Blair's jaw clenched in dark anger. His fingers curled into fists at his side and squeezed so rigidly that his arms trembled with tension. The stormy madness that burned in his belly rose up his throat, and he choked on the vile taste in his mouth. Unaccustomed to felling such a violent level of anger, the young man struggled against the need to hit something. If his target had been a man, he'd have a face to concentrate on, eyes that could see his fury, ears that would hear his ranting. But this was something he couldn't see, or touch. How could he fight beliefs and emotions? How could he hit something as transient as vapor?
Growling in frustration, Blair reacted to his anger, reared back his leg, and kicked the brick wall hard. He knew it was a useless act, and would do nothing but earn him pain, but the initial act of lashing out gave him a minute taste of satisfaction. Then the pain hit.
Electric torture burned in his foot, traveled up his leg and jolted into his hip. Crying out, Blair dropped to his butt on the floor and grabbed his foot. Struggling through a red haze that threatened to block out his sight, he gingerly removed his shoe. Touching his toes caused the wracking pain to intensify.
Were they all broken? Right now, he would swear on the sun and the moon that his toes were crushed, mangled beyond repair. Weakness hit him suddenly, and he sagged wearily to his side. The cool wooden floor felt good against his fevered cheek. The miasma of pain lifted slightly, and he heard his panting breaths, hitching through his chest. Blair closed his eyes and concentrated on his breathing. Tiny shots of agony burst intermittently in his toes, which he tried to ignore. He focused on breathing; in through his nose, out through his mouth, slowing down the rhythm until he felt his body relax. Peace settled like a blanket over him, and he allowed his mind to drift, rising above the discomfort in his foot to a place where tranquility reigned, and anger wasn't welcome.
That's how Jim found him. He entered the loft and glanced around, tracing his Guide's heartbeat. When he first caught sight of Blair, lying curled on his side by the wall, he panicked.
"Blair?" Dropping his keys, Jim moved to kneel beside his recumbent friend. Within the space of a second, he'd checked Sandburg's vitals, and found them steady. Had he just fainted? Jim threaded sensitive fingers through the young man's hair, ignoring the sliding silk of Blair's curls to concentrate on his scalp, searching for swelling or breaks in the skin. Gently, he moved his search further down, probing Blair's neck, then spreading his hands out to grasp his shoulder. No injuries. No breaks or incongruous bumps. Grasping the unconscious man's shoulders more firmly, Jim cautiously rolled Blair onto his back.
"Blair?" Jim tapped the young man's cheek lightly, then cupped his palm against his Guide's face. "Come on now, time to wake up buddy."
Blair turned his head into Jim's palm, leaning into the warm presence.
"Yeah. You okay partner? What are you doing on the floor?"
Long smoky lashes fluttered open to reveal eyes startlingly clear. Jim grinned, understanding anew how women lost themselves to drown in those azure depths.
"Jim? What are we doing on the floor, man?" Blair slid both hands to the floor and pushed himself up. Jim grasped the young man's arm and rose with him.
"Oh man!" Blair cried out and bent over, grabbing Jim's shirt with one hand and anchoring the other against the wall to keep from falling. He'd lifted his right foot behind him, and stood swaying, trying to balance on one leg.
"What's wrong?" Jim gripped the young man's forearm tightly, stabilizing him.
"My foot, god! I had an argument with the wall, and the wall won."
Stifling the urge to question Blair immediately, Jim reached around his friend's back and tucked his hand under the young man's arm.
"Let's get you to the couch, Junior."
Small grunts of pain accompanied their progress across the room. Jim's instinct was to scoop his Guide into his arms and carry him to the couch, but he resisted, sensing it would be the wrong thing to do in this situation.
Sighs of relief gushed out of both men when they reached their objective and sank into the cushions. Jim leaned back, waiting for Blair's explanation.
The young man carefully lifted his injured foot to place it on the table in front of the couch.
Ellison leaned forward, reaching for Blair's foot. His roommate immediately stiffened, bracing himself against remembered pain. Jim froze, his hand hovering above the toes.
"I need to touch it, Blair, and let you know if you did any damage. It could mean the difference between a hospital visit or just soaking it here at home."
Blair's eyes closed once, then he opened them and nodded. "Go ahead. I trust you." Pressing his lips together, he braced himself.
Jim moved from the couch to sit on the table, carefully lifting Blair's foot to hold it by the heel and lower it to his lap. As tenderly and slowly as he could, he pulled the sock off. His patient grunted, but didn't flinch from his touch.
Blair's toes were tipped with purple bruises. Red marks spread out from between the digits down the top of his foot. Jim gently checked each toe, touching as lightly as possible, aware of Blair's muscles as they tightened in response. He heard Sandburg's fingernails rasping the couch's material as his hands curled into fists.
Finishing the exam, he reached out to pat his partner's leg. "Okay, Chief, relax, I'm done." He watched as Blair released a huge sigh, his body sinking deeper into the cushions.
"How bad is it?" His voice sounded weak, wrung out from the pain.
"Nothing's broken. Just badly bruised."
Blair opened his eyes to give Jim a shaky smile. "Guess that's one visit to the emergency room avoided." Echoing pain ghosted through his foot, and Blair gasped, his grin twisting into a grimace.
In one quick move, Jim got up and grabbed a throw pillow to place on the table, gently lowering Blair's foot to the cushion. He sat next to his roommate and waited for his breathing to even out. When it did, Jim spoke.
"Want to tell me what the wall did to piss you off?"
Blair grunted and it took Jim a second to realize it was a laugh, not an expression of pain.
"I was angry. Needed to hit something."
"The couch wouldn't do? And since when are you angry enough to want to lash out like that?" Concern bled into Jim's voice despite his efforts to sound unaffected by Blair's revelation.
Sandburg heard the concern and turned his head to look at Jim.
"Since prejudice entered my perfect little world." Blair kept his voice low, refusing to give in to the need to shout. He felt the anger warming up his belly again, and fought the fire, extinguishing it with calm resolve.
"Prejudice? What happened? Did someone threaten you?"
Blair sighed and shook his head. "No, Jim, it was done neatly and professionally." His shoulders lifted in a shrug. "It was a committee, so there's no one person I can blame or argue with."
"Committee? I don't understand."
Blair lifted a hand in a need to get his explanation across. "It was for a grant I applied for. It wasn't even in my field, more like a parallel universe: Sociology. One of the other TA's tipped me off, and I figured I had a chance, so I went for it."
"And you didn't get it," Jim concluded softly.
Blair made a negative sound. "No, I didn't get it. But that's not what's bothering me. It was a five-member committee, and rumors have circulated around campus for years that at least three of the men on it practice Nazism."
Jim shifted and crossed his arms, uncomfortable with the sharp turn the conversation had taken. "It's not against the law, Chief. Lots of people have publicly professed to be Nazis."
"Yeah, but this is different, Jim." Blair twisted to face the older man, needing his friend to understand his frustration. "It's an unspoken understanding that these men don't allow any members of the 'inferior race' into their ranks."
"Have any complaints ever been made? Has someone ever come forward to challenge these men?"
"No." Blair relaxed into the couch. "They don't announce their plans publicly, they're very subversive. They shun people they don't want in their little group, they're belittling and superior in an elusive sort of way, and nothing you can really put your finger on. Most people want to feel like they belong to a certain group or circle or whatever. If you take the time to reach out and attempt to create a new friendship or partnership or something, but wind up getting snubbed, think how that makes you feel. Especially a shy person, who had to make an incredible effort to step out of their shell."
"How did they treat you at the meeting?"
Blair shook his head ruefully, a half smile playing on his face. "Politely, but distantly. They very calmly shot down my proposal and listed numerous and solid reasons not to award me the grant."
"I'm sorry, Chief." Jim reached out and touched his roommate's arm in sympathy. "I know it was important to you."
"Well, the grant really wasn't all that important. I just received one from the Anthropology department that'll cover my books and research. The one from the Sociology department would have been an added bonus, allowing me to buy more expensive materials instead of settling for generic stuff. No big deal."
Ellison got up from the couch and moved to stand before the balcony doors. He turned to look at Blair, noticing the way his friend's shoulders slumped in defeat. His injured foot, resting on the pillow, was propped at attention like a wounded soldier. The bruises looked like ink stains, as if Blair had attempted to write with his toes.
"What do you want to do, buddy? It's your call."
Blair looked up, eyes widened in surprise. "Do, Jim? There's nothing we can do. I told you, they're very careful. They're not blatant with it."
"But they can be caught." Jim crossed the short distance to the table and sat next to Blair's foot, careful not to jar or bump it. "Nobody's perfect. You watch someone long enough, carefully enough, and they'll slip up. I could do it, partner." Jim leaned forward to wait for Blair's answer.
Sandburg smiled, warmed by Jim's effort to help him. "No, man, it's not worth the time. They're not hurting anyone, just bruising a few egos."
Jim straightened up, bracing his hands on his knees. "This doesn't sound like you, Blair. I would think you'd want to stamp out this fire."
Blair was quiet, thinking carefully about his next words.
"I'm not exactly sure how to explain it. I'm pretty sure who the men are, and I know all three are within two years of retirement. They're disillusioned if they think they control the whole department. There are good people in Sociology. It just happened that these three men were on this particular committee. It worked to my detriment because it was assumed, due to my last name, that I'm a practicing Jew. I didn't feel threatened, Jim; all I really got was a lesson in life."
"And what did you learn?" Ellison asked, curious where the anthropologist's thoughts were leading.
"I learned that hate is everywhere. It's certainly out there in the streets, but it's oozed its way into the academic world and even exists in places where it should be totally absent, like churches and at the synagogue. You can't escape it, man."
"That may be true, Chief." Jim stood up to walk into the kitchen, squeezing Blair's shoulder in passing. He opened the refrigerator and took out two bottles of beer, then returned to the couch, handing one to his loftmate. "But I disagree with one thing."
"What's that?" Sandburg looked up to watch his Sentinel as he sat on the arm of the couch.
"You can escape hate." He gestured at the surrounding loft with his empty hand. "Here, at home." Ellison looked down to stare intently at his roommate. He held the blue gaze with his own, wishing he could convey his need to protect the young man. If left to him, the Sentinel would make sure his Guide was never affected by hate or prejudice or any other bitter emotion. Reality forced him to face facts, and he knew it was impossible to shield the young man from such harsh events.
Moved by Jim's words, Blair reached out to pat his friend's knee. "Thanks, Jim. I think you just took that bitter aftertaste out of my mouth."
Jim smiled and stood up. "My pleasure, Chief. Let me get some ice for that foot."
Blair twisted around to watch Jim as he made his way to the kitchen. Putting his beer on the table, Jim continued talking. "Comes with the job, ya know."
"What, as a Sentinel you mean?"
"No, as a friend."
A warm feeling in his heart replaced the cold anger in Blair's belly. He leaned back into the cushion of friendship, enjoying the pleasure as muscles relaxed and his spirit lifted. The hate that a minute ago had grown to fill his world seemed to shrink to a tiny dot and disappear beneath the white glow of love and companionship.