The Fire

by Francesca

Author's disclaimer: Nothing's mine but the words. Everything else belongs to Pet Fly.

Author's notes: Okay, so this story began in a chat with AnnaS. She saved the little bit that I quote at the beginning of the story and then I sort of challenged myself to actually write that. I got in the turbans, the camels, Naomi's burning dress, the gibbering Arabs, the dirty faces and even a stray muffin. I sort of used up all my trumpet and brass band imagery on The Night Sandburg Graduated From The Academy, so if you want that kind of stuff, go over there.

Thanks to Julad and Lucy for beta work, and to Em for Germanic translations. This story is for Anna.

WARNING: This story contains adult themes.

"So, see, if I'm gonna do an underaged Jim and Blair story — I want turbans, fire, camels, people gibbering in Arabic, Naomi's gauzy dress catching fire, maybe trumpets. Faces smeared with dirt. A brass band. Muffins." — Francesca to AnnaS. in IRC (For more of this log, click here)

PART ONE: Cascade, Washington, 2000.

"Come on, guys. He's just a kid." Blair was rocking enthusiastically on his heels in front of Simon's desk; he'd gone all Save-The-Children on us, which was gonna make for a long afternoon. I groaned.

Simon's voice was flat and final. "He had a gun, Sandburg."

Sandburg leaned forward and braced his palms on Simon's desk. "He's fourteen. Fourteeeeeen, Simon." Sandburg's voice sculpted the number into a whine. "What is that — a freshman in high school?"

I slid down in my chair at the conference table. "High School of the Dammed, maybe. What was he doing — trying to get a letter in armed robbery?"

Simon sent me an appreciative glance, telling me we were on the same page. "I was on the debate team, myself," he said and flashed me a barely-there smile.

"Ha-ha." Sandburg straightened up and rolled his eyes. "You guys are hilarious. You kill me. Now can we get serious and cut this kid a break? Have you guys even seen him? He looks like Leonardo di Caprio. Why can't we send ol' Leo to juvenile court where he belongs?"

Simon's eyes were suddenly steely; he braced his own huge palms on the desk in front of him and slowly rose from the chair. I suppressed a smile as Sandburg slowly craned his neck, up and up and up.

"Let me ask you something, Sandburg." Simon's voice was quiet, forceful, deadly. "How do you think this would have gone down if ol' Leo were black? Huh? If little Leo were a black kid instead of a white kid — what kind of conversation do you think we'd be having right now?"

Sandburg swallowed hard, and nodded vaguely, but to my surprise, he stood his ground. "The same one, I hope, Captain."

Simon opened his mouth to argue, but Sandburg seized the initiative. Fucking ballsy, that kid

"No, look, look — I hear you. Believe me: I hear you, okay? I know what you're gonna say — black kid, 'he's an animal', 'he needs to be tried as an adult'. Hell, black kid waving a gun around — we're lucky he's still alive at this point. I know that — don't you think I know that?"

Simon's face was contorted with what looked like rage. Sandburg, pale and gesticulating wildly as he talked, looked like a man trying to placate an angry thunder god.

"I know what you're gonna say. I know they've put these goddammed laws on the books, Simon. I know they want to try children as adults — but only black children. It's never their Jimmy or their precious Timmy or — "

"Damn right it isn't," Simon ground out.

" — sweet little Leonardo di Caprio. But Simon!" Sandburg cried, reaching his crescendo. "Dude! It's still wrong!"

I couldn't believe my ears. Dude? Simon didn't even bat an eyelash; Sandburg's passion was that persuasive.

"It's still wrong, Simon," Sandburg rushed on, "wrong either way — c'mon, right? You gotta see that, man, and you gotta know I'd be having this conversation with you if it was M.C. Leo D out there — and if I don't, the day I don't, you just kick my ass outta of this department and down the street and into the fucking bay, Simon, please — "

"Okay, okay, okay, okay, okay! Jesus!" And with a mighty groan, the thunder god collapsed back into his chair; so, I imagine, did David slay Goliath. Simon shot me a haggard look that asked, "How do you put up with this shit?" and I just shrugged and looked away.

"All right, Sandburg," Simon said finally, sounding like a man with a headache of biblical proportions. "Tell you what. You get the kid to spill it all — he recites, he explains, he confesses remorse — and I'll throw my weight behind the idea of juvenile court."

Sandburg let out a long breath. "Okay. Okay. Fair enough." He glanced at me, then jerked his head toward the door. I sighed wearily and hauled myself out of my chair. "Thanks, Simon. You won't regret it."

"Regrets," Simon said darkly. "I've had a few."

Sandburg didn't rise to the bait; he just bowed and scraped his way out of Simon's office. Only once the door was shut did he allow himself a jaunty little dance of victory in the middle of the bullpen. "Oh, man. That was close. That was so fucking close — but hey! We did it! Score one for truth, justice and the American way."

I was in no mood. "Putting kids in jail is truth, justice, and the American way."

Sandburg just snorted and ignored me — and truth be told that was one of the things I liked best about him. Sandburg just wouldn't believe the worst of me.

Of course I had been on his side. Of course I had been on the right side. The idea that I hadn't been wouldn't even have crossed his mind.

"Okay, so listen," Sandburg said, turning to rummage on his desk for little Leo's paperwork. "I think, when you interrogate him — "

"Wait, wait, whoa!" I said, raising my hands. "Me? I'm not interrogating him. He's your charity case — you interrogate him."

Sandburg looked up, apparently shocked. "Me? Why would I interrogate him? You're the master of interrogation, man!"

"Your pet project, man," I snapped. "You want to do pro bono work? It's your case, your idea, your kid." I sat down at my own desk. "Keep me out of it, all right?"

"But — but — " Sandburg fumbled for words, and then of course, being Sandburg, he found them. "Jim. Look. You're better at this than me, okay? You just are and you know it. We need a full confession from this kid or they're gonna send him to hell — and our best chance of that is for you to go in there and shake him up a bit. Make him realize what's at stake. And then, when he does — "

"Your case, your kid, your interrogation," I repeated firmly, opening a file on my desk.

"Jim, man," and now there was an edge to Sandburg's voice. "I really could use your help here, okay?"

I kept my eyes fixed on the report in front of me. "I don't interrogate kids, Sandburg. Leonardo's your problem."

I felt the heat of Sandburg's stare; it made me feel like shit. I was letting him down, I was disappointing him, I was forcing him to think the worst of me. Like he could ever know the worst of me. The kid hadn't a fucking clue.

"Fine," Sandburg said finally. "Fine. I'll take care of it," and when I finally dared to look up from my desk, he was well and truly gone.

I tried to drown myself in work. I tried not to notice Sandburg's absence. But Sandburg left a big void for a small guy; the world was a lot quieter and less colorful when he wasn't around. I glanced at my watch every so often, hating myself every time I did it. Twenty minutes. Half an hour. Forty-five. And still Sandburg didn't come back from the interrogation rooms.

Of course, he would eventually. He'd get the kid to spill and he'd come back, having done another good deed, hooray, bully for him. No doubt it would turn out that the kid was only robbing convenience stores at gunpoint because his sister needed a kidney transplant and his mother was on crack. The kid would cry, Sandburg would cry, the lawyers would cry — then they'd all have a fucking group hug and be done with it.

An hour and ten minutes.

I groaned, relented, and went down two floors to see what the fuck was going on.

Sandburg's voice came to me first — clear as a bell, even though he was whispering. "Just lose her, can't you? Snarl her up in paperwork — that kid gets a lawyer now and we're all fucked, him more than anyone."

"Blair, I'm trying, okay?" I knew that voice; that was Sandburg's pal Kathryn Bowe. Sandburg and Bowe got on famously, had bonded instantly as station outsiders — two Venusians on Mars: take us to your fucking leader. "But she's getting pretty damn impatient. We've kept her out for forty minutes already — "

"Just keep her out! I need more time. Have her fill out another form or something. Check her I.D. again — "

"The kid's parents are here, too, Blair. There's money behind this kid. That woman's wearing a Tahari suit — and she wants to see her client."

"Please. Kat." My stomach churned; Sandburg was begging, and I couldn't stand to hear it. "Please. Send her to the wrong room, make a mistake, anything. Just lose her."

Bowe blew out a long sigh. "I'll get you as much time as I can, okay?"

"Okay. Okay."

I heard Bowe's footsteps disappear down the hall. I rounded the corner; the hallway was now empty, but my ears told me that Sandburg and the kid were in Room 2. I went to the door and knocked briskly; a few seconds later the door opened, and I was staring into Sandburg's exhausted face.

"Oh, it's you." Sandburg stepped out into hallway with me, pulling the door shut behind him. "What do you want?" he asked, and glanced at his watch pointedly. "I haven't got a whole lotta time, here, okay?"

"Gimme a crack at him," I said; it came out sounding rough, like I was angry. I wasn't, though — it was just that my throat was tightening up.

Sandburg kept his face hard for a moment or two and then melted, actually melted in front of my eyes. Here comes Jim to save the day. But of course. He knew it was a misunderstanding all along. "Geez — thanks, man," Sandburg said, and I hated him right then, hated him for the relief in his voice. "So look — here's the story. I have tried to explain the situation to this kid. That he was possessing a gun. That that's a felony. That he'd gonna get tried as an adult. But I don't think he believes me. He looks at me and thinks 'summer camp' — I can see it in his eyes, Jim. He looks at me and thinks of the guy who arranged badminton games at Camp Immarichfugginkid. He's got parents and a high-priced lawyer waiting, and if they convince him to shut up, to deny everything and tough it out — he's gonna become a fucking test case, Jim. The whole weight of the fucking system is gonna come crashing down on his head to prove that the new law isn't racist, which of course it fucking is — "

I put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed it, trying to stop the flow of words. "I got it."

"I need you to scare the shit out of him," Sandburg said flatly. "I need you to get him to see that this ain't gonna be summer camp — "

"I got it," I repeated. "Go get a cup of coffee. Come back in ten minutes."

Sandburg raised an eyebrow at me. "Ten minutes?"

"Ten minutes, Sandburg," I said, and nudged him down toward the fifth floor breakroom.

Ten minutes would be plenty of time. I could scare the shit out of the kid just by showing him what I really was.

Sandburg was right: the kid looked exactly like Leonardo di Caprio. Sort of a mean, sullen di Caprio — or did that go without saying? He looked up when I entered, his pretty mouth set in an adult snarl. Ooooh, tough guy. I leaned back against the door and crossed my arms, wanting to show him that I wasn't impressed.

Except I was sort of impressed — by his youth. Fourteen, Sandburg had said. Certainly he was the youngest perp I'd ever attempted to interrogate. I already got queasy when they were seventeen or eighteen — far too young for all that testosterone, for all that fucking attitude. But this — this was the real deal, this was my nightmare. Dirty blond hair falling into smoke gray eyes, and not even peach fuzz on his smooth soft cheeks.

Pre-peach fuzz. Good god.

The kid shifted in his chair and squared his narrow, boy shoulders defiantly, glaring up at me. I could snap him like a twig if I wanted to. But somehow, that only made things worse.

I held steady by the door and stared at him — waiting patiently, letting the silence and tension grow between us. Time. I had plenty of time. I had all time in the world, all the power, all the control. He'd have to impress me. The first words spoken would be his.

I watched as his defiance began to wilt under the weight of my focused attention, though he struggled manfully to maintain it. But finally, he cracked. They all do. "Who are you, my bodyguard?"

I narrowed my eyes at him, trying to look menacing, hoping he wouldn't see how much he'd freaked me out. Not with his words, but with his voice — a high-pitched voice on the break of changing. God bless Sandburg — God bless Sandburg and his dials. I wrenched everything down to absolute zero. Hear no evil. See no evil. Think no evil.

I was going in.

Slowly, I detached myself from the wall, grabbed a chair, turned it round, and sank down into it in one fluid motion. I leaned forward over the seat back and stared into his face — we were way, way too close now, but my dials were still holding firm at zero. Leo twitched nervously away from me, but tried to stop himself, to control his reaction. Oh, brave, brave, stupid little boy.

I reached out and grabbed his hairless chin between my thumb and forefinger; I pinched and pulled his smooth, pale face close to mine, close enough to feel his breath.

His gray eyes went wide with horror — oh yes, my boy, my darling boy, you're getting it now. This is not summer camp. This is giving your life to me and men like me, men worse than me. This is your wake-up call, kid.

"Listen," I said softly. "Detective Sandburg is trying to help you. He's trying to stop you from being tried as an adult. He's trying to stop you from getting sent to an adult jail where your sweet little ass will be split open like a dandelion stem. I have no idea why he gives a shit about your pathetic little life. But he does, and so I'm gonna help him, and he's gonna help you. So you just listen up now. You may be the toughest kid in the ninth grade. But you. Are. A nothing."

I stopped then, watching him closely for a reaction. Leo was hyperventilating now, panting in-out-in-out-in-out, hot, sweet breath in my face. I closed my own eyes and inhaled deeply, surprised and grateful that I felt nothing myself, not even a hint of desire. Maybe — all those years of restraint had changed me. Maybe — I didn't have to be so afraid anymore.

I opened my eyes again, and Leo's lips were trembling now — round lips, girl-pink and softly curved, but not nearly as sweet as those forbidden lips in the very darkest closet of my memory. Not nearly as round and full as those other lips that had ruined my life, that had made me confront the monster I really was.

Go ahead, kid, I thought. Cry now. Cry now and then confess it all. Save your life.

"What do I have to do?" Leo asked finally, really looking on the verge of tears.

I smiled approvingly and his smoky eyes grew wet with unshed tears. Good boy — good, good boy. He was going to confess, Sandburg would be happy, this would all be over soon. Curious, I let my dials ease up a bit, one-two-three, and breathed in the barest hint of boy-scent. Sportstick and a splash of grown-up aftershave, the musky stuff they marketed to kids in Details magazine, boys with too much cash to spend on shoes and hair-gels and designer shirts. And still — no desire, nothing.

Could it be that something within me had grown, had changed, had evolved? After nineteen years of resistance, nineteen years of shoring up my defenses, nineteen years of keeping my distance from boys and turning myself, training myself on women — could I have possibly outgrown the urge?

Dr. Aaronburg had said it was possible, but surely...?

The first tear splashed its way down Leo's face; he let out an awkward boy-snort and jerked his face out of my hand, lifting his arm and swiping his shirt roughly across his face. "Okay," Leo said, his face crumpled like an old school lunchbag. "Just — tell me what to do, I'll do whatever you want me to do, I give up, okay?"

"Okay." I let my dials slide up — four, five, six — and reached across to stroke his neck with my fingertips. He flinched, hunched his shoulders, let out a sobbing gasp — and while my senses enhanced the feel of his smooth skin and filled my mouth with the scent of him — still nothing. Absolutely nothing. No desire — not a flicker, not a single solitary spark.

Dear God, thank you, God, thank you, God...

I slapped Leo brusquely on the shoulder and stood up. "I'll get Detective Sandburg. He'll take your confession, make sure everything's all nice and legal-like. And if you're lucky, you'll end up at Harford Juvenile, bullying boys smaller than yourself." I kicked my chair toward the table with my foot — it made a scraping metallic sound. "If you're unlucky, you'll run into me at seventeen, so watch your back."

I reached for the door, yanked it open, and strode into the hallway. Sandburg leaped up off the wall, where he'd been hovering, waiting. "Well?"

I couldn't look at him. "He's all yours," I said, and strode off down the hall.

PART TWO: Kabul, Afghanistan, 1980

"Anything else?" Professor Gregor leaned back on his chair and stared up at him. "Even the smallest thing could help us."

Jim closed his eyes, and thought hard. "No, sir. No, I don't think so." He opened his eyes and then added, "I did try to be thorough, sir. I tried to remember everything I could for my report. The Mujaheddn — I think they're beginning to trust me. Perhaps this month. It is possible, but of course I can't be certain yet."

Gregor chewed the inside of his cheek and nodded slowly, then leaned forward and laced his fingers together on the desk. "And what about you?" Gregor murmured quietly, showing that he was aware of violating rules by asking the question. "Are you all right? You're a little young for this kind of work, no?"

"I'm fine, sir," Jim replied; and that was a hell of an understatement. He loved this assignment. He loved his new identity — loved his East German passport, loved his tiny student rooms near the Polytechnic, loved his blond hair and the little steel glasses with the clear glass lenses. He loved the musical lilt he'd used to inflect his English. And sometimes, when looked at himself in his small shaving mirror, he didn't recognize himself.

He loved that best of all.

In Kabul, it sometimes seemed to him that there was no such place as Cascade, Washington. No such person as William Ellison. No Stephen, no Sally — no Jim. Here, he carried a passport that declared him to be Christophe Schmidt, a graduate student in Mathematics working with an international team of Russian, German, Polish and Romanian students under the supervision of Professors Gregor, Gruber, Dostam, and Trevenev. Half the students were CIA plants, like himself; Gregor and Trevenev were long time moles. The rest of the students were clueless, and did proportionally more of the math, though he himself certainly knew enough to talk the talk, and found that he was actually fairly good at fractal geometry.

"In any case," Jim added with a frown, "I believe that my age was a factor in this assignment."

Gregor shrugged. "Still, you're quite the youngest student we have in this department." Gregor's lilt was the genuine article, and Jim listened closely, studying it. Yungest stuhdent ve haf. "I just want to make sure you're doing all right."

"I'm fine, sir," Jim repeated. "Really."

"All right. I'll put that in the record." Gregor waved his hand at the door, telling Jim that he was dismissed. "I'll make sure that this reaches the right parties."

Jim nodded, stood up. "Thank you, sir," he said, and opened the door.

Once outside, he glanced at his watch; there was no point in going back to the Common rooms, and it was too early for the dark bars where students whispered in dark corners about the Holy War. His stomach rumbled, and he decided to get food — he could go down to the marketplace, get take away from a stand. Kabobs and samosa and maybe a mango, if he was lucky and there was fruit today...

He passed out through the door of the modern Polytechnic and began to wander through the ancient, narrow, crowded streets. It was twilight, and vaguely rush-hour — there was a lot of foot and animal traffic, and from the sidelines merchants peddled their wares in sing-song Dari chants — food! fresh, hot food here! cheap! Rice — by the pound, take it home, good rice, feed your whole family for mere puls! Nuts — cheap — buy the bag, sweet, good nutmeat!

Jim stifled a grin — tried to ignore his general feeling of well-being. It wasn't safe to be so happy in a situation like this. You were bound to fuck up, make a crucial mistake.

Still, though, it was dry and warm for evening, and he stepped out of the street traffic and pressed himself against he side of an old stone wall. The low stone and wood buildings of the city seemed ancient, something out of The Arabian Nights; the far off domes of the Mosques seemed older still, and the huge, overhanging mountains of the Hindu Kush , flushed pink and gold in the fractured half-light of evening, were of another world altogether. Fantastic. Wonderful. It was a place to get lost in, a place where one could disappear completely.

Jim adjusted his glasses and let himself be swept away by the traffic of the street.

A few blocks down he bought a kebob and some paratha from Sibgatullah, one of the few merchants whose food he trusted. Munching on the hot, spiced lamb, he turned down one of the quieter side streets that led to his rooms. Strange, the mountains and the sky really did look uncommonly pink tonight. On the next street he passed a woman he recognized — Salehah — leading an overladen camel down the unpaved street. He bowed to her in the stiff, Germanic way he'd mastered during his training period — so different from the easygoing American body language of just a few years ago, from Jimmy Ellison, Captain of the Cascade Wildcats — and passed by her, not speaking to her. Her husband would beat her nearly to death if she were seen exchanging words with a man, even a foreigner.

Pink, he thought again, squinting up at the sky. Pink, gold, flickering gold. And then, all at once, the burning smell reached his nose, and there were people running toward him, running away from the fire, because of course it was a fire, somewhere ahead, in the next block or two. Jim dropped the remainder of his kabob into the street and started running, pushing through the fleeing crowds, running toward while everyone else was running away.

Or almost everyone; a small crowd had gathered at the end of the street, at the site of the fire — dear God, it had spread, it was licking at nearly an entire block of attached buildings, now. One single long stone facade with flames dancing in the second-story windows. But the insides, Jim thought with a sinking feeling, the insides would be nearly all wood. The outside shell would remain, but the insides would be fragile, inflammable. He stopped at the outskirts of the crowd, and watched as two men wrangled a series of neighing, rearing horses out through a first floor entryway from the stables beyond the facade.

"Entschuldigung," Jim said to no one in particular. "Ist jeder entgangen? Ist das Haus leer? Empty," he added hastily, feeling that the baffled looks he was getting allowed him to switch into English. "Has everyone gone?"

"Yes." A young man answered him finally, in broken English. "No one home now."

Jim nodded, relieved, and turned his attention back to the blaze. Still spreading, still spreading downwind, engulfing more houses, and —

He could hear a voice. Carried to him on the wind. A high-pitched scream, blending in with the shriek of the fire.

He wheeled, grabbed the young man's shoulders, and said, "Are you sure nobody's in there? Are you sure the house is empty?"

The young man stared at him, shocked; the crowd stared at him and backed away from the foreigner, the white, blond foreigner who was attacking the local boy. "Yes!" the young man cried. "Yes. Empty! House Empty!"

But Jim could still hear a voice, unless he was going crazy, unless it was just the fire screaming. "I hear a voice," he said in English, and then in German, and then in Persian. "I hear a voice. There's someone in there. I hear a voice."

They were all backing away from him now, and he wheeled on them, appealing mutely.

Help! Somebody help me! Please!

English, Jim realized dimly. The voice was speaking English, too.

Before he'd consciously decided what he was going to do he was diving through the crowd, pushing through them toward the fire-engulfed houses. They parted and let him pass — they wouldn't stop him, they wouldn't interfere with a white foreigner, even a crazy one. Instinctively, he headed for the second doorway from the end, not knowing why, just going by gut feeling and the direction of his senses.

He passed through the stone arch into a smoke-filled room, ripping off his jacket as he went. It was hot, so hot in here. He paused, listened — heard the voice again, louder, stronger. Sobbing. "" and without thinking, he barreled toward it, running up the winding wooden stairs.

The landing at the top was even thicker with smoke. There were three closed wooden doors running along the corridor, and he yelled out, "Where are you? I can't hear you!"

His words were instantly met with a faint pounding sound and a hoarse yell. "I'm here! Hey! Right here! Please!..." He moved quickly up the hallway — not the first door, but — yes — the second. He reached for the knob — and yanked his hand back quickly, stung by the burning heat of the iron knob.

"Are you in there?!" Jim yelled, feeling the wood door with his fingertips. It, too, was hot.

"Yes! I'm locked in!"

"Get away from the door! You hear me! Get away from the door — and stay down! Down on the ground!"

"Okay!" the voice said, and it sounded further away now, so he took his chance and threw himself hard at the door.

Nothing at first. Just a pain in his shoulder. He lurched back and tried again, and this time the wood splintered. Once more and the boards bent inwards. The door flew open and he lurched wildly into the smoke filled room.

A small boy was cowering on the ground, his face covered in what looked like a wet piece of cloth. Good boy. Smart boy. Jim ran forward and grabbed him by the arm. Grateful blue eyes, framed by dark lashes, tearing with the acrid smoke, met his own.

"C'mon," Jim yelled, and tugged the boy off the floor. "We gotta get out of here!"

He pulled the boy back through the fractured door — and hell! the flames had now reached the second floor, were licking up the wooden staircase, devouring everything in its path. He could feel the boy cringing away from the heat, from the fire, but the only way through — the only way out, was forward. He dragged the boy forward towards the staircase, and then suddenly, abruptly, realized that they weren't going to make it. The route was blocked.

Shielding the boy from the flames with his body, Jim quickly made note of his options, which quickly came down to death or the back window. Pulling the boy with him, he leaned out through the stone opening — there was a one story shack a few feet away. He could probably....they could probably....

Jim yanked the boy up, off the floor, and into his arms. "Hang on, okay?" he yelled over the roar of the flames. "Just hang on tight!" The boy didn't say anything but his arms snaked tightly around Jim's neck and his legs wound around Jim's waist. Jim steadied himself with his hands against the stone wall, then stepped onto the window sill. There was no ledge, and the clinging boy was now dangling twenty feet above the ground. Worse yet, the shack's roof was obscured by the rising clouds of gray smoke, but even as he concentrated it grew clearer, like his eyes were filling in the picture with details from his memory.

In any case, it had to be there, so he made what wasn't quite a leap of faith, and jumped.

He first felt the jolt! as he fell hard onto the rooftop — and then seconds later, the searing heat on his hands, on his knees. The roof was made of metal, and below him, underneath him, the boy was screaming. Instantly, he rolled, pulling the boy off the roof and onto his chest, feeling the agonizing heat on his back, his buttocks. Taking a deep breath he pushed upwards, found his feet, and — still carrying the boy — quickly moved to the edge of the roof and jumped down to the ground.

They landed in soft dirt and rolled twice before stopping, Jim being careful that the boy should come up on top. The boy let go of him and scrambled into a sitting position just as Jim sat up.

Jim frowned — the boy was breathing hard, nearly choking, his small, round face smeared with dirt. "You okay?" Jim asked him, and the boy nodded vigorously.

"I'm fine. I'm cool. Just — " The boy sort of waved his hand around, and Jim nodded grimly, knowing exactly what he meant.

They were now behind the building, in a single large communal area that was squared in on all sides. Around them, the building burned, flames shooting high into the air, orange and yellow against the darkening sky. In the center, the grounds had been partitioned into separate gardens — some of the owners had built freestanding stables, others had built chicken sheds, or gardening huts; some were growing herbs, or fruit, or nuts, or opium — it was hard to tell now, because the gardens, too, were starting to burn. The smaller animals, abandoned in favor of the larger ones, were shrieking and running amuck — chickens, sheep, a herd of panicked goats.

"We gotta get out of here," Jim said, rising to his feet.

Beside him, the boy got up too. "We can't. There's no way out. The door are all locked — to keep the animals in."

"Oh, man, you gotta be kidding..." Jim muttered.

"No, really," the boy replied, sounding serious indeed, and his tone — and his earnest, dirt-smeared face — and the chicken and geese flapping their wings behind him — and the sad, sick, stupidity of the situation — made Jim feel like laughing out loud.

But there was no time and no real cause for laughter — the fire was licking outwards towards them, licking slowly through the growing plants, coming nearer still. "Right, okay," Jim said, offering his hand. The boy took it, held tight. "We gotta find ourselves some shelter."

The boy peered through the thickening smoke. "One of the sheds?"

"Our best bet," Jim agreed. "One made of stone — not wood or iron if we can help it — "

Instantly the boy began to tug excitedly on his arm, and Jim let himself be led. The boy knew this complex better than he did, anyway. "Rachid's vault!" the boy said, and he was running now. "It's all stone, even the ceiling — heavy, thick." They dodged their way through the darkness, around the plants and sheds, and Jim just followed, content to let the boy guide him. "Not here...not here...the next one!" the boy said, and yes, sure enough, there was a solid white concrete bunker looming in front of them — maybe eight feet high, eight foot square.

The boy led him around to the steel door, which was ajar. Jim peered at the structure suspiciously, and then at the boy — who nodded quickly, like he was reading Jim's mind. "Rachid sells..." and then the boy raised his thumb and forefinger to his mouth and mimed puffing, a curiously adult gesture that both shocked and saddened him. "My mother says he doesn't but he does. Also hashish, I think. Maybe other stuff too, I don't know, nobody will tell me."

Carefully, Jim touched the door, which wasn't hot, and then pulled it fully open. The vault was lined with shelves on one side — all empty now. Somebody had been prepared for the fire, or somebody had acted damn quick.

"Okay, great — this'll do," Jim said, and ducked in through the small door. "C'mon, we'll just hole up in here until — "

But the boy was still standing outside, peering off through the hot night air, and then to Jim's dismay, he began to wander off. "Hey — let's get the goats! And some chickens! We could keep them in here with us and — "

Quickly, Jim sprang and grabbed the boy's arm, yanking him around. "No. Forget it."

"But — " and now the boy was squirming, protesting, "they're not far! We just passed them! We could go back and get them and — "

"No," Jim said, and picked the boy up again. It was harder to do without the boy's cooperation — the boy yelled and struggled to be set free.

"But they're right there! And we've got room! Just a couple of the goats, the closest goats — we could just — "

Jim carried the boy inside and then used his weight to shove the vault door shut. "Hey," he said, setting the boy down near the far wall. "Hey. It's just too dangerous. We can't worry about them, we need to worry about ourselves, all right?"

The boy's adult facade had cracked and he was suddenly bawling, suddenly a small boy again, face crumpled, tears streaming down his cheeks. "But — but — what will Sullah do without her goats? We coulda got them! We coulda got them!"

Christ almighty, the kid'd nearly died himself, they both could still die if the fire engulfed this place, or if the smoke did — and now he was crying about goats?

Jim took a deep breath and got down on his knees in front of the boy. "They're gonna be okay. Believe me. Animals are pretty smart, you know? If there's another safe place here they're gonna find it."

"Not as good as our place! We got the best place!" the boy wailed.

"But we're big. They're small. They'll find someplace, they'll protect each other..." He didn't know what the fuck he was saying, he had no idea how goats reacted to fire. For all he knew they were already goat shish-kabobs — but he felt like he'd say anything, anything, to get the kid to stop crying. The goats all won a free cruise to the Bahamas, kid. They're playing shuffleboard on the Lido deck as we speak...

The boy didn't seem to be buying it — he just sank down onto the floor and cried harder. Jim felt entirely out of his depth, and then had a flash of adult insight: the boy wasn't crying over the goats, or not entirely about the goats, but about everything. Maybe only now, when they were relatively safe and calm, was the boy processing everything that had happened to him. The fire, the terror of being trapped, the strange man bursting in, the jump out the window...

Jim settled himself against the stone wall and pulled the boy into his arms. "Shhh," he murmured and stroked the boy's thick, dark hair. "It's okay, you're okay, it's all gonna be okay now..."

To his surprise, the boy curled against him and began to weep hard against his shirt. He tightened his arms and rested his cheek against the boy's head, continuing to murmur comforting nonsense, "...shhh, shhh, we're fine..." as the boy's arms wound around him.

And after a while the boy seemed to cry himself out, falling first into random snufflings and then into silence. Jim rocked him rhythmically back and forth, conscious of the boy's hands fisting his shirt, conscious that they were breathing together, in sync, conscious of —

Conscious of everything. The rising wail of the fire was three-dimensional in his ears, possessing color and light — god, he could see sound. And the heat, he could taste the heat, each degree of it. Voices — in the distance — people yelling. A crowd had gathered, a much bigger crowd than before, and they were gathered round the fire, working together, trying to put it out. Calling out to each other in Persian, "...all together now! — heave!..." and "..stand back, stand back, it's coming down!..." A woman was sobbing over her livestock, screaming she'd lost everything, everything, and would end up in the workhouse...

Except he couldn't be hearing any of that. He had to be imagining it — the voices of the dammed — his mind filling in the details, like a memory, like a novel. Maybe — somehow — he'd lulled himself into some sort of trance...

...but he'd never felt more alert, more alive, never felt his senses to be more razor sharp and acute and —

His fingers were tingling, and he flexed them, feeling afraid, wondrous, awed. And then suddenly he became conscious of the fact that he was hard — his dick was rock hard in his pants and lodged firmly against the boy's leg.

Jim went cold and his heart began to pound.

"Hey," the boy muttered sleepily against his shoulder. "Whassyur name anyway?"

Maybe this — maybe it was just some sort of residual effect of being in Rachid's shed. Rachid dealt drugs — maybe there were traces of opium smoke in the air. How else could he be seeing colors, tasting heat, hearing voices, wanting...

His throat was aching from the dry, hot air. "Christophe," he managed, which was a ludicrous answer — he'd lost his accent somewhere during the rush up the wooden staircase, when little Jimmy Ellison, Captain of the Cascade Wildcats, had suddenly exploded out of him, running pell mell for the goalposts.

The boy didn't seem to notice. "Hi, Christophe. Where you from?"

"Deutschland," Jim repeated mechanically; he could feel the boy's leg against him, touching him, the contact dizzying, terrifying — God, what was this? "The DDR — Deutsches Democratisches Republik."

"Thass cool," the boy murmured and shifted against him — oh, god, god, god. "Where exactly?"

Jim closed his eyes and whispered, "Cascade, Washington."

"Thass cool," the boy said and fell silent again.

Jim cleared his throat — his mouth was dry, his lips were dry, it was hot, so hot in here. "What about you? Where do you come from?"

"Nowhere," the boy replied, and then he amended his answer in a phrase as patently rehearsed as Jim's own answer: "I'm a citizen of the world." And then, to Jim's surprise, the boy lifted his head and showed him a lopsided grin.

He could feel the answering grin spreading across his own face. God — good old American irony. How he'd missed it. And how old was this kid? Ten? Eleven? Old enough to figure out that he was being sold a bill of goods, that was for sure.

He touched the boy's smooth cheek. "What about before you were a citizen of the world?"

The boy shrugged and rested his head on Jim's shoulder as he mulled over his answer. "Not really sure. Lottsa places. We were in Karachi for a while, then we came north to here. India before that — New Dehli but a lot of other places too. I saw the Taj Mahal. It was big. Just like you'd think. "

He became aware that he was stroking the boy's back now, became aware that he was trying to soak the boy up through his fingertips. He felt electricity racing though his body — he was twitching like a live wire — and he tried to still his hands, stop his hands, but found he couldn't. Impulsively, he tucked the boy's head under his chin and rested his cheek on the boy's thick, short curls. Because at least this way he couldn't — he wouldn't he able to — he'd put the boy's red, round mouth out of sight and out of reach.

"I remember green trees and a big ocean," the boy mused, "and I think that was Greece but my mother says it was California. I was born in California," the boy explained. "But I think she's wrong — I think the trees I remember were Greek trees. Have you been to Greece?"

"No," Jim answered hoarsely. "I've never been there."

The boy shifted against him again — causing him an agony of sudden ecstasy — and lifted his head. "What about California, have you been to California?"

"N-no. I mean — yes." He felt dizzy, blinded, ripped to shreds — his hands moved to touch the boy's hair, then dropped to brush his neck before he could snatch them back and ball them into mute fists. "I — yes. I've been to California."

The boy's child-soft lips taunted him, haunted him as they moved, as he spoke — this was hell, this was damnation, a purgatory of wanting. "So?" the boy demanded. "What about the trees? What did the trees look like?"

"I — don't know. I don't remember. I — " One kiss wouldn't hurt couldn't hurt — would damn him forever.

"Cause see, I'm pretty sure they were olive trees. Except maybe they were grapes. And if they were grapes, then maybe it was California. Except I'm pretty sure they were olives. Unless they have olive trees in California too, and then...hey, mister, are you all right?" I am dammed. I am dammed. I am going mad.

"Cause you don't look so good." The boy's voice was full of concern; the boy looked like Jim's pain was breaking his heart. Jim forced himself to go still, to go limp, to freeze solid in this fiery hell, locking everything down and in. "'s okay..." the boy crooned in a grotesque parody, an awful echo of his own words, "...everything's gonna be okay..." and the boy was touching Jim's cold, frozen face with his hot, slightly sticky hands.

Jim's body was thrumming, his cock was thrumming, and he stared into the blue eyes of future damnation.

"Really," the boy assured him earnestly, "everything's going to be fine."

The kiss was cherry hot, superbly sweet, and Jim heard the audible crack! of something snapping deep within him, something hard and brittle and structurally necessary breaking for good, leaving him forever damaged — and the momentum of the fracture jerked him forward, moved his hands to cup the boy's soft sweet face, and he just kissed his skin, and kissed his eyes, and kissed his lips, and kissed him till the fire'd all burned out.

"And then what happened?"

Jim knew that Dr. Aaronburg was trying to get him to stop sniveling, to put himself together, to end this pathetic display. But he couldn't stop — he was miserable, and shamed, and his misery and shame were compounded by the fact that he wasn't entirely sure if he was feeling regret or loss.

Because he did feel loss, and oddly lost, now. He desperately regretted it had ever happened. He desperately regretted it had ever ended.

Dr. Aaronburg sighed and Jim could hear his chair creaking. "Did you reach climax?"

Behind the protective cover of his hands his face contorted. He sobbed. Nodded.

"Did you penetrate him?"

His head shot up. Despite his mortification, he was appalled. "No! No, of course not! I would never. I — I wouldn't — " But who could say anymore? Wasn't anything possible, now? "I wouldn't do that," he managed, finally, praying fervently that he was telling the truth.

"All right," Dr. Aaronburg said slowly. "Are you a homosexual?"

"No," he replied, but he felt less certain of this. He didn't think he was, but the truth was that he'd never been much interested in sex. Too obsessed with getting the fuck out of Cascade, away from his father, away from himself. Jimmy Ellison had had a few, haphazard girlfriends back in high school, but somewhere deep down he despised them for wanting to be with him. He didn't even want to be with him. He didn't even want to be there.

And maybe part of him had wondered if his relative disinterest in women didn't indicate homosexual tendencies on his part. But he'd never had time to explore the issue. And he wouldn't, he determined suddenly, stubbornly. Not if it meant this. Not if it were in any way connected to this.

"Mmm." Dr. Aaronburg sounded noncommittal. "What about your childhood? Were you a victim of molestation?"

"No," Jim replied.

"Were you close to your mother?"

"Yeah. I was. But she and my father got divorced when I was eight. She died a couple of years later."

Dr. Aaronburg frowned. "So you were raised exclusively by your father?"

Jim found himself laughing hollowly. "Sort of. I mean you could say that. Except it's not true. I was basically raised by everybody in town except my father."

"Meaning what exactly?"

"Sally — our housekeeper — probably did most of the day to day stuff. Like when we were sick — "

"We?" Dr. Aaronburg interrupted.

"My brother and me," Jim explained. "Stephen. My younger brother." Dr. Aaronburg nodded. "And then there were a whole lot of other people. Teachers, friends of the family, coaches..."

"Men?" Dr. Aaronburg asked.

"Some of them, yeah. I mean, I was pretty close with my football coach."

"But there was that relationship?"

Jim frowned. "No." In fact, he wasn't entirely sure about that either. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, there was something...unpleasant...associated with his memory of Bud. He closed his eyes and thought hard. "Not," he heard himself amending, "that I remember, anyway."

"So, it's possible?" He opened his eyes and saw that Dr. Aaronburg was peering at him intently.

"Yes," he admitted. "It's possible."

"Because, you see — it could make all the difference," Dr. Aaronburg mused, leaning back in his chair and steepling his fingers. "Frankly speaking, Lieutenant, I'm inclined to say that you've had a very upsetting but anomalous experience. Consider the facts of your story. You had just been through a harrowing experience — saving the boy from the burning building — and the adrenaline rush alone provides an explanation. It's not at all surprising that you should have found yourself sexually aroused — you had, quite literally, experienced excitement."

But what he'd felt hadn't been entirely — physical, Jim wanted to protest. He'd felt an emotional connection to the boy, had felt what some sick part of him still wanted to call love.

"Then consider the fact that the refuge you found was in a vault used to store opiates," Dr. Aaronburg continued meditatively. "As you yourself thought at the time, it's entirely possible that some residue of the drug lowered your natural defenses and caused you to connect your adrenaline-based state of arousal to the stimulus of the boy. Consider further that, having just risked your own life to save his, you were probably feeling quite attached to him. Affectionate, even."

Jim realized that he was nodding agreement. Attached — yes. Affectionate — yes. What he really felt was that — he would die for the boy. He'd already proved he'd risk damnation for him.

"And then certainly you would have been feeling a rush of power. Having just saved the boy, you might reasonably have believed that you owned him. And you said he — to the best of your recollection — did not protest the sexual contact?"

To the best of your recollection — Jim mentally translated the phrase as, we don't trust the perceptions of child molesters. He wanted it, Officer — really, he did.

Jim felt sick. "He...didn't seem to."

"I don't find that surprising, either. He was most certainly in shock. Possibly he didn't realize what was going on. Possibly he did realize but felt he couldn't refuse you. He may have been consumed with gratitude."

A lump rose in his throat as he remembered how the boy had tried to comfort him. Everything's gonna be okay, everything's gonna be just fine...

"In any case, the circumstances here are quite unique. So I'm inclined to tell you not to worry. But that of course changes if you were yourself a victim of molestation. The chances of this being an isolated incident then decrease dramatically."

Jim felt sharp, severe, rising panic. "Please, doc — tell me what to do. I'll do anything. Anything."

Dr. Aaronburg's face grew kindly and reassuring. "Well, then, the first thing you need to do is to calm down. As I say, I'm unconvinced that you are a chronic molester — and I have vast experience in this area. You're a very young man," Dr. Aaronburg leaned over, checked his notes, and added, "only twenty-one, and you were in a highly stressful and unusual situation. You're clearly remorseful, and you're seeking help. I am inclined to think this was an unfortunate, but isolated incident."

Except maybe he wasn't entirely remorseful. Except maybe he had been molested and he couldn't remember. Except the whole incident had scarred him deeply, carving what felt like a huge, gaping hole inside him, started him craving for something terrifying and nameless.

Dr. Aaronburg wasn't inclined to think he was a chronic molester — not good enough. He would see to it that it wasn't so. He would exert every ounce of his will, he would dampen himself down, hold himself back, bind himself tightly, now and forever, amen.

PART THREE: Cascade, Washington, 2000

I wandered distractedly through the hallways of Major Crimes, feeling like I'd been unexpectedly paroled from a life sentence. Sandburg hadn't known what he'd been asking me to do back there, and if it hadn't been for Sandburg, I probably wouldn't have done it. It was tempting fate, but fuck, I seem to have sent fate, bitchslapped and handcuffed, back to whatever hellhole she'd crawled out of.

I probably ought to just have been grateful, cashed in my chips, and split. But somehow, having tempted fate once, I felt compelled to do it again. I was tottering between elation and disappointment — elation at the prospect of having vanquished this fucking thing, and a growing sense of disappointment over...well, time wasted. Life wasted. My life.

Because maybe Dr. Aaronburg had been right. Maybe it had just been an isolated thing, a one-time-only nightmare. Maybe Sandburg's theory of pheromones was on the money — maybe some inexplicable, random, unrepeatable set of conditions had come into play.

Maybe I'd closed myself down, held myself back, fucked myself up — all for nothing.

The idea, once it came, had to be tested. Gradually, cautiously, I began to open myself up to sensation, wanting to know if I was still manning a defensive post in a long-abandoned war.

Not like it would be the first time.

And so I wandered around the building, stopping in to visit the new, young uniformed officers (nothing), going down to chat with the high-school dropouts who fixed the precinct's patrol cars (nothing), even visiting the secretarial pool on the third floor, which stopped the PD gossip mill cold and brought lots of flustered women to their feet. I was looking for someone in particular as a sort of final test — Margie Cramer, who had two beautiful sons (nine and twelve) with short, dark, curly hair and huge green eyes.

The boys weren't there right now but their silver-framed pictures were in their customary position on Margie's desk. I inquired about them politely, noting that it had been ages since I'd seen them — had it been the Christmas party? the annual picnic? the Mayor's Easter Egg Hunt? Margie enthused about how well they were doing, how Robert had won the science prize for his year for designing some sort of computer program, how Sam was beginning to show real talent for the clarinet. The staggering amounts they both ate, and how they'd both grown like weeds in consequence — and this gave me an excuse to pick up the pictures and study them, consciously, deliberately entertaining thoughts that I'd once forcibly pushed away.

Twelve year old Robert was the right age, but it was the younger one, Sam, whose picture captured me. Robert was already growing angular with puberty, but Sam's face still had that childhood sweetness I remembered, and sometimes still craved. I made myself look hard, forced myself not to turn away — and found that, yeah, I still felt something.

But not for Sam, who seemed like a good kid, but was definitely a kid — I couldn't, even in my most depraved fantasies, imagine myself feeling passion for him. The idea, even as I forced myself to have it, was totally fucking ludicrous.

He sparked nothing.

But Sam looked just enough like the boy who had destroyed me that I felt consumed with regret, nostalgia, loss. Maybe it had been a one-time-only-thing, but it still had it's power, still had an impact. I murmured something tactful and put Sam's picture carefully back on the desk. Margie beamed proudly at me, and thanked me, and I smiled at her and withdrew, more confused than ever.

Because it just couldn't be this simple. Not again — it couldn't be a simple matter of packing my bags, getting on the helicopter, and going home. It hadn't turned out to be so simple last time, either, though God knows it had seemed simple enough at the time. War's over, Ellison — pack it in, you're demobbed. And oh, by the way, you've got a time bomb of ticking senses within you waiting to go off...

And this was a hell of a lot more complicated than that. Exposure was deadlier, too. If Sandburg had actually published his fucking book I could probably have survived it — but this? Never. No fucking way.

So nineteen years of preventative measures couldn't have been for nothing, right?

In fact — it hadn't been for nothing, I was almost sure of that. I remembered....staring at Sam's picture had...I'd seen another picture like that in the not too, too, distant past, I was nearly sure of it. And that picture had stirred my gut, and my lust, and reminded me of the sad, sick fuck that I was. I stopped short in the hallway, trying to remember, needing to remember. It couldn't have been that long ago...

But I was too damn good at forgetting now, and the damn picture just wouldn't come.

Sighing, I went to get myself a cup of coffee, and maybe a muffin.

I was on my second cup when the door opened and Sandburg fell in, looking both exhausted and exhilarated.

"Finish saving the world?" I asked dryly.

"Oh, man — you don't know the half of it." Sandburg crossed the room, yanked the carafe out of the machine, and poured coffee into an old, chipped mug that said, erroneously, Kiss Me, I'm Irish. "But, yes — we did it, and the world is well and truly saved, my brother."

"Leo talked?" I pressed.

Sandburg sank down in the chair next to mine, grinning broadly. "Hell, yeah, he sang like the proverbial canary. You, Jim old buddy, are just the master. Leo recited in full — told us everything we wanted to know and a few things we didn't. We had to stop him eventually — you must have really scared the shit out of him. So I took the confession to Simon, Simon took it to Martin, Martin agreed and called Leo's lawyer with a deal. A good deal, Jim — the right deal."

I nodded, happy that Sandburg was happy. "So what was the sob story?"

Sandburg groaned. "Oh, you don't want to know. Parents are divorcing, there's a major custody battle, they're using him as a pawn, kid's acting out...all the usual late 20th century angst." Sandburg shook his head and took a sip of his coffee. "Still, though — I can't help but empathize."

I snorted at this. "Sandburg, your parents were never married, there was never any issue of custody, you weren't used as an alimony pawn, and from what I can see you never acted out in your life."

Sandburg gave an evil little chuckle. "Heh. Sure I did. What the fuck do you think I'm doing here hanging out with you?"

I laughed helplessly at this — the kid had a point. In fact, he seemed to be sending Naomi a lot of little presents, lately — Cascade PD mugs, t-shirts, sweatshirts, pens — just in case maybe Naomi was having the occasional daydream that her one and only precious boy had become an accountant.

"Seriously, Jim," Sandburg mused, stretching himself backwards over his chair and staring thoughtfully at the ceiling, "that's a horrible age he's at. You can make a lotta mistakes right about then — especially if your parents aren't on the ball. You're not a kid, and you're not even a teenager — you're in that weird no-man's land between childhood and adolescence — "

"Fourteen is adolescence, Sandburg."

"Nah, be honest, man — not for a guy. Girls are women already at fourteen — girls are like, already smarter than we ever get." Sandburg lifted his head and showed him a lopsided grin. "Guys are dopes at fourteen. Guys are just — years behind."

"You were in college at sixteen," I objected, and something subtle in Sandburg's face changed.

"Well, yeah. But I was still a dope, Jim. I was just a dope who was going to college — big whoop. Truth be told, I'm still pretty much a dope," Sandburg added with a hapless shrug, "except now I'm a dope who's at peace with himself. So hey, that's progress, right?"

I stared at my partner, my friend, my Guide — the dope who was now at peace with himself. "Whatever you say, Chief."

"Well, that's what I say," Sandburg said. "Put it this way — a little luck, at the right moment, can make all the fucking difference in life, Jim, believe you me. Just the tiniest little bit of luck at the right time can change your whole life forever."

Sandburg sounded like he knew what he was talking about. I thought back to my own early adolescence — and yeah, maybe that was right about the time my mother died. Bud had seen me through the divorce, but he'd been killed before my mother passed. Maybe if he'd still been around then, things would have been different for me.

The thought of Bud brought out a quick whiplash of guilt. Bud, of course, hadn't molested me at all, and I couldn't believe I'd ever thought it of him, God rest his soul.

Then again, of course, unlike Bud, I'd done it — I was actually guilty.

I pushed that thought away and looked over at my partner, who was leaning tiredly on his elbow, sipping coffee. He'd been lucky Leo's good luck charm today — Leo had Sandburg, and I'd had Bud, at least for a while. I wondered who Sandburg had had, and so I asked him. A smile ghosted across Sandburg's face at the question. "Eh, that's sort of complicated. It's a really weird story — sometimes I even think I imagined it, you know?"

"Yeah, I do know," I replied, because hell, I did. "Sometimes I think I made my whole fucking life up."

Sandburg nodded sympathetically. "Yeah, exactly. Some things are too weird to be real. It was a million, zillion years ago, anyway — a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away — but let's just say that my good luck eventually brought me to Rainier, which brought me to Burton, which brought me to you, which brings me here, and..." Sandburg stopped short and sat up straight in his chair, his eyes going theatrically wide. "Hey. Did I say good luck?"

I wadded up my napkin and threw it at him. "You pig."

"That's Officer Pig to you, asshole," Sandburg said, and got up out of his chair. He took his mug to the sink and washed it out — which none of the rest of us ever did. Christ, he was such a Boy Scout underneath that soft exterior. "All right, back to the mines..."

"What, you're not done yet?"

"Well," Sandburg equivocated, "I'm sort of done. I just want to see it through. See where the kid landed, see if I can get him kept here tonight rather than sent off to Humberford..."

I rolled my eyes. "You're after my Cop of the Year award, confess it."

Sandburg grinned. "Watch your back, boyo." He stopped by my chair and peered at me intently for a moment. "While I'm being a saint, is there anything I can do for you? You look really beat."

"I am, yeah," I admitted. "I got up on the wrong side of the bed anyway, and that interrogation didn't help my mood none."

"Sensory spikes?" Sandburg asked, dropping his voice to a whisper.

My problems weren't sensory — God knows, in the broader scheme of things, most of my fucking problems weren't sensory. I sighed wearily — I didn't want Sandburg to know about this. I was lucky he put up with me as it was.

"Yeah," I lied. "A couple. Nothing major — I think Leo might have been wearing too much aftershave."

"I didn't smell anything," Sandburg confessed, "but then again, I wouldn't, would I?"

Sandburg turned and dropped his hands onto my shoulders and began to massage them, something he'd done probably a million times before in the four years we'd known each other —

— except I had never been so open before, I'd never experienced life so unfiltered, and suddenly I jerked under his hands, gasping, because the sensation was damn near unbearable. I felt like I'd been electrocuted, shot through with electricity, senses fried to burning, and my nose was full of the scent of fire, the acrid sting of smoke, my ears full of Persian chattering, the frantic beating of horses's hooves, the smell of roasting —

I leapt out of my chair and backed across the room.

Sandburg stared at me and slowly raised his hands. He looked worried, but when he spoke his tone was defensive. "Hey, what? What'd I do?"

I stared back at him, frantically doing math in my head. I was forty-one, Sandburg was nearly thirty-one, which meant we were just about ten years apart. If I'd been twenty-one in 1980 then Sandburg had been...

No, no, no, no...

"Jim, man, quit it. Just — whatever you're doing there, just fucking quititrightnow!"

I took a deep breath and tried to speak normally, still keeping my distance. "Sorry. Uh — muscle cramp." It had to be a muscle cramp — anything sensory and Sandburg would be on me like white on rice.

Sandburg raised a suspicious eyebrow. "Must have been a fucking hell of a muscle cramp."

"It was, yeah," I replied and made a big show of rotating my shoulder. "I think maybe I'll go home. Take a long, hot shower. I'll make dinner too," I added as an afterthought, as an offering. "Give you a bit of a break tonight while you're making the world safe for democracy."

Sandburg looked skeptical. "It was your turn anyway."

"Oh." Shit, it was. "Well, there you go. Guess I'll...go to it then. Pasta okay?"

"Pasta's fine." Sandburg sighed and turned for the door, then paused with his hand on the knob and peered narrowly at me. "Muscle cramp? You'd better not be fucking with me. Not after — you know, everything. You'd tell me if there was something really wrong, right?"

"Right," I managed.

God please that I'd never, ever fucked with him.

I debated the matter frantically on the drive home, convincing myself that it was impossible — inevitable — impossible. It couldn't possibly have been Sandburg in that fire. Of course it was Sandburg in that fire — what other American boy would have been in Afghanistan in 1981? And face it, after the whole dissertation fiasco, I could sure imagine Naomi's hand in this mess — trust that woman to put her son smack into the middle of an international military crisis. Naomi Sandburg all over.

In fact, I seemed to remember that the boy's mother did in fact have red hair. In the vault, time, and my memory of it, had passed with languid, sweet slowness. But afterwards, the film of my memory went into super fast play. A crowd of people, the blackened facade of the cooling buildings. Me carrying the boy out, holding him in my arms, not wanting to let go of him. A screaming woman in a singed skirt (red hair? I couldn't really remember) rushing out of the crowd and claiming him joyfully. The agony of letting him go. Answering questions for the military police. Trying to remember who the fuck I was — yeah, right, Christophe Schmidt, Mathematics, Polytechnic, DDR. I was just passing and heard the boy screaming, sir....

One last glimpse of him, head turned back toward me, as he disappeared into the crowd.

His face was certainly burned into my memory, and I tried hard to compare it to Sandburg's. Nobody looks much like they do when they're children, but sure — the basic features were the same. Dark hair. Thick curls. Blue eyes. The shape of his mouth...

Christ, what did it mean if it was true?

Finally, there was just one thought left spinning in my head as I parked the car. Sandburg'd said that his piece of "good luck" had brought him to Rainier.

So why Rainier? What brought a sixteen year old dope called Blair Sandburg to Rainier University? Sure, the Burton Collection was there, in the Rare Books Library — hell, I knew more about the Rainier Rare Books Library than any sane man oughta know. But Sandburg as much as admitted that he didn't know that at the time. So why Rainier University out of all the places where a brilliant sixteen year old could have gone? Why not Harvard? Or Princeton? Or Berkeley — Berkeley was much more Sandburg's speed. And Sandburg had been born in California — he could've gone there for almost nothing.

The answer whispered in my mind even as I tried to push it away.

Because Rainier University was in Cascade, Washington.

That thought brought me dazedly up the steps and into the loft. Because if that were true — if Sandburg had really come to Cascade pursuing Christophe...

Well then, that was...

I sat down in the armchair and started laughing, vaguely aware that tears were welling up in my eyes.

That meant that everything was a Sentinel thing, every fucking little thing. I'd sent Blair Sandburg to Rainier, Rainier had offered him Burton, Burton had sent him right back to me. And me....after the fire, I'd broken down, sought psychiatric help, requested a transfer. I hadn't wanted to be in the city, in the country, in the region — I'd been running from him, from myself, from the torture of memory.

Get me the fuck off this continent, I'd said, and the Army in their infinite wisdom pronounced me "cured" and obliged me.

What do you think about South America? they said.

You seem to have a real talent for languages. How's your Spanish? they said.

Here, take this map — Chile, Ecuador, Columbia, Peru. Within Peru — Lima, Callao, Huanuco, Pucallpa, Yurimaguas, Iquitos. Forget the Mujaheddn — this ain't a holy war, it's a guerrilla war. No more opium — now we're talking cocaine. From Arabia to the Incas in a hop, skip and a jump.

Sandburg'd sent me running to South America, and I'd sent him to Rainier's Rare Book Library. Each of us to discover Sentinels in our own way, as suited our respective talents.

That meant that we'd been dancing around each other for years and years, Sandburg and me. Whirling around each other like orbiting planets, together even when we were apart. Together, maybe, before we had ever met, before we had ever known each other.

I snuffled some teary laughter into my hand, then wiped my eyes with my sleeve. Going into the kitchen, I filled a pot with water for the pasta. As I carried the water to the stove, my eye caught a homey little framed tapestry Sandburg must have put up in the kitchen — in the four years that Sandburg had lived here, he often brought in things that I noticed, but never really noticed. Wall hangings. Oven mitts. Throw-pillows. That sort of thing.

I flicked the stove on and then bent to look closely at the tapestry in question. A thin, overhanging tree, with twisty, vinelike branches. Focusing my sight, I saw the tree was bearing tiny little green fruits.

Grapes, maybe. Or olives.

I couldn't decide and it didn't much matter.

I went to take a long, hot shower, and even though my muscle cramp had been totally fictional, I came out feeling better, looser, more relaxed. I was beginning to see the up-side to the situation — if everything was this out of control, if I was on some kind of relentless train of destiny, well then...maybe I should just calm down and see where the train stopped next.

The water was boiling now and I put in a pound of pasta, then turned my attention to making a sauce. I liked cooking, always had — liked the kind of concentration it required, liked the blend of precision and inspiration, liked — well, I suppose I also liked the sensory aspect of it, experimenting with smells and tastes and textures. So I chopped tomatoes, and garlic, and basil, and added a little sugar and olive oil and some other things, letting myself get a little lost in the process.

When Sandburg finally came home he looked beat, but seemed to perk a little at the smell of fresh everything. "Ooooh," he said, carelessly hooking his coat by the door and coming into the kitchen to peer into the saucepan, "you're making the good stuff."

"Nothing but the best for the Cop of the Year," I said, leaving it deliberately ambiguous as to whether I meant him or me.

Sandburg grinned at me and then went into the bathroom, presumably to wash up. I stirred my sauce meditatively, wondering whether it needed more onion, or more sugar, wondering if I could just let everything go, just let things remain the way they were. After all, we'd lived together for four years, more or less happily. Did it really matter that maybe — maybe — we'd met before, nineteen years ago, and spent a couple of hours together?

God, I was such a stinking, stinking liar. I threw down my wooden spoon in disgust, ignoring the splatter it made across the countertop. Spent a couple of hours together — yeah, if that was what had happened, I wouldn't even think about it.

I'd been skirting the line as it was — it was probably the one thing I didn't tell Sandburg the Anthropologist, and thankfully it was the one thing that nobody else could tell him about. The only evidence was buried somewhere near the bottom of some classified Cold War CIA files. Young operative snaps, quits, is reassigned. Yeah, they'd trained me for the Cold War, but they'd used me in the Drug War, and probably only two or three people, even in the CIA, even in the Rangers, remembered that I'd ever been in Afghanistan at all.

Most days I managed not to remember either.

Before, when I did remember, I could always tell myself that it was none of Sandburg's business. Who knew that it would turn out to be his business? Christ, was everything Blair Sandburg's business after all? Was that the ultimate, cosmic joke here?

But no way could I keep living with him, working with him, hanging out with him, touching him (cause god knows I could never keep my hands off him, and that should have told me something) without telling him.

This thing was explosive. It'd be like living with a ticking time bomb.

Sandburg came out of the bathroom with a towel slung around his neck, looking cleaner and brighter and much more cheerful. "So? Food up yet?"

"Yep," I said, switching the pasta off and picking the pot up to drain it.

The last supper.

I made us each large bowls of pasta and went so far as to break out the best bottle of red wine we had in the house. Sandburg looked at me strangely, but said nothing — maybe, he figured, this was my way of apologizing for being a jerk today, or maybe this was my way of congratulating him on his victory. It was both, but it was more than that — much, much more.

And so we ate together peaceably while he filled me in on the fate of Leonardo Di Caprio. Thanks to Sandburg, Leo was gonna avoid adult prison entirely, going straight from the CPD jail to the juvie facility. Thanks to Sandburg, Leo's guilty plea was gonna be heard in a juvie court, where they gave a shit about things like family dysfunction and considered them as mitigating factors in sentencing. Lucky, lucky Leo.

I listened closely, nodding and grunting approval in all the appropriate places. Mainly I stared down at my plate of vermicelli and ate, but every so often I glanced up at him, trying to make all the pieces square together. If I let myself go hazy, I could forget — I could so easily forget — the connection between the man in front of me and the boy over whom I'd ruined my life. And so I stole glances at him, trying to forge the connection for once and for all in my head — checklisting the blue eyes, the shape of his face, the smooth, vaguely olive, complexion, the nimble fingers as they gripped the stem of the wineglass...

"So all right," Sandburg said abruptly, dropping his fork into his empty bowl with a clink and shoving it away across the table, "now you talk." I jerked my head up, my heart suddenly pounding nervously. "You obviously...I mean, there's clearly...There's something going on here," Sandburg finished, finally, "and I wanna know what it is."

I took a deep breath and nodded. "Okay. Yeah. I have something to tell you."

Sandburg looked at me encouragingly. "Okay?"

"I just found out today. That I — cause, see, I thought — shit, don't how to say this," I confessed.

"Just spit it out," Sandburg advised helpfully.

I groaned. "It's just — really complicated. I think you'd know, brace yourself."

Sandburg frowned at me for a moment, then picked up his wineglass and chugged the rest of his red wine down. "Right," he said, putting the glass down again. "I'm braced. Hit me."

I was only about half-way through the story when Sandburg finally lost it and went flying out of his chair, yelling, "Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!!!"

The panic inside me blossomed, bloomed, grew huge. "Sandburg, I — "

"Fuck!" Sandburg was doing fast laps around the living room now, waving his hands around like the air was suddenly full of giant vampire bats. "Oh, holy fucking fucking fuck!"

I moaned and covered my face with my hands. There wasn't any point in continuing the story. He'd got the key points all right — he'd figured out the rest. I rubbed my aching eyes, vaguely wondering how the hell we were gonna recover from this, while Sandburg ran around the loft and conjugated the word fuck in increasingly inventive ways.

Bang! He'd gone into his room and slammed the door. Privacy didn't seem to help him any — he was just in there, circling madly, talking to himself. "Fuck me! I can't fucking believe this! Just too fucking much — what the fuck was he doing in Afghanistan?"

And then Sandburg was yelling at me, through the closed door. "What the fuck were you doing in Afghanistan?"

Was I supposed to answer that? Was that a rhetorical question or what?

Sandburg didn't seem to be waiting for an answer. It sounded like he had slammed himself into his desk chair. It sounded like he was rocking himself back and forth angrily, muttering, "...fucking crazy ass shit...just — just — whatever...all right, fucking problem...goddammit!...." It sounded like — and I frowned, cringed — like Sandburg was rhythmically banging his head against something hard.

"Sandburg!" I yelled. "For God's sake — don't give yourself brain damage!"

The soft banging stopped. The loft was totally silent for a moment, except for the hum of the refrigerator, and our two heartbeats, and the dripping water tap in the bathroom and Sandburg's slightly labored breathing. And then Sandburg took a deep breath and gave a long frustrated yell: "Aaaaagggggggggggghhhhh!"

Face it, the kid had a way with words.

The French doors banged open again and suddenly Sandburg was standing there, looking pale and twitchy and awful. "You do know what the fuck this means, don't you? I mean — you've thought it out?"

"I — " Sandburg actually looked like he wanted an answer on this one, but I had none to give him. "Sandburg, I don't know what to say. I can't explain. I'm so, so fucking sorry — "

Sandburg's face tightened. "Not that. I don't mean that. I don't want your freaking apology — of course you can't explain it. I can't explain it either. That's the goddammed point."

I was at a total loss for words. "I — "

"What does it m-make us?" Sandburg ran a nervous hand over his hair; he was actually shaking now. "You and me? Like — what are we? Pawns of the goddammed universe?" He stumbled over to the sofa, collapsed heavily onto it, looking more freaked out than I'd ever seen him. "Cause, you gotta understand, I...Jim, I..." and Sandburg was staring out into space ahead of him, not even seeing me, "I came to Cascade looking for you. Him. Whatever."

I turned in my chair so that I could see Sandburg's face. "I'll make it worse," I said quietly. "I went to Peru to run away from you. Him. Whatever."

Sandburg looked deeply pained. "Oh, fuck. Oh, fuck, Jim. That's — just so fucked up, so wrong," and Sandburg was still talking pretty coherently, but tears were suddenly streaming down his face. Terrifyingly, he didn't seem to notice. "It's just — it can't possibly be a coincidence, and what the fuck does that mean...?"

I couldn't help myself — maybe it was wrong, and maybe I had no right, but I got up and went to Sandburg. Maybe I was just compounding my crimes, but Sandburg looked very much like he was having a nervous breakdown right there on the sofa.

I sank into the sofa next to him and pulled Sandburg into my arms. I would have understood if he'd punched me, or flinched away — and part of me was expecting it. But Sandburg just leaned against me, let out one heaving, snotty gasp against my shoulder, and moaned softly, "Oh, man — what a fucking day...."

It was like slipping into the wet, warm timestream, moving slowly through our infinite loop. Holding Sandburg in my arms, muttering nonsense comfort words that came straight from my subconscious. Feeling my insides shatter and melt, while my cock and nipples grew rock hard under my clothes.

It was dizzyingly familiar, and maybe for Sandburg too, because he snaked one arm around my neck and sort of stiffened slightly. It occurred to me that he was maybe testing the waters, or testing his feelings for me — cause hell, I'd at least been an adult. Blair had only been ten or so.

When Sandburg lifted his head off my shoulder, he face looked terrifyingly intense. I flinched, surprised by the sudden blaze of fury — but a moment later I realized that it wasn't anger. Sandburg was maybe just trying to map my face, to compare it to the one in his memory, doing the same sort of point by point analysis I'd been sneakily doing all day and had finished over dinner. Eyes, shape of face, ears, mouth...

Finally, Sandburg sighed and said, "You were blond. You wore glasses."

"Yes," I admitted. "They weren't real glasses. They were only — "

Sandburg blurred forward and kissed me, and something deep inside of me exploded into flames. I shoved him hard against the sofa back and ravaged his sweet mouth, then kissed his cheeks, his eyelids, his forehead. Finally, I dropped my lips to his throat and sucked hungrily at the skin there, which grew red and ragged under my mouth.

The time-stream moved on, and I felt Sandburg's hand awkwardly groping at the fly of my pants, tugging down my zipper, curling around me. I gasped and gripped the back of his hand and used it to touch myself. Yesterday, today, tomorrow — the slipstream swirled around me and I drowned in it. The best moment of my life. The worst moment of my life. The feel of that small, warm hand sandwiched between my palm and my cock, stroking me — it had dwarfed everything else in my life up until this very second.

Sandburg's hand slid down to the root of me, briefly pausing to cup and stroke my balls. His other hand touched the back of my head, caressed it, then pulled it into the sweaty juncture between his neck and shoulder. That was when I realized I was crying, and despite the knowledge, I couldn't stop — I just sobbed wetly into Sandburg's neck, and thrust helplessly into his now-slick hand, and came and came and came.

I remembered this feeling too; I'd totally lost it the first time. Feeling like I'd fractured into a million pieces. Feeling like half of them had blown away in the whirlwind. Feeling like I'd never be whole again. I felt that way now, too, felt just too damn much, sensory overload. I remembered breaking down, feeling the boy's sticky hand on my cheek —

— except Blair wasn't a boy anymore, Blair was a man, and the hand cupping my jaw was sure and adult. He lifted my head and turned it and kissed me, his tongue sliding heavily into my mouth, his kiss a sign of clear intent.

He could do whatever he wanted with me.

He was hard, now, too.

He moved on me, pushing me back, deepening the kiss with his tongue. I leaned back and let him, offering him anything, everything. I could hear his heart pounding; I could feel his still-trapped cock rubbing hard against my stomach as he crawled on top of me, as he pushed me down. His hands were roving over my body, then tightening on me; his heart was thundering in his chest.

Blair lifted his mouth off mine and muttered, "I want to fuck you."

Fear. Exhilaration. Panic. "I — I don't — I've never — "

Blair, looking hypnotized, leaned forward and slowly dragged the tip of his tongue across my jaw. "I won't hurt you," he murmured, and licked a circle around my ear. "Let me?"

"Yes," I heard myself say before I even made up my mind. Something wound tight inside of me was relaxing, releasing — and I knew, suddenly, that I'd let Blair Sandburg do anything to me. Anything. "Hey, Jim? Do you mind if I tie you up in the living room and set you on fire?" "Uh, well...Yeah, sure, okay."

Blair's hands were on my shirt, now — gripping tightly, hauling me up off the sofa and pushing me through the French doors into his bedroom. Quickly, efficiently, Sandburg stripped us of the rest of our clothes. And then he pushed me down on the bed and crawled on top of me — blissful, that first slide of bare skin against bare skin.

Blair firmly maneuvered me onto my side and began tongue-fucking my mouth. Lost in the feel of his hot, wet tongue inside me, I didn't really notice that his other hand had skated over my hip and was now stroking my ass. When I did notice, it was already too late; slick fingers were already sliding between my cheeks. Involuntarily, I stiffened a little, not used to the — the — damn indignity of it, but I was helpless to resist. I'd give him anything he wanted.

His fingertips skating my asshole felt — intrusive, embarrassing. I took a deep breath and tried to focus my sensory awareness entirely on Blair's beautiful mouth, my old familiar love. Still, I felt the shock of discomfort as he broached me, shoving his finger in. I tensed, shuddered — and then breathed a deep sigh of relief into Blair's mouth. The deeper he worked into me, the more I relaxed. I found that I liked having him inside me, having his tongue and finger inside me. It felt completing. Fulfilling. My other half clicking neatly into place.

I shivered as he carefully stretched me, and it felt right that he should be inside me this way, right that his fingers should be buried so deep, that my mouth should be full of his tongue. He was right to put his body into mine.

Slowly, he began to work his fingers in and out of me, moving in rhythm with his mobile tongue, with the rhythm of his hips as he shoved his cock hard against my abdomen. I began to moan softly as he fucked me, faster and faster, fingers touching someplace deep inside of me that sent bursts of ecstasy through my body. I found myself shuddering helplessly, and I had to pull my mouth away from his and turn my head because I couldn't breathe, I was dying, I was well and truly conquered and —

Blair's heartbeat suddenly spiked and then thundered furiously. He blurted softly, "I'm — not gonna make it, not gonna — " and I could hear the rapidly changing syncopation inside of him. I clutched him tightly to my chest just as he seized, shuddering and exploding violently, his cock pulsing torrents of wetness onto my body. "Can't...hold it," Blair moaned into my shoulder, and he was weeping again, which almost seemed funny. Except I knew that he wasn't crying over his ability to maintain his erection until penetration, or not entirely about that, but about everything. Working hard all day, finding your entire life had been damn near predestined, learning that your best friend had molested you in an Afghani drug dealer's vault nineteen years was a lot to process in a single dammed day.

I held him as tightly as I could and kissed his head up near the hairline. This time the comforting words that bubbled up from my subconscious were, "Blair, I love you. I love you so much. You own me."

"No," Blair murmured, biting lightly at my jaw: a sign of affection, I thought. "You own me. You were my Blessed Protector first — before Lash, before the garbage truck, before Cascade, before everything. Or maybe," Blair added sleepily, "there's something larger that owns us both. You and me, together — maybe the Sentinel thing owns us much more than we own it."

Maybe that was true. Maybe the Sentinel thing owned us both, and our attempts to own it, to control it, were just an illusion. But if it meant that I wasn't going to have to face life alone — that the universe would keep me circling back to Blair, perpetually circling around Blair, who was both the cause and the solution to my problems, the source of the void within me and the completor — well, then, what the fuck did it matter?

I mouthed his hair gently, imprinting the taste of him on my tongue. "Do you love me?" I whispered. "Can you possibly love me after this — mess?"

Blair made a small, anguished sound. "Jim. I loved you before I even knew you. I loved you when I thought you were someone else."

His hand was slowly stroking my side again, making my skin tingle and my blood burn. And then he clutched tightly at my hip and held on. I felt him everywhere, no ghost now, but warm and solid against me. Two of a kind, Blair and me, now and then. Different but similar, separated by time and continents, brought together by what?

Grapes and olives. Olives and grapes. In the haze of my memory, they looked just the same.  

The End