"A little to the left. No, no, too far! Back to the right again."
Blair leaned back on his bed and watched as Jim Ellison gritted his teeth and shoved the chest of drawers to the right. The little twitch in Jim’s jaw muscle told Blair that his friend was very near the end of his patience, and Blair wondered in amusement just how much more of this crap he’d take. Jim had already spent three hours hauling all of Blair’s stuff back up to the loft, and Blair had kept him rearranging the furniture in the closet that passed for Blair’s room for another half hour. And Jim had taken it. As acts of penance go, this was thoroughly Ellisonian, rife with mortification of both body and spirit. Oh, yeah. This was very, very Jim.
Blair managed, with difficulty, to keep the grin off his face. The justice of this sackcloth-and-ashes routine did not elude him. After all, it was Jim who had moved Blair’s stuff out of here in the first place, and it was only fair that he put it back. Blair would have helped (no, really, he would have), but he was already in trouble with the doctor for haring off to South America to help Jim when he was supposed to have been home in bed ... which was all it took to put Blair back on the DL as far as Jim was concerned. Blair protested outwardly, but inwardly was glad of a chance to take it easy and get rid of the shakes. That little trip via the fountain to - well, to wherever Jim had found him - had taken more out of him than he wanted to admit. And the trip to Sierra Verde hadn’t helped either. Anyway, how often did a guy get a chance to witness an example of perfect justice? Guilt-free paybacks. You gotta love ‘em.
Jim turned to the man lying on the small bed behind him as he wiped the sweat from his face. "Well?"
Blair cocked his head to one side, pursing his lips slightly as he examined the chest’s new position carefully, and then took a leisurely swig of his beer. Jim waited, arms folded across his chest, his expression determinedly patient. Only the slight motion as he rocked from heel to toe betrayed his emotional state. Close. So close. "Sorry, man. Could we try it on the other wall again?"
Score! Mount Ellison erupts. Blair assumed an expression of bewildered innocence. "Huh?"
"There is no we moving this damn thing here, Sandburg! There is only me. Me, Jim Ellison, cop, after a long day’s work!"
Blair glanced from the chest to Jim over the top of his glasses … because Jim really, really hated it when Blair looked at him over his glasses. "Something wrong?"
Jim’s face went from magenta to fuscia to plum. "Something wrong? I’ve been lugging your shit for ... for...."
"Three hours and forty-two minutes," filled in Blair with prompt cheerfulness, glancing at his watch.
"And you’re lying there timing me now!"
"And seven seconds."
"You’re enjoying this," hissed Jim, advancing on Blair. "You’re fucking enjoying this!"
"And how do you feel about that?" asked Blair with shocking analytical earnestness. "Let’s explore your emotional...."
"I’ve … I’ve got your exploration right here!" Jim snatched up a pillow and brandished it, the corners of his mouth twitching suspiciously.
"Fine, fine," sighed Blair, assuming his best wounded puppy expression. "I’ll move it. Don’t worry about it. The ol’ lungs’ll probably hold out. Probably."
Blair watched with considerable satisfaction as Jim’s eyes widened, then narrowed as the extent of his friend’s twisted evil evidently became clear to him. "You rat bastard...."
"Squeak," growled Blair menacingly.
Jim’s expression disintegrated into a blindingly broad grin, and with something akin to a roar he pounced onto the bed, ruthlessly pummeling Blair with the pillow. Blair let his laughter go, disregarding the sore muscles in his chest, and managed to yank the pillow out of his attacker’s hands and hold it just out of Jim’s reach. Jim laughed, wrestling Blair with one hand while the other groped vainly for the stolen pillow. Blair swung the pillow as far from Jim as he could without dropping it. He didn’t want to drop it. He didn’t want this to stop. Jim’s weight, Jim’s closeness, Jim’s touch....
Shit. Don’t do this, don’t do this, he can smell this stuff....
"Give it back, Wolfboy," laughed Jim breathlessly.
"Bad ol’ Puddy Tat,"gasped Blair, allowing the pillow to be recaptured and accepting its final swat as Jim rolled off him and got to his feet.
"So much for the Big Bad Wolf," he snorted. "You’re all bark, Sandburg."
Blair cheerfully flipped Jim the bird, trying not to show how winded the little wrestling match had left him. His chest hurt.
Jim grinned broadly, obviously relishing the insult. "Let’s finish this up tomorrow, okay, Chief? I’m beat."
"No problem," said Blair softly, trying to steady his breathing. "I’ve got an early tutoring session tomorrow anyway. Should get some sleep."
Jim opened his mouth as if about to say something, then hesitated. When he spoke, Blair knew he wasn’t saying what he had intended to. "Right. See you tomorrow." He turned toward the door, then back again. "Chief."
"It’s good to have you back. Here, I mean. Back home." Jim’s arms crossed his chest defensively. He cleared his throat in obvious discomfort.
"It's good to be back home, man," said Blair gently. There now, Mr. Ellison, that didn’t hurt too much, did it? "Thanks."
"Yeah. Well. Goodnight," muttered Jim, beating a hasty retreat.
Blair watched him go, his smile slowly fading. He hadn’t spent three years digging into this big lug’s psyche for nothing. Something was eating Jim, and it wasn’t just his misplaced guilt over Blair’s recent aquatic experience, no matter how much room that bogeyman might be taking up in his issue closet. Something else was churning just beneath the surface, something Blair couldn’t for the life of him identify. Whatever it was, it was urging Jim to ever-greater accomplishments in the art of self-flagellation … case in point, tonight’s little exercise in lifting-with-your-knees. Blair had been forced to play that misguided penitence for all it was worth, just to bring it to the big dope’s attention. And since when had Jim Ellison been so slow on the uptake when it came to his own internal affairs? Well, since always, actually, but since his senses had started going on and off like the clock on Blair’s VCR it had definitely gotten worse. A definite sign that Jim was once again vacationing at Club Repression, charmingly situated behind the Great Wall of Ellison.
Why the hell wouldn’t he talk about it? After what had happened with Alex, after they'd both nearly destroyed their friendship by not talking to each other, Blair had hoped that Jim had learned what he had – that a friendship couldn’t survive without communication … and that a Sentinel and Guide couldn’t survive without each other.
Blair immediately winced at his own hypocrisy. How could he come down on Jim for keeping something important to himself when he was doing exactly the same thing? Blair was keeping quiet for good reasons, but Jim probably thought his reasons were good, too. He was wrong, of course. Blair grinned ruefully to himself. Sentinel wrong. Guide right. This was the guiding principle by which Jim Ellison should run his life. But he didn't, and Blair didn’t have much hope that he would anytime in the near future.
He sighed again, loudly, then shut his mouth hastily. He had no doubt whatsoever that Jim was still awake, listening for any sound of trouble. Even if his senses were on the blink. He turned off the light, closed his eyes and tried to lie still, to breathe normally. It took him a very long time to fall asleep.
Blair tried to struggle against the imprisoning hands that held him so tightly and found he couldn’t move. He lay in the icy water, choking, quivering, trying desperately to draw air into his lungs that wasn’t there.
"Blair, wake up! Breathe!" The arms yanked him upward and held him against something warm and firm. "Wake up!"
Blair tried once more to draw breath and was amazed to find not a wall of black water rushing past his throat, but a rush of warm air. He coughed and wheezed the air into him, clutching convulsively the warm body so close to his own.
"Yeah," said the voice shakily. "There you go. You’re okay. You’re okay, right? Come on, Chief, talk to me."
Blair forced his eyes open at the barely suppressed panic in that voice and found himself staring up at an ashen-faced Jim Ellison, cradling him in his arms on the floor of Blair’s bedroom. "Jim," he gasped, coughing again. "What … what…?"
"I don’t know," said Jim tautly, making no move to release his grip on Blair. "I heard you groaning in your sleep, and then you fell out of bed and … started to choke. No, don’t move! Just lie there and breathe for a couple minutes, okay?"
"Okay," murmured Blair, settling back in his friend’s arms. No argument here, big guy.
"You should be," growled Jim, but his voice quavered so wildly that Blair looked up into his face in alarm. "Like I need this shit after moving your junk all night…." Jim’s voice broke. His face twisted as if it were about to break.
"Jim?" Blair tried to rise, but found himself being pulled in a massive bear hug before he could manage it. Startled, he wrapped his arms around his friend. "Hey, man, what…? You okay?" There was no answer except Jim’s rough, uneven breathing. Blair relaxed into the embrace, letting his hands rub Jim’s back soothingly. "Jim. Talk to me, buddy."
"Sorry," said Jim hoarsely. "Sorry."
"Sorry?" asked Blair blankly.
Blair’s sleep-fogged mind groped blindly for something in the past few days that Jim would feel compelled to apologize for and found nothing.
"I screwed up, Chief," Jim continued in an uneven, raspy voice. "I screwed up real bad, and you paid…." Jim’s voice cracked again.
Holy shit. He was apologizing for the meltdown. Blair hadn’t ever expected Jim to verbalize an apology for that. It wasn’t his way. Jim’s apologies were of a more circuitous variety and most definitely an acquired taste … moving furniture or cooking dinner or joking about the last month’s rent you owed when you’d just risen from the dead. He hadn’t anticipated this in his wildest dreams, and finding the right words took a few breaths.
"I screwed up too," said Blair finally, gently. "We both made mistakes, Jim. It’s okay. We’ll get it right this time."
Jim pulled away slowly, just enough to look into Blair’s face. His eyes were suspiciously bright. "Should have said it before," he said huskily. "In the hospital. Didn’t know what to say…."
"I know. Me neither." Blair felt his throat tighten.
Jim swallowed hard. "So … we’re okay?"
"Yeah, big guy," said Blair unevenly, trying to smile. "We’re okay."
Jim nodded, but made no effort to release Blair. "And you’re okay?"
Blair took a deep breath and winced slightly as his chest muscles rebelled. "Oh, yeah. Just sore. I think I was having a nightmare."
"About drowning," said Jim bleakly, his arm tightening around Blair’s shoulders.
"Felt like it," murmured Blair, shaken by the devastated expression on Jim’s face. "It happened a couple times in the hospital, and in Sierra Verde."
Jim was silent for a moment. "I … I was hoping you didn’t remember it," he said dully.
"I don’t," said Blair softly, amazed again at Jim’s sudden communicativeness. What the hell was going on with him? "Just little flashes sometimes in the dreams. Don’t worry, Jim. I’m fine."
"Would you tell me if you weren’t?" growled Jim in obviously feigned exasperation.
"You bet," chuckled Blair softly, patting Jim’s back affectionately. "Would you?"
Jim struggled with a smile for a second, then let it win. "I’d try," he said with a wry laugh.
Blair swallowed against the lump in his throat and did his best to assume a skeptical expression. "Uh-huh."
Jim hesitated, then shrugged marginally. "Telling isn’t my best game, Chief."
"But you’ll work on it."
Jim’s smile became a grin. "Yeah, Sigmund, I’ll work on it. Any other advice?"
Blair laughed again. "Just let yourself feel, man."
Jim’s grin faded slightly. "Tell me the truth, Chief. Have you ever considered charging me by the hour?"
Blair smiled, indulging himself with another pat on Jim’s back. "You couldn’t afford me, tough guy."
Jim snorted, recovering. "You got that right. Okay, up we get. Time for all good little Guides to be in their beds." He helped Blair gently to his feet.
"Who are you calling little?" grumbled Blair on principle, sinking onto the bed gratefully.
"Just an expression, Chief," said Jim quietly, pushing him back onto the pillows. "You’re the biggest man I know."
Blair looked up at Jim, astonished into momentary silence, and Jim cleared his throat and looked away. "You going to be able to get back to sleep?" He studied the empty wall on the other side of the room intently.
"No problem," answered Blair softly, watching his friend’s face carefully. Someday he’d figure this man out. Someday. "You?"
"No problem," echoed Jim, and Blair didn’t have to figure out anything to know his friend was lying through his teeth. "See you at the station tomorrow?"
"Right after my tutoring session," Blair reminded him softly.
"Right. Lunchtime, then." Jim batted Blair’s head playfully as he headed toward the door.
"Night," murmured Blair, watching him go. As soon as Jim had disappeared through the door, Blair turned off the light and closed his eyes, just for form’s sake. He wouldn’t be getting much sleep tonight either.
It had taken Blair quite a long time to realize that he hadn’t just been watching Jim take his shirt off for research purposes. A very long time. Well, if there was anything Blair had learned as a scientist, it was that lust did not enhance the intellectual faculties.
Lust. Lust for Jim Ellison. Blair shook his head wonderingly. Every once in awhile he still had trouble getting his mind around that concept. Sure, it had messed up his head for awhile. Anyone as exclusively straight as Blair had been all his life was bound to get a little freaked over getting the hots for his best friend. Okay, a lot freaked. But once he had calmed down and thought about it, he wondered what the big deal was. Love was love, right? So he loved a guy. Wanted a guy. It was something new. It wasn’t what he had expected to happen. But there it was. That feeling was as much a part of him as anything else, and there was no way that Blair could believe that loving Jim - in any way - was wrong.
Blair had tried to remember when he started feeling this way, but he had never succeeded. Maybe it had always been there, and he had been doing an Ellison. Or maybe it had been triggered by the growing intensity of their friendship. Or maybe it had something to do with the unique relationship between Sentinel and Guide. Blair wished, not for the first time, that he knew if this sort of thing had happened to Sentinels and Guides before. He suspected it had. Some sort of survival instinct, probably ... what could be more natural than Sentinel and Guide to be mated? In the forests of Peru, it would probably be expected. But in Cascade...?
In Cascade, it was a major pain in the ass. Eighteen months among the Chopec notwithstanding, Jim Ellison was still as traditional a heterosexual American male as you were likely to find outside of a Superman comic book, and the idea of mating with another man, Guide or not, could only produce one reaction: undiluted terror ... maybe even disgust. Blair's eyes closed against the pain of a far-too-recent memory. He remembered an icy Jim Ellison dismissing him from his life all too well to invite a repeat performance. He couldn't risk that again. Even given the fact that Jim seemed to be mellowing a bit, Blair doubted that he could handle this. Especially not if he were wrestling with some new demon. Blair couldn’t take the chance. Losing Jim's friendship would be more than he could stand. Jim meant more to him than....
Blair groped for a comparison and found none. More than his hormones, that's for damn sure. Jim had shown him a world far wider and deeper than the one he had known. He had taught Blair that helping people was more than a philosophy or an intellectual exercise, it was a life of hard work, and one well worth the sacrifice. He had taught him what courage and commitment really meant. In short, Jim had taught him more in three years than his professors had taught him in twelve, and Blair would have admired and loved him for that alone. But that didn’t even begin to cover it.
Jim had welcomed Blair into his world and into his home. Perhaps reluctantly and fearfully at first, but welcomed nonetheless. Blair hadn't realized at the time just how big a deal this was for Jim. He kicked himself now for not seeing how much Jim’s home meant to him, and what it meant for him to share it. The loft was his safe place. It was the one place where Jim had control. Yeah, he could go a little overboard at times on the control thing - the color-coded Tupperware sprang to mind - but Blair knew now where all that came from. Jim had lost far too much. That he was willing to share at all was a testament to his courage and native generosity, and Blair loved him for it, loved him for giving him the first real home he'd known in years.
When all was said and sifted, it came down to trust. Jim had given Blair his trust, and Blair had gradually come to understand just how rare a gift this was from a man like Jim, and the tremendous amount of guts it had taken for Jim to give it. A lot of the people Jim had trusted had betrayed him, had hurt him, hurt him badly. Trusting someone was undoubtedly the toughest thing Jim could ever do. But he did it anyway, for the handful of people he really cared about. And he cared about Blair.
So Blair would earn that trust. He’d keep his mouth shut and his hands to himself. He was Jim’s friend, and his Guide. That was what Jim needed from him. And that’s what Jim would get, if it killed him. But it wouldn't. Blair smiled wryly. God knows it wasn't the first time Blair had fallen in love with someone who didn’t return his feelings. As a matter of fact, he had a hell of a lot of experience with that particular phenomenon. It was just that he hadn’t had it this bad for anyone since…. Oh, hell, he’d never had it this bad. Blair shifted uncomfortably on his mattress, trying not to remember how good it had felt to be held by that man. To be that close to him … to be caressed…. Shit. Of all the absurd situations he’d found himself in during his young life, this one definitely took the cake and fed it to the dog.
Blair rolled over and gave his pillow a frustrated thump. So much for a good night’s sleep.
"Sorry I’m late, Anna," panted Blair, bursting through the door of his office. The clock on his desk read 9:07. Not bad time, considering he hadn’t woken up until a little before 8:30 AM. Wow, a whole three hours’ sleep. He’d be in great shape by the end of the day.
The young woman seated in the chair on the other side of his desk smiled nervously. "That’s okay. I’m really sorry, Blair, but I can’t stay." She adjusted the sunglasses she wore carefully. "I wanted to call you at home to let you know I couldn’t make it, but I've lost your number."
Blair dropped his assortment of books and folders onto the desk and flopped into his chair. "I thought you’d cleared your schedule to study." He stared at her for a moment. She was very pale, and he could swear she was trembling. "What’s wrong?"
"I ... I can’t stay," she repeated, the slight tremor in her voice becoming more noticeable. "And I won’t be back. I have to withdraw from classes, at least for awhile. I’m ... I’m so sorry, Blair. You’ve helped me so much."
"Whoa, whoa," said Blair in amazement, getting out of his chair and dragging it around the desk to sit beside her. "What is all this? I thought you loved your classes."
"I do," said Anna, leaning away as Blair leaned toward her.
"Then why leave?" Blair watched, alarmed, as a tear trickled down one cheek. The woman hastily wiped it away. "Are you okay? No, don't answer that. Stupid question." Blair snatched a box of Kleenex from the desk and offered it to her.
Anna took a tissue and sniffled into it, laughing shakily. "You've been a good friend, Blair. I'm going to miss you."
"I'll miss you too," said Blair, meaning it. Anna was a sweet girl and one hell of a good student. She'd made extraordinary progress, considering she'd been out of school for a while. She had real promise, and students like that were a rare joy for any teacher. "Is there anything I can do to help? There must be some way….
"No," said Anna hastily, rising so suddenly that Blair was caught off guard. "No, Blair, please don't get involved. I mean…." She pulled her purse onto her shoulder, catching her sleeve as she did so. Blair caught his breath as a livid bruise running from just above her wrist to just below her elbow came into view. Anna hastily yanked her sleeve down.
Blair was on his feet before he realized that he’d moved. "You're hurt," he said in alarm. "What happened?"
"I fell," stammered the woman, backing away. "I'm fine, really."
Blair stared at her closely, realizing that he’d never seen Anna wear sunglasses before - inside or out. Without further thought, Blair reached out and snatched them away. He saw enough of blackened, swollen eyes before Anna covered her face with her hands to make him groan aloud. "Oh, God. Anna." He took her by the shoulders and eased her back into her chair. "Do you need a doctor? I'll take you there right now."
"No," whispered Anna, resting her hands on Blair’s shoulders. "I'm all right."
"You didn’t fall," said Blair, controlling his anger with difficulty. "Who did this?"
"He.... Blair, I can’t…."
"You can’t let him get away this! He’ll only do it again."
"He swears he won’t. I just have to … be a better wife. Give him more of my time."
Blair stared at her in genuine horror. This was like something out of a bad TV movie. How could a woman as intelligent as Anna…? "Is this why you’re withdrawing from classes?"
Anna raised her eyes to Blair’s. "I know this sounds-"
"Is that why he hit you?" demanded Blair angrily. "Because you’re pursuing your education? My God, Anna, that’s-"
"No, it’s not that, really," stammered Anna. "You have to understand, he’s very jealous. Sometimes he just doesn’t see things clearly. He’s so afraid of losing me. He gets jealous of the most innocent…."
"Oh, my God," said Blair, his stomach dropping. He let the confiscated sunglasses drop from his nerveless fingers. "It’s me? He thinks we’re…. He hit you because you’ve been spending time with-"
"No!" Anna grabbed his hands tightly. "It’s not your fault. You couldn’t have known how he was. I didn’t even know how he’d be about this at first. He seemed fine with school, with the tutoring. But all of a sudden…."
"That son of a bitch," said Blair thickly. He’d known that Anna’s husband was difficult, that she was unhappy. But he’d had no idea that he was some kind of paranoid Neanderthal wife-beater. "You have to press charges."
Anna bent to pick up the sunglasses, shaking her head with a terrified expression. "I can't. You don’t understand."
"I understand that this kind of guy doesn’t just do this once! He’s hit you before, hasn’t he?"
Anna put the glasses back on with shaking hands. "He was ... upset."
Blair opened his mouth to shout, then took a deep breath and spoke quietly instead. "Anna, he'll always be upset about something. There will always be a reason for him to hurt you. It has nothing to do with school, or me, or whatever he says the reason is. It has to do with him having complete control over you. He’s not going to stop unless you stop him. I can help you, if you’ll let me."
Anna clutched her purse convulsively. "Blair, don’t get involved. He’s … he can be very dangerous. He’s hurt people before."
"Hurt people?" Blair stared at her blankly for a moment. "What people?"
"I have to get back. I told him I was going to withdraw from classes and come right back. He had Curtis drive me. I had to tell him that I’d left something in your office so that he’d let me come in here." Anna rattled off her speech in a stilted, nerve-wracked tone as she rose.
Blair stood with her, appalled at how violently she was shaking. "Let you? Who’s Curtis?"
"He works for my husband."
"Anna, please don’t go. I have a friend who’s a cop. He’s a great guy, he can help you. Come with me and I’ll-"
"I can’t go to the police! People will get hurt. "You’ll get hurt."
"No one will get hurt," said Blair soothingly.
"You don’t know my husband! You don’t know who he is."
"Who he is?" repeated Blair uncomprehendingly. Anna’s last name was Calkins, but that certainly rang no bells. "What does…?"
"He’s Morgan Wyatt," said Anna desperately, moving toward the door as quickly as she could. "Now do you understand?"
"Morgan Wyatt?" If Anna had told him she was married to the devil himself, Blair couldn’t have been more astonished. Even if he hadn’t spent the last three years working with the Cascade police, he would have known what that name meant. The man had been implicated in everything from drug dealing to weapons smuggling to murder. Implicated, but never successfully prosecuted. No one had ever managed to link him to the crimes allegedly committed at his direction. He had heard Jim growl longingly for the chance to bust him. Jim had told Blair once that Morgan Wyatt had more innocent blood on his hands than any man in the city of Cascade.
That Anna Calkins could be married to somebody like that was incomprehensible. "Anna … how … why…?" Blair began in a stunned tone, then realized, annoyed with himself, that how and why were none of his business. Anna needed help, not an inquisition. "Please let me help. I can take you someplace where you’ll be safe from him. You don’t have to-"
The door to Blair’s office swung open with a bang, and a dark-haired man burst through. "What the hell is taking you so long?" he shouted in Anna’s direction, not sparing Blair so much as a glance.
Anna seemed to shrink away from him, and Blair instinctively stepped between them. "Can I help you?" he demanded determinedly, trying not to notice that the man was about Jim’s size and weight, with apparently none of Jim’s benevolent tendencies.
The man yanked his hostile gaze from Anna and stabbed it at Blair. Cold, piercing gray eyes raked over Blair contemptuously, and a broad mouth twisted in as foul a sneer as Blair could ever remember seeing. "And who the fuck are you?" he snarled.
Fighting his gut instinct to duck for cover, Blair opened his mouth to answer, but Anna spoke up first.
"This is Professor Sandburg," she stammered faintly. "I was just … saying goodbye, Curtis."
Curtis reached around Blair and grabbed Anna’s arm roughly. "Mr. Wyatt didn’t have me drive you all the way out here to say goodbye to your pretty boy! Get whatever it is you left in here and-"
Blair grabbed Curtis by the wrist and pulled his hand off Anna’s arm, then wedged himself in front of Anna again. "Just keep your hands to yourself," he said evenly, wondering grimly what he’d do if Curtis decided he’d prefer not to keep his hands to himself.
Curtis’ eyes widened for a moment, then narrowed dangerously. "You want me to put my hands someplace else, pretty boy?"
"It’s all right, Professor," said Anna, so desperately that Blair realized with a sinking sensation that he was only making things worse for her. "We’re just in a hurry, that’s all. I just need my … my-"
"Your paper," said Blair quietly, turning toward his desk. "It’s right here. I was just finishing grading it." Blair grabbed an old draft of the opening chapter of his dissertation and scribbled his home phone number into the margin. "Here you are. You’re an excellent student, Anna. I hope you’ll be able to come back to Rainier soon." He put the paper into her hands, meeting her gaze earnestly.
"I … don’t think I’ll be able to," said Anna faintly, folding the paper and holding it tightly to her. "But thank you." She turned and slid past Curtis gingerly, who watched her go with something between a lascivious smirk and a contemptuous sneer that made Blair’s blood boil.
The man turned back to Blair and gave him another once over. "Professor, huh?"
"That’s right," said Blair evenly, meeting his gaze with difficulty. There was something not right in the man’s eyes, something that made the short hairs on the back of Blair’s neck rise.
"Uh-huh," smirked Curtis, his eyes roving over Blair’s body in a way that made Blair’s skin crawl. "So what were you teaching Annie, huh, Professor?"
"Anthropology," answered Blair through gritted teeth. You sick son of a…
"Yeah, I’ll bet," sneered the man. "You just watch yourself, pretty boy. The last guy that Mr. Wyatt caught teaching Annie an-thro-pol-o-gy wound up washing up on the beach in big bloody chunks."
"You just tell Mr. Wyatt that I’m a teacher," said Blair, holding onto his temper by the skin of his teeth. "And Anna’s my student. That’s it."
Curtis laughed unpleasantly. "Oh, I’ll tell him. I’ll tell him what a pretty, pretty boy Annie got herself this time. I’ll tell him that he looks like a real pro to me."
"Get out," said Blair quietly.
Curtis laughed louder. "So what’s the going rate for pro-fessors now, huh, Angel? Think I could afford you?"
"I said get out!" snarled Blair. "You’ve got two seconds to leave before I call Security."
Curtis stopped laughing and gave Blair another slow, ugly look, letting it wander suggestively and insultingly up and down Blair’s body. "I’ll see you later, pretty boy," he said in a voice like a rusty razor blade. He turned and left abruptly.
Blair sagged against his desk. He realized that he was sweating … and shaking. Something was profoundly wrong about that guy. Blair hadn’t been this thoroughly creeped out by anyone since … since Lash. Blair swallowed hard. Damn it, and he’d let that psycho take Anna! But she’d been so desperate to leave with him. Probably afraid of getting him angry and making things worse at home. It certainly sounded like Curtis had a lot of influence with her husband, although Blair couldn’t imagine why. There had to be some way to help her. There just had to be. Jim would know.
Blair snatched up his jacket and headed out the door at a full run.
"Hey, how’s it going, Hairboy?"
Simon Banks looked up at Brown’s loud greeting to see Blair Sandburg stride into the bullpen with his usual energetic gait and come to a grinding halt in front of Brown. Simon scowled as he got a good look at his ‘consultant.’ Something was wrong. The young man’s expression was strained, despite the amusement in his eyes.
"You know, you are generating a lot of bad karma with this ‘Hairboy’ stuff, Henri. I’m telling you, man, it’s going to come back to you eventually."
Simon cast a surreptitious glance past Brown at Jim Ellison, supposedly sitting at his desk to do paperwork, and saw exactly what he expected to see. Jim was raptly watching Blair’s every move and drinking in Blair’s every word with that damned goofy Ellison smile on his face. Simon stifled a worried sigh and counted to five slowly, nodding when Jim’s expression evaporated into an appropriately businesslike mask. Just like clockwork.
Simon turned back to Blair and Brown as the cop laughed, looking at Blair with obvious
affection. "No chance, Sandburg. I leave karma alone, and it leaves me alone."
"An existentialist," said Blair with a broad grin, looking past Brown to his partner as he jerked a thumb in Brown’s direction teasingly.
"Oh, is that what he is?" snorted Jim mildly. "I’ll bet you’re glad to have that cleared up, aren’t you, Brown? Having your philosophical outlook undefined can really screw up your day."
Simon shook his head and pretended to go back to reading the report he held in his hands. Nice recovery. Ellison had this down pat. He watched out of the corner of his eye as Blair perched on the edge of Jim’s desk. They spoke quietly, and Simon couldn’t hear their conversation. He turned toward the door of his office, to all outward appearances completely absorbed in his reading. But he hadn’t read a word.
This had been going on for months, but since Blair had nearly.... Simon found himself reluctant to finish the sentence, even in thought. Damn, he’d gone as soft over the kid as the rest of those jokers out there in the bullpen. Since Blair had nearly ... died, it had gotten a lot harder to ignore. God, but that had been close. They had all thought he was gone. If Jim hadn’t gone Sentinel – and the Lord only knew exactly what Jim had done to bring Blair back - they would have given up on him. They would have let him go. Simon shuddered in spite of himself. He didn’t want to think what would have happened to Jim if the kid had gone that way. If Blair had died - after Jim had thrown him out of his home and his life, after he had said things to the kid that Simon suspected Jim had regretted five minutes after saying them - if Blair had died because Jim hadn’t been there to watch his back.... It would have crippled Jim. It would have crippled him inside for the rest of his life.
Well, it was a hell of a way to learn - and it certainly said something for the thickness of Jim’s skull that it had taken Blair’s death to teach him – that self-sufficiency wasn’t all it cracked up to be. But Jim seemed to have learned it. He had certainly stopped doing the ‘I don’t need anybody’ crap. He’d obviously learned - a little late in life in Simon’s opinion - that everybody needs somebody. And Jim Ellison just happened to need Blair Sandburg. Go figure. But there was absolutely no denying that they were good for each other. If Blair was a little steadier, Simon didn’t have to look too far for the reason. And if Jim was a little less of a humorless hard-ass, well, ditto. If anyone had told Simon three years ago that Jim Ellison would ever develop a sense of humor about himself, he would have had him fitted for one of those little white jackets. But damned if it hadn’t been happening.
Now, those things were great. Those things made Blair’s life better, made Jim’s life better, and made Simon’s life a whole hell of a lot easier. But there were other things, things that Simon had dismissed for months, dismissed until he could no longer dismiss them. They were glaringly obvious to anyone who had known Jim Ellison as long as Simon had. Pretty soon they were going to become glaringly obvious to anyone who didn’t. And they all added up to one thing.
Jim Ellison was in love. With his partner.
Simon raised his eyes from the report he wasn’t reading to stare through his open door into the bullpen. Yup, damned if he wasn’t at it right this minute. Blair was bending over Rafe’s desk, laughing at one of that idiot’s dirty jokes, and Jim’s eyes were all over those jeans again. Shit! If the guy wasn’t looking at Blair all doe-eyed and dopey-looking, he was checking out the kid’s ass.
Jim Ellison, the ultimate macho-man heterosexual. Simon groaned inwardly. Was it some sort of mid-life crisis thing? Or was it something to do with the Sentinel stuff? There was no denying that those senses of Jim’s did weird things to his head sometimes.
And that was another thing. Jim’s abilities had been blinking on and off like an out-of-service traffic light. A sure sign of trouble. Simon knew from experience that it could only mean that Jim was trying to squash something he was feeling. He’d seen it over and over again in the past three years. It meant that Jim knew what was going on, and he knew it was trouble ... and Simon agreed with him. Not because it was morally wrong, or anything stupid like that. What consenting adults did behind closed doors was nobody’s business but theirs, and Simon didn’t pry into the private lives of his officers - or his friends. It was trouble because it was obvious that Blair didn’t have a clue what was going on.
Simon sighed aloud as he imagined Blair’s reaction to this if he ever found out. He’d seen guys freak out when they found out a close friend was gay. Not that Jim was gay - or was he? Oh, hell, Simon didn’t know what Jim was anymore. No, strike that. He did know. Jim was a good man, a great cop and an even better friend. But Blair ... he was young, and slightly flaky, and as rampaging a heterosexual male as you were ever likely to encounter. Who knows how he might react when he found out, especially if it was Simon’s worst case scenario: Jim finally loses control and comes on to Blair ... Blair freaks ... Blair leaves.... Simon groaned inwardly. If Jim lost Blair again, this soon, it would kill him. The kid was family to him, and more.
Simon watched as Jim tore his gaze from Blair and returned it to his work. He could only imagine what the man must be going through. It couldn’t go on like this. Something had to be done. Which meant, of course, that Simon would have to do something.
Like pry into the private lives of his officers and his friends?
Simon growled and nearly bit clean through the cigar in his mouth. He hated it when his conscience played devil’s advocate. But what the hell else was he supposed to do? Watch Jim Ellison self-destruct? Watch the friendship essential to Jim’s well-being be destroyed? Watch Blair walk out of Jim’s life, and incidentally, out of Simon’s life and the lives of his men, who had practically adopted the kid?
No. He would do something. Talking to Jim would get him nowhere, he knew. Jim would get spooked and angry and deny everything, and things might get ugly. But Blair was another story. Blair had an open mind if you approached him the right way, and he would listen to Simon. If he could just phrase things tactfully....
By the way, Sandburg, have you noticed that your roommate’s in love with you?
Simon spit out his cigar in disgust. He could do better than that.
Okay. Hey, Sandburg have you noticed how your best friend checks out your ass every time you bend over?
"Jesus H. Christ," sighed Simon. This was going not going to be easy.
Jim always dreaded it when Blair said, "I need to talk to you." He was never sure if it was a prelude to "I know what’s going on with you," or "Is pizza okay for dinner?"
Sign of a guilty conscience, he knew.
So when Blair showed up at the station almost three hours early, clearly agitated, and said in a very soft voice, "Jim, I need to talk to you," Jim’s heart almost choked the answer out of his throat.
"Sure, Chief," he managed. "Just give me a minute to finish up here."
He bent to his paperwork, stealing an occasional glance at Blair as he laughed with Rafe. Blair’s laughter was definitely off-pitch. He was pale. His heart was beating too quickly. Something was seriously wrong, but it wasn’t "I know what’s going on with you." Blair wouldn’t be acting this way if that were what was on his mind. Something had scared Blair. Or someone.
Jim scowled as he tossed the completed reports into his outbox. If someone had been messing with Blair, then someone had better be on their way out of town.
He rose and walked quickly to Blair’s side. "You’re early," he prompted, nodding in the direction of the break room. "Coffee?"
"Yeah, sounds good," said Blair in a strained voice.
"You didn’t get much sleep last night," said Jim, before he could stop himself. Damn, he was sounding more like Blair’s mother every day. Come to think of it, he sounded more like Blair’s mother than Naomi did. Jim sighed inwardly.
Blair cocked an eyebrow at him in amusement as he passed through the door of the break room and headed toward the coffeepot. "And you did?"
"Not much," admitted Jim, accepting the cup Blair handed him. Black, two sugars. Just the way Jim liked it. Jim wondered idly when Blair had started doing little things like that, and why it had taken him so long to notice. "What’s up?"
Blair took a breath and a sip of coffee, then eased himself into a chair. "I need your help."
"You got it," said Jim, straddling the chair next to him and taking a gulp of the coffee. "Shoot."
"The woman I was tutoring-"
"She’s dropping out of school. Her husband’s making her drop out of school. He’s some sort of delusional, man. He thinks there’s something going on between us and…."
Blair lowered his coffee cup to the table, eyes wide. Jim realized belatedly that he’d asked that question like a cop, and cursed inwardly. Blair’s hurt was all over his face.
"She’s my student," said Blair sharply. "God, Jim…."
"I’m sorry," said Jim hastily. Shit! What’s the matter, Ellison? Jealous?
"I don’t cross that line," continued Blair tautly. "My students trust me."
"Chief, I’m sorry," said Jim earnestly, leaning forward. "I wasn’t thinking. Cop auto-pilot, okay?"
"Well, turn it off! There’s nothing going on between Anna and me except Anthropology 101."
"Got it," said Jim quietly, kicking himself. That had been way out of line. "I’m on manual. Go on."
"He beat her up," said Blair, his voice still angry, but Jim could see his friend’s anger was no longer directed at him. "You should have seen her, Jim. Black eyes, bruises … I wanted to take her to a doctor, but she said no."
"Damn," said Jim softly, knowing how these things affected Blair. He’d never known a more tender-hearted man. "Does she want to press charges?"
"She won’t. She says people will get hurt. Get this, Jim: her husband’s Morgan Wyatt."
Jim lowered his coffee cup, staring. "Excuse me?" He couldn’t have heard what he’d just thought he heard.
"Morgan Wyatt. She must have been using her maiden name."
"You’ve been tutoring Morgan Wyatt’s wife?" The thought of Blair coming to the attention of Wyatt in any capacity whatsoever horrified Jim, and he swallowed hard as he very carefully set his coffee cup on the table beside him. Morgan Wyatt was without a doubt the single greatest contributor to Cascade’s thriving economy in heroin, illegal arms and, incidentally, dead people. He’d ordered men killed for far less than hanky-panky, however imaginary, with his wife. Jim struggled to get a grip and listen to what Blair was saying.
"I didn’t know she was his wife until today, man, she was using another name. She obviously didn’t want anybody to know who she was. She’s terrified of him, Jim. I don’t think there’s any way I could have persuaded her to press charges. But I thought I could at least get her to go to a shelter where she’d be safe. She might have gone with me, if this thug of her husband’s hadn’t shown up."
"Thug?" demanded Jim, careening past horrified into terrified. Which of Wyatt’s pack of mad dogs had been sicced on Blair? "Dammit, Blair, cut to the chase! Tell me exactly what happened."
"I'm telling you what happened!" returned Blair hotly. "Wyatt told this guy to drive her to Rainier, okay? She comes to my office to say goodbye, and this knuckle-dragging mouth-breather shows up and tries to drag her out!"
Jim drew a breath and counted to five. "Let me guess," he said wryly, knowing as he did so that it was no guess. He knew this man. "You stopped him."
"Well, what else was I supposed to do?" demanded Blair, obviously annoyed. "Just stand there and let him manhandle her?"
"You weren’t supposed to do anything else," said Jim quietly. "I just wish I’d been there, that’s all." The thought Blair going up against any of Wyatt’s goons made Jim’s insides go cold.
"Oh." Blair’s annoyed expression transformed into one of surprise, then contrition. "Sorry. Me too." He paused for a moment, then smiled. "BPS kicking up again, tough guy?"
Jim forced a laugh past the tight muscles in his chest. Blessed Protector Syndrome. It was just about the oldest joke they had. But it wasn’t really a joke and they both knew it. Not that Blair really needed Jim to protect him, not often, anyway. It was more accurate to say that - and Jim had had a hell of a time coming to terms with it - that Jim needed to protect Blair. "Yeah, I’m a sad case, Chief," said Jim in as dry a tone as he could manage.
"Tell me about it. If I’d known you better back then I’d never have made that crack," said Blair, his smile deepening affectionately. "It’s been seriously enabling, man." His smile faded. "What can we do for Anna?"
Jim sighed, knowing Blair wasn’t going to like what he had to say. "Not much, unless she’s willing to press charges."
"There’s got to be something we can do!"
"I don’t like it any more than you do, Chief. But unless somebody tells us that a crime’s been committed…."
"She told me," said Blair desperately, then went on quickly before Jim could say anything. "I know, I know! It’s not enough. God, Jim, if you could have seen her. She was hurt and scared to death and there was absolutely nothing I could do to help her. And now you can’t help her either. I don’t know what to do."
"There’s nothing you can do," returned Jim gently. "I know it’s rough, but it’s up to her now. If she presses charges we can arrest the bastard, and trust me, the line forms here for that job. But she has to take the first step."
"She’s too frightened," said Blair in an agitated voice, launching himself from his chair to pace the room. "I don’t blame her. That guy that came to get her scared the hell out of me. If her husband’s anything like him….
"Did he threaten you?" Jim did his best to keep his voice level.
Blair hesitated, then shook his head, avoiding Jim’s gaze. "Not exactly. He just gave me the creeps."
Jim knew Sandburg Obfuscation when he heard it, and he gave Blair his most firm "tell-me-everything-and-tell-me-now" look. Blair met his gaze and grinned ruefully.
"Jim, he didn’t threaten me. He didn’t have to. That kind of guy scares you just by looking at you, you know? He says "I’ll see you later" and you just imagine yourself lying in a dark alley somewhere in little pieces. He’s obviously done a lot of work cultivating his sociopathic aura."
"Did this guy give a name?"
"I want to send him a birthday card. Why do you think?" demanded Jim impatiently. "I want to know who I might have to deal with."
"This is serious! We’re talking about Morgan Wyatt, for God’s sake. Did he give a name?"
Blair sighed. "Anna called him Curtis."
"Curtis?" Jim scowled. He had thought that he was familiar with all of Wyatt’s inner circle, but there was no Curtis among them. And only someone close to Wyatt would be entrusted with keeping an eye on the boss’s wife. Someone new? "Would you recognize him if you saw him again?"
"Oh, yeah," said Blair wryly.
Something in Blair’s manner told Jim that a lot more had happened than he’d let on, and Jim grimaced in frustration. "I want you to look at some pictures."
"Come on, Jim, this isn’t about me. Anna’s the one who’s in trouble."
"Wyatt may decide to make it about you," said Jim as calmly as he could. That idea made him anything but calm. "And if he does, I want to know who’s likely to come calling. There’s nothing I can do for Anna right now."
"So we just wait around?" asked Blair impatiently, gesticulating wildly. "He could be beating up on her right now."
Jim looked up at his friend, momentarily astonished into silence. It wasn’t the first time Blair’s instinct for self-preservation had taken a back seat to his compassion. As a matter of fact, it did so on a regular basis. But it never ceased to arouse Jim’s wonder - and admiration.
"Chief," he said quietly. "I give you my word. If there’s any way to help Anna, I’ll do it. But there’s nothing I can do for her right now, and there is something I can do about this. This Curtis is a new player, and he’s obviously close to Wyatt. It’s important to identify him."
"Okay, okay," muttered Blair. "Give me the damn books."
Jim watched Blair as he paged through the mug shots, smiling as Blair muttered to himself and adjusted his glasses on the bridge of his nose. Jim knew perfectly well that Blair couldn’t care less about identifying Wyatt’s thug, no matter what his threatening behavior to Blair had been. All Blair cared about right now was his student. He had come to Jim hoping for a charge to the rescue, and Jim had let him down. Jim sighed softly. If there was anything he hated, it was letting Blair down. After three years of working with cops, though, you’d think Blair would know the score. But he didn’t, and he probably never would. At least Jim hoped not. Knowing the score would make Blair less than the man he was, and Blair Sandburg was one of the finest men Jim had ever known.
Jim grinned affectionately as Blair impatiently shoved his hair away from his face, then dug in his jeans pocket for a hair tie. He tied his hair back, grumbling something unintelligible about hair and books and cops, and bent over the books again, his expression a study in frustration.
Jim studied him, fascinated, and wondered for the thousandth time in the past few weeks how this could have happened to him, whether or not Blair knew, and how soon Blair would leave once he did. The smile on his face froze and died.
He couldn’t make it without Blair. The thought of it turned him cold and sick inside. It wasn’t just that he was in love with him... Jim paused for a moment, startled at how easily he could think those words now. In love with Blair. He braced himself and forced himself to continue his thought. It wasn’t just that. Even if that hadn’t happened, even if he had continued to love Blair as a brother, he couldn’t have made it without him. He needed him. He’d admitted that to himself, if not to Blair.
Those minutes beside the fountain staring down at Blair’s soaked, cold body had been the worst of his life, bar none. The horror of losing Blair that way had ripped him apart. He knew, whatever a court of law might say about it, that he’d killed his dearest friend, someone who’d saved both Jim’s sanity and his life - more times than Jim could count - and had nearly lost his own life in doing it more times than Jim wanted to remember. He’d hurt Blair, thrown him out of his own home, abandoned him in the face of danger. He’d killed him. He’d killed Blair. When Brown had told him to let it go, Jim came to a sudden and full understanding of what kind of hell his life would be from then on. And then he’d heard Incacha’s voice.
When Blair came to, Jim felt a large chunk of his world slip back into place again. Oh sure, by the time he visited Blair he’d had his Joe Cool ‘tude firmly in place again. Now that was class. Drown your best friend and then stand over him in his hospital bed and crack jokes about back rent. But Blair had understood.
Jim swallowed hard at the memory. Blair always understood. Blair’s capacity for understanding and forgiveness never failed to blow him away. He wondered, if their positions had been reversed, if he could have forgiven someone who had treated him that way. He didn’t like the answer.
Maybe that was what had opened Jim’s eyes enough to recognize these new feelings ... his realization, finally, that his friend was one hell of a man. It said something about the thickness of his own skull that it had taken him three years to realize it. But when it did get through to him, it didn’t just make him appreciate Blair’s friendship more, although it did that in spades. Something else happened too, something that he had never expected, something he couldn’t possibly have expected. Jim found himself becoming slowly but steadily aware of a lot of other things about the man who had shared his home and his life for so long. Things that Jim had never noticed about another man. Like how he moved. How he smiled. How his hair fell against his neck. How his eyes, no, his whole face, lit up like a Christmas tree when that brilliant mind of his was engaged. How his jeans hugged that ass….
Jim groaned inwardly and yanked his gaze away from Blair and back to the report that lay on the desk in front of him. The one he had finished forty-five minutes ago.
It had come on so gradually at first. But by the time they had returned from Sierra Verde Jim had become uncomfortably aware of just how ... how.... Oh, hell, of how damn beautiful Blair was.
Just ... beautiful.
And then Jim finally understood why he kept finding himself examining Blair’s scent, his every sound, his every movement; why he always stood so close to him; why he touched him as often and as for long as he could get away with; why he couldn’t sleep if he couldn’t hear his heartbeat. He loved him. He wanted him. Blair Sandburg was the most important person in his life.
And if Blair ever knew that, he’d probably head for the hills. Not that Blair would hate him for it or anything - Jim firmly believed that Blair was incapable of hate - but he sure as hell couldn’t know about this and still live with him, work with him, be his Guide. There were some things that even the closest friendships couldn’t survive, and this was one of them. Living every day with a friend who wants to get into your pants? No. Not even Blair, who was as understanding and open-minded a man as Jim had ever known, could put up with that. Jim kept imagining himself in Blair’s place. What would he have done if Blair had come to him and told him that he wanted him? Jim smiled bitterly. He’d have thrown Blair out, of course, like the cowardly, selfish son of a bitch he was. Blair would be kinder about it than he would have been, Jim knew, but in the end it would be the same. Blair would leave.
And he couldn’t make it without Blair.
Why the hell was this happening to him? He’d never been attracted to men. He still wasn’t. He was attracted to Blair. He desired him more than any lover he’d ever been with. Blair was part of him, a part of him he needed to join with to feel whole. And in the face of that, Jim reminded himself for the umpteenth time, why didn’t matter.
Keeping this from Blair was getting tougher and tougher, and the strain was starting to show. It was obvious that Blair was worried about him. In spite of everything, Jim indulged in a smile. No one had ever cared about him the way Blair did. No one ever would. But that would all be over soon. Eventually Jim would slip up, and Blair would find out. Blair would be kind, and tell Jim it was okay. He’d do his damnedest to make it work. But it wouldn’t. And then he’d be gone.
Jim shook his head without thinking. He couldn’t make it without Blair. He had to keep it together, keep his mouth shut and his hands to himself. Maybe these feelings would fade. Maybe things could go back to the way they were.
Jim closed his eyes.
No. The feelings wouldn’t fade. And things would never be the same again. He was more deeply in love with Blair than he’d been with anyone in his life, and he wanted him more than he wanted to breathe.
"Jim, are you okay?"
And there was no way in hell Blair could ever want him back.
"Earth to Jim!"
"What?" Jim’s eyes snapped open and he found Blair standing in front of him with an exasperated expression. Jim felt a searing heat rise to his face. "Oh." He groped to remember where he was and what he should have been doing. "Find something?"
"No, I didn’t find something! And I’ve been at this for almost an hour and a half. Are you all right? You look like hell." Blair bent toward him with a worried expression, and Jim realized that he couldn’t hear his friend’s heartbeat. His senses had winked out on him again.
"Yeah, I’m fine," said Jim, managing something like a smile. "Keep trying. It’s important."
"This is needle-in-a-haystack activity, man," complained Blair grumpily, his keen blue eyes searching Jim’s face in a way that made Jim more nervous than he liked being. "There’s got to be a better way."
"It’s good old-fashioned police work, Chief," returned Jim, seizing on a long-standing argument as a diversion. Blair hated what he called "the over-enthusiastic application of the work ethic to the more menial functions within the broad spectrum of police work" when he was feeling charitable, and the "cult of grunt" when he wasn’t. "It’s a vanishing art."
"It deserves to be," growled Blair. "It can’t vanish too soon as far as I’m concerned. Can’t we just do a computer search for Curtises or something?"
"You’ve been watching X-Files again, haven’t you?"
Blair’s worried expression disappeared into a wide grin, but whatever answer he was about to make was cut off by a familiar summons.
"Ellison! Sandburg! My office!" Simon disappeared as suddenly as he had materialized.
"You covet Mulder’s tech, man," said Blair teasingly as they moved quickly toward Simon’s office. "You know you do."
"I covet Mulder’s partner," lied Jim cheerfully. "She doesn’t go green every time a corpse shows up."
"Oh, fine," said Blair in disgust. "Low blow."
"She’s a good shot, too."
"Unfair comparison, man. I don’t do guns."
"And nice legs."
"Hey, man, I’ve got great legs. Wanna see?" Blair bounced beside him with an enthusiastic grin.
"No," lied Jim again, laughing as he strode through Simon’s door. "You wanted to see us, sir?"
Simon looked up. Jim felt himself tense at the expression on his captain’s face. He knew that look well, and it meant nothing but trouble. "Shut the door."
Blair shot Jim a quizzical look, then nudged the door shut. "What’s wrong?"
Simon offered Jim a file folder, and Jim took it, puzzled … until he saw the name printed on the tab. He looked up at Simon sharply. "What…?"
"He’s out," said Simon simply. "Paroled. I thought you should know as soon as possible."
"Paroled?" Jim whipped open the file and scanned it incredulously as Blair came to stand beside him, peering into the file curiously. "The man’s a psychopath! You know what he’s capable of…."
"Oh, he’s reformed, hadn’t you heard?" asked Simon, his voice heavy with sarcasm. "He’s been a model prisoner for eight years. The corrections folks praise him to the skies."
"I doubt Jackie Sullivan’s family shares their opinion," snarled Jim, the memory of a young woman lying comatose in a hospital bed fleeting past his mind’s eye. He flipped another page in the file to reveal a current photograph. "I can’t believe this bastard is-"
"That’s him," said Blair very quietly.
"That’s who?" asked Simon in bewilderment as Jim stared at his partner in shock.
"That’s the guy who took Anna away," continued Blair, raising his eyes to meet Jim’s. "You know him?"
Jim struggled for speech. Curtis Krakowa? In Cascade? Working for Wyatt? Threatening Blair?
"Jim put him away," said Simon, his gaze sharpening as it travelled from Blair to Jim and back again. "You’ve seen him?"
"A few hours ago, at the University," said Blair, still looking at Jim anxiously. "Jim, are you okay?"
He wasn’t. Jim knew that the assault on Jackie Sullivan wasn’t the only crime Krakowa had committed. It was just the only one in which there’d been enough physical evidence to convict him, the only one in which they hadn’t needed the testimony of Krakowa’s physically and emotionally crippled victims … the few that had survived. Assaults. Rapes. Murders. It had taken Jim years to get him on something, but he had finally put enough together for one conviction. Only one. Jim couldn’t believe that this monster had been paroled this soon. Eight years in prison for beating a woman into a little more than a vegetable? It was a sick joke.
Krakowa hadn’t laughed, though. He’d done the standard threats to the arresting officer in the courtroom bit, although his threats had been a little more original than most. They’d given perversion a whole new lease on life, in Jim’s opinion. He’d laughed in Krakowa’s face nonetheless, although he’d be lying if he said the guy hadn’t raised his neck hairs. Krakowa was a twisted, bloody-minded little monster. And this monster had just strolled back into Cascade … and straight into Blair’s office.
Just like Alex.
"Jesus," said Jim in a stunned tone, staring at Blair.
"Ellison, what the hell is going on?"
"Sir, I think we may have a problem," said Jim a little faintly.
"Relax, Simon, he’s just BPSing again," said Blair wearily.
"Dammit, Sandburg, get it through your head! This is serious!" Jim heard his voice echo off the walls and knew that his temper was getting the better of him. He didn’t care. Blair had to understand this.
"Jim, you’re overreacting," snapped Simon.
"Just relax," said Blair steadily. "Everything’s-"
"Wyatt would kill you as soon as look at you!"
"Wyatt?" asked Simon blankly.
"And you don’t want to know what Krakowa would do!"
Simon snatched the cigar out of his mouth. "Ellison, that’s enough!"
"Cool down, Jim," said Blair in a strained tone.
"Do not tell me to cool down!" Jim knew he was losing it. He knew this because the small part of his mind that was still rational kept asking him, very calmly, what the hell he thought he was doing. He refused to answer.
"Detective-" Simon’s tone should have warned Jim, but he was too far gone to care.
"You’re not thinking straight, man," said Blair evenly, a hint of anger in his eyes. "Just-"
"No, you’re not thinking straight! You are in danger, do you get it? Wyatt is not a joke! Krakowa is not a joke!"
"Jim, for crying out-"
"I'm not losing you again!" Jim screamed the words, then froze, horrified.
"Detective," said Simon in his most forceful tone of command, "Take a walk."
Jim stared at him for a moment.
"Now!" roared Simon. "Go cool off!"
Jim turned for the door. He realized to his surprise that Blair was following him, and he glanced over his shoulder. Blair met his gaze with a reassuring little smile that drained away every drop of Jim’s panicked anger. Damn, damn, damn! What the hell was he doing? He opened his mouth to apologize, but Simon cut him off.
"Out!" growled Simon. "Not you, Sandburg," he added in a softer tone. Blair ground to a halt in surprise and looked back.
Jim pulled the door open and strode through the bullpen, grateful that Rafe and Brown were either at lunch or on a call. He was certain that his outburst had been clearly audible in the bullpen, even by people with ordinary senses. And he was just as certain that he knew what Simon wanted to discuss with Blair: Jim Ellison, mental case.
"I need a beer," he said wearily to no one in particular as the elevator doors shut on him.
"Let me get this straight," said Simon in calm, measured tones that told Blair exactly how upset the man was. "You’ve been tutoring this woman for two months, only to find out today that she is the wife of Cascade’s leading crime boss. She tells you that her husband assaulted her, possibly because he believes that she is having an affair with you. The man who arrives to take her back to her abusive husband turns out to be Curtis Krakowa, certified psycho, and he behaves in a threatening manner towards you. Have I got this right?"
"Yeah, that’s about it," said Blair resignedly.
Simon considered the young man sitting in front of him, rolling his cigar between his thumb and forefinger. He smiled pleasantly. "Sandburg, have you ever wondered why these things happen to you? Think about it. What are the odds?"
Blair thought carefully about everything that had happened to him in the past three years. It was a good point. What were the odds? Probably about the same odds, he realized with amusement, of his meeting Jim Ellison. "Maybe I was really evil in a previous life."
Simon looked like he was trying very hard not to laugh. "It’s a stretch, but at this point I’ll buy any explanation." He sighed. "Jim was right, you know. This could be serious."
"Maybe," conceded Blair quietly. Now that his panic over Anna was receding and he was regaining some perspective, he could see why Jim had gone off the deep end. Not that Blair thought he was in any imminent danger, but he knew all too well that these days even the possibility of danger to Blair sent Jim into the weird realm of the Blessed Protector, a state of mind better accepted than understood. "But I’d take what Jim says with a pinch of salt when it comes to me. You know how he is ... especially since the Dip."
Simon nearly dropped his cigar. "The Dip? Christ, Sandburg, you were dead!"
"Nah," said Blair with a wry little smile. "Just damp."
Simon’s eyes narrowed, and his expression seemed to suggest that he was considering whether or not he wanted to understand this. He evidently decided he didn’t. "Okay. So he’s been a little overprotective since you got damp." Blair chuckled softly. "But he’s right. Wyatt and Krakowa are no joke."
"So I’ve been told," said Blair drily. "But what am I supposed to do? Hide, on the off chance that one of them might have it in for me?"
"You might consider it, if only to keep Jim from completely melting down." Simon’s voice was a little strained, and Blair observed him carefully for a moment. Okay. Something else was up here. Simon cleared his throat uncomfortably. "I mean...."
"I know what you mean," said Blair in soft realization. "You’re worried about him too."
"Worried? About Above-and-Beyond-the-Call Ellison? Do I look worried to you, Sandburg?" Simon pulled his most ferocious face and played it for all it was worth, but his cover had been blown years ago as far as Blair was concerned.
"Yeah," said Blair gently, smiling slightly. "You do look worried. You look like you’ve been worried for a long time. What’s on your mind, Simon?"
Simon scowled at Blair over the top of his glasses, but Blair only laughed softly. That little maneuver had long since ceased its effectiveness, too. Simon sighed, looked at the ceiling for a moment, then pulled off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "Okay. I really didn’t want to do this. But Jim’s judgment is being affected now, and he needs his judgment to survive out there."
Blair froze in his chair at the quiet dread in Simon’s tone. He tried to form a question and failed.
"I need to talk to you about Jim, Blair." Simon suddenly yanked his badge out of his pocket and dropped it into his desk drawer, shutting the drawer with a bang. "As a friend."
Blair watched the badge disappear with a pounding heart. It was serious. Simon was scared. "You know what’s doing this to him, don’t you?"
"Yeah," said Simon, looking everywhere but at Blair. "He’d kill me if he knew I’d told you."
"What is it? It’s driving him crazy. He hardly sleeps anymore, and when he does he has nightmares. I’ve tried everything I know to get him to talk to me about it, but he won’t. He says he’s fine. God, all you have to do is look at him to see he’s not fine." Blair abruptly became aware that he was babbling, and he shut his mouth hastily.
"No, he isn’t." Simon’s hands started fiddling with one object after another on his desk.
"What is it?" repeated Blair, realizing as he did so that he was clutching the arms of his chair.
Simon cleared his throat and squirmed in his chair, and Blair felt his stomach turn over as a previously unconsidered possibility struck him.
"He’s not … he’s not sick or something, is he?" Blair heard his voice shake.
"What?" Simon looked up in amazement. "No! No, he’s not sick…."
"Geez, Simon," said Blair weakly, falling back in his chair. "You scared the hell out of me."
"Sorry, sorry," growled Simon. "I just want to tell you this the right way. I don’t want you to freak out on me, okay?"
"Freak out? What…?"
"Jim couldn’t take losing you. It would … oh, hell, Sandburg. It would destroy the man. I’ll hate myself if I’m the cause of that, but you’ll find out eventually anyway, and I thought … I thought maybe I could break it to you more gently, give you a chance to think about it, get used to it. Just don’t walk out on him, Blair. I don’t know what’s causing this, but you are family to that man, and he just couldn’t take…."
"Simon, what the hell are you talking about?" exploded Blair, unable to stand any more. "Walk out on him? Are you crazy? There is nothing you or anybody else could tell me that would make me walk out on Jim."
"Blair, sometimes we find out things about friends that … change how we feel about them."
"Dammit, Simon, give it to me straight. I’m telling you right now that whatever this deep, dark secret is, it’s not going to change how I feel about Jim. Now spit it out!" Blair realized belatedly that his was shouting in frustration, anger and fear.
Simon gave him a stern, quelling look, and Blair forced himself to lean back. "Sorry," he said in a strained voice. "Just tell me, Simon. I won’t freak out."
Simon cleared his throat and started studying the top of his desk again, and Blair groaned inwardly, seething with impatience. What the hell could this be about? What could possibly make Simon this uncomfortable? He looked like a father about to explain the facts of life to his teenaged son. Blair almost laughed at the thought, wondering if Simon and Daryl had had their father-and-son talk yet. Simon explaining sex would be something to….
"Um ... Blair, have you noticed ... I mean ... have you seen the way Jim looks at you ... oh, hell...."
Jim’s refusal to discuss the problem. The way his eyes could never meet Blair’s….
"Looks at me?" Blair heard himself saying faintly.
The way Jim always stood so close. The way he touched Blair, far more often and for far longer than he used to.
"Yeah, looks at you! Blair, I’ve known Jim a long time. I’ve … I’ve seen him … seen him in love, okay?"
The constant preoccupation and daydreaming ... and the way he always looked red as a beet and guilty as hell whenever Blair caught him at it.
"I’ve seen how he looks at … at the person he’s in love with."
"In love?" echoed Blair in a whisper.
"And that’s how he looks at you. Dammit, Blair, are you listening to me?"
"Yes," said Blair dazedly, not certain what the question was.
His reaction to the suggestion of an affair with Anna….
"That … that big … stupid … jerk!" exploded Blair, leaping up out of his chair in a paroxysm of sudden understanding, fury and elation. It all made sense now. It had been staring him in the face all along. "What the hell does he think he’s doing?"
"Dammit, Sandburg, you told me you wouldn’t-"
"Why didn’t he tell me? No!" Blair paced up and down wildly, his hands flying, his mind moving so fast that his mouth couldn’t keep up the pace. It seemed determined to try, however. "No, I withdraw the jerk. I withdraw the stupid. I withdraw ... no, he is big, isn’t he?"
"Sandburg, you’re babbling! Just relax, it’ll be okay-"
"He didn’t tell me for the same reason I didn’t tell him, of course. Of course! That and the fact that he’s scared to death, due to the fact that he rejects on principle anything he hasn’t done, felt, seen, tasted, touched, or smelled every day of his life!"
"Blair, sit down! Damn, I knew I shouldn’t have...."
"And add to that the fact that he’s been suffering from acute Blessed Protector Syndrome ever since the Dip. He’s probably out there flagellating himself - metaphorically speaking, of course, Jim’s not into leather - for thinking of poor, sweet, innocent me that way." Blair laughed hysterically, marginally aware that Simon was watching him with ever-widening eyes and his jaw hanging slack.
Simon hastily cleared his throat and composed his features. "Blair, he’ll snap out of it. Just stick with him. Tell him it’s okay. Let him down easy."
"Did he bother to ask me if I wanted my virtue defended, such as it is?" continued Blair in rapturous indignation, the import of Simon’s words coming to a screeching halt somewhere short of his mind. "Hell no! Not him. Well, I’ll tell you, Simon," he said breathlessly, feeling a little dizzy as he leaned on Simon’s desk, "I don’t."
"You ... don’t...?" repeated Simon in a stunned, uncomprehending tone.
"I mean, the very idea that he’d think that I need to be protected from this is unbelievable! It’s ridiculous! It’s ... Jim Ellison!" Blair stared at him for a heartbeat, Simon’s previous speech finally registering. "Let him down easy?"
The two stared at each other for a moment.
Blair saw the slow, dawning comprehension in Simon’s face, and belatedly realized that Simon had spent so much time observing Jim that he had failed to observe anyone else. "Uh ... Simon ... I ... uh ...." He drew a deep breath. "I guess ... you’ve never seen how I look at … somebody I’m in love with, huh?"
Simon very carefully put his glasses back on, gesturing resignedly but pointedly toward the chair as if he could somehow deposit Blair there by telekinesis.
Blair sank into the chair gratefully, his mind still flying ahead to what he would do and say to Jim when they got home. Oh, there would be some serious communication tonight. Sir Galahad had a hell of a lot of explaining to do. He’d achieved all new heights of absurdity in Blessed Protectoring. Had it ever occurred to the man that Blair might feel the same way? Had he even asked? No! Fine. No problem. Blair was quite certain that he could show Jim exactly how little he valued his virtue ... and in a way that Jim wouldn’t forget anytime soon. Blair was sure that whatever he lacked in experience he could make up for in pure, unadulterated enthusiasm. Jim Ellison would never know what hit him.
"I take it," said Simon in slow, measured tones, "that this problem is ... not a problem?"
"Oh, it’s a problem," said Blair a little unevenly, trying to control the hysterical giggles that threatened to seize him again. "Just not the problem you thought it was. I mean, I can understand why you thought it was a problem. And if it was anybody but Jim it would be a problem ... I mean, the kind of problem you thought it was. But it is Jim, so it’s not that kind of problem. I mean, I’ve never.... That is, Jim’s the only guy I’ve ever...."
Simon held up his hand, and Blair stopped. "I know this is difficult for you, Sandburg," he said wearily, "But resist the temptation to provide too much information. I just can’t take the strain."
"Right," said Blair, feeling a flush rise to his face. "Sorry, Simon."
Simon regarded him soberly for a moment. "This is a Sentinel thing, isn’t it?"
"Yeah," said Blair softly. "It’s a Sentinel thing. Well, a Sentinel and Guide thing. I haven’t got it all figured out yet. I guess Jim and I will have to figure it out together."
Simon nodded and sighed, obviously deciding to let it go. "Just go slow. Go easy on him, okay?"
"Yeah," said Blair unevenly. Simon was right. Slow and easy. God, Jim must have been going through hell. Something like this would turn his world upside down. The last thing Jim needed now was for Blair to pounce on him like some sex-starved lunatic at the first opportunity … although the idea had an undeniable appeal. Blair ruthlessly snipped that line of thought.
They’d just take it one step at a time. They’d talk. Jim was going to have to get it through his thick skull that there was nothing wrong with what he was feeling. That Blair felt it, too. That being drawn to each other this way was part of being Sentinel and Guide. Blair knew he had no objective data on which to base such a conclusion. It didn’t matter. Something in his gut told him it was true. The moment he’d realized that Jim shared his feelings, it had all slipped into place.
It would be okay. They’d work it out. Yes, a nice, long talk was what was called for. With some relaxing atmosphere, maybe. Nice dinner. Soft music. Candlelight. Hot sex….
Blair started guiltily, feeling his face go hot again. "Yeah. Simon. You’re right. Go easy. No problem."
Simon sighed and leaned back in his chair, observing Blair wearily. "I may have done more harm than good," he said glumly. "I don’t know if I did right here, Sandburg."
"You did right," said Blair earnestly, leaning forward. "Really. It’ll be okay now. We’ll talk. We’ll work it out. You did right."
"I hope so."
"I … I really appreciate this, Simon. I know it wasn’t easy."
"Sure it was. Piece of cake," growled Simon uncomfortably. "I handle stuff like this all the time, can’t you tell?"
Blair felt an absurd lump in his throat. "Simon…."
"Forget it, Sandburg."
"No, man, I won’t forget it," said Blair feelingly, ignoring the tell-tale warning signs that Simon had reached the end of his endurance. "It was a true act of friendship. I won’t ever forget-"
Simon yanked open the drawer and pulled his badge out again, then slapped it belligerently into his pocket, teeth clenched around his cigar and glaring. "That was not a request! Forget it!"
"Ah. Right," said Blair, grinning weakly. "Forget what?"
"Out," barked Simon with his fiercest expression, jerking a thumb in the direction of the door. "Go find Ellison and keep him out of trouble. What do you think we keep you around for?"
Jim never drank on duty. Never, that is, until today. Well, he was doing a lot of things these days that he’d never done before. What the hell? Jim lifted his beer, his heightened senses performing a perpetual scan of the crummy bar he had parked himself in. He almost wished the senses hadn’t bounced back so fast this time. Despite the fact that the owner very wisely provided as little light as possible for a very large room, Jim could clearly see that the crud was about a half an inch thick on every visible surface. He could smell the men’s room from where he sat at the bar, and the few customers that populated the place at the moment were down-and-outers who made their own unique contributions to the olfactory barrage. The customers’ shoes made tearing noises as they resisted the sticky suction of the filthy floor. Jim took a sip of his beer, struggling not to make a face as he did so. Watered down. This was his fourth and he still felt like he was drinking out of a toilet bowl.
Yeah, the place was as bad as he remembered, but it had been Curtis Krakowa’s favorite dive. One of the scumbag’s friends owned the place. If he was in town, sooner or later he’d show up. It drew him like roadkill draws maggots. And Jim had a few cautionary words to deliver to Mr. Krakowa.
He knew he shouldn’t be here. It could be construed as harassment. No, strike that. It was harassment. Jim had every intention of making it very clear to Krakowa exactly which of his internal organs would see the light of day first if anything happened to Blair. If he had to sit here all day and all night for a week, he was going to make sure Krakowa got that message. Jim looked up as a large group of people shuffled in, and he glanced at his watch. Yeah, almost two. Time for the place to start filling up with more losers.
He was vaguely surprised by a persistent trilling from his pocket, and fished out his cell phone. "Ellison."
"Jim, it’s me."
Jim set down his beer and tore his gaze from the door, cradling the phone against his neck. "Hey. Sorry, Chief. Didn’t mean to…."
"I know. Don’t worry about it. Where are you?"
Worried. He was worried. "At the Den."
There was a moment of stunned silence. "The Den? What the hell are you doing in a hole like that?"
"Just soaking up the atmosphere, Chief."
"Sounds like that’s not all you’ve been soaking up."
"Just a beer with lunch."
"Uh-huh. So are they serving botulism or ptomaine today?"
"Both. It’s a buffet."
"You stay put. I’ll be there in ten minutes."
"No!" Jim shouted before he could stop himself. "No," he repeated more calmly. "I’ll see you at home later."
"What’s going on, Jim?"
Even more worried now. "Nothing’s going on. I’m just…."
"Don’t bother obfuscating! I’ll be there in five minutes." The line went dead before Jim could answer and he shoved the phone back in his pocket.
Damn kid. Damn beautiful, lovable kid. Why did he care so much? Jim was nothing but a screw-up, didn’t he know that? Blair should go talk to his old man, he’d fill him in on….
"Well, look who it is."
Jim swung back toward the bar to see a large - no, a fat - man with long, stringy blond hair leaning against the other side of the bar with a greasy grin on his face. Jim snorted contemptuously. "Yeah, I just couldn’t stay away, Vento. Who could resist Shangri-La?" Jim gestured broadly to the filthy room and its equally filthy occupants.
Vento smirked. "Might not be healthy for you to be in here, Ellison. Friend of mine got paroled a little while back, and he’s a regular customer. Don’t think he’d be happy to see you in here."
"That would just break my heart," said Jim with shocking sincerity. "So what time does he usually slither in?"
Vento leaned over the bar, his smirk becoming slightly more menacing. "Watch your mouth, Ellison. Curt has connections now. You’d better stay out of his way, or you could find yourself very dead very fast. Just a friendly warning," he added hastily, leaning away as Jim met his gaze squarely.
Jim smiled faintly, catching Vento’s frantic, darting eye movements toward a small group of very large, very drunk and very dirty men sitting at a booth in the back of the bar. Reinforcements, no doubt. "Connections, huh? Now how does a lowlife scumbag like Curt Krakowa get connections?"
The man’s eyes narrowed in annoyance. "You do a few favors in the joint, you make friends. And I’m serious, Ellison. Talk like that gets back."
"Well, I’m not going to tell him," said Jim pleasantly. "And I know you’re not going to tell him. So I’ve got nothing to worry about, do I? Who was Crackers cuddling up to in the joint?"
"That mouth of yours is going to get you-"
"So how long since you’ve had a health inspector in here?" asked Jim casually.
Vento muttered an obscenity. "Curt’ll have your balls hanging from his rear view mirror by the time he’s done with you, Ellison. You want to die? Fine. Be glad to help. Curt shared a cell with Morgan Wyatt’s brother Jack for five years. Jack owes him, bigtime, and Morgan don’t forget favors to family. So if I was you, I’d make myself scarce, because all it’ll take is for Curt to point you out…."
"Careful, careful," said Jim with a small smile, subliminally aware that the reinforcements were beginning to take notice of their conversation. "Someone overhearing that might think you were threatening a police officer. You wouldn’t want anyone to misunderstand your friendly concern."
"Yeah," snarled Vento. "Friendly." He snatched up a glass and splashed some gin into it.
"So Crackers does favors for the Wyatt family, huh? Does that include Anna?" Jim let his smile become suggestive.
Vento froze in the act of lifting the glass to his mouth, staring at Jim with wide eyes, then glanced around nervously. "You got a death wish, Ellison. Let me clue you in. Nobody touches Mrs. Wyatt. Nobody looks at Mrs. Wyatt. Nobody talks about Mrs. Wyatt. Got it? Because if Morgan don’t do something about it, Pete Calkins will."
"Calkins?" Jim hadn’t heard much about Wyatt’s money man lately. He tended to keep a low profile, distancing himself from Wyatt’s more colorful activities.
Vento glowered. "Pete don’t appreciate people trashing his sister. He practically brought her up. Nobody messes with her. Nobody."
Jim fell silent for a moment. He hadn’t realized that Calkins was Wyatt’s brother-in-law. He had wondered why about a year ago Calkins and Wyatt had suddenly gotten so tight. That must have been when Wyatt had gotten married. Jim grimaced. Calkins had evidently secured his place as Wyatt’s right-hand man by putting up his sister as collateral. "You’ve been studying the lifestyles of the rich and famous, Vento," said Jim lightly, watching the reinforcements rise from their seats and make their way slowly through the thickening crowd toward the bar.
"Curt and Wyatt are like this," hissed Vento, thrusting two fingers toward Jim in a variation of an obscene gesture. He was obviously at the end of his patience. His gaze darted frantically from the door to the back of the bar and back to Jim. "And so are me and Curt."
Jim cast a casual glance toward the door, curious. Vento was obviously expecting someone, and given his reaction to the subject under discussion, it was probably Krakowa. The noise level had been rising steadily as more and more customers drifted in. A second bartender had started pulling beers. Jim recognized a lot of the faces; he’d busted a lot of them at one time or another. He became aware of hostile stares and muttering. He shrugged marginally. So? Let them try something. He was in just the right mood for it.
"Is this guy giving you trouble, Jerry?"
Jim turned to see the largest of the reinforcements standing on his left at what he was certain was supposed to be an alarming proximity. The others slowly formed a half-ring around him, their stance casual.
"No, and he’s not going to," growled Vento ominously. "He’s leaving right now."
Jim lifted his beer and took another sip. "I don’t think so."
"Listen, Ellison! Whatever you’ve got going with Curt, take it someplace else! I don’t want any of that shit going down in my place."
"Afraid he’ll think you set him up? Yeah, he just might," said Jim softly, feeling the hot breath of one of the men closing in behind him. Just one shove, that’s all he’d need….
A pleasant, familiar voice reached Jim’s sensitive ears and eased its way through his beer-induced haze like a warm spoon through soft butter. The itch to slug someone that he’d been so carefully nursing for the past few hours disappeared at the sound. He turned hastily toward the door and leaned around the bulk of the man on his right to peer down the long, crowded room. After a moment, he caught sight of a young man with a pair of bright blue eyes and a mane of dark curls making his way slowly through the maze of people between him and the bar. The man’s appearance was so incongruous to his surroundings that for a moment Jim didn’t grasp the reality of his presence. Then, with a sharp intake of breath, he did.
Blair. In the Den, for God’s sake. Damn! Jim hadn’t realized how much time had passed since Blair’s call. He should have met him outside.
"Fine," he snapped to Vento. "I’ll take it someplace else." He rose from his stool, but was pushed back onto it by the man in front of him.
"I don’t think Jerry wants to see you here again," he said belligerently.
Jim opened his mouth to respond, but another familiar voice, this one distinctly unpleasant, rose above the white noise of the crowd to capture his attention.
"How much, Angel?"
The words pounded through Jim’s sensitive hearing like a hammer. He knew that voice all too well. Ignoring the man standing in his way, he brought his heightened vision to bear on the source of the sound, freezing in alarm as he did so. An arm had caught Blair across the chest.
Blair looked up at the owner of the arm, startled. "Excuse me?" Then an expression of recognition and disgust settled over his features. "Let me by." The arm pulled back only enough to place a hand on Blair’s chest and shove his back to the wall. Krakowa appeared from the crowd, pressing the palms of his hands to the wall on either side of Blair as he leaned toward him. Jim leapt from his stool and threw himself in Blair’s direction, but was blocked by the man in front of him. He could hear Krakowa’s next words clearly despite the distraction.
"I’ve been thinking about you, pretty boy. I figure if Annie can afford you, so can I. How much?" Krakowa laughed into Blair’s face.
Enraged, Jim finally bowled over the man restraining him and started plowing his way through the crowd. "Krakowa!" There was no reaction from either Krakowa or Blair. It was obvious that neither of them could hear him in the din of the crowded room.
Blair shoved Krakowa back roughly, eyes blazing. "Keep your hands off me, you sick son of a bitch!" Blair began walking toward Jim again, his jaw set in a way that spoke volumes to Jim about anger and fear, but Krakowa grabbed his arm and yanked him back before he had taken two steps.
"You like it rough, don’t you, pretty boy? Yeah, I’ll just bet you do-"
Jesus oh Jesus, this is what he wouldn’t tell me… Jim shoved the last few people out of his way, oblivious to spilled drinks, falls and curses, and made his way to Blair’s side, who turned to meet his gaze with a strange expression of both relief and concern.
Jim yanked the restraining hand from Blair’s arm, pushed Blair behind him, and came face to face with Krakowa.
"Ellison," stammered Krakowa, clearly caught off guard.
"Let’s get this straight, you miserable little shit," snarled Jim wildly, leaning into Krakowa’s startled face. "The next time you come within ten feet of my partner I will personally make you wish you had never been born. Are you reading me?"
The people around the three men turned to stare at the confrontation, muttering and whispering. Jim couldn’t have cared less.
"Jim," said Blair in a quiet, steady voice. "Let’s just go, okay?"
"Partner?" Krakowa’s gaze travelled from Jim to Blair and back again. "Partner?" He started to laugh. "Pretty boy’s a cop? Oh, this is too rich. What’s the matter, Ellison? Major Crimes running out of men?"
The next thing Jim knew he was shoving Krakowa up against the wall. Once … twice … three times … again and again. He was dimly aware that Blair had him by the arm and was shouting to get his attention, but he couldn’t hear what he was saying. And he couldn’t see anything but Krakowa’s frightened face. "You fucking cockroach!" Jim hissed venomously. "Sandburg is ten times more man than a hundred of you! If I find out that he’s so much as caught sight of you, even once, I will be FedExing your guts to your scumbag boss within twenty-four hours. Just try me!"
"Jim! For God’s sake, let go of him, man! Come on!"
Jim froze for a moment, listening to Blair’s voice. It had guided him successfully through so many tough spots for so long now that doing what it said had become second nature. He let Krakowa go and stepped back, breathing hard. The silence that had fallen in the bar roared in his ears. Krakowa stared back at him, panting, eyes wide with fear and hatred. Jim felt Blair pull gently on his arm.
"Let’s go, Jim," said Blair in a soft, firm voice. "Right now."
"I’ll have you up on charges, Ellison," said Krakowa in a low, malignant voice infinitely more chilling than a shout. "You and More Man, here. And that’s just for starters."
Jim stared at the vicious sneer on the man’s face, fighting the instinct to wipe it off the old-fashioned way. He wanted to take this son of a bitch out. He’d be doing the world a favor.
Blair stepped between Jim and Krakowa, facing Jim. "Let’s go," he repeated evenly.
Jim tore his gaze from Krakowa’s twisted face to look at Blair. Blair. He had to get Blair out of here. "Yeah. I’m with you, Chief." He turned toward the door, shepherding Blair in front of him. Krakowa’s strident voice cut through the undercurrent of murmurs as they crossed the threshold and stepped onto the street.
"Gotta nice piece of ass, there, Ellison. Get it for free, huh? More Man’s just one of the perks of the job!" The voice dissolved into an acid cackle.
The meaning of the words eluded Jim for a moment, until he saw Blair’s body stiffen, saw him turn toward Jim, an expression of dismay crossing his face. Jim came to a halt on the pavement, staring at Blair, then back into the dark bar, where Krakowa’s laughter was still audible.
A potent wave of rage and self-loathing washed over Jim. All his desire for Blair suddenly appalled him in a completely new way. It sickened him. What was the difference between Krakowa’s twisted fantasies and Jim’s? Nothing, at least as far as Blair was concerned. Blair wouldn’t want anything to do with either one. At least Krakowa had the poor excuse of being a sociopath. At least he wasn’t guilty of betraying a friend’s trust. His words were more an indictment of Jim than of himself. And those words told Jim loud and clear that Jim Ellison and Curtis Krakowa were all too much alike.
"Let’s get out of here," said Jim dully.
Blair steered Jim’s truck through the intersection, then stole a look at the man sitting next to him. Blair had been amazed that he had been able to get Jim to fork over the keys so easily. It had taken next to no persuasion. Jim had handed them over without comment, then climbed into the passenger seat and stared out the window wordlessly for the next ten minutes, chalk-white, dead-eyed and silent.
Blair drove toward the station, doing his best not to succumb to the temptation to pound the steering wheel in frustration and anger. That demented son of a bitch. Piece of ass? Get it for free? Perks of the job? If he wasn’t the non-violent type, he’d have gone back in there and … and…. Oh, hell. Get himself beaten up, probably. But he’d get a few shots in first. He wasn’t anybody’s piece of ass. And Jim Ellison was no more capable of treating him – or anyone – like that than a river could run the wrong way.
Blair glanced at Jim again and started yet another round of silent swearing. Jim was still wearing that Mr. Freeze face of his. Blair had learned to hate that expression … hate it because he knew now that Jim wore it only when he was in severe pain. And if there was anything Blair couldn’t stand the sight of, it was Jim Ellison in pain. He had to say something. "Jim, don’t let him get to you. He’s sick, man. He’s out of touch with reality. He doesn’t have any idea of who you are."
Jim nodded remotely, and Blair stifled a groan. The timing couldn’t possibly have been worse. Why now? Why the hell did this have to happen now?
Blair couldn’t help feeling that he should have found some way to avoid that confrontation. Maybe if he’d paid more attention when he’d entered the bar…. Blair shook his head at the thought. When he’d entered the bar, Macho Man Ellison had been about to take on what looked like two tag teams of professional wrestlers. Blair’s only thought at that moment had been to get to him as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, if he had been paying any attention to his surroundings, he would have spotted Krakowa. And then what?
Fight? Jim would have come charging to the rescue anyway. Turn and run? Leave Jim there? Not an option in any universe. Oh, hell.
Krakowa scared the hell out of him, and Blair had no problem acknowledging it. Those few moments of being pinned to the Den’s filthy wall were among the most frightening Blair had ever experienced. He hadn’t been that close to that much warped hatred since Lash. Anybody who claimed not to be afraid of Krakowa was either lying or profoundly stupid. Blair admitted to himself that he’d never been more relieved in his life than when he’d looked up to see Jim plowing through the crowd like a bulldozer through a crystal shop, hell-bent on wreaking a little diplomacy, Ellison-style.
Blair suppressed a sigh. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate the rescue. He had needed Jim’s help to get out of that situation without somebody getting hurt. Blair smiled wryly. Probably himself, although Blair suspected that if pressed he could give as good as he got. But rescuing Blair had exposed Jim to a characterization of his feelings that, if taken seriously, would undermine Jim’s very perception of who he was. The fact that anything that psychotic had to say on the subject would carry any weight with Jim showed just how much hell he had been putting himself through over this.
Okay. Enough analysis. What was required here was some positive action. Blair pulled into the McDonald’s drive-through and ordered a large cup of coffee. "You need some food, buddy?"
There was no answer. Blair looked to Jim in alarm, then sighed softly. Jim had fallen fast asleep. Oh, well. Probably just as well. He hadn’t gotten any more sleep than Blair had, probably less. Add to that a major BPS crisis, God only knew how many beers and a generous portion of over-the-top macho posturing, all before three o’clock in the afternoon. No wonder the poor guy had crashed. Even a superhero has his limits. Blair grinned conspiratorially to himself, imagining Jim’s reaction to such a statement. He hated it when Blair called him a hero of any kind. Hated it with a passion. So of course Blair called him one whenever possible, just on principle. He wondered what Jim would say if he knew that Blair really meant it.
Jim stirred and muttered something in his sleep. Blair caught a couple of disjointed words in Chopec, and gave him a sharp look. Good. "Soften him up for me, okay?" murmured Blair quietly. "I need all the help I can get."
The words were no sooner out of Blair’s mouth than he heard the muffled trilling of Jim’s cell phone. Jim slept on, oblivious, but the phone kept ringing. Blair sighed. It had to be Simon. He was probably not worrying again. Smiling, Blair reached inside Jim’s jacket and pulled out the phone.
"Sandburg? Where the hell are you? Where’s Ellison?" There was an edge to Simon’s voice that made Blair clutch the phone more tightly. Something had happened.
"He’s right here. We’re on our way back to the station. What-"
"Are you two all right?"
"We’re fine. Simon, what’s-"
"Did you keep him out of trouble?"
"Ah ... for the most part."
There was a brief silence, and Blair held his breath. Simon sighed and continued, evidently deciding not to pursue it. "Get over to the harbor, the end of 14th Street. Now."
"Simon, tell me-"
"Okay, okay! Just-"
Simon hung up, and Blair gave the phone an incredulous stare. What was Simon so worked up about? Krakowa couldn’t have filed charges this fast, could he? No. Blair doubted that he would at all. What was at the end of 14th Street? Nothing but a lot of mud, as far as Blair could remember. It must be a crime scene. But then why hadn’t Simon explained what was going on? Blair sighed and turned the truck toward the harbor. He should probably wake Jim up. He glanced at his friend and sighed. No, he should probably sober Jim up, and fast. They were only a few blocks from the loft. Blair hung a hard left. Yes. Shove his head under some cold water, get some hot coffee into him, and he just might be able to survive Simon on the warpath.
Jim groaned in his sleep, and Blair reached over to lay a hand on his arm. "Jim? Come on, buddy, wake up."
"Blair," murmured Jim in a despairing tone that hurt Blair to hear. "Don’t…."
"Jim," said Blair a little more urgently. Wherever Jim had been a few minutes ago, he was someplace else now. He must be having one hell of a dream - or nightmare. Blair shook Jim’s arm gently. "Time to wake up."
Jim abruptly gasped and lurched forward in his seat. Blair flung an arm across Jim’s chest, managing to keep him from diving into the dashboard. "Jim! Easy, man, you’re okay."
Jim clutched Blair’s arm for a moment and stared around him, then exhaled and leaned back in his seat. "Geez. Sorry, Chief. Must have dozed off."
"For about twenty minutes," said Blair softly. He knew from the look on Jim’s face that he wouldn’t be hearing about this dream, not for a while, at least. Jim was white to the gills again. "Here," he added, lifting the lukewarm coffee from the cup holder. "Maybe this’ll help."
"Thanks." Jim accepted the coffee and took a sip, then looked back to Blair. He seemed to be struggling for words for a moment, then muttered, "Sorry, Chief."
"For what?" asked Blair, keeping the tenderness out of his voice with difficulty. "Your taste in watering holes, maybe? It’s sure gone to hell."
"Look, I’m really sor-"
"Don’t be sorry! Just –" Blair paused and gathered his thoughts carefully. "Just tell me what you were doing in there."
Jim shrugged. "Just blowing off steam, I guess."
"Ah. Steam. I get it," said Blair drily. "Smoke signals. I guess they worked, huh?"
Jim set his jaw stubbornly. "I’m not reading you, Chief."
"Oh, you’re reading me just fine. You went there to draw out Krakowa and put the fear of Ellison into him, right?"
Jim said nothing.
Jim took another sip of his coffee.
"Oh, well. More data for my dissertation. I’ve decided to add a chapter on BPS," said Blair casually, observing Jim carefully out of the corner of his eye.
Jim kept sipping his coffee.
"That was an impressive alpha-male threat display, and I’ve seen a few in my time. I especially liked the FedExing-your-guts business. Now that was original."
Jim’s mouth twitched slightly.
"So how do you do that, exactly? I mean, does FedEx have a special container for guts, or what?"
Jim hid his mouth against his coffee cup.
"Do they, like, charge extra for delivering guts?"
Jim choked on his coffee.
"I guess if you give ‘em enough business they give you a bulk rate, huh?"
Jim sputtered and wiped his chin with the back of his hand. "Sandburg...."
"I know, I know. These details are all old hat for a professional Blessed Protector, but they’re new to me. I’m learning, man. Now, while you’re packing up the guts...."
"For crying out loud-"
"Do you, like, have something to psych you up, like some kind of Blessed Protector Fight Song?"
Jim finally broke into quiet laughter, nearly spilling his coffee as he did so. "No."
"No? Aw, c’mon, man, tell me what it is. Something retro, right?"
"What ... what have you been smoking, Sandburg?"
"‘Live and Let Die’? ‘We Are the Champions’? Oh.... I’ve got it. It’s ‘Don’t Mess Around With Jim’, isn’t it?"
"Never ... heard of it," managed Jim, controlling himself with a visible effort as he hastily gulped down some more coffee.
"You know, man, the old Jim Croce song." Blair drew a deep breath and sang at the top of his lungs. "You don’t tug on Superman’s cape...."
"Everybody’s looking at you," growled Jim, scrunching down in his seat.
"You don’t spit into the wind...." Blair waved as a passing motorist favored him with a glare.
"Dammit, you’re ... you’re endangering other drivers here...."
"You don’t pull the mask off the ol’ Lone Ranger...."
"Just ... just knock it off." Jim pulled the brim of his cap down over his eyes as the drivers on either side stared at them curiously.
"And you don’t mess around with Jim."
Jim’s laughter erupted again, and he managed to slam his coffee cup into the cup holder only after he’d spilled most of the contents. "Shut up! Shut up! God, Sandburg, do anything to me but sing!"
"Dah doo dah doo dah dah dah dee dee dee dee dee," finished Blair happily with a little seat-dancing, determined to do the thing thoroughly since he had started, and delighted with the results. If he had known he could reduce Jim Ellison to this level of helplessness by singing, he would have started years ago.
"You’re a maniac," gasped Jim. "Watch out! Keep your eyes on the damn road."
"Come on, Jim, sing with me." Blair tooted the horn merrily, drawing more annoyed stares.
"I don’t sing," snapped Jim, straightening his baseball cap and making a gallant effort to compose himself. "And I hate to break this to you, Sandburg, but neither do you."
"You’re jealous," returned Blair cheerfully.
"You’re certifiable," retorted Jim, a grin breaking through. He glanced around as if noticing his surroundings for the first time. "Where are we headed?"
"First to the loft and then to the end of 14th Street. Simon called. I think it’s a case." Blair turned onto Prospect Avenue.
Jim sat up straight and shot Blair a sharp look. "You think it’s a case?"
"Simon wasn’t in a very communicative mood. Sounded like he was in a hurry."
"Then so should we," said Jim impatiently. "Why are we going to the loft?"
"Not to put too fine a point on it, tough guy, but you smell like you fell into a vat of Jerry Vento’s finest."
"You’ll make someone a wonderful little mother someday, Sandburg," growled Jim. "Just drive to 14th."
"Forget it. If you get canned for being drunk on duty, then where the hell am I?"
"I’m not drunk," said Jim icily.
"Fine. You’re not drunk. You still stink. You must have been sitting in that hole for quite awhile to soak up that much atmosphere." Jim glared at him, but Blair couldn’t have cared less. Anything was better than that damned Mr. Freeze expression. And Jim’s color was back to normal too, thank God. "You went right there from the station, didn’t you?"
Jim shrugged and said nothing.
"C’mon, Jim, talk to me. What were you thinking?"
"Look, Chief, I said I was sor-"
"I don’t want you to be sorry. I want to understand."
Jim’s expression softened, but he remained silent.
"Did you really think you could scare him off?" Blair asked softly, already knowing the answer. Jim had thought so. He thought he could protect Blair from every evil in the world. Or maybe he just thought that he should be able to. Blair’s throat tightened at the thought. He’d rather have Krakowa throw him against a hundred walls than see Jim do this to himself.
Jim glanced at Blair uncertainly, then looked away again. "I did scare him," he said finally, with a certain amount of grim satisfaction. "I smelled it on him."
"How long do you think he’ll stay scared?" pursued Blair softly.
"Not long," conceded Jim.
"Well, you certainly got his attention. Do you think he’ll make trouble for you?"
"Let him try," Jim growled.
"I don’t want him to try. I want him to leave you the hell alone, which he probably would have done if you hadn’t gone looking for him." Blair kept a level tone with difficulty. He pulled up in front of the loft and parked.
"He wouldn’t have left you alone, so what the hell good would that have done me?" snapped Jim. "We’d have wound up facing off no matter what. At least now he knows he’ll have to go through me first."
Blair pounded the steering wheel in a sudden surge of fear and frustration. "I don’t want him to go through you. I don’t want him anywhere near you. I don’t want anything to happen to you, okay?" Blair caught himself, clenched his teeth and clutched the steering wheel to keep from saying any more. Every declaration of love he’d ever fantasized about making screamed in the back of his mind. This was it. He couldn’t stand this anymore. This silence was killing both of them. As soon as they got upstairs, he was going to tell Jim everything he’d ever wanted to tell him. One way or another, Blair was going to make this man understand that he was dearer to Blair than his own life and that whatever Jim was feeling for him was okay with him. Hell, more than okay, it was the best thing that had ever happened to him. And Simon could damn well wait while he did it. Blair grabbed the door handle.
"Yeah, I know," said Jim, so gently that Blair froze in his seat and looked up at him, startled. It took him a moment to realize that Jim was responding to his words, not his thought. Jim seemed to have been caught off-guard by what Blair had said, but then he always seemed surprised and confused when someone showed they cared about him. Jim rested a hesitant hand on Blair’s shoulder and Blair fought hard not to lean into the touch. "It’ll be okay, Chief. Nothing’s going to happen to me."
Blair drew a deep breath for control and did his best to look skeptical. "Yeah, yeah, I know. You’re invincible."
Jim grinned a little weakly. "I thought you’d catch on sooner or later."
"Come on," returned Blair gruffly, pushing open the door. "Let’s get you cleaned up."
"When exactly did I lose this argument, Chief?" Jim swung out of the truck and waited for Blair on the sidewalk, an amused, resigned expression on his face.
"Same time you always do," returned Blair matter-of-factly, coming to Jim’s side.
"Before I started it?"
"I thought you’d catch on sooner or later."
It was a piercing shriek, and Blair whirled in the direction of the sound to see a sandy-haired woman running across the street, dodging the passing traffic by mere inches. It took him several stunned moments to realize who it was. "Anna?" He bolted into the street toward her, dimly aware that Jim was two steps behind him.
Anna ran toward him, sobbing, arms outstretched, seemingly oblivious to the cars that whizzed around her, blaring their horns. Blair threw both arms around her in relief, pulled her out of harm’s way and practically carried her to the sidewalk as she clung to him, sobbing hysterically.
"Blair. Blair, he’s dead. He tried to help me and he’s dead, he’s dead...."
"Shhhh." Blair held her, realizing that it was pointless to ask questions of someone in this condition. The convulsive tremors ran through the woman’s body told him everything he needed to know right now. Glancing down, he was alarmed to see that she had fresh cuts and bruises on her arms, and her clothes were dirty and torn. God only knows what she’d been through to get here. He was grateful to see her alive and in one piece. If anything worse had happened to her after letting her go off with Krakowa, he’d never have been able to forgive himself. "You’re safe now. You’re okay." Glancing up over Anna’s shoulder, he realized that Jim was standing close beside them, watching Blair with an achingly sad expression which disappeared the moment he realized Blair was returning his gaze.
"Is she all right?" asked Jim quietly.
Anna gasped and turned toward Jim’s voice with a terrified expression.
"It’s okay, it’s okay," said Blair soothingly. Afraid she’d run off again, he put an arm around her shoulders. "This is Jim Ellison. He’s the friend I told you about."
"The ... the cop?" stammered Anna a little wildly.
"That’s right," said Jim a little stiffly.
Anna stepped toward him deliberately, still shaking violently. "I want you to arrest my husband. I want you to arrest Morgan Wyatt."
"You’re willing to press domestic assault charges?" asked Jim, looking surprised.
Anna stared at him blankly for a moment. "Domestic assault?" she quavered faintly. "No! I want him charged with murder."
What were the odds?
Simon stared at the man lying dead at his feet. He had the unnerving feeling that the universe’s mechanism for distributing coincidences evenly had somehow broken down, leaving all overworked and underpaid police captains to pull their collective hair out. He’d put even money on the fact that the bookies were going crazy today, too.
"Maybe I was really evil in a previous life," he muttered to himself.
When Brown had called in from the scene, saying that the victim was Morgan Wyatt’s right-hand man, Simon had been certain there’d been a misidentification. Pete Calkins, dead? After what had gone down with Blair just a few hours ago? It messed with the odds, and Simon had a great and abiding faith in the odds.
But Simon knew the man’s face. And there it was, what was left of it, lying in the harbor-side mud for all to see. Multiple gun shot wounds. It hadn’t been an easy death from the look of things. Simon wondered grimly which of Wyatt’s many business rivals had decided to raise the stakes so dramatically, and how many corpses would result from the ensuing war. Wyatt wasn’t going to take this lying down.
Unless, of course, it had been an executive decision of his own. It wouldn’t be the first time that Wyatt had terminated an employee in the literal sense. But the word on the street was that Wyatt and Calkins were tight. They were brothers-in-law. It seemed unlikely that Calkins could fall from favor so quickly. Then again, family always made the best suspects.
Simon grimaced. Ordinarily he’d put Ellison on this. Brown was a good detective, but he didn’t have Ellison’s experience … or his special edge. And a special edge was what the Cascade PD would need to get an arrest, let alone a conviction, in this case.
But Ellison was freaking out over Wyatt and Krakowa crossing Blair’s path. He was as close to the brink as Simon had seen him since the Alex Barnes business, and that was saying something. Simon didn’t want to think about Jim Ellison interviewing Morgan Wyatt under these circumstances. Jim might steady down after he and Blair had their talk, but Simon doubted it. Blessed Protector Syndrome, as Blair had once pointed out to him, was like alcoholism. You had it for life. All you could do was take it one day at a time. As long as Blair was in danger, Jim would be a loaded cannon. The best Simon could do was make sure that Jim wouldn’t be a loose cannon as well.
Which meant limiting Jim’s involvement in this case. Simon sighed loudly. Yeah, that would go down so well. Simon looked forward eagerly to informing Jim Ellison that he was being fitted for a leash and muzzle. Jim always appreciated such considerations. And where the hell was he? Simon had told Blair to report almost half an hour ago. Maybe Blair was doing whatever the hell he did - Sandburg voodoo or whatever - to get Jim calmed down, focused and in shape. The kid deserved a salary for that alone. Still, they should have been here by now.
Simon’s cell phone rang, and he grimaced. It had to be Ellison. God forbid he just report for duty like every other detective on the force. He yanked the phone out of his jacket pocket. "Banks."
"Captain, we have a little sit-"
"Ellison, where the hell are you?"
"On the way to the station, sir. If you’ll-"
"What we have here is a failure to communicate, Detective, and its name is Sandburg."
There was a brief pause, long enough for Simon to process the impression that there was something wrong in Jim’s voice. When Jim spoke again, the impression became a certainty. Simon managed, with some difficulty, to suppress a curse. Something had happened.
"He gave me your message, sir, but something’s happened."
"This had better be good."
"Mrs. Wyatt is with us."
Simon briefly considered asking Jim if he had been drinking, then reminded himself that if Jim had been drinking Simon didn’t want to know about it. "Mrs. Morgan Wyatt?"
"Yes, sir. We need to place her in protective custody as quickly as possible. She’s a murder witness."
Simon sighed in dismal comprehension. The odds had suffered yet another staggering blow. "Pete Calkins."
"Yes." Jim sounded surprised, then continued in a subdued tone. "You found him."
"In the flesh." It was only then that Simon realized what the presence of Mrs. Wyatt at the murder of her brother was likely to mean. "Tell me we’ve got Morgan Wyatt for murder," he said sharply.
"I think we do, sir," replied Jim with a sort of savage satisfaction in his voice.
"Don’t let that woman out of your sight. I’ll meet you at the station in ten minutes."
"It’s okay, Anna. We’re going to get you through this."
Jim glanced over at Blair, who had wrapped his jacket around the trembling woman and was holding her protectively. Jesus, he had been right this morning after all. He was jealous. It didn’t matter that Jim knew there was nothing between Blair and this woman. It was enough that Blair put his arms around her.
She was scared to death, for God’s sake. Blair was trying to comfort her, to calm her down. He’d do the same for anyone who needed help. Blair was too big-hearted to do anything else. And Jim was still jealous.
This is sick.
"He won’t stop until I’m dead," said Anna through chattering teeth.
"You’ll be in protective custody soon," said Blair evenly.
"What about you?" stuttered Anna miserably. "Who will protect you?"
Jim grit his teeth and took the turn into the station garage a little more sharply than he had to.
"I’ve got all the protection I can handle, believe me," said Blair in a wry tone, giving Jim a funny little look over Anna’s head as they came to a stop.
Jim caught the look and found himself steadied by it despite everything. He shouldered open the door and piled out, shaking his head. How did the man do it? No matter how bad things got, no matter how badly Jim wanted to crawl under his rock, Blair always found some way to coax him out again. And things were pretty damn bad at the moment. The power Blair had over him scared the shit out of him sometimes. He took Anna’s arm as gently as he could and steered her quickly and firmly to the elevator.
"Where … where did they find Peter?" she asked faintly as the elevator doors closed.
"In the mud down by the harbor," said Jim without giving his answer a thought. It took Blair’s horrified look and the new tears in Anna’s eyes to make him realize what he had just said. Anna turned to Jim, a tear traveling down one cheek. Jim cursed himself silently. "I’m sorry," he stammered helplessly as the doors slid open. What the hell was he doing? Was he this low? "I didn’t-"
"I know what he was," whispered Anna. "But he was the only real family I ever had."
She and Blair moved past him into the crowded bullpen and headed for Simon’s office, running a gauntlet of curious stares. Blair’s mouth was set in an angry line, and Jim groaned inwardly. The devastation in Anna’s face had hit him hard, and he found himself putting himself in her place. What if it had been Blair lying in the mud? Why the hell was he taking his petty jealousy out on this poor girl? Jim followed them wordlessly, hating himself all over again. He stood in the doorway to Simon’s office, watching as Blair settled Anna in a chair.
"You’ll be okay now. Captain Banks will be here soon. He’ll take care of everything."
Anna nodded numbly. "Could I please have some water?"
"I’ll get you some," said Blair hastily. He sidled past Jim with a muttered, "Try not to take a stick to her while I’m gone, okay?" and headed toward the break room.
After a moment’s hesitation, Jim pulled up a chair next to Anna and sat down. "I apologize, Mrs. Wyatt," he said quietly. "I wasn’t thinking."
"Yes, you were. You were thinking, ‘Pete Calkins is dead, good riddance,’" said Anna wearily but without rancor.
No, not exactly. Jim had been thinking how good it would feel to have Blair hold him like that and how much he hated that Blair was holding someone else instead. But it was certainly true that he wasn’t mourning the passing of Pete Calkins. He groped for something he could say honestly. "I’m sorry you lost family," said Jim after a moment. "I know how that feels."
Anna lifted her gaze to his face for a moment, and Jim was startled to see a discerning intelligence in those green eyes. "Thank you. And I’m sorry that I’ve gotten your friend involved in all this. I would never do anything to hurt him. Blair is the only friend I have in the world now."
Jim nodded, wearily deciding that he was even more of a mean shit than he had originally thought. And he was certainly slipping up in the inscrutable department if this total stranger had been able to see how worried he was about Blair. "If you have to have just one, Blair’s the best choice you could make."
Anna wiped her eyes and nodded. "Morgan knows about him. And Curtis Krak-"
"Please watch out for him."
Jim smiled faintly.
"I mean, more than you usually do."
"What?" Jim stared at her, startled.
"I saw how you ran out into the street after him," explained Anna tremulously. "It’s the kind of thing a big brother would do." She drew a shaky breath and tried to go on, but something seemed to hit her quite suddenly and she broke down, sobbing quietly into her hands.
"I’m sorry," said Jim helplessly, patting her shoulder awkwardly. Please don’t make me feel any more like a shit than I already do. "Don’t … try not to worry about Blair. I’ll keep an eye on him. It’ll be okay. You’ll get through this. We all will." Jim stifled a sigh. Well, it had been bound to happen sooner or later, but it still came of something of a shock to hear himself sounding like Sandburg.
Jim heard a small sound behind him and looked up to see Blair standing in the doorway with a glass of water in his hand, smiling at him for all the world as if Jim had just saved the universe or something. Oh, God. Of all the many Sandburg smiles that did dangerous things to Jim’s libido, the "I’m so proud of you" smile had always been the worst. It ripped him up inside to see it now, now that he knew damn well that he deserved neither the admiration nor the trust and affection it implied. Jim stood up and removed his hand from Anna’s shoulder as if it burned him.
"Any sign of Simon?" he asked harshly.
Simon barreled through the elevator doors into the bullpen. "Where?" he barked succinctly to Rafe, who hastily pointed in the direction of Simon’s office. Oh, it was a damn good thing that Ellison was here. If he had pulled one more stunt today, Simon would have pinned his ears back, no matter what kind of a case he had put together against Wyatt. Simon was willing to cut Jim a lot of slack. The guy was under a hell of a lot of pressure right now. And a good man always deserves some slack, never mind a good friend and an extraordinary cop. But Simon had a precinct to run, and he couldn’t have his officers constantly disregarding his orders. If Jim needed some leave time to get himself together, all he had to do was ask. God knew he had it coming.
Simon strode through the door of his office. A battered-looking young woman was sitting on a chair in front of his desk, drinking a glass of water and looking like she was trying hard not to cry or pass out. Blair was sitting next to her, speaking to her softly. He looked up at Simon with a relieved expression. Jim was standing across the room, staring out the window. He appeared to take no notice of Simon’s arrival.
Simon took one good, long look at Jim’s face and grimaced. He knew that expression all too well. Something had happened since he had seen Jim last. Something nasty. Something that had shut Jim down emotionally and had probably shut his senses down, too. Something that would make Simon Banks’ life ever-living hell until it was resolved. Simon didn’t doubt that Major Crime’s unofficial shrink had been on the job. Blair had at least coached Jim past the inevitable Zombies-R-Us phase ... somewhat. Not that Blair was looking too good, either. Simon muttered a particularly foul obscenity under his breath. Wasn’t having one kid enough? When had he stopped being a police captain and started being Dad to these two pains in the ass?
Simon closed the door behind him. "Welcome back, Detective," he growled to Jim.
Jim started and turned toward him. "Sir?"
Yup. Senses gone. Jim hadn’t even heard Simon come in.
"Anna, this is Captain Banks," said Blair quietly.
Simon turned his attention to the young woman. God, she was black-and-blue everywhere he looked. "Mrs. Wyatt, do you need a doctor?"
"No," replied Anna unsteadily. "I’m all right."
Simon eased himself into his chair. Shit. All of the conventional platitudes like "sorry for your loss" and "my condolences" seemed hypocritical in the extreme. He was a cop. This woman was Pete Calkins’ sister and Morgan Wyatt’s wife. She knew damn well that he wasn’t sorry that Calkins was dead and Wyatt was the prime suspect. But he had to say something.
"My condolences," he said quietly. He found he didn’t feel that bad about saying it. He was sorry - for her. You couldn’t help but feel sorry for a woman - not much more than a girl, really - who had just lost the last family she had, no matter who he was. And if the rumors were true, she hadn’t had much to say about who she’d married. He certainly couldn’t imagine any woman in her right mind marrying Wyatt out of choice. Simon’s gaze swept over her cuts and bruises. That son of a bitch. If they really had a chance to put him away…. "We’ll do everything possible to guarantee your safety."
Anna shivered slightly. "Blair told me." Blair reached over and drew his jacket around her gently. Out of the corner of his eye, Simon saw Jim move restlessly from the window to Simon’s chair and back again.
Simon cleared his throat uncomfortably. This was never easy, and Jim prowling around behind him like some caged animal only made it harder. What the hell was going on? "I understand," he said as gently as possible, "that you witnessed your brother’s murder."
"Morgan killed him," said Anna simply, as if she were too tired to cry anymore.
Shock. God knows Simon had seen enough of it in the past twenty years. "Why?"
Anna drew a deep, trembling breath. "I called Peter and told him that Morgan had made me quit school. That he thought I was … being unfaithful. That he had hit me."
"You’d never told him about Morgan hitting you before?" asked Blair softly. Simon gave him a long, quelling stare that went completely ignored.
"No. I was afraid of what he’d do. He was always very protective of me. He had a terrible temper, and so did Morgan. I was always afraid that they would…."
"I understand," said Simon evenly. "What happened after you told your brother about all this?"
"He got very angry. He said I wasn’t going to stay in Morgan’s house another minute, and that his partnership with Morgan was finished. He told me to pack a bag, that he’d be at the house in fifteen minutes to pick me up." Anna faltered. "He always believed in me, always protected me. Always."
Anna fell silent, and Simon tried to curb his impatience. She was in shock. She was doing her best. Just give her some time.
Blair reached over and took Anna’s hand. "Did he come to the house?" he asked, so softly that Simon could barely hear him. Jim shifted position again.
"Yes," whispered Anna. She clutched Blair’s hand tightly. "I was downstairs waiting. Morgan was supposed to be in town until tonight, you see. I thought it was safe. If I had known he’d be back so early I would have told Peter to stay away…."
"Morgan came home early," prompted Simon gently.
"He drove up just as Peter and I were walking to Peter’s car. There was a terrible fight, and Morgan just … went insane. He shot Peter. Over and over. There was blood and … and…." Anna paused and took a sip of water. The hand holding the glass shook so badly that the water splashed slightly. The other hand still held Blair’s tightly.
" I could see he was dead. I got into the car and drove away. He shot at the car. I drove as fast as I could and got off the estate before he could shut the gates."
"Easy," said Blair quietly, taking the water glass from her wildly shaking hand.
"I knew that Morgan would have everyone looking for Peter’s car, so as soon as I got into town I parked it and ran. I didn’t know where to go for a long time. I couldn’t think. But the only person I could go to was Blair. I know it’s only gotten him deeper in trouble."
"Don’t worry," said Blair earnestly. "You did the right thing. It’s okay."
"Mrs. Wyatt, are you willing to testify against your husband?" Simon held his breath. How many times had he heard the stories of witnesses who had the goods on Wyatt and were too frightened to testify? How many times had that lowlife escaped prosecution? It was difficult to believe that Anna would be any different. She had even more reason than the rest to fear him.
Anna raised her eyes and met Simon’s gaze steadily. "He killed Peter. I want him arrested. I want him put in jail. I will testify."
It was all Simon could do not to cheer. He saw Jim give her a look of mingled surprise and respect, saw Blair squeeze her hand. "Good. Then we’ll do our best to make sure jail is where he goes and where he stays. We’ll need a formal statement from you … a detailed statement."
Anna nodded remotely.
"Jim, get Mrs. Wyatt’s statement. I’ve got a few phone calls to make. We’ll find you a safe place to stay as quickly as possible."
Anna rose shakily from her chair. "Thank you."
"No," said Simon gently. "Thank you, Mrs. Wyatt."
Anna shook her head. "Calkins," she said quietly. "I’m Anna Calkins."
"This way, Ms. Calkins," said Jim softly.
Blair rose and followed Anna to the door, but Simon stopped him with a soft "Sandburg" and a beckon. Blair nodded and murmured something in Anna’s ear. She smiled very faintly and followed Jim out in to the bullpen.
"Close the door," said Simon grimly.
Blair complied with a surprised expression. "What’s wrong?"
"She’s right. You’re in deep trouble. Don’t even think about going home. Don’t even think about leaving the station."
Blair sighed. "Note to self: BPS appears to be contagious rather than congenital. Why? You’re going to arrest Wyatt, aren’t you?"
"He’s not in jail yet. And in case you’ve forgotten, he’s got an army of well-paid employees who will be all too happy to earn brownie points from their meal ticket by making red mist out of you."
Blair grimaced. "I had forgotten that, actually. Thanks so much for sharing."
"Dammit, Blair, I’m serious! And the only reason we’re not having this conversation in front of your so-called Blessed Protector is that he’s obviously on overload already. What happened?"
Blair suddenly was looking everywhere but Simon’s face. "Ah…."
Simon realized immediately that he may have asked a question he didn’t want the answer to. "Oh. Did you two have your…."
"No," said Blair quickly. "Not yet."
Simon breathed in relief, feeling on solid ground again. "Then what…?"
"You didn’t keep him out of trouble, did you?" demanded Simon on a hunch, which was instantly confirmed by the look on Blair’s face. "What happened?"
Blair fidgeted, his gaze now locked on his shoes. "You’ll have to ask him," he said quietly.
Simon leaned toward him angrily, but he kept his voice low. "If what happened has any bearing on his conduct as a police officer…."
"You will have to ask him," repeated Blair in a steely tone, looking Simon straight in the eye.
Damn! The kid had been spending too much time around Ellison. Simon could almost hear Jim’s "I respectfully decline to answer, sir" tone in Blair’s voice. Now what was the most reckless, irresponsible, and stupid thing Ellison could have done? Ah. Of course.
"He went looking for Krakowa," growled Simon in Blair’s face. Blair’s shaky little intake of breath spoke volumes. "He found Krakowa! Is Krakowa alive?"
"Of course he’s alive," snapped Blair angrily.
"Is he ambulatory?"
"Dammit, Simon, let it go. No one got hurt."
"I will not let it go! What the hell did he think he was doing?"
"He wasn’t thinking! He was feeling. It won’t happen again."
"It doesn’t have to! If that waste of space presses charges…."
"Then he’ll return the favor. Krakowa will come looking for Jim."
"You think Jim didn’t know that?" snarled Blair, angrier than Simon had seen him in ages. The kid was scared, and not for himself. "That was the whole idea. To distract him from me."
"All right, all right," sighed Simon. "One crisis at a time. Get out there and keep an eye on him. I’ll get one of the safe houses lined up…."
The door burst open, and Rafe appeared, panting. "Captain, Kra-"
"Detective, just what exactly is it about a closed door that you don’t understand?" snapped Simon in annoyance.
"I’m … I’m sorry, Captain," gasped Rafe. "But Curt Krakowa is on his way up to see you."
"And then he … he just sort of .. crumpled…."
Jim found himself reaching over to lay a comforting hand over Anna’s shaking ones. "Take your time, Ms. Calkins. Do you need…?"
"I just need to get this over with," replied Anna with a deep, shaky breath.
"We’re almost there," said Jim gently. The lady had guts. He admired guts. "If-"
Jim whirled at the wild panic in that voice to see Blair whipping through the obstacle course of desks and office equipment between Simon’s office and Jim’s desk. "Blair? What-"
"We have to get Anna out of here now!" gasped Blair, hair flying and eyes wild as he skittered to a stop in front of Jim and Anna.
"What’s wrong?" asked Anna fearfully, rising from her chair.
"Breathe, Chief," said Jim steadily, pushing himself to his feet. "Just tell us what-"
"Move, Sandburg," gasped Rafe, running past them toward the elevators as if his life depended on it.
Blair snatched Jim’s jacket off his chair and threw it at him. "Krakowa’s in the elevator. He’ll be here any second."
"Oh, God," said Anna faintly.
"Hide her," snapped Jim, rising from his chair. "I’ll tell you when it’s safe. Move!"
"Right." Blair grabbed Anna’s hand and dragged her away.
Jim strode toward Simon’s office, his fear and fury mounting. Krakowa had to be here on Wyatt’s orders, to get a line on Anna’s whereabouts, whatever his cover story might be. Wyatt was no fool; he had to realize that Anna would run to Blair. Like the lady had said, Blair was her only friend. Wyatt knew that; Anna’s bruises testified to it. He also knew that Anna was the only witness to his latest murder, and had no reason whatsoever to remain quiet about it, other than fear for her life. He obviously wasn’t betting on that fear doing the job. Anna would now be a target for every soldier in Wyatt’s organization. The thug that took her out would be set for life. And now, thanks to Jim Ellison, supercop, so would the thug who took out Blair Sandburg.
Jim had just had to tell Krakowa that Blair was his partner. As if Blair weren’t enough of a target. Jim might as well have left a trail of bread crumbs for Wyatt to follow. If Anna weren’t at the station, then Wyatt knew full well that the cops of Major Crimes would know where she was, and he’d have the place staked out while that psycho Krakowa found out what he could inside. Krakowa was a strange choice for the job - not exactly the brightest bulb in the chandelier - but Wyatt probably figured that his presence would rattle some information loose. Thank God Anna and Blair were both safe inside the station, and not out there on the streets. How the hell were they going to pull this one out? Anna could be placed in witness protection, but Blair? Would he be spending the rest of his life hiding from Morgan Wyatt and his goons? How far would he have to run? How long would he survive without protection? Without me to protect him? Jim shouldered his way through Simon’s half-open door. Whatever Krakowa had to say, he was going to be here to hear it, whether Simon liked it or not. "Simon-"
"Sit down and shut up," snapped Simon, rising and gesturing to a chair at the far side of the room. "Not one damn word or I throw you into the nearest available cell! Am I understood?"
"Sir," muttered Jim, sinking into the chair with the realization that Simon knew him too damn well. He had to stay cool. He had to think. Blair’s survival depended on it. He looked up to see Rafe, still slightly winded, standing at the door.
"Captain, Krakowa’s here." Rafe stepped aside with an expression Jim hadn’t seen since the man had bit into a two-month old sandwich mistakenly left in the breakroom fridge.
Krakowa cast Rafe a look of equal distaste, tainted by a twisted leer, and leaned into Rafe’s face. "Pretty," he said, in a voice that made Jim’s short hairs rise. He clutched the arms of his chair in an effort not to rise as Rafe shoved Krakowa away roughly. "You got a lot of pretty boys around here, don’t you, Banks? Like that, huh?"
Rafe’s eyes widened and Jim knew from his friend’s body language that Krakowa was within a split second of getting his teeth knocked down his throat. Do it, Rafe … do it for both of us….
"Thank you, Detective," cut in Simon sharply. "Shut the door, please."
Rafe cast Krakowa one lethal look and left, shutting the door as loudly as possible without slamming it. Krakowa cackled softly and plopped himself into a chair in front of Simon’s desk, where he promptly rested his feet. He glanced over at Jim. "Well, if it isn’t Detective Ellison. Where’s your little friend, huh? Where’s More Man?"
Jim stiffened and met the man’s gaze, trying to keep his rising rage off his face. Somehow, some way this pig was going to pay for putting his hands on Blair.
"Krakowa, you said you wanted to talk to me," said Simon evenly. "So talk."
"You got a real firecracker there, Banks," said Krakowa pleasantly, swinging his feet from side to side. "A real liability risk, you know? Assaulted me today."
Simon allowed his eyebrows to rise marginally, but made no other response. Jim forced himself to lean back in his chair. Simon would play this right.
Krakowa scowled. "Did you hear me?"
Simon pulled a cigar out of his breast pocket and stuck it in his mouth. "Yup."
Krakowa stared at Simon for a heartbeat, then continued with slightly less assurance, "But that’s not what I’m here about."
"Ah," said Simon mildly, lighting the cigar.
"Morgan Wyatt sent me." Krakowa paused, preening, and waited for Simon’s reaction.
Simon remained unperturbed. "Yes?" A cloud of blue smoke rose around him.
Krakowa’s face darkened in anger. "He sent me to tell you that he knows who offed Pete Calkins."
Jim stared at the man. What was Wyatt up to now?
Simon took another puff of the cigar, nodding nonchalantly. Nothing in his expression betrayed the slightest interest in what Krakowa was saying, and Jim glanced at him in admiration. Damn, the man was good.
Krakowa yanked his feet off Simon’s desk, and leaned forward angrily. "Dammit, Banks, I’m here to give you a murderer!"
"Much obliged," drawled Simon softly, "but we know where to find them when we need to."
"You think it’s Wyatt, don’t you?" demanded Krakowa loudly.
"Is that what I think?"
"That crazy bitch has been here, hasn’t she?
"I beg your pardon?"
"Annie Wyatt! You’ve been had, Banks. She whacked Pete herself."
Jim laughed aloud, unable to stop himself. Oh, this was rich. Wyatt must be slipping.
Simon gave him a long, quelling look, then turned to Krakowa. "Is that so?"
"Yes, it’s so! She shot him up and took off. We were there. We saw it all. I got the gun if you want it."
"Yes, I’d like that very much," said Simon pleasantly.
"I got the car she hauled him away in too," continued Krakowa loftily, preening again.
"Ah," said Simon mildly. "Really."
"Found it abandoned near the harbor." Krakowa smirked knowingly.
"I see." Simon shifted position slightly, and Jim instinctively knew that the cat had finished playing with its lunch. "So you and Morgan Wyatt and Pete Calkins were out sipping mint juleps on the verandah when a blood-crazed Mrs. Wyatt leapt out of the magnolia bushes with a semi-automatic and pumped several rounds into her brother, leaving you two completely unscathed."
Krakowa’s mouth dropped open. "Uh-"
"You then sat and watched as, unconcerned by the presence of witnesses, she dragged the body into her car and drove away, leaving the incriminating weapon behind."
"Just … just wait a minute-"
"Once you waited long enough for Mrs. Wyatt to dispose of the body, you retrieved the car. At no time were the police notified of the crime. Detective Ellison, does this sound like the behavior of a concerned citizen to you?"
Jim smiled, being sure to show his teeth. "Sounds like the behavior of an accomplice to me."
"You stupid bastards," snarled Krakowa, leaping to his feet. "I’m telling you that bitch is crazy! She up and shot Pete right in front of us! We weren’t about to get whacked ourselves by trying to stop her getting away."
"I can certainly understand that, can’t you, Detective?"
"Oh, yeah," said Jim drily. "She’s a killer, all right. Wouldn’t catch me messing with her. What do you figure, Captain, five foot three? A hundred and ten pounds?"
"Oh, one fifteen, at least," returned Simon evenly, rising from his chair. "I can see she’d be one hell of a threat to two large men, especially when she’s unarmed and dragging a dead body into her car. Come on, Krakowa. Let’s go downstairs to processing."
"You’re charging me with this?" hissed Krakowa wildly, eyes blazing.
Jim got to his feet as quietly as possible. He knew that look all too well, and he didn’t like Krakowa’s proximity to Simon.
"Of course not. We’re taking you into protective custody. You’re a material witness to a murder, and the murderer, by your account, poses a threat to your safety. So we’re going to put you where you’ll never lay eyes on her." Simon put out his cigar, his voice like steel, his gaze never leaving Krakowa’s face.
Krakowa uttered an inarticulate snarl and backed away.
"Detective, perhaps you’d be good enough to escort-"
Jim started moving at the same moment Krakowa’s hand lunged inside his jacket, but all he managed to do was plant himself between Krakowa and Simon as Krakowa pulled his gun and leveled it in their direction.
"Don’t even think about it," snarled Krakowa, backing away.
"Don’t be an idiot," snapped Jim. Why the hell hadn’t this animal been searched? "You’re in a police station, remember? How far do you think you’re going to get?"
"As far as I need to. And you’re coming with me."
Jim snorted in contempt and crossed his arms over his chest. "No thanks." He heard Simon’s drawer sliding open softly, and calculated exactly how many fractions of a second he’d have to drop and roll before Simon could aim and pull the trigger.
Before he could finish the thought, Krakowa bounded to Jim’s side and shoved the barrel of the gun up under his chin. "Don’t try it, Banks! Or I’ll scatter his brains all over this nice new carpet of yours. Ellison and I are going for a walk."
"Take him, Simon," grated Jim, cursing himself for ten kinds of a fool. He should have patted the bastard down, orders to the contrary or not. Of course, if his senses had been working properly, he would have smelled that gun on him. "Just-"
"Open the door, Banks. Now."
"This is really stupid, Krakowa," said Simon softly. "Just put down the gun. You’re not going to make it out of here."
"If I go down, then so does Ellison. Open the damn door now or he’s dead!"
Jim heard Simon move slowly around his desk and toward the door. "Captain, you can’t let this scumbag-" The barrel shoved itself painfully into his neck, and Krakowa’s twisted face leaned uncomfortably close to Jim’s.
"Ellison, you and I are gonna have a long conversation about your manners."
Simon opened the door; Jim could see his eyes scanning Krakowa, Jim, the room, looking for any opening….
But there wasn’t one. As he followed Simon out into the bullpen, the gun barrel firmly pressed into the flesh under his left ear, Jim knew that neither he nor Simon could make a move - not without getting either Jim or someone else out here killed. He watched as a dozen faces looked up, stared uncomprehendingly, then freeze in expressions of horror. In a blur of motion, Jim saw Rafe and Henri go for their weapons.
"Tell ‘em to drop ‘em!!" screeched Krakowa, shoving the gun into Jim’s neck again.
"Drop your weapons," snapped Simon. "Everybody just stay where you are."
"You son of a bitch," spat Rafe, dropping his gun. "I knew I should have-"
"Shut up and stay out of my way, pretty man." Krakowa made his way through the bullpen, shoving Jim along beside him.
"You’re dead meat," Henri advised him softly as he passed.
Jim could see in his friends’ faces how close they were to getting themselves killed to get him out of this. He refused to think about that possibility … or how it made him feel. Thank God Blair wasn’t here. He didn’t have Rafe’s and Henri’s discipline. The kid ran on pure heart. He’d throw himself into the line of fire without a thought. But Blair was safe, safe.
Krakowa answered Henri with a sound more bestial than human, and shoved Jim roughly in the direction of the nearest stairwell. He knew the building well. An advantage in this situation. But Simon would have men deployed in the garage before they got there. Krakowa must know that. Krakowa kicked the door to the stairwell open and shoved Jim through. Jim staggered against the wall and for one split second considered rushing the bastard. Yes, here in the stairwell, with no one else around to get hurt…. Jim whirled, only to find Krakowa standing at a safe distance, gun aimed steadily at Jim’s head, smirking.
"Do what I say, Ellison, and you’ll live a little longer. Not a lot. But a little. Turn around and get moving."
Jim set his jaw and turned around. "You’ll never make it out of here, Crackers. By the time we get down there, there’ll be an army waiting for you." A stunning kick to his lower back made Jim gasp in pain and lose his balance. He tumbled down the first few steps, then looked up at Krakowa through a haze of pain and disorientation. The man’s eyes were blazing.
"That’s for starters. That’s the last of your shit I’ll take. I was in the joint eight years … eight years because of you! A guy can think of a hell of a lot of paybacks in eight years, Ellison. And you’re going to take every last one of ‘em. I’m going to do you, big man, and we’ll see how tough you are then. Get up!"
Jim grimaced and forced himself to his feet. Someone had to take this monster out. Even if Jim got taken out in the process.
Jim walked down the steps mechanically, his mind racing. Blair … alone … with Morgan Wyatt’s entire machine out there looking for him.
I wonder if he’s ever had a clue how much he means to me…
The door to the garage level loomed beneath him. Simon would do his best to protect Blair, of course, but would even that be good enough? Could Simon protect him twenty four-seven? No.
Of course he doesn’t have a clue. Did you ever tell him? Did you ever show him? Did you ever even thank him for keeping you alive and sane for the past three years, and jeopardizing everything he cared about doing it? No, not you. Real men don’t tell, don’t show, don’t thank. Right, Dad?
"Open the door. And move slow, Ellison."
Blair deserves better.
I’m my father’s son.
Jim jerked open the door to the garage. Even with muted senses he could hear the echoes of many shoes against the concrete floor, the loading of weapons, the mutter of many voices. He felt Krakowa’s hand clutch his shoulder and the gun barrel dig itself into the back of his neck as he stepped through the door.
"Krakowa!" Simon’s voice came from several feet away. Jim glanced over to see his captain kneeling behind the door of a patrol car, his weapon aimed. "Release Detective Ellison and drop your weapon!"
Do it, Simon … take him down, do it for both of us….
Krakowa laughed, and Jim felt the gun pull away from his neck. What the….
A massive, echoing roar erupted in Jim’s ears, and he gasped in pain and tried to wrench away, only to find the hot barrel back at his neck again before the echoes started to die. Before Jim could truly comprehend that Krakowa had fired the weapon, a new set of noises assaulted his ears.
A van roared into the garage, crashing through the barricades that had been placed across the entrance and narrowly missing two officers who tried to wave it off. It turned on two wheels and made for Krakowa and Jim at top speed. The side doors slid open, revealing several men with automatic weapons who promptly opened fire in every direction. The officers that had semi-emerged from cover at the sound of the van’s approach ducked back, returning fire, so that the entire garage resonated with the deafening sound of explosion upon explosion.
"A signal," hissed Jim, as the van came to a screeching halt several yards in front of them, effectively blocking Jim’s view of Simon.
"Bright boy," grated Krakowa in his ear. "The van. Move!" He shoved Jim roughly toward the waiting vehicle.
Now or never.
Jim staggered forward and let himself fall heavily to the ground, rolled, and swiped at Krakowa’s legs with his own. Krakowa fell on top of him, growling like an enraged beast, and Jim grappled wildly for the gun. Before he could get a firm grip on Krakowa’s wrist, the man shoved his knee into Jim’s abdomen with such force that Jim felt the air knock out of his lungs. His vision blurred, and he felt rather than saw Krakowa pull himself to his feet, dragging Jim upward by the front of his shirt. The gun was shoved into his face.
Krakowa’s bloody, twisted face leaned into Jim’s. "Fine. You want to die here? You got it."
"No! Let him go!"
The voice reached Jim’s ears over the full-scale gun battle now raging around them, and with a sickening lurch of his stomach Jim twisted his neck enough to see past his attacker.
Blair stood between the van and Krakowa, shaking visibly and holding a gun which was pointed rather vaguely in Krakowa’s direction. "Drop … drop the gun and let him go. Right now."
Krakowa stared at Blair for a fraction of a second, then barked a foul laugh. "It’s More Man. More Man and his little gun!"
"I mean it!" shouted Blair furiously, angling around so that his back was to the van. "Let him go!"
"Blair, get out of here," gasped Jim with what little wind he had left.
Blair’s face assumed its most stubborn lines as he moved a step closer. "Let. Him. Go."
It wasn’t until Krakowa’s screech of "Alive, alive!" that Jim saw the man kneeling inside the side door of the van lower the weapon he had been aiming at Blair’s back, leap from the van and make a bee-line for Blair.
"Blair!" Jim’s scream was lost in another round of gunfire as the butt of the weapon descended on Blair’s head. Blair crumpled to the ground like wet cardboard, and was immediately grabbed by the arms and dragged toward the van.
"No! Take your fucking hands off him!" Jim surged up from the floor with a vengeance, Krakowa and his gun forgotten. All that mattered was getting to Blair.
"Oh, no," snarled Krakowa, hauling Jim back down again. "He comes along too. This will be so good…." With a savage grin, the man seized Jim by the throat and without further comment slammed his head into the concrete.
Blair groaned softly at the sound of that voice, the blinding pain in his head stabbing at his closed eyes. Someone stroked his forehead gently, then his hair.
"Please, Blair," came the soft voice again, urgently. "Wake up."
Jim. It was Jim. Blair forced his eyes open, and froze in panic when he saw nothing. "Jim?" His voice quavered feebly.
Blair heard a long, quiet sigh, as if Jim had been holding his breath for a long time. "Yeah, Chief. It’s me."
Blair took a deep breath and tried to remember where he was, but his memory of recent events was as dark as his surroundings. Alarmed, he tried to sit up.
"No, Chief, wait-"
Blair felt his world spin and his stomach turn over; he fell back gasping. Jim caught him in his arms and eased him back very slowly.
"Easy, babe, easy. You took a nasty knock. Just rest."
"Feel sick," said Blair thickly. "My head hurts. What happened?"
Jim’s rueful little laugh steadied him. "Oh, not much. Just a severe episode of Blessed Protector Syndrome."
"What … did you do?" gasped Blair, almost trying to sit up again.
"Not me, Rambo. You." Jim’s hand caressed Blair’s forehead soothingly.
"Rambo?" Then Blair remembered. "Oh." The garage. The guns. The van. Krakowa…. Shit. "I screwed up, huh?"
"Yeah," said Jim, so gently that Blair fervently wished he could see his friend’s face. "You screwed up real good, Chief."
"Sorry," whispered Blair, cursing himself. "Jim, I’m … aw, hell, man, what else could I do? Let him shoot you?"
"No," murmured Jim, and Blair felt him lean forward so that his forehead was almost touching Blair’s. "You couldn’t have done anything else. That stunt was one hundred percent pure Sandburg. You can’t fight nature, babe."
Blair forced a little laugh from his lungs, wincing. "I’m not sure how to take that."
"Take it as from one Blessed Protector to another."
"You’re never going to let me forget this, are you?"
"Nope." Jim chuckled softly, then fell silent for a moment. "Thanks, Chief."
"For what? Getting us in even deeper than we were?"
"No, I mean … thanks. For everything. For saving my life. Today … and all the other times. Like the day we met. I never said thanks."
Blair peered up into the blackness, thunderstruck, and groped for a response. "No problem," he croaked weakly. "Did you get hit on the head too?"
"As a matter of fact, I did, smartass," growled Jim, sounding more like himself. He cleared his throat.
"Where are we? I can’t see anything."
"Neither can I," said Jim quietly.
"Oh," murmured Blair. "Senses out again, huh?"
"You know," began Blair hesitantly, "I’ve got a theory about this."
"Amaze me, Darwin."
"Have you ever noticed that when you’re, you know, not dealing with something…."
"Chief, your grasp of priorities is fucking mind-boggling, you know that?"
"All I’m saying is that you’ve got something on your mind that you’re not doing anything about," continued Blair determinedly.
"The only thing on my mind now is getting us the hell out of here," said Jim in a strained tone.
Blair sighed. Jim was right; this wasn’t exactly the best time for this. He relented reluctantly. "Have you looked around? I mean, felt around?"
"Not yet. I only came to a few minutes ago. And when I found you not moving…."
"Shit. I’m sorry, Jim." Blair took a breath and forced himself to sit up. His stomach expressed its displeasure with the decision, and his head seconded the opinion; he remained upright through sheer force of will, grateful for Jim’s arm around his shoulders.
Blair felt Jim’s warm, coffee-scented breath on his face as his friend bent down to him and smiled despite everything. "Hell, no. But better. You?"
"Me? I’m invincible, remember?"
"Glad one of us is."
"Stay put and I’ll have a look around."
"Don’t trip over your cape."
"You’re a riot, Sandburg."
Jim rose with a little grunt of what Blair presumed was pain and moved slowly away. Blair sat still, breathing slowly and evenly through his mouth and listening with all his might as Jim made his way slowly through the dark. The soft rumble of thunder in the distance only added to his apprehension. God only knew where Krakowa had stashed them. And how the hell had that sociopath and his little gang gotten them out of the police station in the first place? Shot their way out, probably. Blair cradled his fiercely aching head in his hands, wondering bleakly how many people had been hurt. They had all been there. Simon, Rafe, Henri, Joel….
An odd metallic sound and a strangled gasp broke Blair’s train of thought. "Jim?"
"Yeah," came Jim’s voice quickly. Too quickly. "Right here."
"What is it?" Blair staggered to his feet and made his way toward Jim’s voice on legs that felt like rubber.
"Nothing," Jim said hastily. "Just stay put."
Blair knew the man too well not to recognize a manifestation of BPS when he heard it, and he grit his teeth in annoyance. "Why?" He put out his hands, afraid of walking into a wall, only to feel something smooth, wet, soft and lukewarm in his way, something that yielded to his touch with the creak of heavy chains. Gasping, he pulled away, feeling a cool liquid running over his hands. A sickly, briny smell assaulted his nose, and he realized in horror what it was.
Blair felt Jim’s arms go around him before he could do so much as recoil.
"I told you to stay put," Jim rasped unevenly.
"I’ve got blood on my hands," said Blair dully.
Jim swore softly and guided Blair’s hands to Jim’s shirt, wiping the rapidly-cooling liquid away. He walked Blair away from the hanging thing gently.
"Who … who is it?" faltered Blair.
"Shh," breathed Jim, laying his free hand on Blair’s chest.
Blair held his breath, straining to listen, and heard the sound of footsteps and men’s voices. One voice rose stridently above the other, but Blair couldn’t understand what was being said. Jim grabbed Blair and headed toward the sound. Blair thrust out a hand just in time to prevent his nose from being flattened against what felt like corrugated sheetmetal. The scream of a seagull was clearly audible through the thin wall, as was the growing roar of more thunder and a rising wind. "Jim," he whispered. "We must be in-"
Jim’s finger touched Blair’s lips and he fell silent, realizing that Jim would have come to the same conclusion. A warehouse. One of those hastily-constructed temporary storage facilities down by the harbor. He’d seen them a hundred times, but he’d never been inside one before. He wished fervently he weren’t here now. These windowless little cement-floored bunkers huddled amongst the docks and fueling stations were as isolated a setting as any criminal could wish.
Jim dragged him along the wall for a few feet, then stopped. He took Blair’s hand silently and guided it to what felt like a metal beam of some kind. A door frame, Blair realized suddenly. Jim was hoping to jump them as they came in. This was not a good idea. Blair could only hear two voices, but that didn’t mean that there weren’t more of them, and he and Jim both knew that these guys were armed to the teeth. Then again, taking Krakowa and company by surprise was probably the only shot they had at getting out of here. Oh, hell.
The voices came closer, and Jim gently guided Blair behind him and pressed him against the wall. Blair grit his teeth and fumed in silence. If GI Jim thought that Blair was just going to stand here and watch him take on these guys solo, then he’d been sniffing his gun oil. Jim was right; he was a sad case, and if they lived through this, Jim Ellison was going into BPS rehab if he had to go kicking and screaming.
The voices fell silent as a sound of metal against metal echoed softly through the building. The padlock banging against the door, Blair realized. They were unlocking the door. Blair braced himself as the door swung inward and away from them, and the wind whipped through the opening, rattling the sheetmetal walls. A man’s silhouette appeared in the entrance, and he groped inside the door with one hand, presumably for a light switch. It was all the opening Jim needed.
Moving as quickly as Blair had ever seen him, Jim grabbed the conveniently offered arm and effortlessly flipped its owner onto his back. As the man lay gasping on the floor, his companion loomed in the doorway, holding something that gleamed ominously in the thin light. Without thinking, Blair lunged at the arm holding the weapon, only to be flung back as Jim tackled the man, knocking the weapon from his hand as they landed outside the door. Blair bolted through the door into the night as Jim staggered to his feet … only to be met with the sound of ragged applause and laughter, and the sudden, blinding light from a pair of car headlights.
Blair froze beside Jim, shielding his eyes from the lights and the wind, and watched with a sinking heart as a tall, lanky figure sauntered toward them.
"Ellison," came Krakowa’s taunting snarl, "you are so damned predictable."
It didn’t take Sentinel hearing to detect the sound of half a dozen weapons being readied for fire, and Blair held his breath.
Jim shrugged marginally, his expression noncommittal. "Wouldn’t want to disappoint you, Crackers." The men behind Krakowa hooted softly at the nickname.
"Get back inside!" hissed Krakowa furiously, brandishing his weapon.
For one split second, Blair watched Jim considering the possibility of going for it, knocking Krakowa down and making a run for it. He watched as Jim computed the odds, considered the likelihood of Blair making it out of here alive – Blair knew damn well his own safety didn’t cross Jim’s mind – and then watched him back down. It all played across Jim’s impassive face as clearly as if he had spoken his thoughts aloud, and Blair cursed himself for being a liability.
"You too, More Man," said Krakowa with a contemptuous laugh. "Wouldn’t want Ellison to get lonely."
Jim caught Blair’s eye and nodded slightly, and Blair turned back toward the door, heart pounding. He felt Jim right behind him, not quite touching him, communicating his strength through the inches of air between them. The two men Jim had taken out were tottering to their feet, a good deal worse for wear, and watched Jim and Blair pass with lethal expressions that made Blair’s mouth go dry. They fell in line close behind Krakowa.
The lights went on as they passed through the door, and Blair’s gaze was inexorably drawn to the dreadful object hanging from the rafters at the far end of the cavernous room. White and streaked with scarlet, it rotated slightly as if in some foul, undetectable breeze. A pool of deep red, viscous liquid coated the floor beneath it. Blair had seen some sickening things in the past three years, but this … this reminded him of pictures he had seen of slaughterhouses. The naked body looked like it had been used for target practice. It wasn’t until the door banged shut behind him that the corpse rotated enough for Blair to see its face. He gasped and stopped in his tracks. He’d seen that face in the papers.
"Morgan Wyatt," said Jim quietly.
"You’ve been busy, Crackers."
Blair stared up at Jim in shock, then staggered forward as one of the two men who had followed Krakowa shoved him toward the center of the room. A glance over his shoulder told Blair that the other had taken up a position just inside the door, weapon drawn.
"You’re in no position to be shooting your mouth off, Ellison," growled Krakowa venomously, giving Jim a rough push toward Blair. "If I was you I’d be real polite."
"So what was the trouble in paradise, huh? Not enough money? Not enough women? Not enough blood?"
"Not enough brains," snapped Krakowa.
Blair actually laughed aloud, then winced as his captor shoved him down on the floor, his back to one of the steel support beams. "A truer word…."
"Pivirotto, tie him up and shut him down," barked Krakowa.
Blair gasped as his arms were yanked behind the beam and tied tightly. Jim’s body tensed as if about to interfere, and Blair shook his head frantically, trying not to think about what might happen in the next few minutes … or hours.
"He was a moron," said Krakowa with a contemptuous glance at the gently turning corpse to their right. He shoved Jim into a sitting position in front of the beam opposite Blair, gesturing to the other man. "He kills the best money man on the coast, over what? Over that little slut of his!"
Blair watched Pivirotto tie Jim’s arms behind him, thanking every god he’d ever heard of that Anna was safe from this monster. Her life must have been ever-living hell.
"And on top of that, he lets her watch, and then he lets her run! What the fuck is that? Is that any way to run a business? If that bitch ever talked it would be the joint again, for all of us. Did he think about that? Hell, no."
Jim barked a soft laugh. "You didn’t really think we’d buy Anna as the killer, did you?"
"Sure I did. Why not? It was worth a shot." Krakowa’s face darkened. "If it had worked, I could have saved this entire operation."
"It didn’t work," said Jim coldly. "So what exactly was the point of that half-assed commando raid, Crackers? Why are we here?"
Krakowa examined Jim with narrowed eyes, every line of his body radiating menace. Blair tensed in response, and yanked at his bonds in frustration. "First, I want the bitch."
"You’re not getting her," retorted Jim flatly.
"I think I will. I think you’ll give her to me."
"Think again." Jim met Krakowa’s icy gaze unflinchingly, and Blair felt his throat tighten at the fine courage in his friend’s face. God, if this bastard so much as touched Jim…. Blair groaned inwardly. What the hell could he do about it? Blair twisted his hands in the tight ropes, grimacing as the ropes abraded the skin of his wrists.
"That slut has some hurting coming, and I want her." Krakowa pulled a pack of cigarettes from his jacket pocket.
Jim shrugged. "Not my problem, Crackers. I don’t know where she is."
Krakowa lit a cigarette and smirked. "Oh, yes, you do. She talked to Banks. And she’s tight with your pretty boy, here. You know where she’s been stashed, and so does he."
"No, we don’t," snapped Blair angrily. The thought of Anna in this man’s hands – and the sight of Jim helpless to defend himself from this maniac – finally ignited his temper. He saw Jim’s warning glance and ignored it. "You won’t ever get your hands on her. And our friends will find us soon, so you’d better-"
"Nobody’s going to be finding you, More Man," snarled Krakowa, whirling to face Blair. "You and Ellison are here for as long as I want you."
"I wouldn’t put any money on it," said Jim evenly, drawing Krakowa’s attention again. "Your departure from the station wasn’t exactly low profile."
"Dead cops. Lots of dead cops," cackled Krakowa gleefully. "They won’t be finding anybody."
Blair’s stomach turned over at the thought that Krakowa might be telling the truth. Dead cops….
"Lots of dead cops means lots of live ones looking for you and your scumbag friends." Jim’s voice was icy in its rage. "You’re just digging yourself in deeper, Crackers. Even losers like these guys must realize they’re going down."
Blair gasped as Krakowa let fly with a vicious kick to Jim’s ribs. Jim clenched his teeth in pain, but not a sound passed his lips. Krakowa squatted in front of him and held his burning cigarette in front of Jim’s face. "Nobody’s going down here but you, Ellison." Krakowa’s voice was thick with hatred. "You’re going to give me Annie. And then you and I have unfinished business to settle."
Jim’s gaze settled on Blair, his jaw set, his expression unfathomable. Somewhere in the haze of Blair’s fearful, frenzied thoughts, he realized that Jim must have faced being tortured before, perhaps even endured it before, and survived. But that thought only made Blair more desperate. To be forced to watch someone hurt Jim and be unable to stop them…. Anything would be less painful than that. Anything.
"Where is she?" Krakowa held the cigarette a fraction of an inch from the sensitive skin of Jim’s neck, his face close to Jim’s.
Jim remained silent, his gaze not moving from Blair’s face. Blair held his breath, throwing all his energy into maintaining that contact, a contact some instinct told him was Jim’s lifeline. Krakowa was bluffing. He had to be. He just had to be.
Krakowa laughed unpleasantly and pressed the cigarette to Jim’s neck. Jim blanched and his eyes and lips pinched shut, but no cry escaped him. Blair screamed for him. With a howl of shared pain and rage, Blair lifted his legs and kicked Krakowa’s backside with all his strength, sending Jim’s tormentor sprawling onto his stomach and the cigarette flying to land several feet away to smolder on the dirty cement floor.
Pivirotto, standing a few feet away, laughed loudly at the sight, and Blair was dimly aware that the man stationed at the door added his snickers to the chorus as Krakowa rolled over to stare at Blair, seething venom in his expression. Jim’s eyes flew open with a little gasp, and his horrified gaze travelled from Blair to Krakowa and back again. Blair swallowed hard as Krakowa regained his feet and approached him, breathing hard.
"Okay. Okay, More Man. You want to play?"
"Just … just leave Jim alone," stammered Blair, his own heart pounding in his ears.
Krakowa squatted beside him, his face twisted into a sickening grin. "You hear that, Ellison? More Man says I should leave you alone."
"Krakowa…," grated Jim, leaning forward in his bonds.
"More Man wants me all to himself." Krakowa laid his hand on Blair’s belt buckle and brought his face to within inches of Blair’s.
"Don’t touch him," snarled Jim.
Krakowa snickered softly. "Good fuck, huh? You gotta learn to share the wealth, Ellison." He undid Blair’s belt slowly, methodically.
"Take your damn hands off me," hissed Blair, squirming.
"Krakowa! Your business is with me," shouted Jim, straining forward as if trying to break the ropes that held him.
"Wait your turn," breathed Krakowa, opening Blair’s jeans.
"Dammit, Curt, what the hell are you doing?" demanded the man at the door, leaving his post to come forward. "We need those numbers, and we need them fast! Find out where the girl is and-"
"Don’t tell me my business, Sommerman."
Blair felt an icy hand clutch his cock through the thin fabric of the boxers he was wearing and gasped. "Get off me, you sick son of a bitch!"
"Leave him alone!" Jim’s voice echoed fiercely off the walls of the huge room.
"Are you crazy, Curt? We’re not here so you can play bang-the-cop. We’re here to get those account numbers, got it?" Sommerman came to stand beside Pivirotto, who was looking more and more nervous.
"Fuck off," snarled Krakowa, shoving his hand inside Blair’s boxers and groping roughly. Blair choked back a groan. "I know what I’m doing. They’ll both be begging to tell me where the bitch is by the time I’m done. No harm in having a little fun, right, More Man?"
Blair flailed furiously with his legs, but Krakowa laughed and moved to Blair’s side.
"We’ll see what the guys have to say about it," said Sommerman in obvious disgust. He turned and left, banging the door behind him.
"It’s party time," murmured Krakowa in Blair’s ear.
The cold hand withdrew from Blair’s pants; Blair could feel Krakowa untying the ropes that bound him to the column. A chance. He’d have a chance if he could get his hands on Krakowa’s gun….
Krakowa hauled him to his feet. Blair instantly tackled the larger man around the waist and brought him to the ground, where Blair grabbed wildly for the gun Krakowa had stuck in his belt. Blair pulled it free, but Krakowa seized his wrist, grappling for the weapon. With a grunt and a heave, Krakowa flipped Blair onto his back, pinning him to the floor, and pressed his thumb to the inside of Blair’s wrist. Blair cried out as his hand went suddenly numb, and the weapon rolled to the floor. Grinning, Krakowa kicked it away from them.
"Pivirotto, take care of that for me until I’m finished with this, will you?"
Pivirotto picked up the weapon and shoved it into his pocket. "Uh, look, Curt. Maybe Sid’s right, okay? Why don’t we just-"
"Shut up and back off," snapped Krakowa, returning his attention to Blair, who continued to fight. Pivirotto backed away with an indecisive expression.
Blair flailed and kicked with all his remaining strength, but Krakowa straddled him, pinning his arms to the floor. "You play this game with Ellison, huh? He like it when you pretend to fight, More Man?"
Enraged, Blair brought his knee up with as much force as he could, and only Krakowa’s quick reaction stopped him from connecting with his intended target. The knee struck Krakowa’s thigh, and with something between a snarl and a howl Krakowa rose, dragging Blair to his feet.
"Time for you to learn who’s boss here," he hissed. He shoved Blair away, and Blair, breathless and dizzy, struggled to stay on his feet. "Now strip."
Blair stared at him for a moment in shock. "No," he said flatly. Out of the corner of his eye, Blair saw the growing horror in Jim’s face, and the implications of the command began to sink in. "No!" he repeated angrily, fighting his rising fear. "Go to hell."
"Pivirotto." Krakowa jerked a thumb in Jim’s direction, and the other man silently and with visible reluctance knelt beside Jim and placed the barrel of his gun to Jim’s head.
Blair started as a violent clap of thunder and a strong gust of wind made the flimsy building around them vibrate as the storm finally broke. Rain hammered on the metal roof above. The whole world slowed to a crawl, and Blair stared at his friend wordlessly for what seemed like a very long time. Jim met his gaze squarely for a moment, then spoke quietly.
"Pivirotto, I want you to blow Ellison’s head off if More Man doesn’t make me happy," drawled Krakowa in soft menace. He unbuckled his belt. "Very happy."
Blair closed his eyes for a second.
Blair swallowed hard and with a deep breath pulled off his jacket and threw it aside.
"No! Blair, listen to me!"
Blair pulled his t-shirt over his head and kicked off his shoes. This didn’t matter. Let Krakowa do what he wanted; it didn’t matter. All that mattered was keeping Jim alive. Blair pulled off his socks, idly noticing that one of them had a hole in the heel.
"Good little pretty boy," purred Krakowa.
"He's going to kill me anyway!" cried Jim wildly.
Not until he’s through with me, thought Blair numbly, stripping off his jeans. The longer he’s busy with me, the longer you’ll live. You have to live…. Blair pulled off his boxers and straightened to see Krakowa nodding, a perverse leer twisting his face. The man unbuttoned his fly, his already-erect cock clearly visible.
"Nice. Nice, Ellison. Is he as good a fuck as he looks? I’ll bet he is. Only the best for the Cop of the Year, huh?"
"If you touch him, I’ll kill you," said Jim dully.
Blair felt a distant gratitude that Jim’s senses weren’t working. At least he wouldn’t have to experience that….
Krakowa barked a short laugh and close the distance between himself and Blair. Blair flinched involuntarily as the larger man grabbed his shoulders.
"I will hunt you down and kill you," said Jim with chilling conviction.
"Hands and knees, More Man," breathed Krakowa. "You know the drill. Down we go."
Blair sank down to all fours, his mind darting frantically past pieces of useless information in an attempt to block out the sensations of Krakowa assuming his position behind him. Krakowa’s cold hands shoved Blair’s legs further apart, and Blair choked back the whimper of despair and fear that threatened to give itself voice.
"Oh, yeah." The icy hands slid across Blair’s ass. "Nice." A pause. "You’re shaking, More Man. Don’t tell me you don’t want it, ‘cause I know you do. Tell me. Tell me you want it. Tell me to fuck your ass."
"Stop it! Damn you, Krakowa, stop it! Leave him alone!"
"I want it," whispered Blair, his arms shaking so badly that he could barely remain on all fours.
"Louder! I want Ellison to hear you."
"I want it. Fuck me." Blair’s voice broke and he closed his eyes. God, please, please, please help me give him what he wants, please help me keep Jim alive, please, please, please….
"You fucking coward! Why don't you try that with me? Come on, Crackers, go for it!"
"Wait your turn, Ellison. You’ll get yours. You just wish you were me, don’t you?"
Krakowa’s breath was labored. Blair felt the man slide his cold hands down to pull Blair’s cheeks apart, then jab a finger into his opening, pushing against the walls of his passage brutally. Blair choked back a cry of pain at the sudden intrusion. Krakowa laughed softly. "So tight. This will be so good…." Blair felt the man’s cock touch him and groaned softly, nearly breaking completely at the sound of Jim’s anguished howl.
"No, God, no! Please…."
A clap of thunder drowned Jim out, and the lights flickered ominously. The door to the warehouse blew open, banging in the suddenly violent wind. Blair felt Krakowa freeze, and he looked up dazedly to see a figure running through the door.
"Cops!" Sommerman screamed over the thunder. "Cops, you son of a bitch! You said they didn’t know about this place! You said they wouldn’t find us!"
Blair struggled to understand what the man was saying for a moment, then grasped it. Cops. Cops! The sound of shouting and gunfire warred with the thunder, wind and rain for dominance. They’d been found.
Blair felt Krakowa scramble to his feet; heard his voice rise to a panicked shriek. "What the hell are you talking about? The cops can’t know-"
"You screwed us all, Krakowa! You are a fucking dead man!" Enraged, Sommerman threw his apparently empty weapon in Krakowa’s direction and turned toward the door, pausing only to shout over his shoulder. "Move it, Pivirotto, unless you want Major Crimes up your ass!" He disappeared into the night at a full run. Pivirotto hastily rose to follow.
"Stay where you are!" barked Krakowa.
"Are you crazy?" Pivirotto screeched. "You want to be found here? With them? With that?" He gestured toward Wyatt’s corpse. "I’m out of here!" He bolted in the direction of the door, but Krakowa bodily cut off his escape.
"You’re not going anywhere. We got witnesses to take care of-"
Witnesses. Blair drew a shaky breath, trying to wrap his traumatized mind around a coherent thought. They weren’t out of the woods yet. He turned his head enough to look at Jim, who met his gaze with a shell-shocked, desperate expression. Run, he mouthed silently.
Not an option in any universe.
"Dammit, Curt, it’s over. The cops are here now. Let go of me, you fucking psycho!"
Krakowa yanked his gun out of Pivirotto’s pocket. "You want out?" he hissed. "No problem."
Pivirotto’s eyes widened, but he pulled away a second too late. Krakowa shoved the gun under the man’s chin and pulled the trigger, sending a spray of blood and cranial tissue several feet across the room. Blair gasped, struggling not to throw up as Krakowa shoved what was left of Pivirotto to the floor. The man turned toward Jim, grinning like a maniac, his wide eyes gleaming and his face and upper body spattered and glistening with fresh blood.
"If I’m going down, then you’re going down with me," he cackled, aiming the weapon at Jim’s head. Jim met the man’s gaze squarely, jaw set.
"No!" Blair screamed the word instinctively as he launched himself to his feet and covered the remaining distance to Jim in a heartbeat, then sank to his knees and wrapped himself around his friend, bowing his head over Jim’s protectively.
Jim instantly started screaming and struggling to free himself. "No Blair no no no no no…."
Blair held on for dear life, crying out in fear and anticipated pain as a gunshot ripped the air around them.
Simon stared as the man he had just shot turned toward him, mouth and eyes wide open, covered with blood that was not entirely his own, and then slowly crumpled to the floor. It was only then that he realized he’d discharged his weapon without issuing a warning.
He also realized that he didn’t give a damn. All he cared about at that moment were the two figures huddled against each other at the other side of the room. He strode across the floor, avoiding the mess that he presumed had been Krakowa’s last victim, and pausing only briefly to ascertain that the son of a bitch himself was dead. He was. Simon was vaguely shocked at the satisfaction it brought him to know that. But he didn’t care about that either. He froze for a moment at the sight of the carcass hanging in chains, nodding as a few pieces of the puzzle slipped into place. There’d be no tears for this monster either. Cascade would be a little safer tomorrow.
Simon knelt beside Jim and Blair, realizing only then that Blair was completely naked. The young man was clutching Jim to him tightly, eyes pinched shut, and Jim was sobbing hoarsely onto Blair’s chest.
"Blair," said Simon softly, laying a hand on the bare shoulder. "Jim. It’s me. You’ll be okay."
There was no reaction, and Simon felt a stab of panic. God, what had that bastard done to them? Assault? Obviously. Rape? Probably. Blair needed a doctor. Very likely they both did. Silently wishing Krakowa had taken a little longer to die, Simon holstered his weapon and stripped off his raincoat. He draped it over Blair carefully, cursing inwardly. If it had taken even one more minute to find them…. But it hadn't, thanks to Anna Wyatt.
"What the hell…?"
Simon looked up to see Rafe standing just inside the door, his eyes wide. "Keep everyone else out of here," he snapped.
"Are they okay?" Rafe's tone was hushed.
"I don’t know yet. What’s the situation out there?"
"Under control. Brown and Taggert are establishing a perimeter, and the uniforms are taking Wyatt’s clowns in. Couple of ‘em are on the way to the hospital."
"Any of ours?"
"No, we got lucky this time."
Simon grimaced. He already had two men in the hospital; one of them might not make it. At least the bastard responsible wouldn’t be getting any time off for good behavior this time. He took out his pocketknife and cut the ropes that bound Jim’s hands. Jim had struggled so much that his wrists were raw; his blood stained the ropes. Simon muttered an obscenity under his breath. He fervently hoped that Curtis Krakowa was roasting in hell.
Simon could barely hear the voice, it was so small. He looked down quickly to see Blair’s eyes opening.
"Yeah," said Simon gently. "I’m here, Blair. Talk to me."
Blair raised his head very slowly, an expression of dull amazement creeping across his features. He looked down at himself in confusion. "I thought … did he … miss?"
"Something like that."
Blair sighed wearily and looked down at Jim for a moment, then ran one hand through Jim's short hair in a comforting caress. "Jim. It’s over, buddy. We made it…."
Jim’s head shot up, eyes wide and unfocussed. Before Simon could move, the man tore Simon’s coat from Blair’s body and started running his hands across wildly across Blair’s chest, his arms, and his back with a mute, frantic urgency that was heartbreaking in its intensity.
Simon grabbed Jim's arm, shocked. "Jim, what the hell are you doing?"
"It’s okay," breathed Blair soothingly, and Simon shot him an uncertain look, not sure if Blair was talking to him or to Jim. "I’m not hurt, Jim. I’m okay. We’re … we’re both okay, right?" Blair’s voice broke, his face worked as if he were about to break down.
Jim calmed almost instantly; his hands came to rest on Blair’s shoulders. Simon released his grip and sat back, nonplused.
"Yeah. Yeah, I’m … I’m okay, Chief," Jim husked unevenly. His gaze travelled over Blair’s body for a moment, then veered away hastily. He snatched up Simon’s coat and helped Blair into it again, folding the oversized garment around his friend. Blair smiled tremulously, then apparently decided to give up the pretense and allowed himself to lean forward and rest his forehead on Jim’s shoulder. Jim’s arms went around him instantly, tightly.
"We’ll get you two off to the hospital as soon as we can get a car up here," said Simon briskly, clearing his throat. "Blair … I have to ask…."
"No," said Blair quaveringly. "M’okay, Simon." Jim’s jaw set as if it were carved in stone, but his hands rubbed Blair’s back with great gentleness.
Simon looked at him doubtfully. "Blair…."
"You got here just in time," murmured Blair with a tiny smile. "Just … just like the cavalry."
Simon exchanged a look with Jim, who nodded brusquely.
"How did you find us so fast?" Blair's voice was muffled against Jim's shoulder.
"Your friend Anna," said Simon softly. "She'd heard Krakowa talk about using this place more than once. She figured he'd use it again."
"Is Krakowa in custody?" Jim asked the question with a savagery that made the hair on the back of Simon’s neck rise.
Simon moved out of Jim’s line of sight and pointed wordlessly to the body lying on the floor. Jim stared at it for a moment, and Blair lifted his head to look, too. The younger man closed his eyes and let his head fall forward to Jim’s shoulder again. Jim nodded slowly. "Who?"
"Good shooting," said Jim darkly, his eyes resting on the corpse with so much satisfaction that Simon briefly thanked God things had worked out as they had. If justice had been deferred even a day, Simon had no doubt that Jim Ellison would have been facing murder charges.
"I doubt Internal Affairs will think so."
Jim scowled in obvious confusion.
"No warning," explained Simon briefly. Not in thirty years of police work had he discharged his weapon without proper warning. But if he had to choose between propriety and these two men’s lives, there was only one choice a decent man could make.
"He had plenty of warning," said Jim in a low tone of loathing, eyes glued to Krakowa’s body.
"Not from me."
"I heard you give the warning, Simon," said Jim fiercely. "I heard it loud and clear."
"I heard it too," came Rafe’s grim voice from the door. "Henri’s bringing your car up, Captain."
Simon sighed deeply. Later. "Okay. Let’s get you two out of here before the damn media descend on us. Can you move?"
"Blair?" Jim bent down to look into his friend’s face, and Blair lifted his head and nodded. Jim smiled very faintly, then with a visible effort hauled himself to his feet, taking Blair up with him.
Simon stood, watching carefully for any sign that they needed his help. Neither was very steady on his feet, and Simon seriously doubted whether either could stand without the other’s support. They stood leaning against each other, arms around each other for a moment, Jim swaying slightly and Blair shaking from head to foot, each staring into the other’s eyes. For some reason, Simon found himself holding his breath.
"Okay?" murmured Jim softly, looking as if he were having trouble getting enough air.
"Yeah," breathed Blair. "Sure. As long as you don’t let go," he added with a wry, shaky little laugh.
"Then I won’t," returned Jim, with a pitiful attempt at being matter-of-fact. "Can you walk?"
Blair glanced down at his feet, still smiling, and patted Jim’s arm reassuringly. "Yup. They’re still there. No problem."
Simon winced. Don’t be brave for him, Sandburg, he can’t take that now. He watched Jim’s eyes widen, then fill, then close for a second, and wondered how long it would take Jim to recover from this … if he recovered at all. What the hell were the odds on something god-awful like this happening now? Why? Couldn’t God or Fate or the Big Crapshoot in the Sky have cut these two a break?
"Jim?" Blair stared up into his friend’s face anxiously.
"Let’s … let’s go," Jim said hoarsely.
Simon sighed and turned toward the door.
"Hang on a minute, Chief. I’ll get the flashlight."
"We need to light the candles, man. With all those lines down out there, the power will probably be out for awhile." Blair followed Jim into the loft and groped toward the couch, wondering wearily how long a day could get without turning into a week. He was exhausted, cold, hungry and sore in places he’d forgotten he had. He still had the shakes, but he felt a little steadier than he had when they’d left the warehouse. He’d never have made it into Simon’s car if Jim hadn’t half-carried him there. The doctor at the emergency room had muttered things about mild concussion, bruised ribs and shock and had pressed Blair to stay overnight for observation. Blair had refused point blank. Leaving Jim alone in the state he was in was not an option.
Blair found the candles he had been using for his meditation last night – no, the night before last now, it was almost two in the morning – and on the coffee table and fumbled for the matches. The beam of a flashlight fell on the coffee table, and Blair flashed a grateful smile at the man who held it, noting with pain the strained smile he received in return. Blair eased himself onto the couch and lit the candles.
Jim picked one up. "I’ll get the rest," he said quietly. "Just take it easy. Can I get you anything?"
Blair leaned back and closed his eyes. "I’m fine. I’ll just soak up the good couch vibes." He shifted uncomfortably as his jeans rode up. Henri hadn't thought to grab a pair of boxers when he'd stopped by the loft earlier to get Blair some clothes. Going commando was obviously something Henri took for granted. Blair made a weary mental note to explore that line of inquiry with Henri in as public a forum as possible, and at the earliest opportunity.
He heard Jim move away without further comment, making his way through the rooms of the loft lighting the emergency candles that Jim, with typical Ellison anal retentiveness had stationed at strategic points. Blair listened to his footsteps, noticing how smoothly and quietly he moved, just like the cat that had become his alter ego. Astonishing how quiet a man could be on the surface when he was screaming inside.
Blair could hear that screaming as clearly as he could hear the wind and the rain whipping against their windows. Jim was bleeding inside. Blair had seen it in the man’s face during the ride to the hospital, seen it as he hovered over Blair in the emergency room despite the ER staff’s express objections, seen it again on the ride home. Afraid to touch Blair, yet afraid to let him out of his sight. Afraid to meet Blair’s eye, yet watching him like a hawk when he thought Blair wouldn’t notice. Afraid to talk to Blair, yet listening intently to Blair’s every breath. Whatever monster was stalking Jim’s consciousness, it was very big and very nasty … and had very real teeth.
Well, it was time for it to be defanged.
"You should get to bed," said Jim tersely from the door. Blair heard him slip the bolts into place. Blair opened his eyes and turned to regard his friend carefully. Jim’s eyes moved restlessly, scanning the loft, looking everywhere but at Blair's face.
"I’m not sleepy," Blair said softly. It was true enough. He was exhausted, but not sleepy. He shrugged out of his jacket, managing not to wince as he did so; then bent to untie his shoes, grateful that Jim couldn’t see his face. Damn, he was sore.
"Can I…." Jim’s voice faltered as Blair looked up at him. "Do you need anything?"
"Yeah," said Blair very gently, forcing himself to relax. This wasn’t going to be easy. "I need you to talk to me."
Jim scowled. "There’s nothing to talk about," he said flatly.
"Jim, we need to understand what’s happened-"
"I know what happened," grated Jim in a tone of suppressed anger that Blair was actually relieved to hear. Anything was better than the fugitive from Club Repression. Jim began pacing restlessly. "I screwed up, okay? Again. I nearly got you killed. Again."
Blair groaned aloud at the anguish in his friend’s face. Jim was tearing himself up inside. The man was a walking time bomb in this state. If he didn’t drag that demon of his out into the light of day, he’d self-destruct, one way or another, and Blair had no intention of allowing that to happen on his watch. His voice rose challengingly. "What the hell are you talking about? It’s the other way around. I’m the one who got you into this, remember? And as for screwing up…."
"You shouldn’t have gone through this. You wouldn’t have, if it hadn’t been for me." Jim faced Blair with an anguished expression. "Jesus, Blair, do you think I don’t realize what I’ve done to you?"
"Glad to hear it," said Blair quietly, aching for him. "Maybe now you can fill me in."
"I’m your partner," said Blair determinedly. "Right? That hasn’t changed, has it?"
"You’re my partner, but-"
"If you were partnered with someone else, would you feel this way?"
Jim blanched. "You’re not someone else," he muttered, swinging away.
Blair followed him determinedly, knowing he was on the right track now. "It was a case, Jim. It’s our work. I've worked with you on lots of dangerous cases before. I’ve been hurt before."
"And it was my fault every damn time!" shouted Jim, swinging towards him.
"Bullshit!" shouted Blair, matching Jim’s volume. "I chose to be involved in this, just like I chose to be involved in every other case we’ve worked on together. I chose. You are not responsible-"
"You do this for me!" Jim’s anguished cry cut through Blair's shout, and Blair stopped to listen carefully. "You’re not a cop. You’re not getting anything out of it. You told me yourself that you didn’t need any more data for your dissertation. Christ, you don’t even get paid. You do it for me."
"Yes," admitted Blair softly, realizing with a small shock that it was true. It had stopped being about the dissertation long ago. He watched Jim’s face carefully. "I do it for you."
Jim stepped back as if he had been struck, and Blair knew immediately that this admission was not what Jim had expected. He had expected a denial ... he had needed a denial. That Blair would accept the risks of police work for his sake alone was probably his worst nightmare.
"You should never have been there," repeated Jim dully. "You should never have been put through that."
"If I’m your partner, then I should be," said Blair, doggedly pursuing his course and wondering wryly when he’d strike the iceberg. "Why was this case any different than the others?"
"It wasn’t," growled Jim.
"You’ve never felt that I shouldn’t be there before now," pursued Blair determinedly. "No matter how dangerous the case was. Why was this different?"
"Dammit, Blair, leave it alone!"
"Why was it different? Come on, man, I’m asking because I need to know!"
Jim paced away again. "You don’t need to know everything!"
Blair followed him stubbornly. "Why was it different?"
Jim’s breathing became shallow and quick; he gave up trying to evade Blair’ pursuit and turned on him with a furious expression. "You know damn well why! You were a target from the very beginning! That sick shit wanted to –" Blair watched, hurting for him, as Jim struggled with the word "-- to rape you from the minute he laid eyes on you!"
Finally, thought Blair grimly. Here we go. "You don’t know that-"
"The hell I don’t! ‘How much, Angel?’" Blair started, shocked, as Jim’s savage mimic of Krakowa echoed off the walls of the loft. He had had no idea that Jim had heard that brief conversation, or that he had been paying that much attention to what was going on across a crowded room when so much depended on his concentration elsewhere. "That sick son of a bitch!" Whirling, Jim sent everything standing on the table beside him crashing to the floor with a violent sweep of his arm. He was screaming now, consumed by more fury than Blair had ever seen in him. "Jesus Christ, I should have pulled him into the alley and shot him myself then and there!"
Blair held his ground with difficulty. That Jim had been able to suppress this much rage for this long didn’t surprise him, but it scared the hell out of him. Struggling to think clearly, Blair drew a deep breath and spoke as calmly as he could.
"How could you have known what Krakowa was going to do? Even he couldn’t have known. He just-"
"Oh, I knew," snarled Jim. "I knew what he wanted to do. I saw the way he looked at you. Damn it! Damn it, how could I have.... I should have expected this to happen sooner or later-"
"Why?" demanded Blair, surprised, but instinctively sensing an opening.
Jim looked at him as if surprised for a moment, then turned away hastily. "There are a lot of twisted creeps out there, Chief," he muttered.
"Yeah, so? Are there more out there for me than for anyone else? Do I attract them or something?"
Jim muttered something unintelligible.
He’s scared now. You’re close. Blair moved to stand in front of Jim. "What did you say?"
Jim stared over Blair’s head, jaw set. "I said ... I said...." Jim’s voice seemed to fail him, and he tried to turn away again.
Blair grabbed his arm firmly. "Answer me, man."
"I said ... yes," said Jim in a choked voice. "You ... you’re bound to attract them."
Blair let go of Jim’s arm in shock, truly seeing now which way the wind was blowing ... and the implications of Jim’s self-castigation horrified and infuriated him. "I’m bound to attract twisted creeps? What the hell does that mean?" Blair’s voice rose furiously. "Why? Because I’m a little smaller than you? Because I’m not GI Joe, huh? Because I’m helpless?" Blair shoved Jim roughly, forcing him off-balance enough to make his point.
"No," faltered Jim helplessly, his rage disappearing as quickly as it had come. "No, you’re not helpless, you’re just...."
"Just what?" shouted Blair in frustration.
"Beautiful," blurted Jim as if he could no longer contain the word, then immediately stepped back with an aghast expression. "Blair. I didn’t mean…. I’m sorry. I didn’t.... I won’t.... Oh, God...." Jim turned toward the door with an anguished expression.
Blair launched himself in front of him, grabbing his shoulders, refusing to let himself feel the overwhelming jolt of tenderness and desire that Jim’s answer had triggered in him. "Why?" he asked breathlessly. "Why sorry?"
"Do I have to spell it out for you? asked Jim harshly, eyes fixed on the door.
"Yes," said Blair almost fiercely. "Spell it out for me."
Jim lowered ice-blue eyes to meet Blair’s gaze, his face now an expressionless mask. "Fine. I’m no better than Krakowa. I’m every bit the sick bastard he was. Okay? Is that what you want to hear? I want to do exactly what he wanted to do...."
"You want to hurt me?"
The question stopped Jim cold; the mask slipped. "Hurt you?" he repeated in a stunned voice. "I would never…." He faltered, obviously confused.
"Krakowa wanted to hurt me," said Blair slowly, evenly. Jim had to understand this. "You are nothing like him. You are as far from him as any man could be." Blair shook him gently by the shoulders. "Its okay, Jim. There’s nothing sick about what you feel."
"There is," said Jim thickly. "You’re my friend. You trust me."
"Yeah," said Blair softly and firmly. "I do. Absolutely."
"You shouldn’t. You can’t. I don’t deserve it. I can’t even trust myself." Jim’s voice was like gravel; his face worked as he struggled to contain his emotion. Blair felt him shaking under his hands. "You could never want ... and I still think about it anyway. I can’t stop thinking about it, wanting it." His voice dropped even lower. "Wanting you." The last word was a bare whisper.
Blair caught his breath at the admission. Yes! Yes! "Jim," said Blair patiently, "you’re not listening to me. I’m telling you it’s okay." He raised his hand to touch Jim’s cheek.
Jim drew in a sharp breath and tried to pull away. "Dammit, Chief, didn’t you hear what I said? I can barely stand this close to you without ... touching you...."
Blair slid his hands up Jim’s shoulders and entwined them about Jim’s neck, unable to stand the pain in his friend’s face. "I’ll stand closer then," he murmured, leaning forward to press himself against Jim.
Jim tried frantically to disentangle himself. "Jesus! Sandburg, what the hell do you think you’re doing?"
"Whatever I’m doing, it’s being wasted," returned Blair rather tartly, holding on determinedly as Jim tried wildly to get a grip firm enough to push him away. "Is this really the kind of touching you had in mind?"
Jim froze, panting, and Blair waited, not relaxing his grip. He closed his eyes and touched his cheek to Jim’s. There was no reaction. Then Blair pressed his lips to Jim’s cheek lightly.
He heard Jim draw in a sharp, ragged breath, and a little groan. "Chief...." Blair felt Jim’s hands settle lightly on Blair’s hips.
"If you want me, you’ve got me," rasped Blair in his ear, trying to control the fine tremors racing through his muscles. Blair leaned back slightly to look at his friend carefully. Jim stared back at him with a stunned expression. Blair drew a shaky breath. Taking Jim’s head between his hands, he pulled it gently toward him and touched his lips tenderly to those of his friend. Jim stiffened for a heartbeat, then began, tentatively, to return the kiss, his arms wrapping tightly around Blair’s waist. After a moment, Blair reluctantly, and gently, pulled away to look into his friends face again.
Jim stared back at him, his mouth opening, then closing again. "You ... you can’t want this," he stammered finally.
Blair sighed, exasperated but not surprised in the least at his friend’s obstinacy. "Oh, of course not. I land liplocks on guys all the time, Jim. It’s just my way of saying have a nice day."
"That’s sort of the point, isn’t it?" demanded Jim shakily. "Since when do you...?"
"Since when do you?" returned Blair gently but evenly. "Why would I lie to you, Jim?"
Jim’s eyes filled with tears; his voice quavered wildly. "For the same reason you were willing to let that bastard rape you tonight."
Blair flinched involuntarily at the memory of those cold, brutal hands; only the warm reality of Jim’s arms around him kept his voice steady. "And what’s that?"
Jim groaned softly and lowered his head. "Because you’re ... the best friend any man ever had. You ... care about me...." Blair took Jim’s face in his hands again, wiping away the tears and forcing him to look him in the eye.
"Try again," Blair whispered, not trusting his voice.
Blair kissed him gently, enjoying it, delighted that Jim didn’t resist. "Try again."
Jim searched Blair’s face in confusion for a moment, then his eyes widened and his jaw dropped slightly.
"Yes. Say it," said Blair firmly.
"You ... love me?" muttered Jim uncertainly.
"I didn’t quite catch that," said Blair pointedly, leaning closer.
Jim began to smile; the broad, amazed, boyish smile that Blair saw only on the occasions when Jim Ellison was more happy than he felt he deserved to be. "You love me," the older man said with certainty but no small amount of wonder.
"Yes!" shouted Blair, slapping Jim’s broad chest and provoking a bark of startled laughter from his friend. "He can be taught!"
Jim pulled him close and folded himself around him, still laughing very softly, and buried his face in Blair’s hair. Blair felt the vibration of Jim’s laughter and his warm breath against his neck; he closed his eyes in pleasure as they were followed by a warm touch of lips just under his left ear. Then Jim went very still. Blair waited, almost feeling the wheels turning in Jim’s mind, and wondered in mild annoyance what objection the big lug would come up with next.
Jim drew a ragged breath. "Love you too, Chief," he whispered into Blair’ ear, as if afraid to say it aloud.
Blair’s vision blurred for a moment. Oh. Now that was something he hadn’t expected to hear. Just like Ellison to come up with a curve like that at the last minute. Typical.
Blair squeezed Jim tightly around the waist and kissed the only part of the man he had access to, which happened to be Jim’s left ear. He blinked furiously for a moment, got his breathing somewhat under control and then leaned back enough to look Jim in the eye. "Show me," rasped Blair shakily. "Right now."
Jim stared at him blankly. "Right now?"
"Yeah, right now," said Blair urgently, his heart pounding wildly as he pulled Jim toward the stairs.
"You mean.... Whoa, there, Chief ... just ... just settle down!" Jim flushed a brilliant scarlet and dug his heels in, refusing to budge. An expression of undiluted panic crossed his face. "We can’t just.... What’s your rush?"
Blair laughed unsteadily at the sight. James Ellison, highly decorated U.S. Army officer, Cop of the Year, man of the world and all-around superhero, blushing and stammering like a teenager on his first real date. God, he loved this man. "Tease," he said tenderly, angling his mouth up for another kiss.
Jim pulled back, breathing hard. "Uh ... Chief ... look, you know I want ... but I don’t.... Oh, hell! I’ve never done this before," stammered Jim, managing to look even more like a teenager than he had before.
Blair’s laughter turned giddy, even to his own ears. "Like I have? Fake it, tough guy, I won’t know the difference." He grabbed Jim’s hand and tried again to yank him toward the stairs, but found himself being reeled into Jim’s arms again before he had taken two steps. Jim secured Blair tightly against him, and Blair looked up to meet Jim’s gaze, startled.
"What’s your hurry?" asked Jim gently, all trace of the teenager disappearing.
"No hurry. I’m just...."
"Just trying to prove you trust me," continued Jim huskily. "Trying to prove you love me. Trying to prove to me that I’m not like … Krakowa."
Blair swore silently. Getting this man into bed was not going to be easy. "What I’m trying to do is jump your bones, Sigmund," he said as tartly as possible, pressing closer. "Man, when was the last time you had a date?"
"You’re shaking," whispered Jim as if Blair hadn’t spoken, one finger tracing the line of Blair’s jaw. "Your heart’s beating triple-time. You’ve been through enough tonight."
Blair swallowed, trying to ease his tight throat. "I love you. I want you," he quavered. "When I remember tonight I don’t want it to be about Krakowa, okay? I want it to be about you. About us." Blair’s voice failed him at that point.
Jim’s eyes went very dark; he leaned forward to touch his forehead to Blair’s. "I want that, too. But I’m not going to take advantage of...."
"Oh, man! exploded Blair in frustration, pulling away. "Take advantage? Are you nuts, man? What do I have to do to get through to you? Rip your clothes off and drag you upstairs by your hair? I want you, okay? I want you so bad it hurts. I want you right now. And if you weren’t such a damn poster child for Blessed Protector Syndrome, we’d have been fucking each other’s brains out for the past ten minutes!"
Jim’s eyes widened. "Blair...."
"No, you are going to listen to me. You can’t protect me from everything, okay? And even if you could, I wouldn’t want you to. I sure as hell don’t want to be protected from you. You I want, I need and I love. Am I getting through here?"
Blair paused for breath, realizing only then that Jim was laughing. "What the hell is so funny?" he demanded angrily. "You think I’m kidding?" Blair stepped close enough to give Jim a hard punch in the shoulder. "Stop laughing!"
"Tell me, Chief," said Jim, laughing harder than he had before. "Is this your usual seduction technique? No offense, but it needs work."
"So teach me!" shouted Blair, infuriated. Before the last word was out of his mouth, Blair found his arms pinioned to his sides and Jim’s body pressing close to his. Blair gasped in surprise. He hadn’t even seen it coming.
"Anything you want, babe," murmured Jim, the gentleness of his voice in contrast to his steel grip. He bent his head and touched his mouth to Blair’s, and Blair leaned into the kiss hungrily. He felt the warm, velvet touch of Jim’s tongue as it touched his lips, and with a little moan opened his mouth to draw the gentle intruder inside. Yes. Oh, yes. The man can be taught…
Jim saw Blair’ eyes drift shut, heard his little moan of pleasure as their tongues met, felt the first faint stirrings of both Blair’s erection and his own. He let his own eyes close, reassured. Blair really wanted this ... really wanted him. And wanted him now. This beautiful, brilliant, courageous, loving and thoroughly aggravating man loved him.
Jim gently explored Blair’s mouth, loosening his grip so that his hands could wander over Blair’s body, almost laughing again when Blair groaned and pressed closer as if afraid that Jim were about to pull away. He wasn’t. This was just too good to stop anytime soon; even breathing didn’t seem quite as necessary as it used to. Blair’s kiss was so ... well, Blair -- no other word described it -- and that sweet strength pulsed through every touch of lips and tongue. Jim ran the fingers of one hand across the back of Blair’s neck, then cradled the back of his head as his other hand caressed the small of Blair’s back, then his ass. Blair’s muscles quivered responsively, and Jim let himself imagine what that responsive body would do when it was taken, claimed, penetrated....
Krakowa’s leering face flashed past his mind’s eye, and Jim gasped and broke the kiss.
Blair groaned, panting for air. "Dammit, Ellison, if you stop now...." He broke off suddenly, his dilated eyes scanning Jim’s face in obvious alarm. Jim realized that his expression must have given him away, and tried to compose himself. It wasn’t easy.
"Easy," Blair whispered. He took Jim’s head between his hands and guided Jim down to him again. "It’s okay. Just take a deep breath and pick up where you left off, all right? I don’t want to miss anything."
Jim stared blankly for a fraction of a second, then grinned weakly. "You love me."
"Say it again," breathed Blair, pressing close, tilting his mouth toward Jim’s.
"You love me," murmured Jim, overwhelmed. God, he knew. How did he know? Jim dismissed the thought and sealed his mouth to Blair’s, a little less gently this time, only to be taken by surprise as Blair seized control of the kiss. Delighted, he yielded, enjoying the attentions of Blair’s skillful tongue and imagining it at work elsewhere. Suddenly desperate to touch skin, Jim yanked Blair’s shirt up and slid gentle fingers across his belly and side and inside Blair’s jeans to trace soft patterns across the sensitive skin of Blair’s lower back. He felt rather than heard Blair’s little cry of pleasure at the touch.
Jim became slowly aware of things he hadn’t noticed when the kiss began. The faint tang of the orange juice Blair must have drunk at the hospital, the musky scent of his arousal, the sound of his heart fluttering in his chest.... Jim saw in his minds eye himself as a child of ten, finding a bird with an injured wing. When he had picked up the bird, its heart had beat just like this, so fast and furiously that Jim had been afraid the little heart would burst. That bird had been terrified....
Jim broke off the kiss, and stared, startled, into Blair’s nearly-black eyes.
"What?" panted Blair, busily working on unbuttoning Jim’s shirt. "What? What? Unless the building’s on fire, I don’t want to hear about it."
"The orange juice," stammered Jim a little incoherently.
Blair stopped unbuttoning and looked up at Jim blankly for a moment, then started laughing helplessly. "Uh ... okay. Sounds a little kinky, but hey, I’m an open-minded guy. Concentrate, reconstituted, or fresh-squeezed?"
"What? No.... For crying out loud, Sandburg," growled Jim, torn between tenderness, impatience and laughter. "I’m telling you I can taste the orange juice you drank."
Blair’s eyes widened. "The orange...."
"I can hear your heart beating," said Jim wonderingly, letting his hand rest on Blair’s chest to confirm with touch what his hearing told him.
"Yes!" shouted Blair triumphantly, slapping Jim’s arm excitedly. "I knew it! I knew it! All you had to do was...."
"Crave your body?" asked Jim in a seductive murmur, running his hands over Blair’s hips and letting them come to rest gently on his ass.
Blair started to laugh softly, leaning forward to wrap both arms around Jim’s neck. "Yeah, man, just let yourself feel."
Jim caught Blair up in his arms and kissed him passionately, throwing his senses open full throttle, determined to experience the force of nature that was Blair Sandburg in every possible way. Touch … taste … scent….
"You just wish you were me, don’t you?"
An irresistible compulsion to gag washed over Jim as a nauseatingly familiar scent filled the air around him. Groaning in disgust, Jim pulled violently away from Blair and backed away, panting.
Blair stood in front of him, gasping for air with wide, hurt eyes.
Jim grabbed his hands wildly, afraid for a moment that Blair would bolt. "No. Chief. I’m sorry. The smell … it’s all over you…."
Comprehension flooded Blair’s expression. "His smell," he whispered. He looked down at himself for a moment.
Jim dialed down his senses and took Blair back into his arms. "I’m sorry, babe. I was wide open."
Blair smiled faintly and nodded. "I’d better go take a shower," he said quietly.
Jim cursed himself inwardly as he reluctantly let go of Blair. "You don’t have to…."
"I want to." Blair turned and moved toward the bathroom, then hesitated and turned toward Jim. "Uh…." Even in the flickering light of the candles, Jim saw Blair’s face go several shades pinker than normal.
Jim waited, wondering.
"Would you like … to … you know, join me?"
The words were uttered in soft, uncertain tone and with an expression that on anyone else’s face would have to have been called shy, and Jim felt most of higher-level brain functions shut down at the sight. He doubted that he’d ever gotten so hard so fast in his life. "Oh, yeah," he breathed.
Blair smiled and turned toward the bathroom, and Jim found himself on his heels and through the bathroom door before he knew he had moved. He stood a little uncertainly and watched as Blair started the water in the shower. The younger man turned toward him with a small, self-conscious smile on his face. "Uh … guess I’d better take something off, huh?"
"Don’t," breathed Jim as Blair lifted a hand to his glasses, and Blair froze in confusion. Jim stepped closer. "Let me. Please."
Blair lowered his hand, swallowing hard. "Geez, Jim…."
"Shhh," murmured Jim, gently removing the glasses and setting them beside the sink. Then he reached around to slip the hair tie slowly from Blair’s hair, his other hand stroking the silky curls free tenderly.
Blair’s eyes widened.
"Been wanting to do that for so long," Jim husked, helpless to stop the words. He let the tie drop to the floor and took Blair in his arms. "Been wanting to touch you for so long…."
"Been wanting you to touch me," whispered Blair, feverishly unbuttoning Jim’s shirt. "I want to touch you." Then in frustration, "What is it with these damn buttons?"
"Screw the buttons." Freeing one hand, Jim ripped his shirt off, sending buttons ricocheting off the porcelain and tile.
"Whoa," gasped Blair laughingly, making no resistance as Jim yanked him close again. "Man. I’ve only seen that in the movies."
"Your turn," breathed Jim, sliding his hands gently under Blair’s t-shirt and lifting it over his head.
Blair lifted his arms obediently, then draped them around Jim’s neck as the shirt dropped to the floor. "Tell me what else you’ve been wanting to do."
"Telling isn’t my best game," whispered Jim. He undid Blair’s jeans, pushed them gently past his hips and yanked him close, feeling Blair’s erection press against him as the pants fell to the floor. "Tell me what you’ve been wanting."
Blair looked up at him, breathing as if he’d been running a marathon. "What I’ve been wanting…."
Jim felt Blair unzipping his pants, felt the relief as his erection was released from its constraints, but never let his gaze leave Blair’s face.
"I’ll tell you."
"After I take my shower."
Blair disappeared behind the shower curtain before Jim could grasp the fact that he was gone.
Blair poked his head around the shower curtain with an impudent expression somewhat marred by the tenderness in his eyes. "Coming?"
"Oh, I’m coming, all right," growled Jim in delighted aggravation, kicking his pants away and wriggling out of his boxers. Blair grinned broadly and ducked back behind the curtain, and Jim fairly vaulted into the shower, where he grabbed Blair and forced him under the spray. Blair laughed and spluttered in protest.
"That’s for being a tease," murmured Jim, pulling Blair into his arms and holding him tightly.
Blair pushed his hair back, then ran his hands gently over Jim’s chest, smiling. "No tease here, big guy," he murmured, tilting his head back. "You name it, you’ve got it. Anything."
"Anything…." Jim lost his voice, overcome.
Blair pulled Jim’s head down and kissed him, so sensuously and thoroughly that Jim actually felt his legs start to shake. Blair came up for air, eyes glowing. "Damn. I knew you’d be a good kisser, but…."
"I have a good teacher," said Jim huskily, meaning it. No one had ever kissed him like Blair, loved him like Blair. With shaking hands, he picked up Blair’s shampoo and squirted some into his hand, then tossed the bottle out of the shower and worked the shampoo very gently into Blair’s hair. Blair wrapped his arms around Jim’s waist and let his eyes drift shut as Jim lovingly massaged his scalp.
"You’ve got … great hands, man." Blair’s hands slid down Jim’s back to caress his ass, and Jim caught his breath at the unexpected touch. "Come to think of it … you’ve got great everything."
"Like your everything, too," murmured Jim, leaning Blair back so that the spray rinsed the shampoo from his long hair, his taut body glistening in the soft candlelight. Jim’s voice grew hoarse at the sight. "Love it." Jim’s limited supply of words finally ran out.
Blair curled upward to press himself against Jim, looking up at him wonderingly. "You are so damn beautiful," he said finally, quietly.
Oh, God. He thinks I’m beautiful. Crazy, lovable, nearsighted kid. Jim groaned and leaned forward to kiss Blair’s forehead, then nuzzle the sensitive little hollow behind his ear, letting his hands move at will across Blair’s warm, wet body.
Blair moaned softly and pressed close for a moment, then took a deep breath and gently pulled away. He groped with one hand and picked up the soap, then turned his back to Jim. "Wash all of him off me, Jim. I don’t want anyone’s smell on me but yours."
Jim took the soap into his unsteady hands. He’d gone from despair to euphoria in the space of a few minutes, and he felt like he’d taken one blow to the head too many. Dazedly, he worked up a lather, then soaped Blair’s body thoroughly, as much of it as he thought Blair wanted him to.
Blair leaned back against the older man, his head resting on Jim’s shoulder. "All of me," he said breathlessly, guiding Jim’s right hand to his cock.
Jim drew a sharp breath, then slipped one arm around Blair’s waist as he gently stroked the engorged organ. Blair gasped and arched his back slightly, which did nothing to discourage Jim from continuing, sliding water and soap-slicked fingers up and down Blair’s cock in an increasingly rapid rhythm. Blair whimpered and bucked his hips, but Jim held him firmly in place. He almost forgot his own growing need at the sight of Blair’s pleasure. "That’s it, babe," he breathed in Blair’s ear. "Come for me. Right now. Show me how beautiful you are. Show me how much you love this."
"Love you, love you…," cried Blair wildly, and with something like a little scream came violently into Jim’s hand.
"Love you, too," gasped Jim, nearly coming himself.
Blair sagged back against him bonelessly. Jim cradled him in his arms, relishing the feeling of Blair’s muscular body close to his, and kissing him wherever his mouth could reach. "Wow," said Blair faintly.
Jim chuckled in his ear. "Yeah, Darwin. Wow." He moved under the cascade of water, letting the warmth run over them both, continuing to nuzzle Blair’s neck.
"Jim," murmured Blair contentedly.
"Yeah, Chief," mumbled Jim around Blair’s earlobe.
"Dial your senses up for me." Blair stroked Jim’s arms, making no effort to break the embrace.
Jim closed his eyes and let his senses range free. The scent of the shampoo, the soap, the loving, the delicious aroma of a wet, satiated Blair enveloped him. "Mmmmm," murmured Jim, returning to Blair’s ear.
"I am fantastic."
Blair reached out and turned off the water. "Good," he said breathlessly, turning to face Jim. He yanked back the shower curtain with one hand and plastered his body against Jim’s, brushing against Jim’s now weeping erection. "Leave them up." His hands moved across Jim’s wet skin slowly, and Jim felt himself tingle in response. "I want to you to make love to me," Blair whispered, tilting his mouth so close to Jim’s that Jim could feel his friend’s warm breath on his lips.
Jim stared at him speechlessly, stunned. After everything Blair had been through tonight, he couldn’t mean…. The thought was cut off a Blair hauled his head down and plundered his mouth with the most passionate kiss Jim could ever remember getting.
That’s what he meant.
"Chief," gasped Jim as he came up for air. All his wild fantasies of throwing Blair to the floor and taking him beat at his self-control mercilessly. "We … don’t have to do this. Tonight or ever, if it’s not what you want."
"I know. It’s what I want. Tonight," said Blair unevenly, stepping out of the shower and grabbing a towel. He took Jim’s hand and drew him out.
"Babe, give yourself some time."
"So I see his face in my dreams?" Blair yanked Jim close, his expression fierce. "No fucking way. I want to dream about you making love to me, not him ra-"
"Don’t say it," said Jim thickly, wrapping his arms around his friend.
Blair’s expression softened to tenderness. "Sorry," he murmured, lowering his head. "If this isn’t something you want…."
"I want it," croaked Jim helplessly. "So bad, Blair."
Blair looked up in visible relief, one of his brilliant smiles lighting his face. "Then take it," he breathed. "Take me."
God Almighty, the man was impossible to resist. Jim crushed his mouth to Blair’s, his body to Blair’s, delighted as Blair groaned and yielded. He started lowering the younger man to the floor, but Blair pulled away, panting.
"Not here. Not the first time."
Jim grit his teeth and nodded. He didn’t want it to be here either, but it wouldn’t be long before it would be here or not at all. "Wherever you want, Chief."
Blair grabbed Jim’s hands and led him out of the bathroom and into his little room. Jim followed willingly, his eyes travelling feverishly over Blair’s lithe body. Blair pulled him toward the bed eagerly, breathing hard. Jim pushed him gently down onto the bed and went down on top of him, kissing him urgently, driven to a frenzy by the sensation of his erection and Blair’s pressed against each other. He could feel Blair’s heart pounding, feel his body quivering beneath him, smell his anticipation … and his fear. Jim broke the kiss and looked down at his friend’s pale face and dilated eyes, then stroked the wet hair strewn across the pillow gently. The fact that he had absolutely no idea what he was doing suddenly occurred to him, and he took a deep breath to steady himself. If he hurt Blair….
"Don’t let me hurt you," said Jim unevenly. "Say the word and I’ll stop."
Blair’s tense expression dissolved into a trusting smile. "You won’t hurt me."
"Dammit, Blair, I mean it!"
Blair actually started laughing. "Yeah, I know. Relax, poster child." Blair’s hands settled on Jim’s hips, then tugged them gently, suggestively. "Everything’s going to be fine."
"Just tell me you’re sure you want this," husked Jim.
Blair sighed. "Seducing you brings new meaning to the term exhausting, you know that?"
Blair brought Jim’s head down, and kissed him soundly. "I’m sure I want this," he said steadily as they came up for air. "I want you to make love to me. I want you inside me. I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life. Okay?"
Jim stared down at him wordlessly, stunned at the loving faith in Blair’s face.
"What about you?" Blair whispered. "Is it what you want?" Blair’s hands slid across his hips to caress Jim’s ass.
"Yes," said Jim hoarsely, feeling himself shaking under the touch.
Blair shifted beneath him, still smiling, and reached out and opened the drawer of his nightstand. He groped inside for a moment, then pulled out a half-used container of lubricant and a condom. Jim stared at them stupidly for a minute.
"Jim," whispered Blair, taking Jim’s face in his hands. "It’s okay. Just go with your instincts. Let yourself feel." He picked up the lubricant, opened it, and guided Jim’s hand to it gently. He rubbed the lube across Jim’s fingers in long, languorous strokes, every touch communicating reassurance and desire.
Jim closed his eyes and lowered his mouth to Blair’s chest, covering it slowly and tenderly with wet, lingering kisses. Blair gasped and let go of Jim’s hand as Jim’s tongue fondled a nipple and, encouraged, Jim began a slow progress of tender touches of lips and tongue down Blair’s belly. Blindly, Jim slid one hand down Blair’s abdomen to his cock, and was surprised to find it growing hard again. Without thinking, he let his mouth slip where his hand had been, taking Blair’s cock into his mouth and pressing it gently with his tongue.
Blair cried out inarticulately and started to sit up, but Jim reached up and pressed his stomach downwards, forcing him back down again. Blair flopped back, panting and moaning softly. Jim fought the excruciating ache in his groin and took as much of Blair into his mouth as he could. He tasted sweet; Jim savored the flavor and texture on his tongue as he moved up and down in a deliberate, loving pace. Blair gasped and groaned and called Jim’s name wildly, and Jim could feel the mattress vibrate as his lover struck it with his fists in his passion. Half-drunk at the sounds of Blair’s pleasure, Jim slowly and reluctantly drew his mouth down Blair’s organ for the last time and raised his head, opening his eyes. Blair lay wet and panting before him, fully erect and eyes completely black with desire. God, he wanted this man.
"Want you," he said thickly, opening the condom and rolling it on.
"Want you," repeated Blair, watching his every move and breathing hard. "Hurry, Jim. God, I need you…."
Jim spread some of the lube over the latex and over his fingers, not letting himself think too far ahead. He pushed Blair’s legs apart and pulled them toward him so that they were resting against him, Blair’s opening clearly visible. Blair’s sharp intake of breath made Jim look up in alarm, but Jim saw only anticipation and desire in his friend’s face. Very slowly, Jim slid one lube-coated finger into Blair’s opening. Blair gasped, but there was no pain in his expression, only surprise. Jim gently slid the finger in and out, watching Blair’s every reaction; listening as his friend’s breathing became more and more labored.
"You like that, babe?"
"Feels … so good," murmured Blair. "More…."
Jim slipped in a second finger, applying pressure as gently as he could. Blair moaned softly, slight discomfort touching his face.
"M’okay, m’okay," breathed Blair raspily. "Don’t stop."
"I won’t," said Jim thickly. He slipped in a third finger, and Blair’s face went drawn for a moment, then settled into lines of pleasure as Jim eased the fingers in and out tenderly.
"Yes," moaned Blair softly. "Just like that … so good ... Jim, please, I need you…."
Jim withdrew the fingers, knowing his endurance was nearly at an end, and Blair clutched his arms tightly.
"Can we … stay like this?" Blair looked up at him, breathing hard.
"We can do anything you want," murmured Jim tenderly, leaning over him to touch his face. "This is perfect. You’re perfect. I want to see you."
Blair’s face flooded with relief. "I want to see you too," he breathed.
Jim pulled Blair’s legs to him again, and Blair lifted his hips encouragingly. Jim hesitated for one moment, then pressed his aching cock into Blair’s tight opening as slowly and carefully as he could manage. Blair’s face twisted in pain almost instantly, and Jim froze in panic.
"Say it," gasped Blair, loosening his grip to stroke Jim’s arms reassuringly. "Say it!"
Jim stared at him blankly for a moment, then almost laughed in loving comprehension. "You love me," he whispered, barely able to form the words. He’d never seen anyone more beautiful than Blair at that moment.
"Yeah," panted Blair obstinately, tugging gently at Jim’s hips. "Love you. Want you. But stop now and I kill you."
"Then I’d better not stop," husked Jim, torn between laughter, tenderness and raging lust. He hesitated slightly, then very gently eased himself in deeper, feeling the taut ring of muscle hug his cock as he moved. Jim groaned in pleasure at the sensation, and heard Blair groan too, although he wasn’t certain if it was in pain or pleasure … or both. Blair panted softly, his hands moving frantically up and down Jim’s arms.
"Yes, yes, yes," the younger man rasped wildly. "All of you … in me … now, now, now…."
Jim braced himself and with a few hard thrusts, sheathed himself completely inside Blair. Blair’s face went drawn with discomfort at each thrust, but he pulled encouragingly at Jim’s hips as he moved. Jim could feel Blair making a conscious effort to relax his muscles around his lover, his body welcoming Jim inside. It was the most extraordinary sensation Jim had ever had making love, and he had to fight for control, to resist a primal urge not unlike the one that had driven him to Alex Barnes, to claim his mate, and to mark his Guide as his territory in a way that Blair would never forget.
Jim knew that was what the Sentinel wanted. But it wasn’t what Jim wanted. What he wanted more than anything was to show Blair what he knew he’d never be able to tell him to his own satisfaction … how much this man meant to him. Friend, teacher, brother, lover … Blair was all of these and more. Jim would never have the words to explain that. Blair deserved the words; he deserved better than a middle-aged, emotionally-repressed, verbally-challenged cop; he deserved everything good and true and sweet in this world. But he had chosen Jim. Exquisitely beautiful, hopelessly tasteless boy.
"Love you," he croaked, barely audible. "Need you." He began to move gently, rocking himself in and out of Blair, and was overcome with delight as Blair began to move in hesitant counterpoint to his lovemaking. Jim circled Blair’s cock with his hand, stroking it softly in rhythm with their movements.
"Love … you," gasped Blair faintly. "Need … my … Jim…."
Jim fought coming with everything in him. This was the best sex he’d ever had, with the lover he’d wanted more than any other in his life, and it had only lasted a few minutes. He wanted it to go on all night. Hell, all night, all day, and all night again, if Blair was willing….
"So good … so good … wanted this … so long … oh, God, yes … more, Jim, more…."
Blair was willing. And so was Jim’s spirit, but his flesh…. Jim grit his teeth, feeling the tingling rush of heat start at the small of his back.
"Damn! Damn!" gasped Jim desperately. "Blair, I can’t-"
"Come for me," cried Blair wildly, reaching up to touch Jim’s face. "Show me how beautiful you are."
Jim exploded into orgasm, screaming Blair’s name, coming so hard he couldn’t see straight. He felt Blair come at virtually the same moment, crying Jim’s name brokenly and holding on to him as if for dear life. Jim felt himself shaking, tingling, burning all over as his hot seed pumped out of him, dimly aware that his lover’s semen was coating his hands and stomach. He struggled to get his breathing under control, and only when he blinked to clear his vision did he realize that there were tears running down his face. He didn’t care.
"Blair?" he whispered, feeling his muscles threatening to collapse around him. His vision sharpened enough to see Blair, breathing hard and erratically, smile up at him.
"Jim," he murmured.
Jim very gently eased himself out of Blair, cursing himself at his clumsiness as Blair winced slightly. "You okay?" He lay beside Blair and sheltered his new lover in his arms, settling Blair’s head on his shoulder.
"Oh, man. So okay," sighed Blair softly, smiling. He reached up to wipe Jim’s tears away without comment.
"If I hurt you…." Jim’s voice shook, and he cleared his throat.
Blair actually chuckled softly. "If that’s your idea of pain, man, feel free to inflict it anytime."
"Jim," whispered Blair tenderly, silencing Jim in mid-panic. "You didn’t hurt me. You made love to me. You love me."
"Yes," said Jim hoarsely. Blair had understood. Again. "I … so much, Blair."
"Yeah. But I don’t just know that now. I feel it." Blair draped his arms around Jim, his blue eyes bright. "Inside." His voice dropped to a whisper. "Thank you."
Jim blinked hard, drew a steadying breath and lowered his head to kiss Blair’s mouth softly in gratitude and love. "Just … let yourself feel, babe. Let yourself feel."