Title: Crux
Author: ScrewTheDaisies
E-mail: herself@screwthedaisies.com
Site: www.screwthedaisies.com
Fandom: Metallica (RPS)
Category: Lost Souls
Type: fanfiction
Rating: NC-17
Pairing: Kirk Hammett/Lars Ulrich
Warnings: death
Disclaimer: The following is a work of fiction. The events depicted in these stories never happened and the author is not claiming that they did. These stories were written purely for fun. Further disclaimer: This fiction may include characters with the same names, occupation, and physical characteristics as members (past and present) of the band Metallica. However, these characters exist entirely in my imagination and are in no way meant to reflect the real members of Metallica. Summary: Bad things happen then there's some death and then more bad things happen.

===Chapter One

The ocean rose and fell like a bosom in sleep. Kirk slid forward, folding one hand over the other on the deck of the surfboard, and propped his chin on top. His breathing slowed to match the heave of the water while dusk slid relentlessly toward him. Already, gray shadows claimed the scrub dotting the beach's far edge. He closed his eyes thinking about how he'd have to ride in soon, stop pushing his luck with the sharks.

When he opened his eyes again, the beach was darker by a shade and no longer empty. Another man, nothing more than a lean shadow at first, picked his way down to the sand. Slowly, Kirk pushed himself up, the board bobbing between his knees. He kept his eyes on the distant figure, wondering what the man was doing out there this time of night, wondering if he looked as compelling up close as he did from afar. A long finger tickled Kirk's memory. There was something in the man's shape or his bearing, or his loping stride, something Kirk felt he should be able to recall.

A wave would take him in to get a better look. He looked over his shoulder and saw opportunity moving in. Flattened his body, he began to paddle. When the board started sliding on its own, he counted two seconds then placed his hands on the rails and snapped to his feet, landing just as the board dropped into the wave's face.

It didn't matter how many times he did it, this was always a rush.

When he scooped his board out of the ocean and splashed to the beach, he discovered that the stranger was gone. He scanned the coastline in both directions, even watched the water for a minute thinking that maybe the stranger had gone in as he'd come out. No luck.

Kirk shivered, despite his wetsuit and the fact that the water hadn't been _that_ cold. He hugged his board under one arm and padded toward the road where he'd parked his Land Cruiser.

Fuck! There he was again. It was as though they were at opposite ends of a long stick that kept the same distance between them at all times. Kirk stood at his car, keys in hand, watching the stranger move away on the other side of the road.

He slipped between two buildings. Large drops of rain began to fall. Kirk realized that the tapping sound he heard was his teeth rattling together. He opened the passenger door and unzipped the duffle bag sitting on the seat. After peeling the top of his wetsuit down to his waist, he slipped into a shirt that he pulled from the top of the bag. Then he rummaged in the bag until he came up with a pair of gray sweats. Stripping the suit the rest of the way off, he climbed thankfully into the warm pants. He couldn't believe he had to turn on the heat on the drive home, but it was the only way to keep his knuckles from going numb. Must be a bitch of a cold front moving in.

He drove to Lars's and let himself in, found Lars in the kitchen with his ear attached to a cell phone.

"Smells good," Kirk said, nodding toward the pot on the stove.

Lars smiled and held up two fingers. "All right, look, I've gotta go but we'll get together on this Tuesday, all right? Yeah, right. Okay. Bye."

Lars folded the phone closed and set it on the counter. "How was it?"

"Nice. Whatchya got going on there?"

"A little chili."

"Chili."

"Meatless."

"I didn't doubt it. When's it going to be ready?"

"Depends."

Kirk raised an eyebrow. "On?"

"Whether you're hungrier or hornier."

Kirk shrugged and ducked his head. "I could eat; I could fuck. Whatever." When he looked up, he was grinning.

"Race you upstairs."

***

Kirk's eyes flew open. Had he heard a noise or had he dreamed a noise? He hated when that happened. He stared up at the dark ceiling, listening.

"Lars?" he said finally. "Lars?"

"Mmhmphm."

"I think I heard something."

"Mkmphmn."

Kirk rolled onto his side and nudged Lars's shoulder. "I'm serious."

Lars stretched and yawned. Then: "So what am I supposed to do about it?"

"I don't know. Something."

"It's probably nothing. The security system hasn't gone off."

Kirk flipped over and looked up at the control panel on the wall near the bed. A flashing light would have indicated motion in another part of the house, but all of the lights were dark.

While Kirk studied the panel--making sure no lights came on--Lars rolled over and fell back to sleep. Kirk lay back, crossed his hands over his chest. He breathed shallowly so that he could listen to the house. Of course he heard noises; houses made noises. The refrigerator made ice, the air conditioner switched on and then in a bit back off again. He strained to hear non-house noises.

Suddenly, he felt chilly. He pulled the blankets up to his chin. He thought he could see his breath, but that was stupid. He told himself it was a trick of the dark, of his tired eyes and overactive imagination. Like the nights when he'd swear he saw smoke and feared the house was on fire, which never turned out to be the case.

He sidled up to Lars's back, trying to crawl under him for warmth. He wished Lars were awake. It was almost worse being afraid next to someone who was sleeping than it was to be afraid in bed alone. You had to be scared for both of you.

He slid his hand over the ridge of Lars's hip and dipped down into the warm place between his legs. "Lars?" He rolled Lars onto his back and took him in his mouth, arousing him in both senses of the word.

"Kirk."

Kirk slipped off Lars's cock and spread himself over his chest. "If you don't want to do it...."

"Jesus, you get me all excited about it...."

Kirk grinned and reached down, his own cock rising to nudge Lars's thigh. "Since you're awake...."

Afterward, Kirk fell asleep easily in Lars's arms.

***

Just as the light began to chase away the dark, Kirk sat up in bed.

"Az," he whispered, placing a name to the lean body he'd seen on the beach. He hugged his arms and watched the shadows on the walls until it became late enough to wake Lars and start the day.

Mostly, he wondered what Az wanted after all this time.

===Chapter 2

"What the fuck's up with your nails?" Lars asked in the car on the way to HQ.

Kirk pulled his thumb out of his mouth and looked at the names, what was left of it. Lars shot a glance over and could see that the thumb tip was raw. Last night, the other thumb had started bleeding.

Kirk shrugged and stuffed his hand under his thigh.

"You were talking in your sleep last night," Lars said.

Kirk chewed on a bit of thumbnail that was still in his mouth and stared out the passenger side window.

"What's up lately? You haven't seemed yourself."

Kirk shrugged again. Then he said, "I'm just jumpy. Too much caffeine."

"Too much caffeine."

Kirk's rocked in his seat.

Lars rubbed the steering wheel with the pads of his thumbs. He didn't know how to press the issue further without pushing Kirk away.

***

"Is it me or does Kirk look even worse today?" James asked Lars when they found themselves alone in the control room.

On the other side of the glass, Kirk absorbed himself in totally in his playing, his fingers flying over the fretboard, his lower lip caught in his teeth. A closer look, however, revealed skin that looked stretched too tight over his bones and eyes covered in shadow.

"Yeah, I know. He hasn't slept well in weeks."

"What's wrong?"

"Fuck if I know. He wakes up in the middle of the night thinking he's heard a noise."

"And?"

Lars shrugged. "It was nothing. Nothing that night, nothing the next night...."

"Every night?"

Lars nodded.

"What's he say about it?"

"Nothing."

"You even ask him about it?"

Lars puckered. "What do you fucking think? Of course I ask him. He's says he's jumpy or he's had too much caffeine or he's anxious about the album or whatever."

"What about you? You're not looking phenomenally better than he is."

"Yeah, I know. He wakes me up. Even when he isn't trying to wake me up, he wraps himself so tight around me I start to lose circulation in my limbs."

James chuckled.

"Seriously, though, I don't know if this is a phase or if he should start seeing someone."

"How long's it been?"

"Almost two weeks."

"Shit."

Lars nodded.

Suddenly Kirk yanked his guitar strap over his head and jammed the instrument onto its stand. James and Lars watched him storm out of the studio, then they looked at each other.

"Maybe he should see someone," James said.

Lars nodded.

***

Kirk came out of the bathroom fifteen minutes later looking no better or worse than before. He rejoined his band mates without comment.

"Maybe we should call it a day," James said.

"What?" asked Bob as he walked through the door. "You've got to be kidding me."

"I think we could all use a break."

"You're fucking with me, right?"

"You and I'll work on shit this afternoon, Bob, but we don't need the other two here. Let 'em go home."

Lars looked from Bob to James. James nodded toward the door.

"All right. Let me take you home, Kirk." He turned and went to pat Kirk on the shoulder. Kirk flinched. Lars withdrew. Kirk led the way out of HQ and sat silently in the passenger seat of Lars's car, staring out the window and working his pinky nail in his teeth through the whole ride. When they got to Kirk's house, Kirk again led the way, Lars half-trotting to keep up. Lars wondered what the man was trying to outrun. He nearly got the door shut in his face, but caught its edge with both hands and pushed through. Kirk stopped in the middle of the foyer, back to him, as though he were listening. Lars walked up and threw his arms around him.

"Get off me," he said, jerking away.

"What the fuck? What the fuck is going on?"

Kirk headed up the staircase. Lars followed.

"There's obviously something wrong here. I can't promise I'll understand it, but if you don't at least try to explain it, then there's no way I ever can. Kirk! Fucking stop and talk to me." Lars grabbed the railing, and started upward.

Kirk, at the top of the stairs, stopped, his hand draped over the top of the newel. Slowly, he turned around. "Go home, Lars."

"Kirk--" Lars climbed another two steps.

"Go home. Don't call me, don't come by. Just go home. I'll see you at the studio."

"What the fuck? What the fuck is going on?"

Kirk turned and disappeared beyond the landing. Lars dashed up the steps. He saw the door to Kirk's bedroom swing closed and he raced toward it.

"Kirk!" He rattled the knob, but the door was locked. "Kirk!" He pounded on the heavy wooden door. "Kirk! Open the fuck up or I'm going to get James to help me break this fucking door down. Kirk!" He stepped back, fished his cell phone out of his pants pocket and flipped it open. "I'm dialing the fucking studio right now, Kirk. James is worried about you, too. He'll be here in a heart--"

The door swung open. "Lars, just go away. I just want to lie down and get some sleep. Alone. Okay? Go."

Lars let dropped the cell phone to his side without pressing send.

"That's really what you want?"

"Yes."

He looked exhausted and practically hung onto the door for support. Lars wanted to slip his shoulder under his lover's arm and lead him to the bed, pull off his shoes, turn back the blankets. But it wasn't what Kirk wanted.

"Will we talk later?"

"Let me get some sleep."

"Then we'll talk."

"I'll see you at the studio."

Lars ran a hand over his face. He wasn't getting anywhere badgering him. Fuck it. "All right. I'm leaving. Go get some fucking sleep."

He had to hold himself back from lunging at the door as it closed. Fuck. Fuck! He slammed the phone shut and jammed it back in his pocket. He stared at the door, offended by it. Then he forced his feet to turn away and head down the hall.

===Chapter 3

Bob, slouching back in his seat in the control room, tapped a pen against his thigh and looked from Lars to James and back. "Where's Kirk?"

"I don't know," Lars said. "He was in rough shape yesterday, but he said he'd be here."

Bob continued to look at him.

"He didn't exactly say he'd be here today, though."

"So you didn't stay with him last night?" James asked.

"He didn't want company. You know what, I think I'm going to call him, make sure everything's okay."

"Tell him to come to work," said Bob as Lars opened his phone.

He punched up Kirk's number then nervously worked a piece of gum in his jaw while he listened to the line ring. Just as he was about to hang up, Kirk's groggy voice answered.

"Kirk? Did I wake you? Shit. I'm sorry. I'm really fucking glad to hear you were sleeping, though. Listen, I'll let you get back to bed.... Uh, okay.... All right, I'll tell them. Hey, you want me to come over after.... All right. No prob. Listen, take care, okay?"

Bob and James eyed him.

"Uh, he's going surfing."

Bob threw up his hands.

James said, "No, that's cool. We've got plenty of shit we can do without him."

Bob shoved his chair back. "Yeah, you know what? I think I need some fucking Tylenol. When I get back, we'll see what we can do...around him." He strode out of the room.

"Surfing?" James asked.

"Whatever."

"What happened when you took him home yesterday?"

"He threw me out."

"And you left?"

Lars sighed and started shifting shit around on the cart, the room's only flat surface and therefore the place where people generally piled shit. He lifted a Coke can and shook it. There was maybe a half inch in the bottom, probably from yesterday.

"This yours?"

James shook his head. "So what do you mean he threw you out?"

Lars set the can back on the table. It was that or walk out to the break room, rinse it out, and toss it in the recycle bin. He pushed a pad of Post-It notes to the corner. "He told me to go home."

The door swung open and Bob came back in with a Snapple.

"But he got some sleep and he's going surfing and feeling better, right? Maybe tonight he'll clue you in on what's been--"

"He doesn't want to see me tonight. That Coke yours, Bob?"

Bob shook his head. "Ask Mike. I just saw him out in the hall."

"Fuck it," Lars said, dropping the Coke back on the cart. "Let's get to work."

***

By the time they got out of the studio, it was dark. In the parking lot, James asked Lars what he was planning on doing.

"Go home, I guess. I've got some shit to take care of, stuff I've let slide the past few weeks."

James patted him on the back. They both looked up at the storm clouds rolling in, then without comment they got in their respective cars and pulled out. James hadn't told Lars he was headed to Kirk's, didn't want to leave him sitting around the house all evening wondering how it was going.

Pulling up in front of Kirk's house, he was glad to see lights on inside, but when he rang the bell there was no answer. Rain started coming down in drops hard and big enough to splash against the asphalt behind him. He rang again, then knocked. Then tromped through the bushes peer into a window. At first he saw nothing and started to think about making a circuit around the house, but then Kirk popped into view in the kitchen doorway. The kitchen sat on the far side of the house but could just be seen from the front.

James watched Kirk press his fists to his eyes and then look up, suddenly, and speak. Then he shook his head, swept his arms in front of him. Then James saw who he was talking to. He flattened a palm against the window. The man hadn't changed in sixteen years. Az stepped into the doorway and curved a finger under Kirk's chin, his mouth drawing up into an unsettling smile. Kirk pulled his chin away and Az threw his head back and laughed. Kirk moved out of the doorway. Az turned, spoke, then followed.

James shuffled the key ring in his fingers. Fuck. Which fucking one? He narrowed it down to three. The third let him in. Leaving the door open behind him, he took off across the foyer to the back of the house.

When he got to the kitchen, the back door stood open and Kirk, arms crossed and head tilted to one side, glared at him from the middle of the room. Then he turned, walked away, and closed the door.

"What the fuck are you doing breaking into my house?" Kirk asked, turning back to him.

"Why the fuck didn't you answer your door? And what the fuck is he--?"

"James--"

"What?"

"Fuck it. Just get out of my house."

James laughed. "You're a piece of work, Kirk. You've got Lars tied up in knots worried about you and this whole time you're fucking seeing Az again. That's all there is behind the shit you've been pulling lately, isn't it?"

Kirk shook his head, but he said, "You know, fuck it. If that's the story you want to tell, fine. Whatever." He walked past James and went to the cabinet for a glass. Then he went to the fridge and pulled out a jug of cranberry juice.

"You're not doing this to me," James said. "I'm not fucking telling Lars for you and I'm not going to sit around the studio tomorrow knowing something he doesn't. You're gonna tell him yourself." He removed the cordless phone from its stand on the kitchen wall and tossed it toward Kirk. "Call him."

Kirk caught the phone one-handed against his stomach. He just held it there and stared James down.

"What the fuck anyway? This guy sneaks out your back door? This--fuck, why am I in the middle of this?"

"You're not. Go home and forget about it." Kirk set the phone on the counter.

James picked up the phone and pressed it against Kirk's chest. "Call him. I'm not leaving until you do."

Kirk snatched the phone and brought Lars's number up on speed dial. James leaned in, pressing his ear against the other side of the phone to make sure Kirk wasn't calling the local pizza place or anything. As soon as Lars answered, Kirk ducked away.

"Hey, Lars. I-- Shhh. I need to...there's something I need to tell you.... I've been seeing someone. Someone else. No...shit. Look...." Kirk lowered the phone to his shoulder, his eyes darting around the room. Then he brought the phone back to his mouth. "Look, Lars. I'm sorry. I can't go round and round about this. I just...it's over, okay? It needs to be over." He swiped at his eyes. "Look, I've gotta go, okay? I have to hang up now." He dropped the phone on the counter with a dull thud. He sniffed and pressed the tips of his fingers under his eyes, then wiped his hands on his pants. "Happy? Can you go now?"

James felt as though all his blood had rushed down his body and out his toes. "Kirk, I--" Fuck. "What the fuck's going on?" he asked quietly.

Kirk sniffed again, rubbed at his nose. "You know what's going on. I've been seeing someone else."

"Where the fuck'd he come from?"

Kirk leaned against the counter.

"There's something wrong with that guy." He'd only met Az once, and that was by accident. He'd never felt the need to get away from someone so strongly in his life. "I don't understand why you have to get involved with him again. He's...there's just something wrong with him. And you have a good fucking thing with Lars."

When Kirk still didn't answer, he said, "I noticed you didn't tell Lars who it was."

"Lars never met him," he said in a low voice. Then he looked up at James. "I hope he never will."

James didn't know what to say. He shifted his weight on his feet, stuffed his hands in his front pockets. He opened his mouth, took a step forward, closed it again.

Kirk straightened, crossed his arms, and arched an eyebrow. "Is there anything else?"

"Ditch the freak and call Lars back."

Kirk held out an arm toward the front of the house. "Don't slam the door behind you."

***

He watched the Beast pull out of the driveway.

"Such drama," said the voice behind him.

Kirk turned.

"Ready?"

"Now?"

Az, his hair dripping with rainwater, shrugged. "Why not?"

Kirk's bowels felt loose.

"You can always change your mind," Az said with a smirk.

"No," Kirk said quietly. "Let's do it."

Just as they were about to enter the garage, the phone rang. Kirk looked back at it, still lying on the counter.

"It's Lars," Az said. "Go on and answer it."

Kirk shook his head. He'd be too tempted.... "Let's go," he said, pulling his car keys off the hook by the door.

===Chapter 4

"What do you think?" he asked, turning to Kirk, arms spread wide.

Lightning sparked the beach and in that moment Kirk saw a dark circle with what looked like a short cross sticking up from the center of it.

"Come on," Azrael said. "You can't really tell from here, but you're gonna like it. Wait. Take off your clothes."

Kirk peeled his shirt, which was already soaked through from the rain, over his head and then stepped out of his sandals. He squirmed out of his pants.

"Just leave them." Az gestured for Kirk to drop his clothes on the sand. "Come on."

Another flash of lightning came as Kirk trod behind Az. They were headed toward the cross.

"Watch your step. There's a platform here."

He guided Kirk onto a wooden plank that wobbled under his feet. Lightning came and Kirk saw that the dark circle he'd seen from a distance was actually a hole and that the short cross was a full-sized one, erected in the middle of the hole. The flash of light didn't give his eyes time to gauge how deep the hole was.

Kirk raked his dripping hair back from his face. He pulled his gaze off the cross and looked at Az.

"Have a seat." Az gestured at the platform they stood on. In his other hand he held a coil of rope.

Kirk looked at the cross and down at the platform, then he turned and lowered his butt onto the plank. His legs dangled over the edge. His back pressed against the cross's cold, rain-slicked stipes. Even in the dark, he could make out the ocean swelling relentlessly toward them, spilling over into the hole.

Az took hold of one of his wrists and draped his arm up and over the cross piece. Then he began winding rope around the wooden bar and Kirk's forearm, lashing it to the back side of the beam.

"No nails?" Kirk asked. His free hand rubbed the plank that he sat on. His stomach flipped every twenty or thirty seconds. He felt like he had to pee and he couldn't stop gnawing at his lower lip.

"No nails. Trying to keep the blood to a minimum so we don't attract sharks."

"You don't want to see me ripped to shreds?"

Az pulled the knot tight. Then he sat back on his heels and looked Kirk in the eye, a sly grin playing at the corners of his mouth. "I'd like to keep your body in one piece. I'm kind of partial to it."

He drew a finger down over Kirk's chest. Then he rose, stepped over Kirk's lap, and pulled Kirk's other arm up and over the patibulum. Fastening it securely with a second coil of rope, he leaned close to Kirk's ear and sang, "Let me make your mind, leave yourself behind." He caught Kirk's eyes. His voice was James's, just for this moment. "Be not afraid."

Then he hopped backwards off the plank and brushed his palms together." Well. So far so good. Comfy?"

Kirk rested his head back against the stipes and closed his eyes. He tested the ropes. In his mind, the song kept going: "One day you will see the dance come down to me."

"Watch your step," he heard Az say. Then the platform was yanked out from under him. Kirk's lower body dropped as though he'd been sitting on a trap door. His armpits and shoulders held him fast on the cross, but he felt as though the rest of him was being ripped off his arms. He cried out and struggled to raise himself up.

"Stop flailing. I'm going to make you more comfortable."

Strong hands grabbed one of his ankles and lashed it to the side of the stipes. Kirk found that his heel had been positioned on a small peg in the side of the stipes, which gave him a way of supporting himself, just, and took some of the pressure off his shoulders and the backs of his upper arms. Still, his forearms throbbed with impending bruises and his spine burned where it had raked the stipes. He groaned and snapped his mouth closed, forcing himself to breathe through his nose. He focused himself on his abdomen, on expanding it with each inhale and tightening it with each exhale. He could do this.

Az caught hold of his other foot and forced it onto a peg that stuck out of the other side of the stipes. More pressure came off Kirk's arms, but not so much that he could consider himself comfortable, or even remotely so.

His hair slid into his eyes. He jerked his head, but the twist of hair held fast, caught on his eyelashes. Rain streamed along it, dripping into his eye.

Az straightened from his work with Kirk's feet and looked up into his face.

"Do you regret your choice?"

"No," Kirk replied through gritted teeth.

After jumping neatly out of the hole, Az perched on its edge like a hawk, his dark raincoat trailing behind him.

"What about all those years ago? Do you regret that choice?"

Kirk squeezed his eyes closed. "No."

He jerked his head again. The hair caught against his eyelash flipped away, then came back down in the same place. He let out a strangled curse.

Az laughed.

Kirk curled his fingers. Already they tingled, a soft tickling that starting at his fingertips and worked its way down. A wave rushed in and crashed into the hole. The pool gathering at the bottom rose another few inches, splashing up over his toes.

"Well, it's a while yet before you drown." Az hopped back into the hole and stepped close to Kirk, his head level with Kirk's chest. He reached out a long, cold fingernail and raked it over one of Kirk's already painfully erect nipples. Kirk's forearms tightened against the crossbar as he tried to pull away from the feeling that lingered even after Az had taken his hand back.

"Sorry I can't stick around, but I have other things do. Games to play." Then, in a voice that Kirk recognized as his own, Az said, "I don't think I'm done with you and your friends quite yet."

"What?" Kirk struggled against the ropes that held his arms fast, pushed up against the pegs. "What the fuck are you talking about? That wasn't the fucking deal. That wasn't--fuck!" His left wrist burned where the rope scraped away a layer of skin. Still, he twisted it and tried to work it free.

Az laughed. Then he dipped his head and ran his tongue over Kirk's cock, bringing it immediately to attention. "That should get your mind off your discomfort, for a few minutes at least. Oh, and don't push too hard on those pegs. They're not designed to handle much stress."

With that, he leaped out of the hole and threw Kirk a salute. Kirk twisted his head as far as he was able and watched the lean figure amble away.

A metallic taste seeping over his tongue made him realize he'd been biting his lip.

Lightning flashed, revealing the angry ocean stretched out before him.

***

Across the street from the beach, Azrael, Angel of Death, lifted the receiver from a pay phone and punched the keypad with his fingers while he whistled Master of Puppets. He'd always loved that song.

===Chapter 5

Lars couldn't breathe. He clawed at his throat, but he couldn't breathe. He felt like he was drowning and at the same time realized he was sleeping. He tried to pull himself awake, but it was like pulling out of quicksand. Making the effort only exhausted him more, sucking him back under quicker than he could fight it.

Then he jolted awake.

He sat up and looked around his living room, dark but for the light that spilled in from the hall. Fuck. His heart was still pounding. The skin on his cheeks still felt tight under the tears he'd let dry on his face before crashing into exhaustion. He slipped his legs off the side of the couch and came unsteadily to his feet. His bladder insisted he take it to the bathroom.

Thunder cracked across the sky.

Lars caught sight of a red light blinking at the other side of the dim room. He put off the bathroom trip long enough to stumble over and push the button on his answering machine.

"Lars? It's me. I need..." Kirk's voiced cracked. "I need help. I'm at the beach."

The word "beach" was followed by the abrupt clunk of the phone on the other end being hung up. Lars jabbed the replay button and listened again. He looked at his watch. The message was recorded only fifteen minutes earlier.

"What fucking beach, Kirk? What fucking beach?"

He listened to it a third time, hoping to hear a clue in the background, but all he could make out was the static of rain. He grabbed the phone out of the handset and hit the speed dial to Kirk's cell. After four rings, voice mail picked up. It went the same way with his home phone. As he ducked around the living room looking for where he'd kicked off his shoes, he stabbed the flash button and dialed James's house.

"Yeah?"

"James, you've gotta fucking help me."

"Lars?"

"Kirk called...only.... Fuck. I didn't hear it ring. I was fucking asleep. He left a message saying he needs help and he's at the beach."

"Which beach?"

Lars turned over the coffee table to get to his shoes. "He didn't fucking say!"

"It could be any beach."

"I fucking know that. That's why I'm calling you. He didn't call you?"

"Nope."

"Fuck. Come help me look for him. We can hit more beaches--"

"What the fuck are you doing? He fucking dumped you a few hours ago and now he has you running after him?"

Lars went cold. "How the fuck did you know about that?"

James quickly explained his visit to Kirk's that evening.

Lars banged his head against the wall by the garage door. " Fuck. Fuck it." He wrenched the door open. "You didn't hear his voice on the machine. There's something wrong. I don't care what he did earlier, he fucking needs help now."

James sighed. "What do you want me to do?"

"Call Jason, just on the off chance that Kirk called him. And then get your ass out on the road." He climbed into his car and suddenly realized he had the house phone with him. "Fuck. I have the wrong phone. I have to hang up. Call me on my cell when you get on the road."

He clicked off and threw the phone in the passenger seat, then he jumped out of the car and raced through the house to retrieve his cell phone from the floor, where it had landed when he dumped the coffee table over.

***

Water slapped at his thighs. His couldn't feel his hands anymore. His chest stung from the relentless pelting of the rain. A dull ache spread from his spine, where it pressed against the stipes, up to his teeth. His lips moved but he could barely hear his voice over the storm. In his head, though, he could hear James's voice, loud and sure. "One day you will see and dare come down to me. Yeah, come on, come on now take a chance. That's right, let's dance."

===Chapter 6

The phone sang. Without taking his eyes from the dark, slick road, Lars snatched it off the passenger seat, thumbed the talk button, and held it to his face. "James?"

"It's Jase."

"Did Kirk call you?" Lars asked, swerving around a bend in the road.

"Uh, no. I'm sorry."

"Fuck."

"I'm in my car. I was wondering where you wanted me to start looking."

"Oh, Jason, you're a fucking saint. Where the fuck are you?"

"Just leaving my house."

"Great. Fucking head west."

"On my way."

"Call me if you see anything. _Anything._"

Lars ended the call and dropped the phone in his lap. Then he scooped it back up and punched up Kirk's cell again. No answer. He hit James's number.

"Where are you?" he asked when James answered.

"Halfway to Kirk's house."

"But he said--"

"I'm just fucking checking, okay?"

"Okay. Yeah. That makes sense." Suddenly, he hoped James would find Kirk there, at home. He blew out a stream of air. "Do you think he'll be there?"

"How would I know?"

"Hey, thanks for thinking of it, though."

"No problem."

Lars found he didn't want to hang up. "James?"

"Yeah?"

"What was he like? At the house this evening?"

There was silence for a few seconds and then, "I don't know."

"You were there."

"He said more on the phone to you than he did to me. He just wanted me to leave."

"Did you see him? Did you see the guy?"

"I got a glimpse."

Lars waited and when nothing was forthcoming he said, "Well?"

"Well what?"

"The fuck'd he look like?"

He could almost hear James shrug on the other end. "I dunno. Tall, dark hair. Skinny fucker. He looked a lot happier than Kirk did."

"Fuck." Lars dropped the hand with the phone in it to his lap. "Fuck!" He slapped the steering wheel. Then he brought the phone back to his mouth. "What do you think of all this? Does any of this make any fucking sense to you?"

"Uh, this is Kirk we're talking about...."

"I'm not joking."

After a silence, James said, "I'm sorry. I don't know what to make of this, either."

Lars's phone beeped at him. He put James on hold to take the other call.

"I'm coming up on Berkeley," Jason said. "What's the plan?"

"Head for fucking Tampalpais Valley and go north, check out Stinson Beach and...hold on." He flipped back over to James. "Are you at his house yet?"

"Standing at his front door. No lights, no answer."

"See if his fucking car's there."

"Not in the driveway."

"Check the garage. I'll be right back." He flipped back to Jason. "James is at Kirk's checking to see if he took his own car."

"Hope so. It'll give us something to look for."

As he slowed for a red light, he said, "Let me call you back, patch you into a 3-way with James." Without waiting for an answer, he hung up on Jason and told James what he was doing. A few seconds later, Jason was back on the line with the two of them.

"I'm in the garage," James said.

"And?"

"The Land Cruiser's gone."

"Cool," said Jason.

"So that's what we'll look for. See anything else, James?"

"Nope. Everything looks like it did when I left earlier. Phone on the counter, half-empty glass of cranberry juice."

Lars heard a snort over the line, then: "For all we know, he took off right after I left. Maybe he went after the guy."

"Fucking picked a night to do it in," Lars said as he squinted through the sheets of rain that slid down over his windshield faster than his wipers could whoosh it away. What glimpses he did get of the road ahead were distorted by street lights, traffic lights, and his own headlamps reflecting off its slick, black surface. He seemed to be alone on the road, though. No other cars, no other people. Only the crash of rain on his roof, the endless thwuck-thwuck of his wipers, and the breathing of two old friends across his cell phone kept him from believing he was having another nightmare.

"Hey, I'm pulling out. Which way you want me to go?" James asked.

***

Kirk's jaw hurt from trying to keep his teeth still. His body shook from the cold and the strain. His shoulders were on fire, his lungs full of ice. A wave crashed against his stomach. A spray of salt water splashed his face, stinging his bitten lip.

How much longer now? He wanted it to be over. He wondered how he'd go? When the water got high enough, would he let it fill him? Would he welcome it? Or would he fight to hold his head back, to rise up on the pegs and live as long as he could, even in this pain?

He looked forward to learning the answer. At least he'd know something about himself then.

===Chapter 7

"This is fucking impossible," Lars said. "I can't see a fucking thing and he could be anywhere a hundred miles up or down this coast."

"Chill. We've only been at it an hour or so. I didn't have anything planned for the night away," James said.

"Me either," Jason added.

Lars saw headlights coming toward him, then he recognized the familiar horns of the Beast. He laid into his horn as they passed. James lifted a hand to him. For a minute, Lars felt like things were going to be all right. Things were in hand. Then James's tail lights disappeared around a bend and despair flowed in.

"Hey," Lars said to the phone.

"Yeah?" It was James.

"Thanks you guys, for coming out on a fucking shitty night like this for something that...it may be nothing."

"Eh," said James. "It's Kirk. That's not nothing."

"Yeah, well. Thanks."

"It's probably my fucking fault anyway, confronting him, making him call you."

"Hey, don't talk like that." Jason now. "There's no fault here. Shit happened. It's what happens from here that's important."

"Thanks, Jase," Lars said. "I could really use to hear that. I've been wondering myself how I fucked up, what I did or didn't do that changed everything, fucked it all up."

"Lars...."

"No, I know. I get it. Shit happens. Eventually my brain will catch up with that and stop going, 'If only.' If only I'd insisted on staying with him last night, or if only I'd stopped by his house tonight instead of James, or if only I'd pushed hard to find out what was going on, or if only I'd been better to him last month or last year or when the fuck ever I could have been better to him to make him not fucking--fuck it."

The line was quiet for a long while. Lars could hear the windshield wipers in the others' cars. One of them turned their radio on, softly. Loud enough to hear, not loud enough for Lars to make out what was playing. He was okay with that.

"How's the new studio?" Jason asked finally.

"Slicker 'n shit," James said. "Seen the site?"

"Uh, yeah...kinda. I'm still working up to computers."

"Fucking take a look at it. It's...there's nothing else out there like it. No one's doing this."

"Why am I not surprised?"

James chuckled.

Lars pumped his hands on the steering wheel and thought about the studio site. All week, they'd shot photos and videos around Kirk, Lars doing his best not to look like he was in nearly as bad shape. Puttin' on a front. He was certain it showed.

James was telling Jason about some of the new stuff they were working on. Jason sounded enthused, really happy for them. Lars relaxed a little in his seat because it occurred to him that Jason really was enthused. He'd gone back to being a fan and he was behind what they were doing one hundred percent. That was the kind of people that surrounded Metallica; they'd been lucky that way, for the most part.

Everything would be all right. It always was, for the most part.

Then Lars jumped forward in his seat, practically smacking his forehead into the windshield. He said, "Fuck. Fuck me. There it is. There it fucking is."

He yanked the steering wheel, dumping his car off the road, and slammed on the breaks. His Saab skidded up next to Kirk's Land Cruiser.

"What? Did you find him?" Jason asked.

"Where?" James demanded.

"I found his car." He shoved his door open and climbed out into the rain. While he tried to explain where he was, he slogged through an ankle-deep puddle and came to stand on a ridge overlooking the beach, the headlights from his car behind him doing little to cut through the dark storm. His eyes scanned the black ocean that churned relentlessly landward. "I found his fucking car." He turned to face the road behind him, bringing his hand up to shield his eyes from the bright light of the car's headlamps.

"I'm probably forty, forty-five minutes out if I don't run into traffic," James said.

"I'm closer to thirty."

"Fuck." Lars went to the Land Cruiser and peered in its windows. "Fuck. I have no idea where he is. I can't see shit."

"He didn't say he was going surfing or anything, did he?" James asked.

"He just said he was at the beach. His fucking board is still strapped to the Cruiser's roof anyway." But he went back to the ridge overlooking to the ocean anyway. "Fuck. What if he's out there?"

"He probably didn't call from the middle of the ocean."

"What if he called from the shore? What if he was hurt? The fucking tide's been coming in."

"If he was hurt and could make phone calls, don't you think he'd have called 911?" James asked.

"Maybe he did," Jason said. "I mean, you don't see him around. I'm not saying he's not. I'm just saying it's possible he called 911 and they came and got him."

"Hang up, Jase, and call someone and see if you can find out," Lars said.

"Gotcha."

"How much longer till you get here?" Lars asked James.

"I don't know. I'm driving as fast as I can."

"Don't get yourself killed."

"Not planning on it."

"Fuck. Storm's picking up again. I just saw lightning flash over the ocean." Thunder rolled in as he finished his sentence. He swiped a stream of water off his face and pulled at his mouth.

They were silent a few minutes, then a beep came over Lars's phone.

"Hold on. Must be Jason."

He switched over.

"No luck," Jason said.

"Hang up. I'll dial you back in." Then as he waited for Jason's phone to ring, he said to James, "He didn't find anything."

"Hello."

"There goes that fucking hope." Lars's eyes scanned the dark beach below. By now, it was nothing more than a thin strip against the base of the ridge. Lightning shot across the sky, lighting the beach up momentarily.

"Holy--no. No way." Lars dropped to a crouch and slid down the face of the ridge while James and Jason yelled "What? What?" in his ear. "Fucking get here," he said before he dropped the phone on the sand and ran into the water.

===Chapter 8

Lars splashed through water that came mid-way up his shins thinking that Kirk, if that was Kirk and not his eyes playing tricks on him, had to be sitting in it somehow because all he could see were his head and shoulders and he wasn't that far out into the water. Then the ground gave way beneath him.

He caught his breath before his head went under, found the bottom quickly with his feet and pushed off. In all, the water was only ten or twelve inches over his head. His face broke the surface and he swam the two strokes over to Kirk.

"Hey. Hey. Kirk." Kirk's head sagged. Lars wound one hand around the back of the cross and the slid the other under Kirk's chin, raising it. Kirk's eyes were closed. "Kirk."

Lars's heart rushed like the waves.

"Kirk!"

Kirk didn't stir. Lars couldn't tell whether or not he was breathing. He tried to feel for a pulse in his neck, but if it was there, it was too weak to feel. The cold water, rain, thunder, and relentless waves didn't help Lars's concentration any. He pulled himself down the crossbar to the rope that wound around Kirk's right forearm and began to pick blindly at the knots with shaking fingers.

"James and Jason are on their way, Kirk. We're gonna get you right out of here. It's all gonna be over soon." His voice sounded flat and ineffective to his own ears. He wondered if Kirk could hear him at all over the more powerful roil of the waves and the storm.

He took a quick look over his shoulder at the black ocean. A good wave...hell, not even an especially good one would be very bad for Kirk. Water swelled the fibers in the rope, making it difficult to work with, but finally Lars teased an end through the top knot and yanked the next two loose. Then he pulled at the ropes until they came away and Kirk's arm buoyed free.

He looked over his shoulder again in time to see one of those good waves rolling in. He threw an arm around the stipes, drew himself in front of Kirk, pinched Kirk's nose between his fingers as he tipped Kirk's head up, and then covered Kirk's mouth with his own, exhaling slowly into it until the wave crashed over them and receded.

Lars weighed the risk of continuing to work Kirk free as opposed to clinging to the stipes and breathing for him. The waves were only going to get worse. If he didn't get Kirk loose, there'd come a point where he wouldn't be able to keep him alive, if he were even alive now. All the more reason to take the risk. He made sure there were no waves bearing immediately down on them, then he splashed over to Kirk's left arm.

"Fuck." Lars realized that Kirk's head leaned closer into the water now that his right shoulder was free. The water dipped and rose, coming within inches of Kirk's face. He doubled his efforts, picking at the rope with both hands, his right arm thrown over the crossbar for stability, his legs peddling in the water, but he made no progress before another dangerous wave reared up. Lars plunged back to Kirk's head and gave him mouth to mouth again while the water washed over them. Gasping, Lars went back to work on the ropes.

Six waves later, Lars finally tugged the final knot loose. The ropes came free and Kirk's other arm floated. Lars shot back toward the stipes to keep Kirk from falling face-first into the water. Then he tried to pull him away from the cross.

"FUCK! Fuck fuck fuck. It's okay, Kirk. It's all right. I just didn't think about your feet. Of course it's your fucking feet, otherwise you'd have been bobbing the fuck around. Don't worry about it. We'll take care of it."

He just didn't know how. He craned his neck, hoping to see headlights coming down the road. He had no idea how long it had been since he spotted Kirk, no idea how far out the others were. He wished he hadn't dropped his phone. Likely, it would have shorted, but in the incredible chance that it didn't.... He wished he'd taken that chance.

Lightning illuminated Kirk's face. His lips were blue, his cheeks white. "It's the fucking cold," Lars said. "It's just the fucking cold."

The water was almost to Kirk's chin now, even with Lars pulling him as upright as he dared. More waves posed a threat and Lars began a cycle of breathing for Kirk when the waves rushed in and breathing for himself as they receded, panting out reassurances to Kirk in between and hoping that Kirk could hear him, knew he was there, knew he was getting out of this.

"What the fuck happened?" he asked in Kirk's ear one time.

"Whoever fucking did this is gonna die, Kirk. I'm gonna kill him my fucking self," he said another, high throat clamping shut around the words. He squeezed his eyes shut and forced himself to hold it together.

He pressed himself to Kirk to share his body heat and hugged the cross with one arm. He thought he could feel the slow thud of Kirk's heart against his chest. It gave him hope, but this helpless kind of hope was worse than fucking torture.

He wanted to throw his head back and scream. There was no way he could swim down and work at the rope holding Kirk's feet; even if he retied Kirk's upper body to keep him from falling forward into the water, the water had risen too high. He took another deep breath and covered Kirk's mouth with his own and prayed that James and Jason were just around the bend.

***

Azrael perched at the top of a light pole and watched the game below. He loved people. And this one.... So greedy he'd been to live once and now.... He was disappointed Hammett had gone the other way this time, but this was all right, too. Once he brought him over, he'd have him for eternity. Or however long it took to grow tired of that body. Az's black tongue snaked out and slid over his lips. ===Chapter 9

Jason came around the bend and saw two familiar vehicles pulled off the side of the road, the first one with its headlights blaring. Moving too quickly to pull next to Lars's car, he instead glided up on the other side of the Land Cruiser. He had the door open before the car came to a stop. Leaving his own lights on and his door open, he ran up to the ridge, cupping his hands to his mouth and calling Lars's name.

The beach was black. He shook the rain off his face and squinted into the night looking for any sort of clue. Suddenly, he caught movement down in the water, an arm waving. He skidded down the face of the ridge and sloshed into the surf. As he got closer, he thought Lars was calling something to him, but thunder obliterated his words. Then, suddenly, he was plunged into the ocean.

He bobbed up quickly, flailing and coughing. He grabbed hold of the end of the wooden bar that Lars and Kirk seemed to be clinging to and let the waves carry him over to them.

"What--?"

"We've got to get him off this," Lars yelled. "His fucking feet. Dive down and get his feet."

Jason didn't get it. Lars looked back over his shoulder then turned and kissed Kirk just as a wave came over them. Jason bobbed up with the wave and back down as it pulled away, but Lars and Kirk let it come over them. Then he realized Kirk must be stuck on something down there.

"Fucking hurry," Lars said, but Jason was already diving down, sliding one hand down along Kirk to keep his bearings. When he got down to Kirk's ankles, he realized Kirk was more than merely stuck. He couldn't see a thing in the black water, but it felt as though Kirk was bound to the post. He slipped his hands around the ropes feeling for the knot.

Knots.

His lungs burned. He needed something more than his fingers. He swam back to the surface. Lars stared at him.

"I need a knife," he said, yelling in Lars's ear. "I'm going to go check my car." He doubted he had one, but maybe he had something. Anything. Or maybe James would be along.

"Call 911," Lars said.

Jason nodded, turned, and swam to where the beach began again. He heaved himself up and ran for the cars, his cell phone bouncing on his hip. Fuck! He unclipped it from his belt and held down the 9. Nothing happened. He shook it, held it to his ear, pressed the 9 again. Nothing. He tossed it on the driver's seat and climbed in, reaching across the passenger seat to rifle through the glove box. Nothing. He backed out of the car and ran around to the trunk. He was leaning into it when headlights splashed over him. He banged his head on the trunk lid as he straightened up. Holding the back of his head and wincing, he ran over to the Beast, which pulled in on the other side of Lars's car.

"Knife. I need a knife," Jason said as James stepped out of his car. James slid a buck knife out of his waistband and slapped it in Jason's hand. "Call 911. We need an ambulance." Then he took off, slid down the ridge face and splashed through the water, pulling the knife open as he ran, almost losing it when the sudden drop came again. He didn't bother saying anything to Lars, who looked at him expectantly. He just dove, pushing himself down as quickly as he could. When he reached the ropes, he hooked his leg around the lower part of the beam, felt for an area where the ropes were against wood instead of flesh, and began sawing.

His lungs felt like they were being crushed and he told himself he could swim to the surface after he dragged the knife over the ropes ten more times. Counting took his mind off the pain. At ten, the ropes still weren't free and he was tempted to go for another ten, but knew he'd be of no use to anyone if he killed himself down here. Holding the knife down at his side, he pushed off the ground. His head broke the surface and fresh air never tasted so good.

James was there on the other side of the cross helping to hold Kirk upright, hold his head tipped back. The water came to just under his bottom lip now between waves. Jason grabbed hold of the crossbeam and held out the knife, handle first, toward James. James took it, gulped down some air, and dove. Still catching his breath, Jason paddled behind the cross and took James's place.

James seemed to be gone for an eternity. Lars looked exhausted, ready to fall over, but he kept watching the waves, kept giving his air to Kirk. Holding onto Kirk, Jason didn't want to float up with the waves so he held his breath as the crashed over him. Then Kirk seemed to shift a little and James's head popped up two feet away.

"Get it?" Lars asked.

"One."

Jason held his hand out for the knife. For a second, James looked like he wasn't going to hand it over, but then he did. Jason began his dive as soon as his fingers closed over it.

He jumped back, air bubbles streaming out his nose, when something brushed against him on his way down. Then he realized it was Kirk's leg. Floating. Of course. His heart pounded.

There wasn't too much left of the ropes. James had to have been about to pass out for him to have left it with so little to finish. Or he'd been down so long that he couldn't gauge how far he'd come. Jason hacked away the last of the rope that held the other ankle and it floated up. He backpedaled to be out of the way and headed for the surface.

When he cleared the water, James was already climbing out of the hole with Kirk in his arms, Lars behind him helping to steady him. They were bathed in the flashing red lights of the ambulance. Rescuers ran toward them with a longboard. Jason caught his breath and then swam to the edge of the hole himself.

===Chapter 10

"No, we're okay," Lars heard James say to the EMT behind the ambulance. "You're okay, right, Jason?" There was a pause and then James said, "We're gonna follow."

The EMT jumped in and pulled the back doors of the ambulance shut. Lars scooted back on the bench that ran down on of the walls inside the back of the vehicle and tugged the blanket they'd given him closer around his shoulders.

"Get me an 18 gauge?" asked the medic.

The EMT reached over Lars's head and retrieved a sterile pack I.V. cannula. He tore the top of the package open and handed it to the medic.

Lars leaned forward on the bench and put his hand on the foil blankets they'd wrapped Kirk in from head to toe. They already had him hooked up to heated, humidified oxygen to help him breathe and to raise his body temperature from the inside out. Lars turned his face away while the medic sought a vein in Kirk's arm for the I.V.

"Get some heat packs on the blanket at the armpits, neck, groin, and around his head." The medic nodded toward another cabinet with his head even though the EMT was already on his way.

The medic set Kirk's arm back down alongside the blanket. Lars trailed his fingers over the delicate, blue skin on the back of Kirk's hand. The ambulance bounced around a corner and his fingers slid away from Kirk. He felt a hot splash on his own hand, the one clasping the blanket at his neck.

"Is he gonna be okay?" he asked, wiping the back of his hand over the side of his face. More hot wetness.

"How are you doing?" the EMT asked, moving to sit beside him on the bench.

"Fine. How's he doing?"

"We're taking care of him."

"Fuck."

The EMT put his hand on Lars's arm. "Everything looks good so far and we're getting him to the hospital where they can do even more for him. Now humor me and let me check your vitals."

He sighed and held out his arm for the blood pressure cuff. While the EMT worked, Lars watched the medic take Kirk's temperature from his ear and scribble it down on a scrap of paper from his shirt pocket. Then the EMT grabbed a phone off the wall and started talking to the hospital.

"Thirty-nine year old male presents with hypothermia, hypovolemic shock, possible dislocation of both shoulders. Nonresponsive to painful stimuli. Second patient, thirty-eight year old male, is alert...."

"Kirk. Kirk we did it," Lars whispered into Kirk's face. "We're getting you to a hospital. Everything's going to be fine."

***

Lars resisted the nurses' attempts to corral him into one of the curtained-off exam areas until James showed up.

"Let 'em look at you. It'll kill some time while we wait to hear about Kirk."

"I want to _be_ with Kirk."

"But you're no good to Kirk if you collapse or whatever."

"I'm fine."

"Then it shouldn't take long for them to check you out."

Lars relented and let the nurse take his temperature, blood pressure, and pulse while James headed out to see if there was anything new to hear about Kirk.

"The doctor will be along in a bit," the nurse said as she made notes in a folder.

"I have to wait for the doctor now, too?"

The nurse smiled apologetically on her way out. Lars hopped off the bed and poked his head into the hall. He was sneaking down the corridor when James came around a corner, saw him, and shook his head.

"I'm fine. I'm fine. They said I'm fine. Have you found anything out?" Lars asked.

"Not yet. They took him upstairs. Come on."

James led him to a waiting room on the fourth floor. Jason was already there, pacing the length of the room, his sneakers squeaking against the polished floor every time he reversed direction. His fingers beat a nervous rhythm against his thighs.

James dropped into a chair, knees splaying to the sides. Lars sunk down beside him. His eyes followed Jason back and forth. Patter patter patter skreek patter patter patter skreek.

James lifted a magazine from the end table by its cover. The pages ruffled open and the binding sagged as he carried it into his lap. He smoothed it out, licked his thumb, and opened to the first page with a noisy snap of the cover.

Lars put his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands. He closed his eyes. Patter patter patter skreek snap patter patter patter skreek snap. Without lifting his head, he turned his face toward James. "Anything good?"

"I don't even know what magazine I'm reading."

Lars nodded, turned his face back down toward the floor.

Patter skreek patter patter patter snap skreek.

Lars jumped up and went to the doorway. Holding onto the frame with one hand, he leaned into the hall. There were two nurses at the station, one seated behind it and one leaning against the front of it peering into a file. He was about to stride down there and demand information when he felt a hand on his shoulder.

"They haven't forgotten about us. They'll come tell us what's going on after they've taken care of him."

"I know, Jase. I know."

"Go get some coffee."

Lars's mouth dropped open. "What if--?"

"Then go walk down the hall and get some water."

Lars shook his head. He walked back to his chair, sat, and folded his arms across his chest.

Patter patter patter skreek flip patter.

A shadow fell across the door and all three men looked up.

"Mr...Ulrich? I'm detective Branson. I need to ask you a few questions."

Lars pushed himself up from his chair. "I'll tell you anything I can, but I don't know much. James has seen him at least, or we think it's him he saw."

"Mr. Hetfield?"

James shook his hand without rising.

"I'm, ah, a fan from back in the Ride the Lightning Days. You guys rock. I'm really sorry to hear about what's, ah, happened. I hope Mr. Hammett recovers quickly."

"Thanks," Lars said.

"Right. So...." The detective drew a notepad and pen from his jacket's inner pocket. "Let's start with what happened this evening."

"I got a phone call from Kirk saying he needed help and he was at the beach. I mean, I didn't get the call...he left a message on the machine."

"And then?"

Lars pushed his hand back through his hair and exhaled. "Then...he didn't say what beach so I called James to see if he'd also called him, and James called Jason, but Kirk hadn't....he hadn't talked to them. So the three of us headed to the beach. Beaches. All of them, just driving around until I found his car."

The detective, scribbling nonstop, nodded.

Lars explained what he found when he found Kirk, and James and Jason chimed in when the story reached the parts that involved them.

"And you saw the guy you think did this?" the detective asked, turning to James.

James shrugged. "I was at Kirk's house earlier that evening and someone was there. I only saw him for a second. I didn't meet him. He went out the back door when I came in."

"Went out the back door?"

James shrugged again.

"Guess he didn't want to be seen," Lars said. "You know, identified."

"Did you ask Hammett about this guy?"

James nodded.

"And?"

James's eyes looked upward as he tried to remember. Then: "I guess I didn't actually ask him about it. I just assumed he was...uh...."

"He thought he was seeing this guy and didn't want anyone to find out," Lars put in.

"Find out he likes men?"

"Find out that he's cheating on me."

The detective drew his chin up, but recovered quickly. "So he'd been having an affair."

"Maybe. That's what James thought, and then Kirk called me and told me he was seeing someone else so, yeah, I guess he was."

"All right. Let me get this straight. You go to his house and see a strange man leaving out the back door. Then Hammett calls you and tells you he's found someone else. Then he calls you _back_ and leaves a message on your-- Where were you that you didn't answer the phone?"

"I was asleep. I'd been exhausted. Kirk had been having problems for a few weeks and I was stressed out from handling that, then he calls and breaks up with me on top of it. Right out of the blue. I called him back like five, ten minutes later, but he didn't answer. So I...crashed. I don't mean I rolled over and went to sleep. I mean I had a breakdown and next thing I knew I was having a nightmare and waking up on my couch."

The detective wasn't writing. He tapped his pen against his notebook. Then he turned to Jason. "You have anything to add?"

Jason shook his head.

Just then, a portly, balding man in light blue scrubs poked his head into the room. When everyone turned expectantly, he walked in and introduced himself as Dr. Roberts. Then he launched right into the details: "Your friend has hypothermia, which was made worse by hypovolemic shock--"

"What is that?" Lars asked.

"It's a shock related to fluid loss. Blood loss, dehydration. It's the dehydration, common in cases of hypothermia, that caused it. While both conditions are life-threatening, we have Mr. Hammett stabilized and it's looking really from here."

"Can we see him?"

===Chapter 11

"Go home and get some sleep," Lars said to the other two. They'd been at Kirk's bedside for two hours listening to the hum of the monitors and the oxygen machine.

"What about you?" Jason asked.

"When one of you come back in the morning, I'll go home." No he wouldn't. "We'll do this in shifts, so that someone's always here with him." He would always be there with him, from now on.

"Let me get you something to drink, then," James said.

"I'm all set."

"Maybe in an hour you won't be, and you won't want to leave to get anything, so let me get you something now."

"Whatever."

James nodded to Jason and they left the room. Lars listened for the door to click shut, then he jumped out of the bedside chair and perched on the side of the bed, laying his hand alongside Kirk's still too pale cheek. He bent close to Kirk's face.

"Baby, can you hear me? I'm sorry. I'm so fucking sorry. I don't know what happened, but I'm so fucking sorry I wasn't there for you when you called. That's never gonna happen again even if I have to wire the phones up to an air siren. I'm so fucking glad you made it here, Kirk. You're gonna be okay now." He kissed Kirk's forehead and shivered. He wished he'd asked James to get them to turn up the heat in here. What the fuck are they thinking, keeping the room this cold after what Kirk's gone through? "You're gonna be okay."

"Is he now?"

Startled, Lars sprang off the bed. "Who the fuck--?"

The tall man held a hand out in Lars's direction. "Az. A friend of Kirk's."

Lars glanced down at the man's fingers, the black fingernails. Back up at the man himself. Then he shook his head and stepped closer to Kirk, drawing an arm out over his body. With the other hand, he felt for the call button.

"Some friend."

Az shrugged, then pulled one corner of his mouth into a grin. "We have different customs where I come from."

"Where's that? Hell?"

"Matter of fact...."

Lars jammed the call button. Why the fuck wasn't anyone coming? He could hear it chiming in the nurses' station just outside the door.

"So...what? Are you here to finish the job?"

"Might be."

"Get the fuck out."

Az popped his eyebrows up and widened his grin. Then he took a step closer, laid his hand on Kirk's sheet-covered foot.

Lars looked desperately toward the door. Then, with a yell, he turned and threw himself at the taller man. He held no hope of being able to beat him, but he determined to keep him at bay as long as he could, until help could arrive. He hit Az in the lower chest with his shoulder and drove him into the far wall.

From the way Az laughed through the trip across the room, Lars had a feeling he'd only moved Az from his spot because he'd let him.

Icy fingers slid under Lars's chin and tilted his head up. Az's face wore an amused expression.

"You humans can be so spunky," he said.

Az's fingertips drew biting, frozen trails over Lars's cheek, then pushed back his hair from his forehead. Lars jerked his head away and threw his weight against Az, flattening him against the wall. Az laughed. He flung Lars aside as though he were a curtain and moved to the bed.

"These years have done you good, Kirk," Lars heard him say as he drew the sheet back from Kirk's torso. "With a little help from me, of course. But still..." He trailed his fingers over Kirk's chest and sucked in his breath. The noise he made was the kind of wet, hissing sound that nightmares spring out of.

Lars pushed off the wall and flew at Az, jumping up onto his back and digging his fingers into the soft flesh under the taller man's chin.

Az reached back with one hand, took Lars by the hair, plucked him up and dropped him on the floor.

"You know, I liked you better when you were selfish, Kirk," Az continued, as though Lars's interruption had been no more bothersome than that of a gnat. "This whole loving, caring, giving yourself up to save your other half crap leaves a bad taste in my mouth."

Panting, Lars wrapped an arm around Az's calf. He tugged at it, but it was like tugging a tree. He sunk his teeth into a tendon behind Az's knee.

Az let out a short curse, then bent and took Lars by the hair once again. He jerked Lars off his leg, then pulled him to his full height and pushed him against the window in the wall running alongside the bed.

Blowing a heavy stream of air out his nostrils, Az banged the back of Lars's head against the glass hard enough to spider the pane. Lars reached for Az's forearm, caught it, and held on. He was out of ideas for the moment.

"I've changed my mind," Az said. He craned his neck and spoke to Kirk's unmoving form. "You hear that? I've changed my mind."

He pulled Lars off the window. Lars shook his head, trying to clear it while Az dragged him by his shirt over to the bed.

"Look," Az said to Kirk. He clasped Lars's chin in his hand and yanked Lars down in front of Kirk's face, seeming to not care that Kirk's eyes remained closed. "Look. I changed my mind. You don't get to save him."

Az let go of Lars's face. Lars slipped down between Az and the bed, then came quickly to his feet and raced for the door. If help wasn't going to come to him.....

Just as his fingertips brushed the door handle, his shirt collar snapped up to strangle him. Az dragged him back a few steps then slid a long leg out, kicking Lars's feet out from under him. Lars hit the floor on the ass. A knee to the side of his head brought him down fully.

Shoving him down on his back, Az sat on Lars's chest and pinned his arms to the floor with his shins.

Az grinned.

Then he snorted.

Then he slid his longer fingers around either side of Lars's neck.

==Chapter 12

In the elevator on the way back up with a tuna sandwich and two Diet Cokes for Lars, James turned to Jason and said quietly, "I know who the guy is."

Jason wrinkled his brow. "Then why didn't you--?"

"I will. I'll tell the cop. I just...I couldn't do it in front of Lars. He's already had a lot of shit to deal with. I didn't want to tell him that Kirk had rekindled an old flame on top of it. A creepy old flame."

"What old flame?"

"Before your time."

The elevator door slid open and they stepped into the hallway. It looked dimmer than James had remembered. Perhaps they'd turned down the lights. The nurses' station had been abandoned. The only sound down the entire corridor it seemed was their footfalls.

"It's funny. He was with the guy for a month, if that, and I only saw the guy for like two minutes, but it's the only one of Kirk's flings where I can still put a face to the name. I thought it was because I'd just seen the guy earlier in the evening the night Cliff died, but when I saw him again tonight...." He shuddered, feeling goosepumps prickle across his arms and his scalp tighten. "There's just something wrong with the fucker."

James shouldered the door to Kirk's room open and stepped in. And dropped the cans and the cellophane-wrapped sandwich on the floor. One of the cans hissed as the impact pulled a hole in the seam of its tab. It rolled across the tiles sputtering soda.

***

Jason walked right into James, bounced aside, and then stepped on a rolling can of soda and almost lost his feet. He grabbed the door jamb and turned around to see what was going on.

"Shit."

He saw Lars convulsing on the floor, his face purple, his veins bulging. The back of his head smacked against the tiles again and again.

Jason backed out the door and shouted, "Help! Someone!"

The place was dead. He strode to the next room down and banged open the door to find an empty room. And the next. And the next. "Someone! We need help!"

He ran back into Kirk's room. James knelt at Lars's side trying to grab hold of him, hold him still. "What the fuck? What the fuck?" He looked up at Jason.

"There's...there's no one."

A strangled sound broke from James's throat as he turned back to Lars who bucked in his lap.

"FUCK!" James yelled. "Kirk! You fucker. You know what this is."

Jason looked from them to Kirk, then back to them. Then to Kirk. He crossed to the bedside and, taking Kirk's shoulders in his hands, said, "What the fuck is going on?"

He lifted Kirk up to a sitting position, his head hanging back. "Wake the fuck up and tell us what's going on!"

James yelled for help again, for a doctor or for anybody.

He started shaking Kirk, hoping it wasn't his imagination that Kirk's eyes seemed to be twitching under their lids. "Wake the fuck up!"

Kirk's head lolled forward.

"Wake up, Kirk. Wake the fuck up."

Jason heard a sharp intake of breath. Then Kirk's face lifted to him and his eyes rolled open.

"Kirk, you've gotta do something. You've gotta stop this."

Jason gave him another shake. "Look! Look over there. Look at Lars!"

Slowly Kirk's head turned. His hand came up, pulling at the oxygen mask. Jason slipped the elastic that held it over his head.

"No," Kirk said. It was just air coming out his mouth at first, but then it gained strength. "No. No, no. Fuck."

Kirk pushed out of Jason's arms and rolled off the bed onto the floor. Electrodes and wires that hooked him to the monitors came flying off. The IV tube held on the longest, stretching as far as it could before popping out of his arm and flinging back toward Jason.

"Fucker. You fucker." Kirk pulled himself to his knees. "You fucker. That wasn't the deal. It was supposed to be me."

Slapping his one palm after the other on the floor, Kirk crawled to the middle of the room.

"You said you'd take me. That was the fucking deal."

He sat up and turned his face to the ceiling. "You fucker! Take me!"

Jason rubbed his arms. His breath came out in white puffs.

"Kirk!" James yelled. Lars still shuddered violently in his arms. Jason turned his eyes away from the sight of foam bubbling out of the corner of his mouth.

"Take me," Kirk said, his voice raspy. He stared at something in front of him now, above him. "Me, you asshole." His voice dropped to where Jason could barely make out what he said next. "You wanted me, I'm give you me. Fucking take me."

Then he leaned forward, panting, supporting himself on his arms. His back curled and he grunted.

"Kirk?" Jason ran and crouched by his side. He reached for Kirk's shoulders, but Kirk shook his head violently. Jason stopped, hands in mid air, but he didn't back off. "Kirk."

Kirk made noises through his teeth with every exhale. His face shone with sweat.

Jason jumped to his feet and ran for the room's door again, yanking it open and screaming, "Doctor! We need a doctor!" into the desolate hallway.

The door swung closed behind him, nudging him in the shoulder. The hospital was complete silence. Jason clenched his hand, swore, and backed through the door again. He made a noise of utter frustration as he watched Kirk slide completely to the floor, fingers tense and curled, back heaving with each breath.

And there was a hiss and it stopped.

"Kirk!"

Jason ran to his side and rolled him over.

Lars pushed himself off James's lap, pulled his knees and elbows in, and sobbed.

James came to his knees and shuffled over to Lars. He put a hand on Lars's shoulder.

The machines that had been monitoring Kirk, that had stayed silent through the whole thing even after all the electrodes and probes had popped off Kirk during his descent from the bed, began to scream.

The door flew open. Bright light spilled in from the hallway. Two pairs of white nursing shoes padded quickly across the floor. Jason watched a woman's hand press down on Kirk's forehead while two fingers of her other hand lifted his chin. She placed her cheek by his mouth. Then she pinched his nose closed, placed her mouth over his, and gave him two breaths. Her finger slid down Kirk's neck and paused. Then she said to the nurse behind her, "Get Dr. Roberts and a crash cart."

She turned to Jason. "Do any of you know CPR?"

"Yeah, I do," Jason said.

"Let's go, then."

Jason felt two fingers up from where Kirk's ribs met his sternum--already he felt like a skeleton under Jason's fingers--and then he folded one hand over the other and began compressions, counting under his breath. After fifteen, he stopped to let the nurse breathe for Kirk.

In the middle of the third cycle, the door swung open. The doctor rolled in ahead of the crash cart. The second nurse and two more members of the hospital staff followed. Jason wondered where the fuck they'd all been a few minutes ago. They took Kirk from him, moving him to the bed, and surrounded him. Jason scuttled back across the floor to huddle with James and Lars.

Lars was still curled up, his shoulders still shaking.

"Clear," said the doctor. It was followed by the jolt of Kirk's body against the shock paddles.

Jason wiped his brow with a shaky arm.

Lars suddenly got to his knees. Jason and James looked at him. Without meeting their eyes, he said, "He's gone. Let's go."

"What?" said James.

Lars climbed to his feet, using a wall for support. "He's gone," he said again, then he started for the door.

Jason and James stood and followed him into the hall, exchanging frightening looks.

The hallway was a whole different world than it had been ten minutes ago. There were lights. People. Call button buzzers going off. Announcements over the intercom system. Jason put his hand against the hallway wall to catch himself.

"Lars. Lars, where the fuck are you going?" It was James, standing in the middle of the hall calling to the retreating figure. "Fuck," he said when Lars didn't turn.

James looked at the door to Kirk's room, then at Jason, then back to Lars who now stood at the far end of the corridor waiting for an elevator.

"What do you think?"

"You go with him. I'll stay here," Jason said.

James nodded, his eyes still on Lars, then he jogged down the hall.

Jason turned and pushed back into the room. Everyone around Kirk was quiet. They were working around him, returning the paddles to the shock cart, taking their gloves off, not looking at the man in the bed. The doctor said, "I'm sorry."

===Chapter 13

Three years later...

James leaned out the window of his Avalanche and spoke into the intercom's plastic grill.

"Come on, Lars, it's me. You can't hide forever."

The speaker crackled. Then a tinny, "No? Try me," came out.

James gripped the bottom of the steering wheel and clenched his teeth. "I'm gonna drive right through your fucking gate if you don't open it."

Another crackle. Then, "I knew you'd fucking sink to country music without me around to keep you straight."

James raced the engine. When it died down, he said, "Open the gate Lars and you can berate my new album all you fucking want to my face."

There was no subsequent speaker crackle and the gate didn't move.

"I'm giving you to the count of three. One." He raced the engine again. "Two." He rode it harder. He was about to say three and make good on his threat when the metal gate began a jerking slide out of his way.

"'Bout fucking time," he muttered to himself. He drove through.

As soon as he reached the top of Lars's front steps, the door swung open and there was Lars standing in shadows, seeming smaller than James remembered. He wore sunglasses.

James stuffed his hands in his jeans pockets and rocked back onto his heels. "Long time no see," he said, and then he winced. "Shit, I'm--"

Lars shook his head. Then he stood aside. "Well come in. It's what you're determined to do."

The foyer was cool and dark. He followed Lars down a hallway, then into a living room. Lars went right to an overstuffed chair and dropped into it, his leg hooked over the chair's arm.

"How--?"

"Fourteen steps from the front door to the living room doorway, turn ninety degrees, seven steps.... Fuck, I spend all my time here. I know where everything is. And don't go fucking moving shit before you leave, either."

James tried to smile through his awkwardness.

"Have a seat. Let's get this over with."

James found a spot on the couch. The living room was better lit than the foyer with plenty of natural light streaming in through the large windows. He studied Lars, who looked surprisingly the same. Maybe a little grayer. He hadn't shaved yet that day. Only the sunglasses and the raw, red patches on the high parts of his cheeks gave his secret away.

Some secret. E! turned it into a True Hollywood Story. The commercial narration came unbidden to James's head: "Early in the band's history, their bass player was killed in a tragic bus accident. Sixteen years later, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett suffered a fatal heart attack. Then drummer Lars Ulrich was blinded in a suspicious, highly covered-up accident and went into hiding. Is Metallica cursed?"

"Stop staring," Lars said.

"So what do you do here all day, aside from memorizing where everything is?"

"That pretty much sums up my time."

James stared down at his hands. Then he said, "You know, it's not over. You could come back. Save me from the country music industry."

"No, James, it is over. I stay here because I like it here."

James laughed under his breath. "Well, that's bullshit."

"There's a lot you don't understand--"

"I know, I know. I've heard it. Kirk made a deal with the devil...."

"Not the devil."

"Angel of death or what the fuck ever."

"Look, just because you can repeat the words doesn't mean you fucking understand it, any of it."

"I saw him too, you know," he said, meaning the devil or the angel or whoever. "You don't have to do this alone. I saw him, too."

"But do you see him now?"

James was silent.

"Did you see him at the hospital? He was there. He was fucking choking me. He killed Kirk. Did you see him then?"

James shook his head.

"Did you see him?"

Of course, Lars couldn't hear a headshake. James cleared his throat and said no.

"You only see Azrael when he wants you to. When he wants to fuck with you. I saw him then, in the hospital room, and I saw him as I walked down the hall of that hospital. I saw him out in the parking lot. I saw him everywhere, every day. Go to the grocery store and he'd be there, following someone around. Hanging over them. Waiting to take them because that's what he does. James, I could see death. I knew every day who was going to die."

Quietly, James said, "So you burned your eyes out."

Lars jumped out of his chair and moved to the window. He put his hand on the glass, turned his face up into the sun. After a minute, he half-turned to James and said, "I wish it had worked, but when you see the Angel of Death, you don't really see with your eyes." He traced his finger down the window pane, drawing the shapes of the leaves that shadowed the glass. "You don't realize that until you've ruined your eyes."

James's fingers dug into the couch cushion. He'd known Lars was bad but he hadn't realized just how bad, and it was his own fault. Lars had pushed him away for three years, and James had let him because it had somehow been easier to deal with if he didn't have to look at Lars every day. But Lars was in bad shape, though surely they'd made him take counseling after what he did to his eyes.

"What if there is no Angel of Death?" James asked quietly.

"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"

"That's why you still see him, even when you can't see."

"James--"

"It just made it worse, I think--easier for you to delude yourself--since Kirk died on the same day that Cliff--"

"There are no coincidences. There is a reason for everything."

"So you're a holy roller now? Put your life in God's hands? He has a plan for everyone and shit?"

"God can't help me."

"Lars--"

"Send me a copy of your new album when it comes out. I've only heard the one song that's going around the internet. It sucks, by the way."

James scrubbed his face with his palms. "You don't have to live like this," he said.

Lars laughed. Then he said, "Sometimes I think about going to Kirk's grave, digging it up, climbing in, and pulling the dirt back down over me and just lying there beside him for the rest of eternity. It can't be worse than this."

Suddenly, he was at James's ear. James's scalp tingled as Lars's breath tickled his neck. "I don't get to die," Lars whispered. "I've wrapped my mouth around an exhaust pipe, eaten enough pills to kill a stable of horses, electrocuted myself, hanged by my neck seven or eight times. I don't get to die."

James didn't know what to say.

"Did you know that the Angel of Death used to sneak into Hell to locate human souls who might be converted to selflessness and made worthy of Heaven?"

"Doesn't sound much like our guy."

"No. Over time, Azrael became selfish himself, corrupted by those he mingled with in Hell. He's like a spoiled child now. He wants Kirk and even though he has him there in hell he doesn't have Kirk's love. Kirk can't give him that. And so he makes him suffer by making me suffer. And he's never going to let me die because he will never let Kirk and I be together again."

They were in the foyer. James couldn't remember getting up from the couch and walking here. Lars had his hand on the door knob.

"Go on," Lars said, opening the door. "Go on and live while you can."

James backed out onto the front steps.

Lars held out a hand. James clasped it.

"Go on," Lars said after a minute, taking his hand back.

James felt his eyes on him as he walked back toward his truck. He felt cold, clammy. His head was foggy. He looked back over his shoulder. Lars stood in the doorway, watching. He'd come to help and now he was leaving and he couldn't remember making that decision.

"Hey," Lars called as James was about to slide behind the steering wheel. "Drive careful. I mean it."

James nodded. He pulled the door shut. Lars's front door closed and he was alone. He sat in his truck in Lars's driveway with his keys in his hand for a long time. When he started the engine and went to pull away, he had to wipe his eyes before he could see the road.

He had seen Az twice in his lifetime. He'd had two chances to stop the wheel from turning before it rolled over them all. He pulled through Lars's gate and out onto the main road. If Lars was right, then one day he would see Az again, one last time. James resolved that it he was gonna go down, he was going to do his best to take a piece of that bastard with him.

"That so?" asked a familiar voice.

James jumped.

Az, lounging back in the passenger seat with one foot up on the dash, broke into a laugh.

James's truck crashed through the guard rail and careered down the side of the mountain.