This was the moment Molly had been anticipating, working for, dreaming about for months. And much longer than that. She had been moving toward it, slowly, by degrees, her entire lifeevery step, every choice leading to this place, these men, the revelations she was about to make. She never imagined she would feel so much like throwing up. At the university and even during the truck ride home, she had thought only of the necessity of what she was about to do and that had been calming. But now back at the loft, the realization that there would be no turning back struck her full force, and whatever confidence she'd had deserted her. She had the terrible sensation that her life was about to unravel in her hands, and she was powerless to stop it. She could not look at the loft hard enough, the familiar space and furnishings, the particular angle of daylight as it streamed through the windows. Home. She could not stop staring at Jim and Blair. Her family. Please, please, please, don't let this be the end of everything.
Blair paced back and forth between the living room and the kitchen. She could tell he was weirded out to be back in the loft, especially under these circumstances, and he wasn't ready to alight in a particular spot, his unease coming out as usual in excess energy. Jim's expression had changed since they'd reached the apartment. In the truck, he had seemed bewildered, even frightened, but he had still looked to her for reassurance and comfort. Now, his eyes narrowed while he watched her, and they had turned hard and glittering. She knew she was in trouble.
"Okay Molly, time to explain. Like who you are, for instance. Who you really are. And how you know about Blair and me. That we were partners," he added quickly. "And why do I suddenly feel like there's a lot you haven't been telling us?"
She heard the dangerous edge in Jim's voice and knew he was at the end of his patience. She could almost see him kicking himself. He'd trusted her, and now he was afraid it had all been misplaced. And what could she say to that? She had not told him everything, and the things she'd withheld were major. If she lost his trust, she knew there would never again be anything between them, certainly not the friendship she treasured. The best thing, she knew, would be just to blurt it out, end the suspense once and for all, put Jim and Blair out of their misery and hope to God for the best possible outcome. But there were too many emotions gathering in her throat, and the words got stuck there. She couldn't get them out.
"I need something to drink," she said, hurrying to the kitchen, opening the refrigerator for the mint iced tea she'd made yesterday. "Anyone else?"
Blair shook his head distractedly, Jim glared at her. She turned her back to them while she poured. She didn't want them to see her hands shake. Taking a swallow, her mouth still felt like the Sahara. She was having trouble getting her breath. A lifetime of learning to control her physical reactions fell away from her. None of her training helped. Oh God, oh God, oh God. I didn't think it would be this hard.
"I need answers. So spill it."
The low growl of Jim's voice propelled her into complete silence. It shocked her that Jim could actually scare her. She was so used to his affection and his protectiveness. She slumped back against the kitchen cabinets. Don't cry. Don't cry. Don't cry.
He took a step toward her. "NOW!"
She made a small noise and shrank back from him.
"Jim!" Blair's voice was sharp and rebuking, as he put a restraining hand on his friend's arm. "Molly, I know it's hard. Take your time. Do it your way. But please, we really need to know."
"I know. I'm sorry. And I want to. But I'm scared."
That seemed to defuse Jim's anger. He sighed heavily. "There's no need to be afraid. I'm sorry I snapped at you. It's just been one wild roller coaster of a day. I can't take too much more. Please, Molly."
Blair came to stand beside her, resting a hand comfortingly on her shoulder. "We're all friends here. Whatever it is, you can tell us."
She nodded. They were right. There was no putting it off. She walked past them, to stand in the middle of the living room. She took the leap out into nothing and let down her guard, letting them see her, everything, for the first time. It was not a simple act. It flew in the face of a lifetime of careful preparation and training, everything she had ever learned from her grandmother, every instinct of self-preservation. She let it all go. She hid nothing. She allowed herself to be more vulnerable than she ever thought humanly possible. She offered up her essential nature, naked and defenseless, to the two men watching her. She prayed they would see her with compassionate eyes and understand what she found so difficult to say in words.
"Look at me very closely. Both of you. Who do you see in me?"
Stunned recognition dawned on both their faces. "Blair!" Jim gasped. "Jim!" Blair said, no less surprised. The whirled around to each other, unable to believe they'd both yelled out the same crazy thing at exactly the same moment. As one, they turned to Molly, their eyes begging for an explanation.
"A little over twenty years ago, two very lonely people came together, quite briefly, and offered each other the only kind of comfort they could manage. The woman was getting older, and she was very afraid there was nothing ahead for her, except the same regret and shame she'd been living with for years. She'd walked out on two young sons, leaving them with a man who ought never to have had power over children's lives. She never forgave herself for that. The man was younger, but he couldn't find a foothold in life either. He drifted here and there. He got into trouble, with drugs, with the law. There had only ever been one person important to him, and he'd managed to lose her and the son he never knew he had. So you can see how these two people would have recognized themselves in each other. That's what drew them to one another. They even made a baby together. But you can also imagine how fragile their connection was, and it wasn't long before it ended. And all that was left was the child. Me."
She watched them process the information, realization slowly seeping in.
"Oh my God!" Jim gasped.
"You're Jim's sister. That explains the eyes," Blair said.
"No Chief, she's your sister. She's always reminded me of you."
"As weird as it may seem, you're both right. Jim, you and I share the same mother. Blair, we have the same father. You're both my brothers."
They stared at her, mouths open, unable to say anything. She began to feel a horrible wave of panic building. She felt stupid. Her fantasy of this moment had been so naive and unrealistic. There had been no shocked silence, no misapprehension, no anger. She knew they both cared for her, so in her imagination, her confession was met with nothing but joy. Of course, real life would be more complicated than that, harder, with more room for ambivalence. She was conjuring up ghosts of the past, ones they would probably have preferred to leave buried. She was the living reminder of their parents' failures. She was the sister they had been living without for twenty three years and would have never known about if she had not interfered. She closed her eyes, her hands clenching and unclenching, as she waited for the end of a dream.
It did not come. Instead, warm arms went around her. It was Blair. "Don't cry," he said. She hadn't even realized she was. She reached for him, and he hugged her fiercely. The tears had a will of their own though. She had only meant to relax her control, but now it felt like it was gone for good. There were times when she felt immeasurably old, wise, privy to secrets most people could not even begin to guess. Sobbing her heart out, she felt like a very little girl. She cried for her lifelong loneliness and her absent parents, all the lost years, the missed opportunities and many other things that had never been properly mourned, free at last in the safety of her brother's arms to weep for them all.
"This was so not what I was expecting. But it makes such sense. I feel connected to you. I always have, since the first time you came to my office. And I'm so glad. I've always wondered what it would be like to have a sibling, but I never thought I'd get a chance to find out. It's just so cool, Molly. And I'm so glad it's you, that you're my sister."
His face was filled with tenderness and light. He really was glad, and she felt so relieved her knees almost buckled. His arm went around her more tightly, holding her up. He brushed the stray hair out of her face and wiped away the remaining tears.
"Thank you." Her voice sounded as shaky as she felt.
He led her over to the sofa, and they sat down together, still holding hands. She couldn't tell how Jim was doing. He was sitting on the opposite sofa, elbows on his knees, holding his face in his hands. She shivered slightly. At least I have one brother who accepts me. But she wanted Jim too. Damn it, she didn't care if it was greedy. She wanted both her brothers in her life.
"I have so many questions," Blair said. "How long have you known about us?"
"Since my grandmother died last summer. She was our father's mother, your grandmother too. Growing up, I never really knew much about my mother or her family. We just didn't talk about her. I guess my grandmother thought it was better that way. But when she knew she was dying, she told me everything she could remember. It wasn't that much, but enough to begin looking. I did some searching and found out about Jim and his brother Stephen. That's why I came to Cascade."
"But then how did you find out about me?"
"Completely by accident. I looked you up because of your relationship with Jim and when I saw you, I just knew."
She felt him stiffen. "Wait. So our grandmother and father never mentioned me? So how can you be sure..."
"I just am," she said, gripping his hand harder. "I'm not sure I can explain how I know, but I am certain. We can have a DNA test if you like. But I'm positive what it will say."
He relaxed and smiled again. "No, I believe you. I mean, I feel the same thing. I guess I just wish my father had..."
He nodded, tears welling up in his eyes.
"I don't think he knew about you, Blair. Not on any conscious level, at least. If he had, he would have told me about you or my grandmother would have. They wouldn't have held something like that back."
"Yeah, I guess that's possible. My mother always said she didn't know who my father was. I don't think she would have lied about it. So if she didn't know, she wouldn't have been able to tell him, and he would never have known."
"Still, I do think he sensed something. I was really little when he died and this is all just my perception of things, but it always seemed to me like he knew something was missing. He may not exactly have known about you, but in some way, he felt your absence."
"Oh my God!" she clamped a hand over her mouth. "I'm so sorry, Blair. I wasn't thinking. I didn't mean to just blurt it out like that."
"No. It's okay. I mean, I kind of figured. That your parents were dead. You know, just from the way you talk about your grandmother raising you. It's just...I don't know, it feels different to know that it's my father too and he's dead."
"I'm so sorry, Blair," she said, watching his eyes fill with tears, feeling herself choking up again, reaching out to comfort him. "I'm so sorry you never got to know him. God, for that matter, I'm sorry I didn't get to know him."
They held onto each other for a long moment, grieving for a man who would always be a mystery to them, the outline of a stranger they would fill in with second-hand knowledge, guesses and their own wishful thinking.
"My mother is dead?" Jim's voice, halting and filled with pain, brought her back to herself.
"Oh no, Jim" she said quickly. "No. She's still alive."
"But she left you too, like she left us?"
"I don't want to sound like I'm making excuses for her, because she definitely did the wrong thing. But she was really, really scared, Jim. She didn't understand what was happening to her or how to control her abilities. She thought she was going crazy. She didn't have anyone to tell her differently or guide her through mastering them. She felt like a danger to her children. She didn't see any other choice but to go."
"Abilities?" Blair asked, the gleam of scientific curiosity lighting in his eye. "You mean...Jim's mom was a sentinel?"
"Is that what you call Jim's gift?" she asked and Blair nodded. "That's a fitting name. Yes, she had abilities like that, though less powerful than Jim's. They only came out when she had children. And the only way she could get rid of them was to leave."
"Do you know how amazing that is? It's a whole other way that the Sentinel senses contributed to the survival of the tribe. So there was one member of the tribe who had extremely heightened senses and was the guardian of the entire group, like Jim. But some of the women also had the ability, in a smaller way and only in reaction to childbirth, as a way to protect the offspring and make sure they reached adulthood so they could have offspring of their own and the tribe would thrive into the next generation. It makes sense that the ability would fade if the mother weren't still with her children, since it was in direct response to their needs, like a woman's milk dries up when she stops nursing."
"Chief?" Jim interrupted.
Blair's expressive hands stopped mid-air. "Oh sorry, man. Sorry. I got kind of carried away there. But it's your mom we're talking about. Oh man. Sorry, Jim."
Jim shook his head, brushing it off. But Molly was worried about him. He was pale and his hands were shaking. It had been too emotional a day for them all. But Jim was taking it the hardest of all. The scene at the university had shaken him, believing that she and Blair were having an affair. Then the waiting had been terrible. She was sorry she'd put him through it. And now, it was as if the spirit of the woman who'd abandoned him all those years ago had come crashing back into his life, turning everything upside down, destroying the peace he'd made with it. She was afraid he was going to close off, put up the barriers, and then she'd never be able to reach him.
"How old were you when she left?" he asked.
"I was just born, days old."
She could hear him swear under his breath. "And you don't hold that against her, Molly? Because I sure as hell do. You were a tiny, defenseless little baby, and she just ran off and left you. That's one hell of a mother we have."
"I understand why you're angry. And you have every right to be. But it's not like she left me on the poorhouse steps. I had my father and grandmother. They took care of me and loved me. I'm not saying she did the right thing by you and your brother. Or me, for that matter. But I do know that she did the best she could under the circumstances, given her limitations. She never meant to hurt any of us."
"Bullshit! And I don't know how you can sit there so calmly and make excuses for her. What? Is that something your grandmother told you to make you feel better?"
She shook her head decisively. "No. Like I said, my grandmother never really spoke about her. Probably to spare my feelings, as you suggest. But she would never have made something up. Lying wasn't her way. She wasn't capable of it. It may be hard for you to understand, but I've always just known things about our mother. The way I just know things about you and Blair and people I pass on the street. I have a gift, too. My grandmother's theory was that with my abilities and my mother's we were probably able to communicate while I was in the womb. That's how I know she loved us."
Jim looked thrown for a loop, but not ready yet to accept what she was saying. "If she loved us so much, then where the hell has she been all our lives? And what the hell was she doing having more kids when she walked out on the two she already had? She was a careless person, Molly, who didn't give a shit about what was good for us."
Molly sighed, "I know it feels that way. Really, I do. And she never meant to have more children. She was in her 40s, she had symptoms of menopause, and she thought her child-bearing days were over. She never intended to get pregnant. She knew she couldn't handle it."
"That's no excuse for not taking precautions."
"I know." She could hear the tears in her own voice. "But Jim, she was so lonely and sad. She just wanted some comfort. She just needed to feel loved. She'd never felt loved in her whole life. I can't help but feel sad about that. I can't help feeling sorry for her."
Jim's eyes were rimmed with silver, and she didn't know how to read his expression. It wasn't closed against her and that was a relief. It was almost as if he were seeing her as a little girl and feeling the same sadness he'd experienced during his own childhood, only this time for her. Silence fell and grew, as the three of them regrouped, trying to make sense of all that had happened in such a short space of time.
"How did my father die?" Blair asked, finally breaking the spell.
Molly felt the old pain come rushing back to her chest and the icy coldness and the phantom fear. "He was killed. Murdered."
"How? What happened?"
"It was my fault." Her voice cracked and Blair laid a hand on her back, steadying her. "This man, this very bad man, took me. He wanted my abilities. He thought he could take my gift the way people rob banks. He didn't understand that it doesn't work that way. My father and grandmother came for me. But the man stabbed my father in the heart and he died right there in front of me."
Blair gasped and moved his arm around her shoulders, pulling her closer.
"It was not your fault." Jim's voice was a low growl in the back of his throat, savage anger directed at the man who'd butchered her father while she watched.
"Jim's right, Molly. You were just a little girl. The only person to blame is the man who killed him."
The tears spilled over. "But he died saving me. He sacrificed himself for me."
Blair stroked her hair. "You were his daughter, and he wanted to protect you. That's what parents do for their children. It's natural. There was nothing you could do to prevent him from coming to get you back or to keep that man from hurting him. It was a terrible, terrible thing, but it was not your fault, not in any way."
She sobbed, "He really struggled in his life. He made some bad decisions. But my grandmother always said that everything got better when I was born. He wanted so much to be a good father. And he was. I always knew how much he loved me. He used to call me Senorita Molly- cita. And when we played 'Mother May I,' he called it 'Molly May I.'And I really, really loved him. I miss him every day. And it never gets any easier."
She buried her face in her hands. She felt Blair wrap his arms around her, rocking her, letting her cry it out. She could feel Jim watching, concerned.
"He was a good man, Blair," she said softly. "You would have liked him."
He nodded. "I know I would have. I mean, look what a great daughter he turned out. You know, I think I knew when it happened. How old were you?"
She looked at him curiously. "Four."
"Then I was nine. Was it in June?"
"Late at night?"
She nodded again.
"3:23 a.m. I felt it. It woke me up, this terrible pain in my chest, right where my heart is, and then this just...awful feeling coming over me. It was so not like anything I've ever felt before. I've always remembered it."
"It makes sense actually. The men in our family often have an empathic gift. Our father did. It's especially strong with blood relatives and the people we love. That's probably why I seemed familiar to you when we first met. On some level, you recognized me. It's a highly developed sort of intuition. It's what helps you guide Jim. And enables you to be a Shaman."
"How do you know all that? That Blair's my guide. That he's a Shaman." A slight suspicion was returning to Jim's voice.
"I just do, Jim. That's my gift."
"Are you a Sentinel too?"
She shook her head. "No. Not in the way you mean. I have unusual perceptive abilities, but the way I see or hear or taste things is no different than the average person's. It's just that I can also perceive things outside the physical realm. I can see energy. I can read it. That's how I know things. To a certain extent, I can also control and channel energy. But that's harder and takes more effort."
"Is that why I can't sense you sometimes?"
Blair sat forward in his seat. "Wait, man. You mean your senses don't work around Molly?"
"Not exactly, Chief. It's more like they don't work on Molly. But only sometimes. Sometimes they work fine."
"You can shield yourself?" Blair turned to her.
Molly nodded. "My grandmother called it ghostwalking. It's a protective mechanism, so people like the man who killed my father can't find me. I try to remember to stop doing it around you Jim, so you can track me with your senses the way you like to. But sometimes I forget. It's a hard habit to break."
"You still lied to me," he said.
Molly nodded, pulling her legs up to her chest and wrapping her arms around them, getting as small as possible.
"To my face too. Down at the station, you said you reacted to those pictures just because they were so grisly. But you saw something, didn't you? You recognized that ritual. It's the same man who kidnapped you when you were a little girl."
"It's what I said before about sensing things. I didn't see anything in those photographs that was familiar. But I got this strong, very bad feeling from them. And I'd overheard you telling Rafe about some oil you found. He drew on me with oil, some kind of ritual pattern. When I saw the knife wounds on that girl, I knew that's what he intended to do to me if my father hadn't stopped him."
Jim went ashen at the implication. "Oh, my God. He's been..."
"Practicing," Molly finished the thought for him.
"That means he's coming after you again."
Molly nodded. This time she was prepared for the consequences, and she was not wrong. He exploded off the sofa and stalked over to the terrace doors, staring back at her with blue rage.
"Damn it, Molly," he yelled. "Why the hell didn't you tell me this sooner? You've been in danger...how long? The whole fucking time you've been in Cascade? Do you know what it would do to me to find your body the way I found that last girl, dumped like so much trash in some god- forsaken part of nowhere? Or if I couldn't find your body at all and had to wonder the rest of my life if you were even dead or if he had you alive somewhere torturing you and you needed me and I wasn't there for you? Do you KNOW what that would do to me? But of course you do. Because I told you what happened to me at that crime scene. And you didn't see fit to tell me the truth?"
"Wait. What crime scene? What happened to you, Jim? What am I missing here?" Blair asked, completely puzzled.
"One of the murdered women, the last one, reminded Jim of me."
"She looked JUST like you, damn it. And you didn't bother to tell me that you're the one the fucking psychopath is really after?"
"But I didn't connect the two until I saw the photographs down at the station," she protested feebly.
"I'm a COP, Molly. If you even suspect your life is in danger, you fucking tell me, so I can protect you. And you know what REALLY pisses me off? Even after you'd seen the pictures, you still didn't tell me. When I specifically asked you what was wrong, you fed me some bullshit story about just being squeamish. Shit, Molly. We don't know how this guy operates. He could have been watching you all these months. He could know where you live, your routine, every God damned thing about you. He could have grabbed you from the university this afternoon or anytime he wanted. ANYTHING could have happened. And I NEVER want to go down to some morgue to identify your body. Do you understand that?"
All she could do was nod. She knew she'd messed up and badly, and that knowledge made her feel shaky. He turned away from her, staring out the terrace doors, and she could see the anger in the set of his back. She didn't want him mad at her. But she understood why he was. She'd seen the power of his protective instincts, and she'd flown in the face of them. She'd denied him his spiritually ordained role as guardian. She'd had her reasons, but she knew it was going to be hard to make him understand.
"Jim," Blair said tentatively. "Don't you think maybe you're being a little too..."
"Don't 'Jim' me, Chief." He sounded tired and defeated. "You didn't see what this butcher is doing to these girls. I did. I don't understand, Molly. Whatever else we are to one another, we're friends, right?"
She nodded, holding his eye, willing him to believe it.
"So why didn't you just tell me? Why didn't you trust me?"
"It wasn't time yet," she tried to explain. "You would have just gone after him on your own."
"Damn straight I would have, Molly. That's my job."
"But he can't be defeated that way."
"Thanks for the confidence."
Molly felt a growing sense of irritation at Jim's hard-headedness. "Jim, that thing, I can hardly call him a person, is EVIL. He practices black magick. Do you really understand what that means? The whole Cascade police department could go up against him, and you'd all fail. He can manipulate unseen forces and use them against you. He doesn't play by anybody's rules but his own. And he's only gotten more powerful over the years."
Jim stood there like a wall of stone, arms crossed over his chest, not giving an inch. She couldn't tell if he was even listening, his face was that expressionless. He was a stubborn man. Oh, God. She had the sudden flash of him going after the killer even after she'd warned him away from it. The image tilted and spun in her mind, until it was a moment from long ago, blood seeping into a dirt floor, only this time it was Jim's blood. All the color drained out of her face.
"What?" he demanded, watching her closely.
She could only get it out on a whisper. "I don't want you to end up like my father. I don't want anything to happen to you and it to be all my fault again."
She hadn't meant to cry. But she had already lost so much. She could not bear to part with Jim or Blair. She wouldn't. She just wouldn't. She hid behind her hands and cried as if her heart would break. She felt Jim sit down on the other side of her, his large, warm hand on her shoulder.
"I'm sorry. Don't. Please. I didn't mean to make you cry. Please stop."
She wanted to, but she couldn't. The hand moved in comforting circles over her back.
"What happened to your father was not your fault. You had no control over what that sick bastard did. I'm just so, so sorry that you had to see it. No child should ever have to live through something like that. I would give anything if I could change it, if I could go back in time and take away all that pain." His voice broke and he gathered her against him, hugging her hard, hushing and comforting her.
"I know I should have told you. I'm so sorry." Her back heaved with final sobs as her crying tapered off. "I was just so afraid something would happen to you or Blair. It just seemed safer not to tell either of you."
He smoothed her hair, rubbed her back, making reassuring noises. "I know."
"I'm sorry I kept so many secrets. Can you forgive me?"
He wiped away her last tears. "Yes. But I still need to understand. Why didn't you at least tell me we're related?"
She sat back and sighed, "I don't know exactly. I intended to when I first got here. And then you mistook me for someone answering your ad. And I could see you were going through a hard time, and I didn't want to make things more complicated for you. And I thought maybe I could help, if you trusted me. I wanted to be part of your life. A lot. And then as time went on, it just got harder and harder to say anything, and I felt worse and worse about not telling you the truth from the start. I kept thinking that if I could bring the three of us together then that would be the right time. And that turned out to be harder than I expected."
Jim looked embarrassed but managed to smile wryly. "Well, I guess I can understand that. But you have to promise me one thing, Molly. No more secrets. From now on, I get all the information up front."
She nodded wildly, beginning to feel hopeful. "So...are we still friends?"
He hugged her, nearly crushing her with affection, and his voice shook as he said, "Of course we are. Family too. Little sister."
Her heart leapt at the words and the look in his eyes, the amazed tenderness, the sheer delight. She looked over at Blair, and he was watching them, getting teary. She held out her hand to him. She wanted to hold on to the moment and remember it forever. It was a dream so long in the making, and it had at last come to fruition.
"A sibling is something I've always wanted that I never thought I'd get," Blair said, beaming.
"Me too," Molly said happily.
She felt Blair tense beside her. "Hey Jim, you still with us? Don't go zoning on us, man."
"I'm here. It's just a little overwhelming. Having my family here with me."
She watched Blair's face change, doubt creeping into his expression, followed quickly by hope, and it reminded her of what else needed to be done.
"This has been the most emotional day of my life, and I am dead tired," she said. "I don't think I can keep my eyes open. I'm going to have to go to bed. We can talk more in the morning."
"It's five o'clock," Jim said.
She shrugged. "I'm tired."
"Come on, Molly. You can't just take us through a big emotional family reunion and then go to sleep," Blair protested.
"Actually, I can. Besides, I'll still be here in the morning, and we'll always be family."
"But that man's still out there. He's still after you. We have to do something about that," Jim protested.
She nodded. "Yes. But it can wait for the morning."
"There's more to the story, isn't there?" he asked.
"Only a little. It's about how we can stop him. It's going to take all three of us. But that can also wait. There are more important things to do now. Good night."
She kissed them both and retreated to her room. She curled up on her bed. Being tired had been a pretense, but now she realized it was also the truth. It was not long before she was asleep, with visions of her new life, one that included two wonderful brothers, brightening her dreams.
Blair couldn't remember if he'd ever watched it grow dark before, at least not with such intense concentration, noting each shift in the strength and quality of the light, the way it looked like dust settling onto the landscape, flaring up one last time, a pyrotechnic coda to the day, before finally fading, ever so slowly into dusk and then darkness. It gave him the most peculiar feeling. He had never been more calm or open or emptied out, the turmoil of his emotions settling with the daylight, every superfluous thought chased away, until he was left standing on the bedrock of his essential self, alive to his true nature. The closest he'd ever come to this sensation before was during meditation, but even that had not been remotely as powerful.
Jim was utterly still beside him, caught up in the same mesmerizing experience. After he was certain his Sentinel was concentrating and not zoning, he was content to let him be, to allow him the same freedom to get lost in the moment. It was enough that Jim was beside him. It was all he'd ever needed. He could see that now. The terrible mistake of the past months was walking away from Jim without a fight, believing he could continue the journey alone. Now he realized that discovering Jim was the journey, not just finding him there in that hospital room or helping him develop his abilities or even walking beside him as Shaman, but learning the intricacies, the blind alleys, the Byzantine curves, the full stops and green byways of this man's soul. For this, he was alive. For this, he was specially created.
The loft was dark and still now, as if time and the kinetic universe had actually stopped, ever so briefly, just for them. He felt a sudden, intense longing to see his friend's face, but it was obscured in shadows. He could not decide what to do, torn between the desire to be by Jim's side always, not wanting to move from him even for the instant it would take to turn on the light, afraid of breaking the connection, but also feeling a nearly overwhelming need to drink in the sight of the beloved features. The longing to see his friend grew, and he reached as slowly and quietly as he could for the lamp.
"Don't. Please," Jim said, his voice low and urgent, shattering the loft's silence like crystal.
"You've got me at something of a disadvantage, big guy. I can't see in the dark."
"I just don't want..."
Jim wasn't able to finish the thought, but then Blair didn't really need him to. He knew. He didn't want to break the spell either.
"I've got an idea," he said, getting up to go to the kitchen.
"No," Jim reached out for his hand.
"It's okay, Jim. I'll be right back," he promised.
He found the candles and matches in the kitchen drawer, just where they'd been when he'd left. That made him smile, a gentle warmth unfolding in him. Jim was still Jim, everything in its proper place. Living his life beside this man, he realized, had been his first experience of true orderliness. It had been as simple as always knowing where his things were. It had been as complicated as understanding at last where he belonged in the world.
He lit the votive candles and scattered them around the living room, bathing everything in warm radiance and soft shadows.
"This reminds me of old times," Jim said, his voice mellow and fond with memories.
He smiled, the same sweet wave of recollection washing over him. It felt so peaceful to be in the loft again, the joy and relief of homecoming like a physical burden removed from him, easing body and soul. It felt so right to be sitting on the sofa with Jim like he'd never been away. It felt so good to be able to look at his friend with hungry eyes, Jim's beautiful and well-loved face an architectural wonder in the candlelight. He was staring, he knew, but Jim wasn't looking away, so he wouldn't have to either. He felt a simple gratitude for that. He wanted nothing more than to linger, to drink in every feature, every sensory detail. He'd never been free before to look at his friend as intently as he wanted, as unabashedly as he was doing now. It made him giddy with the luxury of it. He mapped Jim's face with his eyes, the unique topography of line and curve, slope and slant, ridge and hollow. He admired the pristine way each aspect flowed into the next, coming together to create a picture of beauty and strength, honor and tenderness, intelligence and power, all adding up to the man he loved.
And he wasn't the only one staring. Jim was devouring him, using Sentinel sight to map him on a minute level. And that was the single most thrilling sensation of his life.
"You seem older," Jim said softly. "Grown up."
He heard so many things in Jim's voicesurprise, pride, regret, fear. And it made him feel so many things in response. Wistful and pleased and sad and proud. No one else had ever affected him in such a way. That's what he had been missing all those months in Madagascar. Not that he'd been without company. There had been other people, even a few who went out of their way to spend time with him, to get to know him. But everyone paled in comparison to Jim, too finite, too easy to figure out. Jim was so many things, layer after layer of subtle mysteries, and he had a treasure-seeker's joy in discovering each one of them.
"You look the same," he said. "Good. Really good. The place too, man."
"I'm afraid Molly gets the credit for that. She's been keeping me and the loft together since she moved in. It was pretty damn empty before then. Without you."
He didn't know what to say to that. He wasn't sure Jim had ever said anything quite so emotional about him before. It took his breath away.
He felt Jim's hand, warm and broad, on his shoulder. "I missed you, Blair."
Jim missed him. Jim. Hope unfurled in his chest like a flower. The warmth of Jim's hand on his shoulder felt so good. He'd always known that Jim's touching connected them, but now he realized how it grounded him in his own experience, secured him to life, tethered him to the world. Before Jim, that kind of connectedness had never seemed important. He'd lived the same gravity-free existence as Naomi, and it had felt perfectly natural. Just the possibility of a long-standing commitment had seemed like an unmanageable burden. And it wasn't as if his feeling for Jim wasn't weighty. It was, like the pressure of Jim's hand on his shoulder, but there was nothing burdensome about it. It made him more than he was. It gave him substance, volume, layers, like Jim.
"I missed you too," he said.
Jim smiled his delight, and Blair had to reach for him. He took Jim's hand and held it between his own. Jim's skin was so warm, alternately rough and smooth, pulsing with life. It was amazing, how the physical fact of another person's hand could so overwhelm him. He didn't know how Jim could withstand the intensity of such touching enhanced by Sentinel senses. It would have undone him completely. He stroked Jim's hand reverently. Hands told such much about a person's life, their strengths, the quality of their character. He'd always thought Jim's hands so beautiful, with their wide palms, long, capable fingers, prominent knuckles. Hands with the mystique of strength, that's how he'd thought of them, wondering all along in some corner of his mind how they would feel touching him. And now he was touching Jim, at long last, caressing and exploring and learning him, after all the watching and wanting. And it felt so good, so right to be able to indulge his longing. No knowledge had ever seemed so important as this simple tactile truth, cataloging the length and breadth of the trusting hand, feeling the slight rise of veins on the back of it, the structure of the underlying bones, the hollow of its palm, the slight callous on the thumb. The universe had been reduced to this one hand cradled so tenderly in his own, and he was filled with wonder and thanksgiving.
And the expression on Jim's face blew him away all over again. For a moment he had trouble accepting that this was the same James Joseph Ellison he'd left behind those many months ago. The grim, stoic cop was gone, and in his place was a Jim Ellison who leaned back against the sofa cushions in an attitude of perfect relaxation, his eyes large and dilated, half-lidded in concentration, mouth softly parted. He knew this man too well not to realize that Jim had dialed up his sense of touch to enjoy every sensation of the gentle exploration of his hand.
"You've changed too, Jim," he said.
Jim smiled wryly. "Yeah. Probably a little worse for wear."
He shook his head. "No. The different thing, it's good. I mean, you're so...open. I've never seen you like this before."
"It's interesting how that works sometimes, Chief. Good things can come out of bad situations."
He watched Jim's face change to reveal yet another side of him he'd never been allowed to see before, the lines around his eyes and on his forehead suddenly deepening. And there was an expression in his eyes, something that was literally exhausted. He gasped as he realized there had been wear. His friend was worn out, on some profound level, deep in his psyche. And there was something else too, something like...could it really be grief?
"For me?" he asked, unable to believe his leaving could have had such a far-reaching effect.
"When I said I missed you, Chief, I meant it. Every day, every minute, every second."
"At first, right? But it got better?"
He felt something very full unfold in his heart as he watched Jim shake his head. "No. It was never better, Chief. Not until now."
He found it difficult not to cry and then stopped even trying to keep it back. It was too late to withhold anything, and he let the tears slide down his cheeks. The thought of Jim hurting pained him deeply, and it reminded him of his own dark months in Madagascar and then back in Cascade, how unnecessary it had all been. But it also moved him. It shifted the outline of who he was in a way he never expected. Before Jim, his life had been a constant parade of new faces, starting back in childhood, always a new school, yet more stone-faced kids to try and win over, the endless revolving door of Naomi's boyfriends. He'd learned to make himself agreeable, to cultivate easy charm, to keep things airy and casual. He walked with light footsteps. He had learned to fit in anywhere, but had always longed for a place where he fit naturally. It bothered him that he'd never burrowed into anyone's heart, that he did not feel cherished, had never become crucial to anyone's sense of well-being. When he left a place, he could not help but feel that he was not missed, not really. Not until now. Not until Jim.
"I felt the same way," he admitted, a little shaky.
Jim frowned. "Wasn't it good on the expedition?"
Somehow he and Jim had been inching closer to one another the entire time, imperceptibly, by degrees, until their knees now brushed. The contact jolted him. Jim reached out to touch his hair, sweetly, communicating his concern. It was just one light touch, but it unraveled him, devastatingly sensual and comforting, all at once. All those months, lying awake at night in his tent, the hard ground beneath him like a reprimand, the unyielding sky above him a taunt, this had been his dream, his insatiable hunger, this one simple gesture, from this one man. And Jim wasn't repelled by his need, wasn't pulling back, wasn't moving his hand. He rested his head against the sofa cushions, eyes half closed, leaning into the stroking hand as it explored each curl, an overwhelming sense of well-being, warm and peaceful, taking him over. And Jim was watching him like he was the sun and the stars and everything in between, and he clasped the hand he was holding that much harder.
"It was awful. I hated it. Every day, every hour, every minute. It was just...agony."
"No. I'm sorry. I'm the one who left. It was my decision. I'm responsible."
"Listen, Chief. We both know you wouldn't have gone if I hadn't been too much of a coward to tell you how much I wanted you to stay. I'll always be sorry for that."
"Or I could have told you how much I wanted to stay. Let's face it, Jim. Neither of us is exactly blameless here."
Jim chuckled. "I guess we're really quite a pair, aren't we?"
"I like to think so," he said softly.
He watched Jim blink back the threat of tears. "Me too, Chief. Me too."
With that, he knew it was really going to happen, everything he'd wanted and wondered about and hoped for and been scared to death of. It was already happening. Jim knew it too. It was in the way he touched him and watched him and spoke. Realizing it, he felt something grow calm inside him. He did not want to rush. He wanted to savor every step, every advance, every glance and further touch, every precious second of their first loving. After all, they were not teenagers. This was not some anonymous groping in the dark between strangers. They were best friends. They needed to take their time and see each other through, supporting one another, as they always had, in everything, since the moment they'd met. It was what their friendship demanded, and it was this intense friendship that would always be at the heart of their bond, this pure and deep and unshakable connection, this soul love that would last the rest of their days. Tonight was only the beginning. They had all the time in the world.
"When was the last time you ate?" he asked, running his fingers up and down Jim's arm, enjoying the feeling of smooth skin and crisp hairs.
"Oh God," Jim said, seeming almost embarrassed, his stomach grumbling loudly on cue. "It's been a while. Breakfast, I guess."
"Me too. We need sustenance, big guy. To keep up our strength."
"That might be the most exciting thing I've ever heard said about food."
He smiled broadly. His friend was flirting with him. And he really, really liked it. "Let's go scavenge."
He was not willing to give up his connection with Jim, and Jim didn't seem to want to part with him either. They walked the short distance to the kitchen hand-in-hand. He had to let go of Jim to work on dinner, but he couldn't tolerate any more separation than that. He felt compelled to stand in Jim's space, glued to his body, and Jim seemed to welcome it, leaning into him, occasionally wrapping an arm around his waist to pull him closer.
"Molly made some soup the other day," Jim said, opening the refrigerator. "There should still be some in here. And stuff for sandwiches."
"Mmm. Sounds good. Should we see if Molly's hungry?"
He watched Jim reach out with his hearing. "No. She's sound asleep."
He smiled. "And I thought that was all just an excuse."
"Knowing Molly, I'm sure it was. But it's been a pretty rough day for her. It probably got to her more than she figured. I mean, look who the poor girl just inherited for brothers," he said teasingly.
Blair couldn't help smiling fondly. "You really love her, don't you?"
"Me too. Long before I knew she was my sister. You know, I think I always loved her, from the moment she first came to my office. I was not too happy when I thought I was having some kind of inappropriate reaction to a student. Really freaked me. But now looking back, maybe I knew on some level who she was. Maybe there really is knowledge in our genes. Maybe we can sense who has ties to us, who belongs to us."
"Or maybe it's just that some things are meant to be, Chief."
He felt his throat go dry at the expression in his friend's eyes. "Oh most definitely, Jim. Some things are absolutely meant to be."
They could not tear their eyes away from each other for a long moment, but there was still the need for food, pressing on their attention.
Jim smiled. "Maybe we ought to concentrate on dinner."
He nodded. If they didn't, it would never get done. He worked on making sandwiches, turkey and swiss, Jim's favorite. The soup bubbled in the pan on the stove.
"That smells great," he said.
"Yeah. And low fat too. Plus there's fiber," Jim laughed. "You know, she really is so much like you. She really kept me going while you were gone. Without her, I don't know..."
He felt himself freeze. What? Jim couldn't be saying what he thought he was saying...could he? He searched Jim's face, stared deeply into his eyes. And saw the ghost of an unbearable pain.
Jim's voice was gravelly with emotion. "It got really hard, Chief. I just wasn't too sure sometimes..."
He grabbed Jim's arm and held on. "You have to promise me. Never. You'll never do that. Never, never even consider it. If I can help it, we'll never be apart again. But if something happens that we can't control, you have to promise me you won't give up, that you'll keep going. Please. Promise me, man. I really need to hear you say it."
He watched Jim consider carefully. "Yes. I promise, Blair. But only if you swear that you'll stay with me. I just...I need you. I do."
"Oh yeah, man, yeah. Of course. I promise. God Jim, I need you too. Don't you know that?"
Jim wrapped his arms around him and hugged him harder than he'd ever been hugged before. "God, I'm glad you're back, Chief."
"Me too, Jim. Me too."
Finally Jim let him go, and they finished making dinner quietly, shaken by the strong emotions. What they felt was too difficult to say in words. It could only be communicated in touch. Blair kept his body lightly in contact with Jim's as he finished assembling the sandwiches. Jim could not help reaching out to him, to hug him, squeeze his shoulder, pat his back, anything to maintain the physical connection.
When it was ready, they took their dinner to the table and sat down together. Blair scooted his chair a little closer to Jim's, and Jim draped his arm across Blair's back, leaning in to be nearer. They ate quickly, more hungry than they had realized, stealing food from one another's plates, the way they always had, the rhythm of their previous intimacy seamlessly restored, as if Blair had never left at all.
"God, I can't believe I have a sister. And she's your sister too. Pretty cool, huh? I've never had any family besides Naomi. And you, man. I mean, I've always considered you family, Jim. But to find a blood relative at this point in my life. It's just amazing."
"I know what you mean, Chief. I finally have one I like. And feel close to. You know, I meant what I said before. It really does mean a lot to have both you and Molly here with me. The two of you are my family. The only one that really counts."
He cupped Jim's cheek, a little teary. "Thanks, man. I feel the same way. I'm really, really glad to be here."
They stared into each other's eyes a long moment, seeing all the things they'd been hoping to discoverneed and commitment and permission.
Finally Jim said softly, "How 'bout I snag us some beers, Chief, and we take this party back to the sofa?"
He smiled. "Sounds good to me."
He curled up on the sofa, and Jim soon joined him. They sat together, as close as possible, entwined, Jim holding him tightly in his arms, his cheek resting against Jim's shoulder.
"You know we haven't really talked about this yet, Chief. I mean, I just need to know...are you sure?"
"I'm sure. You?"
He watched Jim nod, and it made him feel so many thingsrelief and longing and freedom. He leaned closer, so close his breath caressed Jim's skin. With shaking fingers, he stroked his face, tenderly, reverently, a celebration of everything that was good and true and alive. He lingered a trembling moment before closing the distance between them, so that he would always remember the exquisite anticipation, the way his whole life seemed to stretch out before him in a sensual vista. The first touch of their lips was light and friendly, warm and soft, and he knew that if this were his last moment, he would end in perfect contentment. The next kiss was dewy and honey-touched, a sweet blossoming, shared nectar, all he would ever need of heaven. And the next was cataclysmic, wild fire and runaway desire and furious hunger, the kind of torment that demanded more of the same.
There was an ocean pounding in his ears, and he followed its lead, stroking and tasting, teasing and touching in time to its tidal beat. The touch was everything, its own concentrated universe, and all that existed was the man in his arms. Jim, who was bedrock and timber and green field. His Jim, with his warrior's heart and peaceful hands, panther's growl and tender kisses. Being with Jim in this moment was the culmination of all his wildest hopes. It was starlit dreams and operatic longing, bright joy and secret whispers, quiet contentment and passionate heat.
There was no hesitation now. They moved effortlessly in their love, giving and taking, ebbing and flowing. Together they wove a spell of enchantment, a sleek double knot of murmured endearments and heartfelt silence, sweet sobs, soft sighs. Their communion was deep and sheltering, and they needed no words when it came time to move into the next realm of their passion. As one, holding hands, they rose from the sofa and walked to the stairs that would lead them upwards, to sanctuary.
Shedding their clothes felt like losing the present, opening a door and stepping into a natural past, the land of instinct and need. Finally there were no barriers. After all the wondering, here was Jim stretched out before him, at long last revealed, without secrets. Jim, who was his heart and his life, partner and love, brother and friend. No imagining could have predicted the feast before him, the sheer beauty of the physical revelation. Jim, tawny veldt and downy smoothness, Jim, warm expanse and sweet shadows, Jim, corded strength and tender hollows.
As he joined his love on the big bed, he couldn't believe he'd ever hesitated, ever worried what it would be like to give free rein to his love for him. Finally, he felt easy in his own mind, carefree in his body. Nothing had ever been so right. Moving as one, they dove into the bottomless pool of their longing. And in the infinite grandeur of the moment, they were the only two people ever to exist. They were the first, the chosen, the alpha and omega, born into the sensual garden, and their coming together was the beginning of all that would ever be. At last, there was no doubt, no trepidation, no fear of consequences. There was nothing but warm skin and loving connection and original pleasure. It struck him that he had never made love before without some sort of reserve, some part of his enjoyment, his enthusiasm, his heart held back, saving it, for something, he hadn't known what, until here, now. He had withheld from all the others, so that he would have something virginal to offer his love, his Jim. This sacred offering was no less than his whole self, all that he was, all that he would ever be.
And now he was more open, more attuned to the man in his arms than he could ever have imagined, ready to give himself up with total abandonment, to sink into the depths of his love with complete fearlessness, advancing with infinite patience toward the moment of ideal bliss. There was no calculation in it, no measuring out what should be given in order to take what was wanted. He was inflamed equally by the desire to possess and the need to surrender. Jim's desire was his own. Jim's pleasure sang along his skin and throbbed deep inside him. The sound of Jim's satisfaction echoed in his own throat. In giving, he also received. In taking, he made a gift of his love.
The night was theirs, and they possessed it, taking the measure of each other's flesh, again and again. They nipped and played, nuzzled and danced, licked and gasped, kissed and celebrated. They dwelled lushly in one another, hungry but unhurried, having waited too long to rush, unwilling to sacrifice even a moment of joy. They moved together in love and need, communication and mutual exchange. It was a gentle current, sweeping them in and out on a tide of pleasure. It was a primal rhythm, building inside them, thunderous chanting need, demanding more. It was an abyss and the raging swell that carried them up and over, into star-splintering darkness, the awe-filled stillness at the center of the Universe, the fractured consciousness of release, the damp shore of satiety. It was all they had dared hope for and so much more.
Afterwards, when the world had regained its axis, he felt Jim's arm curve around him, settling him into the hollow of his body, a warm nest where he fit perfectly. Jim's mouth skimmed his hair, kissed a fluttery path across his forehead, lightly brushed his ear. He heard a low murmur, something that could have been Blair or Chief or Sandburg or mine. Something that sounded like love. He took the sound, like music, into his dreams and let it lull him into peaceful sleep.
The dream was always the same. The nightmare. There were hands on her, slithering over her skin with evil intent, hands that made her sick with revulsion and fear, greedy hands, trying to take what was hers, hands that would stop at nothing to get the gift she'd been born with, even though it was not something that could be taken. As always, the worst part was feeling so completely powerless. In her dream, she was utterly paralyzed, unable to move or scream, just as she had been all those years ago, bound to the table, a gag in her mouth, nearly choking her. And the smell. Who could have ever imagined that evil had its own particular odor? A sickening combination of rot and cloying sweetness and char.
Smell? The realization jolted her awake. The smell wasn't part of her dream. It was something she remembered from that long ago night. And now, it was in her room. Terror constricted her throat. The man, the monster, the evil thing glided over to the bed and bent over her, running his hands up and down her body, over the fabric of her white cotton nightdress. She wanted to scream. She wanted to hit and bite, kick and scratch. She wanted to jump up from the bed and run to her brothers for safety. But her arms and legs felt like a leaden weight. She was frozen, couldn't move. Oh God, what had he done to her? Need. To. Scream. Jim! Blair! Have. To. Yell. Help! Please!
But she couldn't make words. She couldn't push the sound out of her body. There was no breath in her lungs. The dark one turned her over onto her stomach, roughly, pulling her arms behind her back, binding them with duct tape.
"You can't scream, and they're not coming, little witch," he murmured, his foul mouth close to her ear, disgusting and tormenting. "Nobody to rescue you this time. You're mine now, little girl."
He yanked her up by the hair. She could see his eyes, glittering black pools in the dim room. What she found in them made her tremble harder, the accumulated darkness of many misspent lifetimes, unmitigated evil. He would never be content with just taking her life. He wanted her soul. And she grew cold with a new terror. It was the first time she had ever doubted any of her grandmother's teachings. My soul's my own. My soul's my own. So her grandmother had always said, and so she desperately wanted to believe. My soul's my own. She chanted it in her mind, trying to have faith in her own mantra. He could not take her soul from her. No. Not possible. Not possible. But looking into his dark eyes had been like falling into cold, black water. Drowning. The most lost she'd ever been. And now she wasn't so sure anymore, about anything.
It can wait until morning. That's what she'd told Jim. So wrong. Oh God, how could she have been so wrong? Maybe the man had found out about her reunion with her brothers. He would also know about the prophecy of Three. Maybe he'd decided to strike before they could properly join forces. There had to be a reason why he would make such a bold move, coming to her own territory for her. Oh God, who was she kidding? He'd gotten so much stronger than he was the last time. Why should he fear her? She'd been no match for him so far. He'd come into her home, uninvited, broken through her protection, hidden from her sensory radar, immobilized her and taken her under his control.
The man pulled off another strip of tape, tearing it with his teeth, pressing it across her mouth. "Just in case my magic isn't enough to keep you quiet. There's nothing wrong with making sure your mouth stays shut the old-fashioned way."
He blinded her with yet another piece of tape across her eyes and then pulled her to her feet. Blair. Jim. Her mind felt so hazy. It was hard even to focus her attention. Blair. Jim. She could barely even call their names in her thoughts. Her knees felt weak, her legs rubbery. Her head swam. The dark one jerked her sharply to keep her on her feet. God, she should never have looked into his eyes. It had scared her down to her bones. Even blindfolded, she could still see that cold, reptilian expression, the sum of every vile thing that had ever crawled the earth. And her own fear had given him even more control over her. She was succumbing to his influence. It was interrupting her ability to think, confusing her mind, making her head hurt too much to concentrate. Jim. Blair. But they couldn't hear her thoughts, and she couldn't manage to speak. He was too powerful. She was getting so tired, so weak. She just wanted to give in, sleep, let it all be over.
"It's a good thing your brothers didn't wake up, little witch," he whispered, pulling her silently toward the door. "I'm sure you remember what I did to your Daddy when he got in my way."
Haphazard images crowded her fuzzy mind. Mold-covered walls. Dirt floor. Glinting silver blade. Flickering candles. Icy cold stone. Cruel hands. Thick herbal scent. Slick touch of oil. Screaming pain. Dark chanting. Terror. Revulsion. Something bright and red. Blood. Her father's, pooling on the ground. But something else too. Anger. Her own. A violent passionflower blooming inside her.
And suddenly she felt all the years of stifled rage unleash in her chest, traveling through her, burning in her blood like a hazardous chemical. Finally, he had made a mistake. He had mocked her pain, and no one did that. No one made light of her father's murder, particularly not the monster who had committed it. The fury cleared her head instantly, leaving a faint metallic taste in her mouth, determination and the lust for vengeance.
She knew at once what she had to do. She had already let down her guard so Jim could sense her, but she needed to go even further. She had to do the absolute opposite of everything she had ever been taught would keep her safe. Now strength and salvation would be found only in utter vulnerability. Instead of hiding, she needed to broadcast her emotions, all the rage, fear, dread, revulsion, the need for revenge, everything she felt. If she could give off a strong enough signal, Jim would be able to smell her, and maybe with that he would be able to track her. And he would need Blair to guide him, so they would both come for her. And maybe, just maybe, if the three of them were together, they would be able to fulfill the prophecy and end this particular darkness forever.
The man pulled her to the fire stairs and dragged her down them. She stumbled and sagged, keeping up a facade of disorientation to distract him. Believing he'd already won, he was not paying such careful attention to her now. He did not sense that beneath her woozy surface she was gathering her strength. She focused, moving inward to the quiet place, exerting her will, turning her emotions out into the world with all the force she was capable of. The man did not stir or pause, not noticing. A sense of thankfulness spread through her. She knew she was still in very grave danger, but at least, she was leaving behind her own version of a bread crumb trail. Please, please, please find me, Jim. Please, please, please come for me, Blair.
He pushed the fire door open and dragged her onto the sidewalk. She could hear night sounds, crickets and faraway sirens and the distant hum of traffic, but nothing even remotely nearby. It was maybe three o'clock in the morning and a weekday, so the chances of anyone being out were slim at best. Not that it would have done her much good anyway. The dark one was far too powerful for a good Samaritan to stop him. With the effectiveness of his shielding, someone could pass right by them and never notice a thing.
"I've waited such a long time for this, little witch," he purred in her ear, making her stomach clench. "I've dreamed about it. And now I'm about to make all my dreams come true."
He grabbed her by the neck, and she could hear the sound of a van door sliding open. He lifted her and dumped her onto the hard, cold metal floor, slamming the door behind her. She tried not to think about how final it sounded. A moment later there was another slamming door and the gunning of the engine. When they began moving, her heart froze, and she felt the panic rising again. She had the terrible sense that he was carrying her away from the scene of her brightest joys toward a final darkness.
It took a supreme effort of will to tamp back down the fear and dread. If these were the last moments of her life, she wanted to spend them with the people who were dear to her, and she turned inward to commune with them. Father. Mother. Grandmother. Jim. Blair. She retreated into her love, letting it hold and comfort her. She felt a wave of gratitude for all that she had been given in life. She felt the sting of greed, not ready to give it all up just yet. It was not that she feared death. She truly knew there was no end. Even if she died, she would continue, in some form, always. But she was not finished here. She had so much more to do in this life. She felt it in her heart and bones and blood. She didn't want to die. She didn't want to leave. Not yet.
Please, please, please, she begged the Spirit, over and again.
Jim woke with a start and slid silently out of bed, reaching for the gun. Something wasn't right. He could sense it. He crouched against the wall near the stairs and extended his senses, sweeping the loft, searching for the source of the threat. But everything was still and tranquil. No danger. He breathed a little easier, his protective instincts settling back down. There was no one and nothing foreign in his home. His family was safe.
It was that realization and the cold metal of the weapon in his hand that brought him fully back to his senses. He was very glad no one else was awake to see him in full attack mode, ready to have it out with an imaginary enemy, more than a little ridiculous. But shit! That had been one hell of a dream. Nightmare was more like it. He couldn't recall the exact images. Everything had been blurred and unfamiliar, even while the dream was going on. There had been soft lighting, candles maybe, and an old building and someone else was there, although he couldn't see them, only sense a presence. And there was a dirt floor. That he remembered clearly. But what really stayed with him was the bad feeling he'd gotten from it allcold and desperate and menacing.
He put the gun back in the nightstand drawer and returned to bed. Blair made a soft sound beside him, searching for him in his sleep, curling against his body, sighing unconsciously, a sweet sound of contentment. He pulled him closer, careful not to wake him. The dream had jarred him, and he doubted he'd be able to go back to sleep again. But with Blair in his bed, he would have no problem keeping occupied. He could spend an eternity just watching his beautiful guide lying beside him.
He touched his own lips softly and smiled with great satisfaction. He could still taste his love. It was every delicious flavor imaginablehoney and spice, tang and zest, salt and savor. It was Blair. When he concentrated, he could still feel Blair on his skin, all the varied textures of Blair's tender body pressed against his, the resonance of those gentle hands stroking and teasing and worshipping him. In his mind's eye burned a perfect picture of his beloved, writhing beneath him, the beautiful features luminous with affection and pleasure. He had not understood before how much he'd longed to see his best friend's face in orgasm. But now he had and now he knew. Ethereal. That was the only word for such unearthly grace. And he had been the one to lift Blair to those heights. He had been the one holding Blair in his arms. It had been his name Blair screamed out of sheer joy. He had been the one who had given him that pleasure, his mouth and hands, tongue and fingers, cock and ass that had brought him to ecstasy. And he had never known a fuller, brighter joy.
He lightly touched Blair's curls, loving the way they fanned out over the pillow, the striking contrast of white cotton and silken darkness. It seemed difficult to believe that only a few hours ago he had been desolate, contemplating the prospect of losing the two people he loved most. And now his life was more intertwined with theirs than he could have ever thought possible. In the parking lot at the university, watching and misunderstanding their relationship, he had stared into a void so profound that he had really not known how it would be possible to go on with his life, irretrievably lost without them.
But instead, he had gained them as family, different from anything he'd ever known before, complicated bonds of love and blood and sympathy that would keep them together, always. Always was important to him. Losing them was his terror. Hell, it wasn't even paranoia. Loss and aloneness were the overriding themes of his life. Until now. Not now. Not ever again. Now there would be no more void. Now the people who were most important to him were with him, under his roof, under his protection. It was a kind of satisfaction perhaps only a Sentinel could fully appreciate.
He thought of other nights when bad dreams had awaken him, the despair he felt without Blair by his side, the disconnection that threatened to overwhelm him. It had nearly driven him mad. It had nearly killed him. The loneliness was a white room without contents, doorless, sterile, seamless, no edges, no sound, no sensory input of any sort, nothing and no one, the worst sort of desolation. That was his life without love, without Blair, his mate. That was his life without family, without Molly, his little sister. The two of them together had banished the pale silence, once and for all. And now he was surrounded by such sweet music. He listened to Blair, the burbling sound of his life, the beating of his heart, the blood in his arteries and veins, the breath rushing in and out of his lungs. It anchored him in the here and now, filled him with a deep peacefulness. He wondered what it would be like to hear both Blair and Molly at the same time, a symphony of his loved ones. He reached out his hearing eagerly, anticipating the chorus of beautiful life. But he didn't find it. He couldn't sense Molly.
It must be the ghostwalking thing. Except that he'd been able to find her earlier. Something prickled along his skin, and the dream plowed back into his consciousness. Molly had been in it, alternately an adult and a little girl, and someone else had been there too, hiding in the shadows. There were candles and a dirt floor and something glinting in the dim light. A knife. God. The red glowing numbers of the digital clock caught his attention. 3:23 a.m. Wasn't that when Blair's father...shit! She wasn't ghostwalking. She wouldn't have woken up just to shield herself. She always let him sense her when he was sleeping. That meant...oh God.
"Blair, baby, wake up." He gently shook Blair's shoulder.
His lover rolled over and stretched, like a sleek, contented cat, the sheet sliding down around his hips, making his heart stand still. Blair reached for him and began stroking his thigh, pressing closer, sighing contentedly.
"Come on, Chief. You have to get up. Now."
He pulled out some clothes and threw them on hurriedly. The sense of urgency in his voice had communicated itself to Blair, and he was sitting up, still looking very sleepy but also a little alarmed. "What is it?"
"Molly. I don't hear her."
Blair's expression turned to fear. "Oh shit, man."
Blair scrambled out of bed, picking up his clothes from the floor, pulling them on. It was the most schizophrenic moment Jim had ever had, torn between admiration for his lover's beautiful body and a quickening sense of dread for his sister.
He could only deal with one strong emotion at a time, so he went downstairs to confirm what his senses and every ounce of instinct told him. And he was right. She was gone. Standing in the doorframe of the empty room, staring at the rumpled bedclothes, he could not remember having such a bleak feeling since Blair left. The room was so still, a void without Molly's energy and presence. Only a short time ago, he had thought the white prison was behind him forever, and now...
"Hey, Jim, come back to me. Okay? Come on, big guy. I need you. Molly needs you. I know it looks bad, but she's okay. I feel it. She's alive and waiting for us. Come back to me, so we can go get our sister." The voice was soft and loving, accompanied by the warmth of a hand moving in reassuring circles over his arm.
"Yeah, man. You were really zoned there for a minute."
"He took her."
"What he does to them. My God, Blair. It's...he's really going to hurt her. Make her suffer."
"Not if we find her first."
"How do we do that, Chief? We have no idea who this guy is. Shit, we don't know much of anything about him at all. How the hell are we going to figure out where he's taken her? I should have made her tell me everything she knows. I should never have put it off until morning. Fuck! I go and give her this big speech about how I'm a cop and a professional and she should let me handle stuff like this and then I go and fuck it up and don't protect her."
Blair grabbed his arm. "Don't! It's not your fault. We're dealing with something extreme here. We have to concentrate and figure out what to do."
"Like what, Chief? I'm open to ideas here."
"You have to use your senses, man. It's who you are, what you do. Concentrate. Does anything jump out at you?"
"I don't know. I can't..."
"Yes, you can. Now concentrate."
It seemed hopeless to him, but Blair wanted him to try and Blair was his guide. So he tried. He scanned the room with his vision. Nothing out of place. If the killer had left anything behind, it was minuscule enough to be undetectable even to Sentinel sight. But the smell. How had he missed that before? It must have been his agitation. Because it was overpowering. It was Molly, but more potently than he'd ever experienced her, layers and tangles of scent, corresponding to her emotions, very strong ones. Beneath and over and around her usual lemony smell was something sharp and metallic...fear...and something acrid, almost smoky...anger...and something unique, unlike anything he'd ever picked up before, especially strong, almost determined if that's something a scent could be. A possibility struck him, and he followed the powerful scent out of her room into the living room, over to the door.
He felt Blair's hand on his arm. "What is it, Jim?"
"You're right. She's waiting for us. Get your coat, Chief."
He could see that Blair was confused and curious and dying to ask a million questions, but he just grabbed his jacket and followed him outside to the truck.
"I need you to drive."
He took it as a testament to the extreme gravity of the situation that his friend only arched an eyebrow at him before taking the keys and settling into the driver's seat.
"So what now?"
"Hold on, Chief."
He rolled down the window and leaned out the passenger side, sniffing the air. Yes, there it was, fainter than in the loft, but enough.
"Take a left. Head down Prospect. Slowly."
Blair put the truck in gear and eased out of the parking space, following his instructions, inching along as slowly as possible.
"Geez, Jim, if I go any slower, we'll be stopped."
"Wait. Yeah, there it is. Make the next left. Left, Sandburg!"
"All right, all right, keep your pants on. A little more notice would be helpful."
"This isn't exactly a science here, Chief."
"Tell me about it."
"Right! Go right!"
"Keep going straight. That's good, Chief. We're getting closer. The scent's getting stronger."
"Jim, man, are you telling me that you can actually smell Molly?"
"I know it shouldn't be possible, but yeah, I can."
"Oh man, that's just amazing. I wonder if it has something to do with your family bond, like maybe your genetic connection makes you more sensitive to her or something. Or if she was trying to leave a trail for you..."
"Oh man, sorry. Can't help it. Figuring out new things about your senses is what I do to manage anxiety."
He couldn't help rolling his eyes. "Why don't I doubt that? Bear left up here. We're almost there."
"Of course we are. This has got to be one of the most desolate parts of the entire city. Why is it that bad guys always have to pick the most rundown abandoned building in the most deserted neighborhood for a hideout? Just once, I'd like it to be a three-bedroom ranch house in the suburbs."
"You know I love you, right?"
"So you'll take it in the spirit in which it's intended when I tell you to shut up, right?"
"Wow, man. What's it been? Twelve hours? And the honeymoon's already over."
"Left up here, Blair. Left."
"Okay. Okay. I got it."
Molly's smell was nearly as strong as it had been in the loft. It could only be another couple of minutes. He glanced over at Blair, noticing for the first time the white knuckles clutching the steering wheel. Damn. He'd been so focused on finding Molly that he hadn't realized how scared his lover was. Blair's heart was literally pounding in his chest and his breathing was shallow and fluttery.
He reached over to his partner, putting a hand on his shoulder, squeezing it reassuringly. "It's gonna be all right, Chief. I'm sorry I snapped at you."
Blair shook his head.
"Nah, man, I'm sorry. Sometimes my coping mechanisms aren't that appropriate to the situation. You know how I get when I'm nervous," he laughed tensely. "Of course this isn't exactly nervousness. It's more like sheer fucking terror."
Blair looked over at him, and the expression in those eyes, a combination of fear and embarrassment, made him grip his lover's shoulder even tighter. Despite all the time and energy he spent reminding Blair that he wasn't a cop, he himself sometimes seemed to lose sight of it.
"We've been in tough situations before, Chief. We'll make it through this. Hang in there, okay?"
"I love you."
A smile lit his lover's face. "I love you too."
"There! That building up ahead. Stop here, Chief. We don't want him to hear the truck."
Blair killed the engine and turned off the lights. "She's on the roof, Jim. Scared, but not hurt."
He shot his lover a questioning look and Blair shrugged. "I don't know, man. I just sense it. Maybe it's that empathic thing she was talking about. So what now?"
"You stay here," he said, opening the door. "Call it in. Get back up. Tell them to send every available unit. No sirens. You don't move. Wait for the cops."
"No way, man. Not this time. Let's call it in, but I'm going with you."
"I can't allow that, Blair. It's too risky."
"Listen, Jim, you don't have a choice here. Molly said it takes all three of this to defeat this bastard. So I am going in."
"Chief, please. I can't have both of you in danger. It's...too much."
"She's my sister too," Blair said softly, his jaw set in a way that Jim recognized all too well.
He sighed heavily but jerked his head toward the building. "Call it in. We're wasting time."
The building was pitch black inside, which fortunately wasn't a problem for him, but it meant his guide couldn't see a thing. To make it worse, the place had been completely trashed, and there was broken glass, abandoned inventory and debris everywhere. He held his gun in one hand and used the other to help navigate Blair around the obstacles. Slowly, they inched across the floor toward a rickety set of metal stairs against the far wall. They climbed deliberately, careful not to make a sound. At the top of the fifth flight there was a door, slightly ajar, letting in the orange glow from the lights on the roof. He could feel Blair relax beside him, relieved to be able to see again.
As they peered out the door, he was almost sorry that he could see. What greeted him made his stomach turn, and he could feel Blair struggle not to gasp out loud. Molly was lashed down to a metal workbench. Her white nightgown, cut from her body, lay discarded in a heap on the dirty blacktop. The man moved around her, keeping to the shadows, almost as if he were made of darkness, chanting eerily in some unrecognizable language, dipping his finger into the same scented oil they'd found on the other victims, drawing on Molly's body with it. He could see his sister shivering with cold and trembling with fear. He could hear the small pleading whimpers and sounds of disgust. He could smell the sharp scent of fear coming off Blair's body in waves.
It was too much for him. Rage hammered into him, catapulting him back in time, erasing the civilizing distance between his modern self and the tribal watchman that still lurked in his genetic code. He crouched low on the ground, his nostrils flaring, hyper-vigilant, his senses flooding the primitive center of his brain with information. His mate was safe beside him, but frightened. His sister was in enemy hands and terrified. Imminent danger. Attack. Defend. Destroy. Protect. Vanquish. Rescue. Kill.
Kill. Kill. Kill.
It took a while for the sensation to penetrate through the heavy veil of instinct, the pressure of a familiar hand on his back. And a voice. Molly's. But not a sound in his ears. It was in his head. Her voice. No, Jim, no. He felt Blair tense at his side. Molly? Shit, what was happening? Now he could hear them both, but no one had spoken. What the hell is this? Blair looked as confused as he was. It's our connection. It's how we beat him. Oh no, he knows you're here. Don't do anything. Wait for my signal. He watched the killer pause for a moment and then resume moving his hands over her body. But the touching was different this time, more deliberate, lewd and sexual. Rage and disgust collided in the pit of his stomach.
"It seems we have company, little witch," the man said, loud enough for them to hear. "Your loving brothers are paying us a call. Isn't that considerate? Now I don't have to go back to the apartment to kill them. Come out, come out, wherever you are."
The man fondled Molly's hip. Jim could feel her cringe, and fury ate through him like acid. A picture of himself eviscerating the pervert touching his sister sprang to life in his imagination, and he made a small move forward. No! That's what he wants. Stay there. I'm all right. Blair's hand had returned to his shoulder, calming him, keeping him centered. Hold on, Molly. We're coming. The sound of his guide's voice moving through his head helped him get the primitive fury under control.
The man grabbed Molly's breast roughly and she screamed. "We're having fun, aren't we little witch? Come out, brothers, and you can play too."
I'm taking him down now! He tightened his grip on the gun. Don't let him push your buttons, Jim. He turned to his guide and let his expression communicate just how annoying he found that particular bit of advice. Blair's right. He may not show it, but he's afraid of us. He knows we have the power to stop him. We just have to wait for the right moment. He shifted with restless irritation. When the hell is that going to be?
The killer picked up a knife, a large serrated blade like a hunting knife and held it against Molly's throat.
"Okay, that's enough already. Come out or she dies right now. You can't hide from me anyway. I know exactly where you are."
No, he doesn't. I'm shielding you. Don't come out.
"I'll kill her. Do you hear me, brothers? You know I will. I've killed lots of other people before her." He ran the blade across her cheek to accentuate his words, pressing in slightly, drawing blood.
Damn it, Molly. It's gotta be now. He was certain a vein would burst in his head if they didn't do something soon. Molly, what do we do? Blair sounded worried. We have to invoke the Spirit. All three of us. Follow along with me. The sound of Molly's chanting filled his head. What good is this going to do? We need action, not words. And I have no idea what you want me to say. The chanting went on, but there was Molly's voice too, speaking to him. Yes, you do. The words are inside you. All you have to do is let them out. Trust me.
Angels of Air. Guardians of the East. We do call and summon you to lend us your strength. He could hear Blair's voice join in tentatively. Angels of Fire. Guardians of the South. We do call and summon you to lend us your force. The words unspooled in his head, resonating, touching on something he never knew was there. But Molly was right. It had been with him from the beginning. Angels of Water. Guardians of the West. We do call and summon you to lend us your might. He chanted along with Molly and Blair, the voice in his mind building and swelling. Angels of Earth. Guardians of the North. We do call and summon you to lend us your power. He reached for Blair's hand, and a wave of electric energy surged through him. Spirit of Love. Spirit of Justice. Spirit Eternal. We invoke you in this hour of need. We summon you in perfect love and perfect trust. We call on you for righteousness sake. Come unto us. Grace us with your presence. Lead us out of this darkness, into the light.
His head was a jumble of images. It was a maelstrom that seemed to engulf him, pushing him backward toward a distant past, into secrets he could never have guessed. Woven huts and rough-hewn landscapes. Tall grasses shifting in starlight. The stone lintel of an ancient temple, intricately carved, mythic beasts and writhing figures, all springing to feverish life in his imagination. And the weathered hands of women grinding grain, forming clay into pots. The bent backs of men moving stealthily through the underbrush, seeking prey. Green field. Deep forest. Savannah and veldt. The overarching sky, brilliant and primitive, a color no longer in existence. The ancient waters, stirring with creation. Heaven separating from earth, darkness from light. A great flash in the nothingness, flintspark of the cosmos.
The vision blended surreally into the present, the sky above rolling and rumbling, black and crackling with electricity. He could see the man advancing on Molly, purposefully, knife raised, but he was held in thrall by the cascading visions and sounds in his head. He could not move. He could not even raise the hand holding the gun. The man was close, so close to his sister. And he was powerless. Please, please, please. He had learned that praying and begging were not so very different. He threw the depth of his desperation into the chant that still swirled through his mind.
The weather grew more turbulent, a gale force wind seeming to come out of nowhere, freakish even for the mercurial Cascade climate. The powerful air current pushed the man back, keeping him from reaching Molly. There was a crack of thunder and a flash of lightning, but it wasn't like any electrical storm he'd ever seen before. The sky was on fire, blue-white light streaming down toward the rooftop. The light flowed into Molly, enveloping her, until she glowed with its radiance, so bright he had to dial down his vision as far as he dared to keep from having to look away. The ropes holding Molly burned away, and the force of the light levitated her off the altar.
He didn't know who she was anymore. At least not with any certainty. She still looked like his Molly. Sort of. It was definitely her body, but the eyes. No one on earth had eyes like those. They were liquid fire and blue ice and the light of every star in the heavens. And she was hovering a few feet above the workbench. That violated just about every known law of physics. He couldn't really be seeing it. The chanting. That's what had him confused. It had done something to his vision, was making him hallucinate. But if he was just seeing things, then why was Blair staring at the same spot with shocked disbelief all over his face?
"The eternal order, ever the same. Live and let live. Fairly take and fairly give. All beings abide the law of love and heed the Rule of Three."
It wasn't her voice. That's all he could think, over and again. Not her voice. Not her voice. Next to the sinuous, soothing rhythm of Blair-speech, it was the sound he knew best. And it was not what he heard coming out of her body. That voice was an impossible contradiction. It had no volume somehow, didn't register in his ears. But it boomed out over them, immense, endless, making the ground tremble beneath their feet. It was the climacteric voice of the Earth itself, the Heavens, the soul of the Universe.
"All your deeds return at last, three times good and three times bad. And as you live, so shall you pass."
It was over in a fraction of a second: a bright flash, a stream of super-charged light directed at the man in the shadows, a screech of surprise turned quickly to agony as the incendiary brilliance engulfed him. And then nothing. Literally. Except a small scattering of ash that he watched waft away on the wind, as if the man had never been there at all.
Molly lay slumped and motionless on the makeshift altar, and for a moment, he could not tell if she was all right or even alive. But then he saw the soft rise of her chest, could hear her body returning to normal, blood moving in her veins, oxygen rushing in and out of her lungs, the softer, more obscure sounds that were the other organs in her body going about the ordinary business of life. Without even realizing it, he was rushing to her. Blair was by his side and peeling off his jacket, wrapping it around their sister. He picked her up, and she was impossibly cold, as if the core of heat in every cell of her body had pulsed out of her.
He dimly heard sirens and footsteps and the metallic groaning of the stairs beneath the weight of many police officers.
Simon burst through the door. "Jim! Are you all right? Sandburg! What the hell are you doing here? Oh, who cares? As long as you're all right. What happened here? Did the suspect get away? Oh my God! Is Molly hurt? I want an ambulance here. Now!"
"No, Simon, no ambulance. Molly's okay. We just need to get her out of here. Take her home. Get her warm," Blair said.
Simon stared at them, dumbfounded. "Nobody's going anywhere until I get answers. And this woman is unconscious. She looks like she's been through hell. She needs to go to the emergency room. And somebody needs to clue me in about what happened here. And I'd prefer the condensed version."
"The perpetrator in the Andrews, Talbot, Edwards and Patterson cases abducted Molly from the loft early this morning. We tracked them to this warehouse and were able to get to her in time. There was a freak accident, and the suspect was struck by lightning and killed while trying to escape. Molly is suffering from shock and exposure, but is otherwise all right. They won't be able to help her at the hospital, so we're taking her back to the loft. And that's pretty much it, sir."
"That's what you want me to tell the Mayor and the Commissioner. The killer was struck by lightning. Where's the body, Jim?"
"It was a big bolt of lightning. Very hot," Blair added, trying to be helpful.
"You can't be serious," Simon said, "That's a fairy tale, guys. No one in their right mind is ever going to buy it."
"Honestly, sir, at this moment, I don't really care who believes it. We need to take care of our sister. Come on Chief, let's go home."
There were halfway down the stairs when Jim's sentinel hearing picked up Simon's confused exclamation.