the attraction and how scared that makes them. And I keep wanting just to point out the truth to them both, but I'm afraid they won't be able to hear me. Too threatening. So I thought if I got them to read my paper, they might be able to understand how they feel in a different context and maybe that would help and they'd get back together. Because they are so miserable apart. It really breaks my heart."
Blair just stared at her. If she had read his mind, she could not have summed up his life more accurately.
"Well anyway, thanks for listening to my idea. I'm gonna go to the library and get cracking on that research. See ya."
He watched the door close behind her and felt pieces of a puzzle trying to fall into place. He had the same sensation every time she came to see him. He hadn't figured it out yet, but he would. He felt confident. It was just that she sometimes seemed like two people. The one who was what everyone saw when they looked at herthe sweet, smart girl who listened carefully in class and took notes like a demon. He had to smile at that. But the other self, he was allowed only a fleeting glimpse of her every now and then. He saw something ancient and mysterious in her. A lone figure walking a deserted path beneath a cloudless sky long since past. The lush undergrowth of a primeval forest. The smoke from incense and candles rising back to heaven. He had no idea why these images came to him or what they had to do with Molly. But he would figure it out. Human mysteries were his life's work.
And every time she came to see him she stirred up thoughts and feelings about Jim. What kind of coincidence was that?
Still. Their talk had jolted his imagination. He went back over everything he knew about homosexuality in other cultures. She was right. There were many ways to think about it. Not every culture viewed homosexual behavior as a threat to masculinity. In fact, in certain warlike tribes in New Guinea where manliness was especially prized, homosexual relationships were encouraged as part of a boy's coming of age, a way of ensuring his masculinity.
He also remembered reading accounts from British and French missionaries traveling in North America during the eighteenth century of Native American men who took on women's roles within the community and had men as sexual partners. They were called berdaches and were often respected, even revered, within the tribe, becoming shamans and healers. Shamans...and there were some of Burton's more arcane references about the Sentinel-Guide relationship. He should have thought of that before. Maybe he just hadn't been ready. And maybe he wasn't the only one feeling these things. Maybe whatever this thing was between them...maybe it was meant to be.
Maybe he really should call Jim.
The moon was full and very beautiful, incandescent in the midnight blue sky, with just a sprinkling of stars visible in the heavens. Molly knelt on the rush mat she'd spread out on the terrace floor. She listened to the musical night, the wind and water and city sounds, feeling the familiar stirring within her. She was a moon-ruled person, and this was her special time in the month, to celebrate, to make carefully considered requests, to focus her power and use it for a worthy purpose. Since she'd moved into the loft, it had been the same mission each timethe most worthwhile goal she could imagine, the giving over of her energy to the two men who had become the most important people in her life, to help them heal their wounds and find a way back to each other.
It was very late. She had waited until Jim had been asleep for hours. He had put in a long day and would not wake up unless he heard her. And he would not hear her, she would make sure of that. From earliest childhood, her grandmother had taught her how to control the impression she made on the physical worldhow to leave behind no trace of herself, no sound or vibration, no scent or heata skill she called ghostwalking. It had become second nature to her by now. She could shield herself from Jim's awareness without even trying.
She still had no word to give Jim's special ability, although she had sensed it from their first meeting. And it amazed her, so unlike anything else she'd ever experienced. The first time he used his enhanced senses in front of her, she could feel the energy coming off him in waves, could see it, the vortex of his concentration, could sense a whole complicated tangle of instinct and emotion and destiny. All in response to a strange noise coming from outside the loft door, a banging that turned out to be a neighbor moving in some new furniture. And she could have sworn she saw a black jaguar pacing up and down the living room, giving her the once over, and even more weirdly its seeming approval, before flicking its tail and disappearing into the wall like a phantom.
Though she could not name Jim's ability, she had seen into his soul and understood its nature. He was a guardian spiritthere were so few any more human beings dedicated to the protection and care of others. In Jim's case, that meant the entire city of Cascade. It was a huge responsibility, but then again, it explained why he was such a good cop. Since she'd come to live with him, he had taken to watching over her too, keeping track of her sounds and vital signs and scent to make sure she was all rightsomething she suspected he'd also done with Blair. It meant Jim counted her as one of his own, and that was something she'd never had from anyone other than her grandmother. Her parents had been gone too soon for her to feel a sense of belonging, and there had never been anyone else in her life, no other family, no friends, not even casual acquaintances. She had always been different, and her grandmother had encouraged her to stay apart.
She had never fully understood how absolutely alone she was until that aloneness had receded, and now she felt a richness she could not adequately describe. She felt connected, part of the web of life, in a way that made her feel really and truly safe for the first time. Now there was Jim and Blair and Simon and her classmates and the other guys down at the station. And the world felt larger and more kindly, warmer and more embracing. She still had a perilous path to walk in life, she had been preparing for it from first memory, but now she would not have to do it in isolation. Now there were other souls who were making their own difficult journeys, people who would not think her a freak, people who would understand.
It made her want to give something back, some part of herself. So she relaxed her control around Jim when she remembered. She let him track her, especially at night when a sense of her helped him sleep. Tonight though, she would need to stay cloakedhoping that he didn't wake up and panic when he couldn't find her. Tonight she would need to keep secrets from him. She knew that's why she found it comforting that he had secrets of his own. It made her feel less guilty. And it was nice to know she wasn't the only one with an inner life that defied simple explanation. Maybe when the time came, it would help him understand why she had stayed silent so long. Maybe he would understand that sometimes people were forced into secrets, even when they would have preferred nothing so much as the truth.
She spread out before her the objects she had chosen for the ritualall things symbolic of the moon. Her grandmother had taught her to listen to her own intuition, to find the words and actions and symbols that felt most reverent to her. The details were not important, only the intention, the focusing of her own energy, the connection forged with the universe. She never prayed in quite the same way twice, varying the ritual according to season and mood and need.
She took off her robe, folding it neatly, laying it on a nearby chair. She was shielded, no one would see, and the moonlight on her bare skin would make the invocation more powerful. She had prepared her body earlier, purified it with a hot shower, anointed it with jasmine oil, the fragrance of sleepy flowers that opened only at night to release their heady scent beneath the shining moon. She lit a single white candle, representing the light of truth and wisdom, and burned sandalwood incense to call down the benevolent presence of the Spirit. She laid out a single, snow white iris on the makeshift altar, a symbol of love, peace and beauty. She held up a set of bracelets, silver like the Moon, handmade by her father, calling down the Spirit's blessing on them, before sliding them high up onto her arms. In the same way, she blessed the pearl and moonstone her grandmother had given her and held one in each hand, palms open, the stones helping to conduct her energy.
She calmed herself, breathing rhythmically, slowing her pulse down by degrees, opening and clearing her mind, until she felt at one with the night, the stars, the wind, the universe. She held an image of Jim in her mind, carefully painting in the details until the picture felt real and palpable. She could see his physical self and the color of his aura, a deep and rich red, strongly charged energy of a physical nature, a powerful force active on the Earth planewith the dark, ragged place where he was once joined to Blair, somewhat smoother now, slowly healing. She thought of all the things she admired about him: his sense of honor, his courage in the face of daily danger, his dedication to justice, the tenderness he felt for her and Blair when he'd been sadly starved of that kind of care in his own life, how badly he wanted to do what was right.
She let a feeling of love for him build inside her chest, warm and pure and prayerful, and then she focused her will, enveloping the mental image of him in the pink energy, sending him calm and well-being, hope and happiness. It was all she could offer. To do more would be to cross the line, interfering in his freedom of will, a form of black magick, a treacherous course she had been warned away from all her life. She held the image for several seconds, before setting it out of her mind to keep from draining away the effectiveness.
She sighed. She had not thought it would be so difficult to get the two men back together when she'd made the promise to the house spirits all those months ago, not after the depth of the love she'd seen, not to mention the karmic ties. Okay, so she'd known it would be an uphill battle with Jim. Blair's leaving had gouged an old, old wound that had never properly healed, that had left him feeling as vulnerable as the little boy who's mother left for work one day and never came back again, who's father had never given him a kind word or a loving gesture.
She had to breathe deeply into her center to calm the anger there, letting it bubble up to the surface of her mind and out with her breath. She moved her thoughts to consider Jim's father and the reasons he'd done what he had, his limitations, the pain he did not know how to express, only to pass on. She let herself feel a sadness for him, to understand him, to feel compassion. Anger clouded her vision, understanding cleared it, and the point was to understand Jim's pain, not to condemn his father. Better. She could see how deeply Jim believed he was unworthy of love, that his trust would always be betrayed, that he would always be left. And how he pushed people away to make that prophecy come true. He had not understood that he could have kept Blair from going simply by asking him to stay. And even if he had seen it, he would not have been able to say the words. He did not know he had the right to need and have those needs met. He did not even guess how much he was loved and needed in return.
Blair hadn't been any easier to reach. Maybe that shouldn't have surprised her so much. It had occurred to her early on that Blair seemed more open than he actually was. His intense curiosity gave him an interest in everyone who crossed his path. That's what made him such a good anthropologist. But in his intimate life, he shied away from deeper connections and long-term commitments.
It was the curse of charm, that's how Molly thought of it. He would never want for company, whether for romance or friendship. People would always seek him out for his bubbling energy and keen ability to listen and sparkling conversation. In all that commotion, it was easy for people to miss that Blair asked a lot of questions but didn't offer much about himself in return. And if things got too close, he could always just move on. There would always be more people who would find him intriguing, who would want to spend time with him. He did not need to cultivate any one relationship. Until Jim. Molly could just imagine how Blair felt. It must have terrified him. All of it. That Jim needed him. That he wanted to stay. That nothing between them would ever be casual or simple. The terrible fear that he might not be able to do it, that he might not be equal to the intensity of their connection.
And there was a commitment beyond his tie with Jim that he had yet to fully understand and embrace. Blair had his own complicated inner world. Like Jim, he had been called for special service in this life, to mediate between this world and the next. He had the mark of Shaman upon him. Unmistakable. But he was only just beginning to come into his power. Much of his history was obscured from him, so he did not understand that he was part of an ancient lineage. He had not had anyone to teach and guide him, like her grandmother had done for her. He did not know how to take the next step or even that he was at a crossroads where he must choose to unfold his true nature or turn his back on it forever.
She pictured Blair in her mind, just as she had with Jim, all the physical details, as well as the mandala surrounding him, a sunny yellow showing the glow of intellect, turning shimmering and golden around the edges, the intelligence turned toward spiritual concerns. Sadly, it was marred by the same raw darkness as Jim's, where he had pulled away from the connection. She winced at the wound. But it made her smile to think of all the things she loved about Blair: his joyous heart, the way his face lit up when one of his students asked a particularly insightful question, how doggedly he pursued knowledge, his gentle voice that promised understanding, his never-ending patience. She willed the love to him, a hopeful prayer for healing and reconciliation, and then put it out of her mind when it was done.
She said a final prayer, thanking the Spirit for its attendance and blew out the candle. She pulled on her robe and gathered together the objects to take inside. Back in her room, she snuggled into her bed and opened herself to Jim's perception once more. If he woke up now, he would know she was safe and sound and drifting off to sleep.
No matter how many miraculous things she witnessed, she never stopped being amazed by how strangely fate unfolded. She had come to Cascade to find the fulfillment of a prophecy. It had led her to Jim's door. There were to be three. She was one. Jim was another. Then the house spirits had sent her in search of Blair, and she had never expected him to be the third. But he was. She had barely been able to string two words together when she'd asked permission to take his class. She'd gone in the hopes of matchmaking. She'd come away with insight into destiny. Later, she had second-guessed herself. Maybe it had all just been wishful thinking. But sitting in his class, she knew beyond a shadow of doubt that he was the final piece of the puzzle. He, Jim and she were the three. And it made an odd kind of sense. The connections ran deep. And someday soon she would be able to share it with them both, to tell them the whole story, and hopefully, they would find joy in it, as she did.
Surely they would. It had been foretold. The Prophecy of Three. The Spirit made the two as one/The third to stand alone/But in their time of gravest need/The chosen ones become the Three/The one who guards by night and day/The one who guides the way/The one who bears the Spirit's mark/The Three who come to banish dark.
The thought chilled her. Sometimes she got lost in her happiness at finding Jim and Blair, but she could never afford to lose sight of the task that would soon be at hand. The darkness was gathering. She could feel it. It would follow her to Cascade. To Jim and Blair. Please, please, please. Don't let anything happen to them. I couldn't stand it if it turned out like before.
Her mind flashed on the jagged, long-ago images, tilted and confusing and still fraught with fear. It was not like a movie. It was wordless and discontinuous, a little girl's half-formed impressions of terror. The stiff leather straps on her wrists and ankles. The hard, cold stone beneath her bare body, making her shiver. Long, clammy fingers that brushed along her skin, tracing ritual patterns on her body with some kind of oil, sending a wave of violent energy through her, a burning, sickening feeling like electrocution. And his grotesque voice, chanting words she didn't understand, filling her with repulsion and dread. Evil. She hadn't had the language then to call him that, but child that she was, she recognized in him every dark thing her grandmother had ever warned her about. After that, the memory got chaotic. He was moving toward her. There was a glinting in the candlelight, the flash of something metallic, a knife blade, long and serrated and deadly. And the world seemed to collapse into slow motion, as she lay there waiting to die.
Then there were soundsscuffling and banging, an agonizing howl of pain and hurried footsteps. And then there were hands on her, strong and familiar, beloved hands, her grandmother tearing off the restraints, lifting her from the table, cradling her in her arms. Over her shoulder, she could see her father crumpled on the floor, eyes wide, blood pooling on the floor, the knife buried in his chest. And then there was more screaming. Only later did she realize it was her own voice, wailing in grief.
Her pulse raced, and there was a sharp pain in her chest. She couldn't breathe. The years went by, but the pain remained just the same, neither lessening nor receding. That last image of him was always with herher sacrificed father lying on the hard, comfortless ground, dead so that she might live. No matter how long she lived, she would never, never be able to forget it.
And now that same darkness was circling, getting nearer, hunting her like prey, threatening the people she loved yet again.
She nearly jumped out of her skin. She hadn't heard him, and if he could sneak up on her, anyone could. She had let her guard down way too far.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
She nodded. "Just a bad dream."
"You need anything?"
"Uh-uh. But thanks."
Jim seemed hesitant to go, probably sensing her unease. He stood at the doorway, not quite in, not quite out.
"I'm okay, Jim. Really. I'm sorry I woke you up. We should both try to go back to sleep."
"All right. But call if you need me."
She smiled. "I will. Thanks."
She turned over and pulled the covers up around her shoulders. She really was so lucky to have found Jim and Blair. She wished she could tell them everything and clear the air, and there was no burden of danger that went along with it. She wished to God that this nightmare really was just a bad dream.