Local Museum Director Murdered
CASCADE, November 16, 2007
Rachel Jennings, director of the Cascade History Museum, was found dead today in the home she shared with her fiancé, Lieutenant Jim Ellison of the Cascade Police Department. The Cascade Times has learned that at the time of her death, Lieutenant Ellison, a three-time recipient of the Cop of the Year award, was being treated for an undisclosed work-related injury at Cascade General. A man claiming responsibility for her death took the museum hostage shortly after Ms. Jennings was found. The man, identified as Gerald True, refused to surrender until police shot him. True was a known protestor of museum policy who, police sources say, had made threats in the past against the museum, its staff, and its policies.
“Ellison.” Half-distracted by the report I was typing, I answered the ringing phone. Habit had me checking the caller ID display, noting as I did it was a number with a non-local area code.
“Hey, Chief, what’s up? I thought you were going to be on a plane today.” Worried, I stopped typing up my report and focused on the familiar voice coming across the phone line.
Sandburg was wry and resigned. “Can’t. Leaving the Prydian Group is a two-week process, minimum.”
“If this is your idea of an April Fool’s joke….”
“You think I’d kid about something like this?” Sandburg sounded frustrated. “I want out of here so bad I can taste it.”
“So why the hell can’t you just go?”
“Oh, going now would be ten kinds of bad. You know how you can’t talk about what you were doing before Peru?”
“Damn it, Sandburg, you said you weren’t going to do anything dangerous,” I swore.
He laughed dryly. “They lied,” he said. “Okay, so they didn’t lie but they didn’t exactly tell the truth either. Besides, I ended up liking what I was doing. I just…” He took a deep breath, then exhaled. “I can’t do this anymore. Not when it feels like I need to get back to you, back to being your Guide, and Cascade. I’ve got to wrap up some stuff with the project I’m working on now, get through the security debriefing, and it’s going to take two weeks to do it all. Listen, is it okay if I ship some stuff to you?”
“Yeah, but let me give you my new address.”
“New address? You sold the loft?”
“Yeah.” I took a deep breath, hating the way grief still gripped me. I’d lost people before but losing Rachel had hit me more than I wanted to admit. “Rachel was murdered there.”
“Oh, jeez, Jim, I’m sorry; I remember you said she was your fiancée.” Compassion laced his voice, and I clung to that like a lifeline. His voice would always be the thing that kept me from going crazy, and I’d been a fool to think I could live without him. “Your senses whacking out on you? Never mind, stupid question. I know how you are. Dial it down, Jim, you know you can, and hang on. I’ll be there as soon as I can. All right, give me the address of your new place.”
“1520 Bollard Avenue, number 401. Still in Cascade.”
“That’s…Garden District, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it is.”
“Sweet,” he said happily. “I had a girlfriend who lived there when I was a freshman in college. Nice area. Feel free to smell my stuff when you get it if you need my scent to ground yourself. Oh, crap, I’ve gotta go. Um, 555-555-9214 is my cell. Call me if you need me, okay?” Without a goodbye, he disconnected the call.
I hung up the receiver and stared at my computer screen. Part of me wanted to go and find out just what Sandburg was trying to get away from; the other part – the part that had been fighting a migraine from my senses spiking out of control – advised to let it be. The sooner my Guide was back, the better off we’d be. Deliberately, I took a deep breath, and took his advice, letting the memory of his voice ease the pain I was feeling.
Jim had originally planned to pick me up, but then he’d found out he was due to appear in court and wasn’t sure when he’d be available. I told him not to worry and agreed to meet him in the coffeehouse on the first floor of the building where he now lived. It was a good thing I had, as my flight ended up arriving three hours later than originally scheduled.
In three weeks, we’d talked more often than we had in five years. It really wasn’t that big of a deal, but it still felt a bit odd. Five years ago, I’d needed to know I was capable of being someone other than Jim’s partner, Jim’s Guide, Jim’s roommate, Jim’s best friend…Jim’s almost-but-not-quite lover. Moving to Colorado, taking the job with the Prydian Group, leaving the Cascade PD, and becoming a full-fledged civilian again, had been the step I’d needed, but even without the return of the visions telling me Jim needed his Guide back, I’d wanted to come home. I’d missed Cascade. It had been the first place I’d called home and known it was someplace I was coming back to, not somewhere on my mother’s rambling map. More to the point, I’d missed Jim. In the three weeks of talking, we’d managed to pick up our friendship where we left off, and I was grateful. I’d been half-afraid he’d be pissed off that he needed me again, but he’d said he’d gotten over the way the Universe thought we couldn’t live without each other. Fighting the Universe wasn’t in his Sentinel responsibilities, and just when would I be in town?
Thanks to the extra time, Jim had arranged to reinstate my credentials as a Special Investigative Consultant. Simon’s proposal to send me to the academy had met with political resistance; the consultancy had been a compromise between keeping me available and appeasing those who would believe the worst of me. The position was like that of a forensic anthropologist, with a quasi-civilian status; I could be armed but I couldn’t arrest anyone. That suited me just fine.
The coffeehouse was deserted when I arrived, which wasn’t surprising given the time of day and its location off Crescent, the main street through the Garden District neighborhood, which was one of the more residential areas of the city. I knew all I had to do was walk half a mile east, turn right, and we’d be in the Canal Station neighborhood, where we used to live. I’d loved this neighborhood ever since I’d moved here; it was a touch of suburbia amid northeast Cascade. It was also further away from the university than Canal Station was, and something about that made me glad Jim had chosen here.
I wasn’t surprised he’d moved; I’d been pushing for him to move somewhere else, set it up so that his place of residence wasn’t a matter of public record so any half-intelligent nut job could track him down. I couldn’t make him do it until after I’d moved away, which figured. Some days it took mountains to get him to change his mind. I just wish it hadn’t taken the death of a woman he’d clearly loved deeply to get him to move.
I ordered my usual coffee and settled down to wait. I didn’t have long. Jim looked as exhausted as I felt when he walked in, zeroing in on me with a look of relief.
I stood and hugged him, feeling him shudder slightly, a sure sign that he’d zoned on something sometime during the day and hadn’t been able to regain control. “I’m here,” I assured him.
He took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly before stepping back. “Yeah. Sorry, it’s just been a rough few weeks.” He wrinkled his nose. “Bad flight?”
“Yeah. I was supposed to land –” I glanced at my watch “—three and half hours ago.”
“No wonder you smell like frustration.”
I nodded agreement and followed him out of the coffeehouse and into the lobby of the building. He used a magnetic key card to swipe the elevator switch to on, then we headed up to the fourth floor. He led me down a short hallway to the west side of the floor before leading me into what felt like a huge space. Off to my right was a coat closet and a half bath; to my left was the staircase leading towards the second floor. Just beyond me were the dining room, kitchen, and living area. On a sunny day, we would have an nearly unobstructed view of the mountains. The furniture looked like nothing I remembered him having, though the style was similar – comfortable, practical, and clean without being too fussy or modern. The first floor was an open floor plan, delineated by the furniture groupings. I smiled when I saw the table was big enough to seat six, remembering when I would have loved to have that kind of room to sprawl out my notes and books.
Jim let me absorb the floor plan in, saying nothing as I wandered to check everything out. The guest bedroom, with its own attached bathroom, was off the living room. The bed looked to be queen-size, topped by a patterned quilt in shades of blue, gray, and white. Two nightstands flanked either side of the bed. A six-drawer chest in the same oak wood as the rest of the furniture sat opposite the end of the bed. The closet was a standard slide-the-doors-open type, more than big enough to store my belongings. What I had sent had not been unpacked; both boxes blocked the far end of the closet.
The second floor had an open area, which Jim had set up as a TV room. The second floor also had a bedroom Jim was using as an office, and a beautifully done master suite. I couldn’t help myself: I peeked into the master bathroom, wanting to know how much it differed from the guest bedroom. The shower, separate from the tub, looked big enough for two, with more dials and levers than I knew could be feasible in a shower; the tub looked oversize, big enough for someone of Jim’s height to soak in. There was even a switch to turn on heat on the floor.
It was clear someone had designed the place as if they were planning to live there years. I knew without asking we were in some serious square footage, enough to rival a small house. There were times I was reminded that Jim came from money, that he’d always been good about saving it – even when he’d been supporting my opportunistic ass – and I was reminded of it now. Even the furniture looked new, as if – My brain froze as I realized if Rachel’s scent had been embedded in the old furniture, he would’ve had to get rid of it all to stop himself from zoning on her every time he came home.
I came back downstairs where Jim was waiting.
“So, what do you think?”
“Holy cow, Jim, this is huge,” I said honestly. “Stunning. How the hell did you find this place?”
“Steven’s doing,” Jim explained. “Friend of his was the architect who renovated the building; used to be a warehouse.”
“I thought –” I started. His relationship with Steven had hit a rough spot before I’d left; they hadn’t been speaking when I’d left.
“Rachel said we were being idiots for not talking to each other, and she was right,” Jim said quietly. “I didn’t want to move in here at first – it’s too big for one person, and a hell of a step up for a cop, even a cop who saves his money, but Steven convinced me I was being too proud for my own good. I couldn’t sleep in the old place anymore.”
“Oh, jeez, Jim—”
He held up a hand. “You were right, you know, but I didn’t want to listen. Got used to you making sure we followed Security Rules 101. Then you left, and I stopped thinking about it. Then Rachel moved in and I just…assumed she’d be careful.”
I didn’t say anything; I could see the regret and self-blame on his face. No wonder he was having problems keeping his senses from going haywire. “So how long have you lived here?”
“Finished moving in the week before I went to that conference and ran into you.”
I closed my eyes briefly. “I’m sorry, Jim.”
He took another deep breath and nodded tightly. “Yeah. You and she would’ve gotten along really well.” Briskly, he said, “I put the two boxes you shipped in your room, and the spare keys are on the dresser in there. Bed’s new and made up; I figured you might not want to sleep on a futon again, especially since that room’s big enough to have a proper bed. We could go down to Mama J’s for dinner, if you’re interested, or I could cook something.”
I studied him a moment, seeing how exhausted he was. “Why don’t you just go take a nap, and let me worry about dinner? I need a shower, but I had some coffee, so I’m good for another hour or two.” Silently, I willed him to lean on me, even as I braced myself for the argument.
He didn’t argue, just looked at me, sniffed and wrinkled his nose. I froze, wondering where he was going with this. In the mood he was in, it could be anything. Once, he’d insisted on bathing me until I no longer smelled of smoke and pain, until I was the one in need of consolation.
“Come on up when you’re done showering. I need…” He took a deep breath. “I need you.”
“Yeah, Jim, I’ll be there in a few minutes,” I told him. I waited until he moved upstairs to head off into my new room and stripped quickly.
As I’d expected, Jim had stocked the guest bathroom with the same soap and shampoo I’d used for years before moving to Colorado. I hadn’t been able to get that brand in Colorado – they were handmade by an artist local to Cascade. Jim clearly wanted me to smell, well, more like the me he remembered, the me he’d learned to ground himself to all those years ago. I didn’t linger like I might have wanted to. I also didn’t bother with putting on clothes; I knew exactly what Jim was asking for, what he needed.
He was ready when I came upstairs, stripped down to his underwear, and laid on the enormous bed. He had pulled the covers down to the foot of the bed, neatly folding them so they didn’t fall off the end. I slipped in beside him and waited.
He rose up over me, climbing over so that he was balanced on his hands and knees above me, and began sniffing me. If he was anyone else, I’d think he was mad, but we’d learned that when things got really, really bad, Jim needed to smell me, to touch me, to taste me, to sense me in a primal way. Sometimes when the light was right I’d see the jaguar in him overtake him, that spirit-instinct needing to be soothed that I was here, that I was all right. To say it had freaked us the first time this happened would be an understatement, but not now, not in this moment.
Like a big cat, he breathed me in as he inspected my body for my scent, moving over me as intimately as any lover. I lay still, keeping my breathing as normal as I could. It wasn’t easy, but I trusted Jim like no one else. I said nothing, knowing in this moment he was not capable of understanding speech. We were doing the wolf-and-jaguar equivalent of me baring my belly, and him reclaiming me as pack, mate, whatever label you want to slap on it. It was never sex, but the intimacy in it was the closest thing to it I’d ever known, and yeah…sometimes even I shied away from defining just what was. Every time we did this, my heart ached for what we weren’t even as I felt a sense of rightness that this was what we were. I worried what we’d tell our lovers about this, wondered if he’d ever mentioned it to Rachel, but I couldn’t think about that now.
Now was for letting him press against me, learning what had changed about my scent, learning where my new scars were. I’d once wrote pages about how he defined his senses, and the words rushed through me as he took me in, scenting the places where my smell was strongest, tasting my skin where the newest scar told a story of a knife to the abdomen, seeing me as I was now versus what I’d been five years ago, hearing the blood rushing through my veins. I couldn’t stop the thread of fear that shivered through me as he pressed close, his weight pinning me, but fought it. He growled and bit my neck where the junction of my neck and shoulder met, hard enough to leave a bruise that would mark me for days but not enough to break skin. The pain shot through me, sharp and bittersweet with a tinge of arousal. I let go of my fear, let the pleasure-pain saturate my responses and relax my body. He made a noise of satisfaction and ground himself against me before moving back down my body to investigate the area below my waist. Every inch of my skin was mapped, studied, and catalogued, until I could see the picture he’d drawn in his head and the way he reconciled that with his memory of me. It was the only way we’d ever found that would satisfy that hunger to know me, to mark me as his, and still keep some semblance of boundaries for both of us. It was a sham, and we both knew it. Still, it was easier to stick to the rules we’d set, because it meant we weren’t lying when we said weren’t lovers.
It just felt a hell of a lot like it. Once, it had been a lot closer to the line than other days. I shoved the memory of that bittersweet day aside and focused on giving Jim what he needed, which was my unconditional surrender and acknowledgement that I was his.
He finally took one last deep breath, rose up over me and rolled to one side of the bed. I turned and wrapped my arms around him. He was calmer, but not entirely so. Stage Two of the Sandburg-Ellison Handbook for How to Calm an Emotionally Distraught Sentinel was about to begin.
“I got you, Jim. You can let go now.”
“I’m not—” he argued, sounding like he’d hoped marking me would suffice. I knew better. If we didn’t deal with this now, he’d agonize over what he’d just done, until we were arguing about the price of kumquats in the middle of the grocery store. Neither of us even liked kumquats, you understand?
“Yes, you are. Let go, Jim. It’s okay to grieve for Rachel; it’s normal, it’s healthy. You don’t have to be strong. I’m here now.” I used my best Guide voice, feeling him shake with the effort of letting go. Not for the first time I was reminded how deep Jim’s well of caring went; he tried to hide it, bury it deep, but for the people he called friend, there were oceans of feeling. “I’m here,” I repeated, “and I’ve got you.”
Jim shuddered, took a deep breath, then said, his voice breaking, “She – Oh God, I couldn’t save her. I didn’t save her. I wasn’t fucking around because I’d zoned and tripped.”
“Zoned on what, Jim?”
He shook his head. “Doesn’t matter now.”
I cursed silently. “Yes, it does. Tell me, or it’s going to keep festering.”
I sighed. “Do you really want to play Twenty Questions on this? Give, Jim.”
He buried his head in the nape of my neck, breathed me in again. For a moment I could almost pretend we were lovers, but my body and my head knew different. “Jasmine and sandalwood,” he admitted finally. “I thought it was Rachel, but it smelled wrong, like someone had crushed the flowers and scorched the sandalwood.”
I closed my eyes. I knew he’d figured out since that his senses had told him Rachel was in danger. I took a calming breath, feeling him shift slightly against me as he waited for me to adjust to the idea. “How’d you trip?”
“Some punk on a skateboard ran into me.”
“And who was with you?”
“Luke. My partner.” He half-chuckled. “Arrested the punk for assaulting an officer.”
“Good man,” I said, then held Jim tighter. “Now let it go. I’m here.”
His breath hitched.
“Let it go, Jim. You zoned. It happens. Doesn’t mean the end of the world. Even if in hindsight it feels like it.” I deliberately opened myself up, let the psychic shields around me fall, and on that metaphysical level reached for Jim. Even there, he resisted, and I nudged him exasperatedly, let the shamanistic power flow through me until he surrendered and finally, finally let go.
He cried for hours, great gulping sobs that told me he hadn’t cried like this. When he was done, my arms ached from having held him for so long, but I was glad I hadn’t bothered with getting dressed; he’d have left stains on any shirt I’d worn. “Go, take a shower,” I admonished him, feeling exhausted from the psychic and physical drain. “I’ll meet you downstairs.”
He took one last long breath, exhaled slowly, then nodded. I could see him pulling in his walls again, tucking his grief back into the closet he’d kept it buried in, but even as he did so I could see that it wasn’t going to be a threat anymore.
“You’re welcome.” I headed downstairs again, keenly aware we’d just cracked the first hurdle. I’d been expecting my heart to ache with the effort I’d just expended, but I felt strangely healed, as if I, too, had needed this. In that moment, I had this absolute sense of rightness, as if I’d done precisely the right thing. I was tired, but more to the point, I felt like I’d come home.
The heat of summer was slow to hit Cascade, but I couldn’t shake the sense we were just waiting for the other shoe to drop. My new captain put Blair on two weeks’ probation before welcoming him back permanently. Cabraio was good at recognizing talent, but he preferred to put everyone through a test run at first, to see if it would be worth his time and trouble to push you to work harder. He drove me – and the rest of Major Crimes – to be better because he trusted we would be, supported us, and encouraged us to think. Like Simon, who’d reluctantly taken a promotion to Assistant Chief, he was a good balance between a leader and a manager. Cabraio reminded me more of some of the better officers I’d served under in the Army.
Getting Blair back on the force was the easy part. Simon wouldn’t let me go back to being without backup, once he understood about my senses, and insisted I had a partner, an insistence he’d ensured would continue by putting the recommendation in my personnel file. (I’d yelled at him for that, but he’d calmly pointed out that a good partner could cover my back if I zoned. He’d had a valid point, but I didn’t have to like it.) By the time Blair came back, I had a reputation for going through partners. Megan O’Connor had returned to Australia, Brian Rafe had taken the promotion to lieutenant and second-in-command of Major Crimes, and four others after them decided I was too hard to work with, too strange, or just too much me. My latest partner was Luka Tikhomirov, who insisted on being known as Luke.
Luke’s a good, solid cop. He’d been a preteen when his family had fled Russia; the experience had left him with a desire for justice, an accent that got thicker when he was frustrated or angry, and a love of the US that amazed me sometimes. He’d been a detective with the Auto Theft Division before coming to Major Crimes, and his record was impressive. No matter what he did or who he was, though, he wasn’t the man I preferred as my partner, and yeah, he knew it. He’d known it for the last eighteen months, ever since Rafe had told him the first day he’d joined Major Crimes. He had seen it as a challenge to overcome.
I suppose I should’ve discouraged him, but having that challenge was motivating him to be a better cop. Besides, what could I say? Blair was more than a friend, less than a lover, and the best damned partner I’d ever had because of those two things? I knew Luke well enough by now to know he wouldn’t get it. Hell, some days even I didn’t understand the complex relationship Blair and I had – like the way I thought of him. Yeah, he was Blair, you don’t mark someone the way I did without dropping that last formality, but at work – or when he annoyed me – he was still Sandburg. Made separating that intimacy in our lives a lot easier, and that was just one of the many things I wasn’t about to explain to Luke.
I didn’t see Blair at work the first three days of his job, which was not surprising, since he was going through all the orientation hoops required of a special consultant (including, he told me when I smelled the residue on him one night, re-qualifying on the handgun he’d been issued). Luke and I were fighting the departmental caseload average and shooting for closure on half of our cases. It was, as always, a losing proposition, but I’d held the record for most cases closed and I was determined – as was Luke – to win that record again.
The morning of the fourth day, Captain Cabraio held the weekly status meeting, going over the case board. As a department, we weren’t doing that great but we’d had worse springs. The extended cold weather had helped decrease the amount of crime, but it hadn’t stopped it, either. I knew Blair was in the back of the room – Cabraio insisted that as a lieutenant, I needed to be seated up front, right beside Rafe, who was his official second-in-command – and wondered briefly why Blair had deliberately chosen to be last in the room.
“All right, looks like we’ve got some work to do,” Cabraio summarized. “Before you get back at it, I’d like to introduce the newest member of our team. He will be a familiar face to those of you who know him from when he previously held this position. He holds a master’s in anthropology and is a certified criminal profiler. The past five years he has been working as a consultant to the Air Force, on a project he can’t talk about but assures me it has something to do with criminal behavior and nothing to do with aliens.”
There was laughter among the group, but I was paying attention to Blair. At the mention of aliens, he’d winced, just momentarily, and I wondered just what he’d walked away from when he’d left the Prydian Group. Like my Ranger history, I had a hunch that whatever he knew was something that would fall under “didn’t happen, never existed, you never knew of this and you weren’t wherever it was you were.” I couldn’t ask, though, and I knew he’d never tell, so I pulled my attention back to what was going on.
“Please welcome back our special consultant and criminal profiler, Mr. Blair Sandburg.” Cabraio nodded to Blair, who rose to his feet, waved to the group who’d turned to face him, and then sat back down. “I strongly suggest you use him on your cases. He can help you produce results. Please note he cannot arrest your perps for you, type your reports, or act as slave labor. He is, however, allowed to carry a gun in case one of you takes him along to check out a suspect or view a crime scene and someone shoots the cops. He is trained and is, from what I’ve heard and seen in his record, quite capable of giving backup in an emergency. Let’s try to keep that to a minimum, folks.” Cabraio waited a moment to let that sink in, then said, “Let’s go to work.”
The room cleared in its typical surge-like fashion. As was our habit, Luke and I waited until it was mostly clear before heading out ourselves. We watched as Blair got caught up in the small group of cops who’d known him. I heard Martinez pull him away to ask him about the serial burglar case she was working on and focused my attention back on my partner.
He looked…well, crushed would have been easier. He looked like I’d just dropped him out of a helicopter into the middle of a jungle and told him he had to go fight, when until now we’d just been talking theory, and he hadn’t quite connected that theory = practice = action. I could see the wheels spinning in his head as he made the connections I’d had a partner, not just someone assigned to work with me.
Before either of us could say anything, Cabraio was stepping up to us. “Ellison, a word with you, in my office, now?”
“I’ll get that Green case report started,” Luke volunteered, relieved at the excuse to not have to talk to me just yet.
I nodded and followed Cabraio into his office. He shut the door behind us and moved to lean on his desk, facing me. Cabraio studied me a moment before asking, “Are you happy with Luke as your partner?”
“Luke’s a good cop, sir.”
“He’s not Sandburg.”
“No, he isn’t, sir, but he’s –”
“Spare us both the speech about how he tries hard; I know it, else he wouldn’t still be here. Rafe thinks I’m crazy for not pulling Luke off and giving you Sandburg back as your partner. I don’t think I’m crazy. I think I’m giving you the space you both crave to do what you’re both good at while still ensuring you don’t kill each other.”
“Kill each other?” I blinked, shocked at the idea.
Cabraio looked at me. “He worked with you for three years as a police observer, correct? Three years that rank as the craziest in Cascade history for crime. Then he comes aboard as an official consultant, partnered with you for another four years. What happens to both of you then reads like the Seahawks’ list of injuries on top of some bizarre cases. Banks calls it the Sandburg Zone, where putting you two together creates this magnet for trouble. I’m hoping if I don’t partner you together, but make Sandburg available to the entire department, that it reduces the chaos factor.”
Amused, I wished Sandburg was around to hear this. I fought the smile twitching at my lips and said, “I’m not sure that’s possible. Those years you call crazy ended up involving the entire department, but I’m willing to try it. Anything else?”
Cabraio’s eyes measured me, and I froze, wondering where he was headed next. He was still leaning casually against his desk, a sure sign he wasn’t entirely certain how I’d take what he had to say but was confident I’d accept it.
“There’s a second reason I don’t want to partner you together again,” Cabraio said. “He’s living with you, correct?”
I snorted. “If you think that makes a difference –”
“It does, trust me. My partner and I shared a house, same as you and Sandburg – we’d gone through the academy together and couldn’t afford anything in Cascade on our individual salaries. We fought, the way I hear tell you and he did, and it affected everything. We had no distance anymore. We lived, breathed, ate, and slept our work.” Cabraio’s expression held regret, and I knew he’d lost his partner, somehow. “Distance is good, Ellison, even if it’s just not your case.”
I let go of a breath, understanding why Simon had been so adamant in his endorsement of Cabraio. “I’ll keep that in mind, Captain.”
“You do that,” Cabraio agreed. Hearing the dismissal in his tone, I headed out of his office.
“You knew,” I asserted to Blair, later that day when we’d grabbed a break together.
“About me not being partnered with you?”
I nodded. “Was it your idea or Cabraio’s?”
“His,” Blair replied. “He pulled me into his office right before the meeting. I warned him you wouldn’t be happy.”
I snorted. “I’m not, but I’ll live. His reasoning makes sense, though.”
Blair looked at me. “You want me to get with Luke, teach him anything?”
“Nah, Rafe pulled him aside. Gave him the ‘if he stares off into space, grab him and talk’ speech. Luke thinks I have ADD, but he swears at me in Russian when I start to zone.” I looked at Blair, grateful we were in the coffeehouse two blocks down from the station. “What, was there anything in the How to be a Sentinel’s Guide for Dummies handbook I missed?”
Unconsciously, Blair rubbed at his neck where I’d marked him two weeks ago; the mark had long since faded from normal sight, but the memory of it hadn’t. I’d never stopped being embarrassed about how I was capable of that – it didn’t happen often enough for it to lose its shock value – and instantly I was contrite. “Sorry.”
Blair just shook his head and a wry smile appeared on his lips. “No, it’s just – strange to be doing this all over again, y’know?”
“Yeah, I know.” I met his gaze. “And yes, I’ll make Luke put your number on speed-dial.” I paused, considering a thought. “You want him over for dinner to explain a few things?”
“Not yet,” Blair replied. “Make sure he hasn’t put in for a transfer yet.”
“You think he would?”
Blair glared at me. “Of course he would, Jim. Rafe said he’d told the poor kid I’d been your best partner ever. You completely missed the lecture Rafe gave Cabraio for not assigning me to you. If I’d heard that, then met me, I’m not sure I wouldn’t reconsider my position. Did you even have coffee this morning?”
“You made none,” I shot back. “Traffic sucked and I didn’t get to the station until just before the meeting this morning. How the hell did you get up and out the door before me, anyway? Besides not making any coffee, which would’ve woken me up sooner.”
“A bathroom with pipes that don’t echo through the second floor, for starters? Besides, you think after all these years I haven’t learned how to be quiet when I need to be around you? Or that I haven’t had reason to keep practicing on how to sneak up on people?” His words told me plenty that wasn’t a laughing matter. My face must’ve reflected my sobering thoughts, for Blair continued more seriously, “Cabraio told me to be here an hour early. I felt like I was sneaking out of school, trying not to wake you up.”
“You locking the door woke me,” I told him. “Otherwise I might’ve worried more that you’d left.” I sighed, aware he had a point. “I’ll talk to Luke.”
“Get some coffee, first,” Blair advised, checking his watch. “We should get back anyway.”
“Luke’s asked to transfer out of Major Crimes,” Jim announced two weeks later as he took the plate of eggs I’d handed him. He set it down on the breakfast bar before pouring coffee into his mug and mine.
I slid my share of the eggs out of the skillet onto a plate, set the pan back on the stove, and grabbed forks out of a drawer. By the time I had, Jim had both plates set in our usual seats. I set the forks down and snagged my coffee cup before sitting down next to Jim.
“Cabraio won’t accept it,” I said confidently as I took a bite of eggs. “He hates losing people.”
“He won’t get a choice,” Jim said sourly. “I overheard Luke talking to his old captain, who’s now over in Domestic Violence.”
I stared at Jim. “What does it say about working with you that people seem to think they’ll do better in Domestic Violence? That makes, what, three people who’ve gone from being your partner to going over there?”
“Hey, at least it’s not Animal Control. Remember that gal who was my partner while you went through that abbreviated training at the Academy?”
I rolled my eyes. “You are not still holding my ‘he’s just a big kitty’ comment against me, are you?”
Jim’s eyes gleamed with mischief. “Well….” he drawled.
“Oh, all right,” I surrendered, even as I wondered just how much power that piece of ammunition had left in it. “You want me to talk to him, straighten him out?”
Jim sipped coffee before asking, “You’re still working that stolen packages case, aren’t you?”
“I'm presenting my theory on it this morning. If I’m right, we’ll have the suspect in a few days. Maybe less.”
“Which frees you up,” Jim surmised. He considered it a moment. “If you get a moment, grab Luke. I’d rather have him than a new partner.”
“Admit, you’d rather have me.”
“Yeah, and that proves what? Cabraio’s right. It’s been nice not working the same cases as you. I’m not constantly worrying about specifics and getting distracted.”
“Distracted?” I teased him. “What, you afraid I will get hurt or something?”
“Or something,” he agreed dryly. “So, you’ll talk to Luke?”
“Better the partner you know than the one you don’t?”
“I’ll see what I can do,” I promised.
Unfortunately, I was too late; Luke transferred to Domestic Violence, who needed the added staff. It wasn’t anything we could have stopped. The CPD was running afoul of a budget crunch; even Animal Control’s officers were pitching in on regular patrols, and other units were stealing or borrowing staff just to keep up with the day-to-day. Special Investigations was the hardest hit; whoever had drawn up the budget for the year had clearly based their funding allocations on some baseline that reminded me of the budget Anthropology got at Rainier. SI’s officers found themselves reassigned, the unit dissolved so that the budget, at least on paper, looked better. All the special operations that SI had been trying to do were suddenly tabled or redistributed to other units, and since Major Crimes had the most experience in the things involving SI, we got most of the most critical cases. As if we didn’t have our own problems to deal with?
The problem was, though, that with me aboard, we got results. I knew what patterns to look for, knew how to listen in interviews, knew what would work and wouldn’t. Jim’s senses were once again reliable enough to make the difference in his cases, and between the two of us, we were making the inroads other units could only dream of. Major Crimes was boasting the best solve rate in the force.
By the time June rolled around, Jim and I were once again the dynamic duo of Major Crimes. Cabraio cautioned us to make sure we took time for ourselves, apart from each other. He hated the position we were in, but knew there was nothing we could do about it until the new fiscal year, when the new city budget was funded. Even then, I had a suspicion – as did Cabraio – that Special Investigations would run as a subunit of Major Crimes. We worked cases that wouldn’t have made the Major Crimes list a year before.
“Mr. Sandburg is a Special Consultant to the CPD. Mr. Sandburg, could you describe what happened here today?” the local news reporter said as she stuck her microphone in my face.
Even though I’d agreed to play spokesman, I flinched before I took a deep breath. News cameras bothered me, bringing back memories I’d rather forget, but I knew Jim wasn’t in any shape to be answering the reporter’s questions and everyone else was too busy dealing with the situation at hand. “Yes, well, we learned of two fugitives from New Mexico that were staying at this local apartment. Contact was made at the apartment and we took a male and a female into custody for their warrants for distribution of marijuana and conspiracy to commit distribution of marijuana.”
“Isn’t it unusual for officers from Major Crime to be working in this manner?” the reporter asked.
I looked directly at the camera. “No, we believe in the spirit of cooperation in the Cascade Police Department and helping the FBI is a part of that spirit. Excuse me.” I smiled at her and walked to where Jim sat in the passenger seat of the unmarked police car we’d checked out for this operation, the windows and doors of the car wide open.
Grateful that we didn’t have to worry about taking the suspects into custody, since other officers were handling that work, I spoke freely.
“You okay? You zoned out hard back there.”
Jim nodded his agreement with that last statement but didn’t apologize. “You’d better drive but leave the windows open. I need to get the stench of that damned drug out of my system, and the AC in this car’s nearly shot.”
I nodded and got in the car.
“Nice piece of bullshit you told that reporter,” Jim said as I started the car up and then pulled it out on the road. I wasn’t surprised he’d been listening in; the man would listen to me anywhere he could. “Spirit of cooperation my ass. Budget cuts and staffing shortages more like it.”
“Yeah, well, at least the feebs weren’t self-righteous, arrogant dorks. Oh, wait, they were. Can I put that in our report?”
Jim snorted. “Not with my signature on it, and you’d better not forge it or I’ll tell your new boyfriend you like being handcuffed.”
“I don’t have a new boyfriend,” I denied hotly, then glanced over at Jim as I realized how he had found out. “Damn, I thought I’d been better about washing up.”
“You’re out of the habit. Tell him, too, if he will be around a while to lose the cologne.”
“I did,” I said ruefully. “That was the end of our relationship. That, and he freaked that I was a cop. Well, close enough to one to count, anyway.”
“Well, that sucks. Guess you’re just stuck with me again,” Jim commented.
“Yeah, well, didn’t you say you live to disappoint me?” I joked, amazed that I could joke about it. Five years ago, that had been a deal breaker: finding out he would do anything to keep me, even give me himself when sex with a man didn’t turn him on. The look in his eyes told me he remembered that, too, and he grinned, lightening the moment. I fought the surge of joy that raced through me at knowing we were okay, that we were friends, that we would get through this summer without that hanging over our heads. “Besides, don’t you have a date with that pretty ER nurse tonight?”
Jim looked at his watch and groaned. “Not if we don’t get home now.”
I was in the middle of watching a game on TV the following day when my cell phone rang. I glanced at the number and swore silently.
“Sandburg, this is Cabraio. Is your partner hard of hearing or does he just have his cell phone turned off? I’ve been trying to reach him all morning.”
Hard of hearing, hah, I thought silently. Only when he zones. “He was out on a date last night, sir. He’s not home yet, but I expect him anytime.”
“I need you find him, and then I need you to follow up on a tip that there are guns being stored in the cars at Zippy Auto Sales on Mill Creek Road. Got that?”
“And do it fast.”
Cabraio hung up without saying goodbye, and I kissed my Saturday goodbye. Quickly, I changed out of the sweats I’d been wearing and into what I saw as my weekend work clothes: jeans, black sneakers, T-shirt, bulletproof vest, and suede overshirt to hide the bulge of my gun holster. I’d just picked up my car keys from the basket near the front door when Jim walked in, still wearing the clothes he’d worn on his date. Jim looked at me, saw what I was wearing, and bit back the sigh.
“Give me ten minutes,” Jim promised, jogging up the stairs.
“Make it five,” I suggested. “Cabraio tried reaching you on your phone. Did you forget to put it on the charger again?”
“No, it dropped out of my pocket in the truck last night,” Jim told him. “I tried going out to get it, but Catherine distracted me.”
“I so need not know how,” I groaned. It was good to see Jim get back into dating again. I’d worried that his grief over Rachel would continue, beyond what I could fix. Clearly, I’d been fretting. Still, a part of me wished he was dating me. I shut off that line of thinking, aware of the terms of our relationship.
Within short order, Jim came back downstairs, having traded the khakis he’d been wearing for jeans and the dress shirt for one that had room to allow for the thickness of the bulletproof vest. It was a measure of the lives we led that wearing the vests were now a habit. By unspoken agreement, we took Jim’s truck to Zippy Auto Sales; my classic convertible lacked the police siren and lights that Jim had had wired into his truck.
“So, this thing with Catherine,” I asked minutes later as we made our way to the car dealer, “could be serious?”
“Don’t know,” Jim said honestly, then grinned. “Too early to tell. She doesn’t wear perfume, likes basketball, and comes from a military family. She’s working on getting her nursing certification in ambulatory nursing. Catherine used to be a massage therapist; went into nursing instead. She’s intense – knows what she wants.”
I glanced over at my friend. “Guess so, if you were out all night. You rarely do that on the first date.”
Jim chuckled reluctantly. “Yeah, but she’s different.”
“So when’s the next date?”
“Tuesday night,” Jim confirmed. “I invited her over for dinner.”
“Thanks for the head’s up. Oh, hey, there’s the dealership. Man, do you think they have enough signs to show they can a, speak Spanish and b, take bad credit without a problem?”
“Nah, they’re missing neon ones.” Jim nosed his truck into the first open customer parking spot he could find in the cramped, narrow lot. “How much you want to bet you get pounced on first?”
“That’s a sucker’s bet; the sharks are already circling,” I pointed out as he unbuckled his seat belt, gesturing to the two salesmen who were stepping out of the small office and coming to open the truck’s doors.
“So they are,” Jim agreed, and pulled his badge out so it was visible in the breast pocket of his police-issue windbreaker before he stepped out of the truck.
“Good afternoon, Officer,” the salesman who’d opened Jim’s door greeted. “How can we help you? Perhaps a fine second vehicle?”
“I’m Lieutenant Ellison, and this is Sandburg,” Jim corrected, gesturing as I’d come around the truck to stand next to him. “We got a tip that someone may store weapons in cars here.”
“Weapons?” The first salesman looked shocked. “We only sell clean cars. Juan, show him – we have records!”
“Easy,” I said soothingly. “We don’t care about the cars. We want to make sure no one is storing guns in the trunks.” I repeated my words in Spanish.
The second salesman, seeing me as the less threatening person, nodded vigorously. “Las armas, sí, they are here,” he said, missing the look of hatred the other salesman shot him as he tugged on my arm to lead me to a Firebird Trans Am.
“Well, that went well,” Blair noted dryly a half hour later as a patrol car took the first salesman to be booked. The second salesman had turned out to be the one who’d called in the tip; he had thought it had been a mistake and that the first salesman was innocent of any complicity. He’d been wrong and been shot for his trouble. An ambulance had already taken him to the hospital; I had wrestled the first salesman for the gun and disarm him, but not before he’d shot Blair.
“You okay?” I asked. I stopped myself – barely – from checking him out myself; unwilling to be accused of being overprotective, yet again. The man who’d returned from Colorado was more than capable of assessing his own health. Given some of the things he had stocked his bathroom with, I suspected he had been trained to perform combat first aid. It didn’t stop me from wanting to find out where his bruises were with my own fingers, and I shoved my hands in my pockets.
Blair shrugged, then winced. “Bullet hit the trauma plate but didn’t go through. I’ll put an ice pack on it when we get home. Never mind me for the moment. Any other cars you sense have guns hiding in the trunks?”
I stood, focusing in on my sense of smell. I always had this vision of the world narrowing down, like some camera lens, whenever I focused only on one sense. “The Camaro, the green Volvo in the corner, the brown Taurus, and the… the white car on the edge of the lot, in the back.”
“You stay put,” Blair advised, “and figure out if there’s anything else. I’ll get someone to check those vehicles, and radio in to Central. We’re gonna need trucks to tow all those to impound.”
I nodded, focused in on using my senses, then paused as premonition flashed through me, shredding reality. For a moment, I was transported somewhere else I couldn’t identify, a company of armored mastiffs before me, growling and charging a modern tank, a woman’s voice demanding that we move now.
“Jim, come back, that’s right, I’ve got you,” Blair’s voice called me back, his touch steadying me.
I looked at Blair. “This is just the beginning. We need to trace the guns, find the supplier. The war dogs are calling.”
Blair met my gaze, steadying me as my awareness blurred between the mystical and reality. I knew I wasn’t making much sense – the visions never made nearly as much sense to me as they did Blair – but I didn’t care. Blair interpreted me better than anyone I had ever known.
“One step at a time, remember? Breathe, Jim, and focus on here and now. Are there any other guns hiding anywhere else?”
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. I let my sense of smell become dominant, let the rest of the world fall away except the unique smell of gun oil and cordite. I’d missed having Blair around to guide me like this; I felt safer knowing Blair was watching out for me. I’d learned to cope, learned how not to get lost in a zone, but those lessons didn’t compare to the fact that Blair was my Guide. Joy and appreciation surged through me as I let myself ground on him, let my senses narrow to what I could smell before I pulled back. I let out the breath, let my senses come back to normal, and opened my eyes. “No,” I answered Blair’s question.
Blair let out the breath he’d been holding. “All right. You call the captain, brief him on what’s going on. I’ll call Central, get the tow trucks to impound the cars.”
I nodded agreement and pulled out my cell phone.
Las armas, sí = The weapons, yes
“Blair, would you grab the door?” Jim yelled downstairs. “Catherine’s here.”
Too accustomed such requests, I shut off the TV and crossed the living room to check the peephole. I saw no one at the door, but opened it anyway, trusting that Jim had sensed her somehow. I found a woman standing in the hallway, facing the door across from us, and I took a moment to appreciate the rear view. Her dark brunette hair hung in waves to the top of her shoulders. The cream-colored tank top and jean skirt she wore revealed more of her tanned skin. She was about an inch shorter in height than I was, and built on the willowy, athletic side. She turned at the sound of me opening the door and smiled, revealing the dimples in her cheeks. She had an oval-shaped face, deep-set hazel eyes, a Roman nose, and a wide smile.
Even though I’d met her once already, I instantly disliked her. I wasn’t sure why and told myself I was just being unreasonable, paranoid, and okay, a little jealous that he’d found yet another beautiful specimen of the female species. I decided right then I wouldn’t stay for dinner like I’d originally said I would.
“You must be Blair, Jim’s housemate,” she said, closing the distance, and extending her hand. “I’m Catherine Landren.”
“Pleased to meet you,” I said politely, shaking her hand. “Come on in; Jim’s just finishing up getting ready.” I led the way into the loft, willing to play host until Jim showed up. “Can I get you anything? Water, wine, coffee, soda?”
“Water would be great,” Catherine agreed. “Wow, this is a lovely place. I’ve never been in an apartment this big.”
“Yeah, it’s great,” I agreed as I filled a glass with water and then handed it to her. “Used to belong to his brother and they worked out a deal on the cost.” I wasn’t about to mention I’d nearly keeled over when I’d found out what one of these penthouses sold for; Jim had made a tidy profit on the old loft, but even that wouldn’t have been enough to afford this space if Steven hadn’t been involved. “About the only thing I miss about the old place was I had my private entrance to my room, but considering how drafty that old place was, I don’t miss it that much.”
“Oh, so you and Jim have been housemates a long time, then?”
“Let’s see, it was seven years, the first time? I moved back in April, and it’s almost June now.”
“He claimed he was only staying a week,” Jim chimed in as he came down the stairs.
I turned to look at him and grinned, unrepentant. “Yeah, well, you can’t kick me out now. Face it, man, you’re stuck with me.”
“And here I was thinking you’d stay gone,” Jim teased.
“Uh huh, and it was a pod person who said he’d missed having me around, too,” I shot back.
“Must’ve been,” Jim agreed, before turning to kiss Catherine in greeting.
“Oh, you were gone a while?” Catherine sounded confused.
“Yeah, I took a job in Colorado, spent five years there.” I could see the wheels turning in her head, see her try to match up Jim’s description of me as his roommate with the way we teased each other. She looked like she had expected us not to be friends. Silently, I hoped the mash-up broke her brain. “This is home, though. Even if Jim’s a neat freak.”
“Hey, you’ve gotten better!”
I rolled my eyes. “See what I mean? Anyway, I’m outta here.” I picked up my car keys from the basket by the door. “See you guys later. I’m going to see if I can get more done on that case from the weekend before the ATF guys show up, then I’ll be over at Marc’s.”
“I thought you broke up with Mark.”
“Not that Mark. This is Marc, with a ‘c’.”
“Oh, right,” Jim said, his tone clearly saying that the explanation was still insufficient. He looked at me, worried. “You sure you don’t want to stay?”
I smiled. “Nah, I think you’ll be fine without a chaperone, and I want to check something. Nice meeting you, Catherine.” I moved quickly out the door.
“I hope I didn’t chase him off,” Catherine’s voice floated down the hall.
Actually, I thought, you did. I really didn’t want to spend the evening trying to explain why I suddenly need to go mark him, the way he marked me the first night I was back in Cascade. Some nights it didn’t pay to know just how close the wolf inside me longed to break out, or how tangled my relationship with Jim really was.
I spent an hour on the case, then used the fact I had a locker at the precinct to change into clothes for dancing. If Jim was getting laid, I wanted to, too, even if my heart wasn’t in it.
Marc never showed up at the club like we had planned. I was not surprised; picking up someone in a club like that usually did not wind up in long-term relationships. I killed some time dancing, then, when it became clear that Marc was a no-show, decided against trying to find someone to replace him. Pretending I wanted someone other than Jim was getting harder to do, and my heart wasn’t in it.
“I thought you were going on a date with Catherine tonight.” Surprise showed in Blair’s voice as he entered our home a week and a half later.
I shook my head. “Told her I wanted to spend some time with you.” I deftly added vegetables to the stir-fry I was making.
Wary, he stepped up to the breakfast bar and leaned on the counter. “And? I sense an ‘and’ in there.”
“And she asked me if we were lovers.” I shrugged. “I said no; she didn’t believe me. I didn’t like the way she questioned it, so I told her to forget about seeing me again.”
Blair stared at me. “Let me get this straight: you’ve been seeing Catherine nearly every night for over a week now, and you’ve turned her down for the one person you aren’t sleeping with?”
I tossed in soy sauce and stirred the mix together before turning down the heat. “Something wrong with that, Chief? Or are you upset that I figured out you don’t like her?”
Dead silence met my questions. I grabbed two plates and split the contents of the wok across them. I set one plate in front of Blair.
“What gave it away?” he demanded finally.
I rolled my eyes. “Do I really need to answer that?”
He sighed, knowing I not only knew him well, but could tell when he tried to lie. “All right, I didn’t like her. I don’t know why.” I handed him a fork and he took a bite of the stir-fry absently. “Figured if I wasn’t home it would be easier.”
“Easier for me to wonder why my best friend suddenly can’t stand to be around my newest girlfriend. I thought you liked her.”
“I liked the idea of her. Jim, the last time I saw you this interested in someone, she turned out to be a thief.”
I pointed my fork at him. “See? Enough reason for me to step back and decide whether it’s just pheromones or something else. Apparently, Catherine didn’t like that idea.”
He shook his head. “You’re starting to freak me out, Jim. What happened to the guy who wouldn’t listen to me?”
“I do listen,” I argued.
“Yeah, eventually,” he shot back, but then he smiled. “You’re okay with not being with Catherine?”
“Don’t sound too relieved,” I teased him, knowing he’d find the answer in that.
“Oh, I’m not, I’m not,” he said hastily. “I thought it was cool you were dating again, considering.”
I sighed. “Yeah, there was that.” I shrugged philosophically. “You know it says something I fall in love with a nice, respectable woman when you’re not around.”
He faked being hurt. “You wound me, Jim.”
“Yeah, and I feed you, too. Want a beer?”
He grinned and took the bottle I was already handing him.
We were doing our best to reconcile what we couldn’t have been before with who we were now. After that first night, we’d settled back into a familiar rhythm: we were best friends, partners, and housemates. We didn’t speak of what else we were, save for the times when I needed him to Guide me. I’d half-figured he’d want to, but the Blair I got back from Colorado was not the man who’d left. He was quieter, more contained, and less likely to run on impulse, like he’d finally learned not to – the hard way. The changes made me pause, especially I could sense his power as a shaman had grown – as if someone had been cultivating it, teaching him how to harness it and wield it as easily as any weapon.
Two weeks later, I was watching TV in the loft when Blair wandered upstairs.
“I was wondering when you’d get up,” I teased him, deliberately checking the time on the cable box. It was nearly eleven in the morning, late by the standards he’d been keeping lately, though not as late as I remembered he could do. He looked well rested despite having come home around three AM.
“Yeah, well, I apparently am now incapable of sleeping past noon,” he replied wryly. He stepped towards the balcony, which ran the length of that side of the condo and stared out at the darkening sky.
“Wasn’t today supposed to be sunny, hot, and gorgeous?” he asked me without turning.
“Oh, like the women we’re supposed to date?” I shot back.
He laughed richly, half-turning to face me. “Aren’t those the dangerous ones?”
“Rachel wasn’t,” I told him. “Neither was Carolyn.”
“I dunno, Jim, Carolyn wasn’t exactly Ms. Nice to me,” he countered. “She made it sound like living with you was a chore or something. Now, Larry was a chore.”
I chuckled, remembering. “God, I’d nearly forgotten about that ape.”
Blair chuckled and resumed his contemplation of the oncoming storm.
I studied Blair a moment, realizing that despite the banter, there was something bothering him.
“Chief, you want to tell me why you feel like running?” I wasn’t even sure why I said ‘running’ until I’d said it.
Blair said nothing for a moment. “I was on the dance floor last night,” he said finally, turning to face me, “and you know how freaky it is to see a wolf on the dance floor, just staring at you like you haven’t yet accepted that’s who your spirit guide is? And he’s looking damn pissed that you’re having fun, and you know – you know it’s not just that he’s pissed, it’s because you’re not where you’re supposed to be. Who you’re supposed to be. Fuck. I thought I was through this, I thought I’d gotten the hang of it, I thought I’d done the whole damn spirit walk, touch the Ancients, feel the power trip, but –” His hands underscored his words. “All it takes is one goddamned freaking wolf, looking at me like I’d fucked up again.”
Deliberately, I kept my tone neutral. “And have you?”
The answer, when it came, wasn’t reassuring. “Maybe.”
I rose from the couch and crossed the room to stand in front of him. “Why? It’s not your fault you weren’t here back in November. You’re here now, and you’re helping.”
“Am I?” he asked quietly.
“Yes, you are,” I said firmly.
He looked at me. “Not enough,” he said, shaking his head. “Don’t you get it? I’m running scared, Jim. I’m seeing those damned war dogs of yours now, and my wolf is telling me I need to go deeper. How much deeper do I have to go?”
“Maybe you have to embrace something you’ve been running from.”
He laughed shortly. “And that would be?”
I shot him a wry smile. “That you’re a shaman? You can’t hide that power anymore. I’ve been picking up on it since you’ve been back. Your voice sounds different now when you’re pulling me out of a zone and when you’ve been talking to suspects.”
He groaned and hung his head in his hands. “Great, just great.”
I shrugged. Part of me was amused it was his turn under the microscope even as I wondered why it had taken so long for this to become a problem. “You don’t sound happy about that, Chief.”
“No happier than you were when I told you about you being a Sentinel.”
With a start, I realized a dozen years had gone by since that first, fateful day. “Why is that so hard for you? It’s not like you weren’t –”
“—a hippie throwback?” Blair finished for me. “You don’t get it, man. I haven’t been that guy since before I left Cascade. That’s why I was floundering so hard.”
“What the hell do you mean?” Confused, I looked at him.
“That’s just it, Jim. When I left, I was a cop – or the closest thing the CPD would accept. I’d stopped being just your Guide long before then – right about the time I realized that the dissertation wasn’t about me finding a real-life Sentinel, it was about us being friends. Don’t you get it? By the time Simon made the offer to make me into a cop, you had your senses well under control. I didn’t have to tell you to dial it down, turn it up, or any of that. You knew all that already. I had to figure out where I fit in your universe, and –”
“—And it wasn’t the picture you had in your head of yourself,” I finished.
“No, it wasn’t,” he agreed. He considered his words a moment before adding, “And I swore to myself I wouldn’t be a Guide when I left. I shut it down.”
I stared at him, shocked. “You what?”
“Told the wolf to go fuck himself.” Blair took a deep breath. “Tried to pretend I was normal. Convinced myself of it, even. Did pretty good at it too. Then I got hurt and I had to choose.”
“That knife wound on your stomach,” I began, willing myself to calm, knowing somehow it hadn’t just been a simple knife slash – Blair rarely got simple wounds, it seemed – and hearing somewhere in the back of my head a panther’s roar, “how bad was it?”
Blair looked at me. “I was DOA at the hospital. ER doc wasn’t willing to give me up. Lost part of my intestines and my liver but nothing I can’t live without.” He chuckled humorlessly. “And here I thought cats were the ones with nine lives.”
“Damn it, Sandburg—” I hadn’t known, hadn’t even had a whisper that something had happened to him. Then memory whispered to me. I swore as it made me remember I had buried the vision so deep I’d repressed it. I’d ended up at the history museum, looking for something to deal with the pain of losing him. I’d met Rachel that day, and the memory of that day, when I’d fallen head over heels in love with her, was tarnished with knowing that if Blair hadn’t died – again – I might have spent the last two and half years of my life without her. Still, I held out a faint hope I was wrong. “When?”
“September 15, 2006.”
“Fuck,” I cursed wearily.
Now his eyes widened as his heart rate jumped. I could see his mind scrambling for connections, leaping to conclusions, trying to find threads of sanity among the things that were impossible. As if our lives weren’t proof that the impossible was only implausible.
“Jim?” he asked tentatively.
“I met Rachel that day. Got this urge to go to the museum. Hadn’t thought about you in a while; just had this need to go see that ancient display you always liked pointing out the complete and utter inaccuracies in. It wasn’t there anymore – there was this wall surrounding the exhibit – and I stopped this woman who was putting up a ‘Under Renovation’ sign on the wall. She turned to speak, and I fell in love with her the moment she said ‘Oh, that stupid thing?’” I shook my head, remembering.
Blair closed his eyes briefly. “Fuck. And here I thought the worst thing about this was the way I thought we were fine. You haven’t been having any problems with your senses, I’m settled in, and we’re – fucking – fine.”
In that moment, I knew we weren’t. I closed the distance between us, brushed my hand against his face. He shuddered faintly. “No, we aren’t,” I whispered. “We keep circling around this. Keep trying to believe we aren’t bound to each other, that we love each other in a way that’s not just friends.”
“Who are you and who took the guy who used to not be able to talk?” he half-joked.
I smiled. “I dunno, but I think a guy named Blair Sandburg had something to do with it,” I shot back calmly and then I kissed him. Desire, kept on the back burner, flashed hot and I fought the urge to take the kiss deeper. I didn’t want to scare him, vividly aware that he’d once rightly accused me of being willing to be anyone he needed. I stepped back, aching with the knowledge I wanted more.
“We kid ourselves with pretending I don’t mark you as mine,” I told him softly. “That it doesn’t thrill us both to know I’ve marked you that way. You were jealous of Catherine, weren’t you?”
Blair bit his lip. “I wanted to mark you the way you did me,” he admitted, his voice low and harsh. “I wanted her to know she was trespassing.”
I spread my arms wide. “So what’s stopping you?”
His eyes glittered with his restraint. “The feeling that if I do this, I won’t be able to stop. That everything we held to be true will change. That the whisper of power you’ve been sensing won’t compare to the tsunami.”
“And will that be so bad?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I don’t want to leave again.”
“You have a home here no matter what,” I told him. “I loved Rachel, but I’ve loved you longer. Scared the hell out of me five years ago. Still does; I’ve just had time to accept it.” I knew as I spoke the words were true, and I needed to sit down and absorb it. I held my ground, refusing to give in the urge to step back, knowing instinctively that if I did, Blair would notice and interpret it wrong. “Hell. I’m still accepting it.”
Blair’s eyes were haunted. “All the more reason to not do this lightly.”
I looked at him. “Then we won’t rush like we did before. I was wrong, Blair. Dead wrong to think we could take a dare to kiss under mistletoe and not have this thing between us explode in our faces.” I took his hands in mine, needing the contact.
He stared at me. “Gay sex does not turn you on, Jim. You ran the first time I tried to push you, remember?” He shook his head. “Doesn’t matter if you love me or not. I like sex too much to give it up, and I’m not into open or polyamorous relationships.
I took a deep breath. “Because until you, I didn’t know it was anything I wanted, and it terrified me. You know me and my fear-based reactions. I’ve had a lot of time to think about what went wrong that night. I had a lot of indoctrinated biases about sex with other men.”
“Like how taking a cock means you’re somehow less of a man?” he challenged.
I nodded. “That and I thought if you did, you couldn’t still like women too.”
“Rachel liked playing with toys.” I took a deep breath and added, “She had a strap-on and loved using it on me. I loved that she did.”
The look of stunned hope I saw on Blair’s face was one I would never forget.
“I want you to show me how good it could be to have sex with you. I won’t push you into anything you don’t want, and I will do my best to learn from my mistakes.”
He considered my words before he leaned in to me, trembling faintly. I wrapped my arms around him.
“Breathe,” I ordered him, then laughed softly, shaking my head. “This feels weird, you know? I’m the one telling you to breathe, to just accept it, to go with the flow, instead of the other way around. I feel like I’m throwing your advice back to you.”
He half-chuckled at that but seemed to take heart from it. “Yeah, well, I always could think on my feet.”
“And I’m gonna have to think about this, all right?”
Without pulling too far back, I studied him. “Don’t think too hard,” I advised him. “I don’t need your spirit guide cuffing my head next.”
He let out a sigh. “I know.” He offered me a half-smile. “Come on, I need food, and we’re seriously low on groceries again.”
“Is this where I accuse you of repressing?” I teased him.
He shrugged, grinned. “What, I can’t take a page out of your handbook once a while?”
“No, that’s my handbook, and I’m not sharing,” I shot back. We would take this one day – hell, one moment at a time, and see where we ended up. Somehow, I knew we would make it work.
I was not surprised when Blair came up to my room later that night. I had just gotten to bed and was reading a mystery novel Steven had recommended.
“Sorry,” he apologized. “Can’t sleep. Can I get a snuggle?”
“Sure.” I set the book aside on the nightstand, turned off the bedside lamp, and shifted so he could lay in my arms.
For a moment, he lay stiffly before drawing in a breath and deliberately relaxing.
I indulged my senses, enjoying the moment. Blair was wearing a pair of gym shorts over his underwear; I had put on boxer briefs. For a moment, I wished we were both naked, but knew that way led temptation. If I let myself, the scent and feel of Blair in my arms would arouse me. It wasn’t what he wanted or needed, so I reined in that desire and contented myself with holding him close.
I was half-asleep when he spoke. “You haven’t been with any guy.”
“No, but the fake cock Rachel had was the best she could get at Positive Vibes,” I said, naming the sex toy and video boutique in the city that was among the best in the country for its type. “She even got me to go to a class there that talked about safe anal sex practices.”
“I couldn’t get you to go there without you reminding me when you were in Vice, you had the place staked out for prostitution. Even if you agreed they had the best condoms in the city.”
Chuckling, I said, “Rachel would always ask me if I wanted to go with her somewhere, and if I said no, her counterargument always was, ‘and what questions will you ask me if you don’t? What if hearing those answers from the source help you in whatever happens next?’ She made it hard to argue with her.”
“She figured you out,” Blair summarized. “And if you still refused?”
“She would respect it. We disagreed on which team to root for when it came to sports. She’d cheer on the winning team, no matter who it was.”
Blair laughed. “That would drive you crazy, as adamant as you are about Cascade’s teams.”
“Yeah.” I was silent a moment before finding the courage to ask the question that had been bothering me. “If she was still alive, would you have come back?”
“Maybe,” Blair hedged. “I don’t want to play what-if, Jim. I just know that the way you’re holding me right now means everything and I don’t want to lie here, analyzing it to death. I’m tired of pretending I don’t want you, of knowing if we don’t do something, bad things will happen.”
I gave in to the urge to kiss him gently; he kissed me back, closed-mouth, shuddering slightly as relief rolled through him.
“Then what do you want?”
“To fall asleep like this,” Blair admitted. “Wake up next to you in the morning and stop feeling like the bed I’m in is too big for one person and that I’m missing you.”
“Then let’s do that, Chief.” I held him close until we both fell asleep.
The guns-in-cars case led to the bust-up of a gun-running ring. The summer heat meant more crimes, culminating in the vandalism and bombing of several military recruiting centers at random over the course of June and July. Whoever was doing it seemed to relish in taunting the CPD, and in taunting me, since I’d been named Cop of the Year again. I told Cabraio the brass might as well pin a bullseye on me next time. He agreed with me, told me this was the last time I would be eligible since I’d won it so many damn times, and said I’d earned the honor. The case was a federal one, but the agent-in-charge had worked with me before and was willing to work with the CPD to go after the person or persons responsible.
Blair spent most of that time getting used to the idea if we took the next step in our relationship, he’d gain greater power as a shaman. I got used to seeing candles in the living room again, got used to hearing his meditative chanting CDs, and even surprised him occasionally by joining him. He was feeling his way again, and I got the sense he wasn’t fighting it so much as trying to cope with the sheer volume of his gift. I did my best to give him the support he needed, and by mid-July, I knew he’d come to terms with it.
Five years ago, I’d told myself firmly I was straight, even going so far as accusing Blair of making me need him for everything. Rachel had quietly informed me that I’d been in love with him, that wanting someone sexually didn’t have to be gender-specific, and that my wanting him didn’t constitute the threat to my masculinity I’d tried to make it into. Her love of pegging and anal sex had been the key to making me understand that I had harbored a ton of misconceptions and prejudice, none of which matched reality. I missed her still, but she’d been right: I loved Blair. I needed to know how his cock would feel inside my mouth or my ass; imagined it so much I could only hope the reality was better. I loved knowing I could and did turn him on, that doing so turned me on as well. I loved feeling his hands on me, stroking my cock as we kissed and rutted against each other. We had yet to graduate past kissing and hand jobs, and the longer we waited, the greater my craving for a more intimate union grew. Still, I sensed the time was not yet right to go farther, and that stayed my impatience.
None of our friends seemed to notice the changes between us, for which I was grateful. I didn’t want nosy questions at time when the only thing I was sure of was that it felt right. I wasn’t sure I could put into words how it felt to love someone without reservations, without worrying about zoning on the pleasure of it all, without fear of rejection. I wasn’t about to march in a Pride parade, waving a flag for bisexuality, but I knew the truth of the label, and stopped trying to fit myself into a closet.
I was aware enough to realize what our coping mechanisms were when things got crazy and did my best not to let old habits grow. I made sure we ate as healthy as much as possible, surprising Blair, who had fully expected I would go back to relying on greasy takeout and fast food. Rachel had had diabetes, which she controlled through diet; the habits she had set up had stuck. I also made sure to exercise, balancing it with enough sleep and refusing to take work home whenever plausible. I breathed more, letting my first reaction go before I exploded at the person closest to me. I made sure Blair did the same, reminding him when our caseloads were so crazy we were living on borrowed sleep that we were not the only cops in the department, that we owed it to ourselves to give it a rest, and that we would solve the case. He, in turn, kept my dials on an even keel, giving me crutches to help when he couldn’t be present – a shirt of his he ‘accidentally’ left on the back of my chair at work, a leather band he had braided that I could wear on my wrist, and a jacket in my truck.
By the first Saturday in August, a thunderstorm had broken the summer heat wave. We had left the windows open to alleviate the heat; I’d spent a frantic three-AM-hour getting them all closed before the rain damaged anything. Blair decided I’d slept in enough and woke me up by kissing me.
Blair filled my senses, and I indulged in a long, slow, sweet kiss, tasting his mouth, letting his tongue duel with mine. He was naked, and I had dispensed with my underwear after getting the windows closed, wanting to feel him against me without anything in the way. He took advantage of that now, taking his mouth down the side of my throat, tasting me as I would him when I would mark him. Careful not to break skin, he bit lightly on the juncture of neck and shoulder, making me shudder with the unexpected pain, then soothed the slight wound with his tongue. I shuddered as the pain slipped into pleasure.
“Shh, let me do this,” he told me. “Woke up needing this. Just lie back and let me taste you the way you taste me.”
“Oh, God,” I said, imagining it, and whimpered in anticipation.
“Turnabout is fair play,” he reminded me, chuckling, and then set on his task. He was through, mapping out the width of my chest, the contours of my hips, the scars on my body from my life as a Ranger and as a cop. When he finally came to my cock, already erect from the attention he had paid to the other parts of my body, I was begging for him to taste it, to let me taste him. His pheromones were an aphrodisiac, and I was high for him.
He did not disappoint, putting his mouth on my cock and licking it slowly. I trembled, hitching my breath at the first contact. Bracing his left arm across my hips, Blair worked my shaft into his mouth, stroking the base and fondling my balls with his free hand. I spread my legs so he could fit in between them better, and he rewarded me with a lick across the base of the cap of my cock.
“God, yes,” I cried out.
He took the full length of my cock in, surprising me, but backed off before he could choke. He bobbed his head repeatedly, sucking me off with a skill I had only suspected he had and had only started to imagine being applied to me. I was in heaven; it did not take me long to come. Blair swallowed it all, not letting my cock go until my balls were empty.
He lifted his head, his eyes glittering with desire. “You taste good, Jim,” he told me as he knelt up, holding his cock in his hand. “So good.” He jerked himself off, grunting as he spilled his seed over my stomach and groin.
I took two fingers and used them to taste his come, surprising him. His flavor exploded on my tongue and I knew I was addicted; I wanted more. I could feel his shamanic power as we lay there, as if we had completed a circuit, one connected directly to me.
Careful of the mess on my stomach, he leaned in to kiss me, clearly uncaring that he could taste himself. “Love you, Jim,” he said, flopping on the bed next to me.
“Love you, too.”
“Give me a minute; I, uh, didn’t realize until it happened I was going to feel like this.”
I grinned. “What, like you’re connected to me?”
“What did you think it would be?”
“I don’t know, but it tells me that when we do have anal sex, we’d better not have plans for the rest of the day.”
Chuckling, I got up to take a shower. “And here I thought you’d meditated enough,” I teased him.
“Ha!” he barked a laugh. “Shows you what I thought I knew.”
If Blair thought I would freak out after that, I was determined to prove him wrong. I had a taste of what I wanted, and I was not about to waste the opportunity. After I showered, I went back to bed, seeing that Blair had not moved.
“You said something about turnabout?” I teased him, bracing myself over him.
His eyes widened. “I didn’t think you would want to –”
I kissed him to shut him up. “Want to?” I licked the curve of his throat just under his ear, heard his breath hitch. “When just you sucking me off amped up your power? What do you I suspect will happen if I return the favor?”
“Better baseline for your dials,” Blair theorized, then squeaked when I licked his throat.
Chuckling, I asked, “And you don’t think I could want that?”
“Uh, oh god, Jim, this is a lot to do in one –”
I moved downward, licking his left nipple. The times I had marked him meant I knew he was fond of getting his nipples sucked. His objection died as I focused my attention on his nipples. His scent was a heady musk, the taste of his nipples familiar on my tongue, but I wanted more.
He had not cleaned up, and the taste of his release still clung to his cock. I chased it, loving the flavor instantly because it was Blair. I had never sucked off another man before, and I did not want to choke. From the hand jobs we had given each other, I knew Blair’s cock was wider and longer than mine, so I started with only the head in my mouth. I licked around the head, paying close attention to the skin under the base.
Blair moaned. “Oh, God, yes, take your hand and stroke it, Jim. You don’t have to take it all the way in, oh!”
I wanted to see how far I could take his cock into my mouth, so I tried. It was bigger than I could fit comfortably, and reluctantly focused on what I could fit instead. I applied the same technique Blair had on me; Blair’s continued encouragement rewarded me. I licked a finger and pressed it against his perineum as I continued to suck on his cock, wanting him to come so I could taste his essence directly.
Blair lifted his hips, thrusting gently into my mouth. I encouraged him, licking and sucking as we found a rhythm. He babbled his pleasure as I used my mouth, tongue, and hands, until he shuddered through a breathless climax. His release filled my mouth, surprising me with its volume, and I swallowed hastily and repeatedly as my dials snapped to a new baseline. I had to pull off, unable to keep up, but the look of sated desire and pride on Blair’s face was worth it.
Careful of the mess, he pulled me close. “Guess you needed that too, huh?” he teased me once we had regained our breath.
“Something like that, yeah. Shower with me?”
“Yeah, we should do that. Though I feel compelled to point out it doesn’t really save any water.”
I laughed. “True, but it’s still a good excuse.”
I did not know what to think. Jim kept surprising me, just when I thought I knew him. I suddenly wished I could have met Rachel. She had done more to reshape his thinking than I had initially thought. Even as I thought that, I knew if she was still alive, I doubted he and I would be lovers now. For all the virtues of free love I had seen growing up, I had heard more about the drama and downsides, and I had long ago vowed to be monogamous. I did not want to go back to being only friends.
Having more grounded power flow into me because we had oral sex disconcerted me. It was one thing to know it was a possibility; another to know it as a truth. Part of me wanted to hide and figure out what this all meant. The other, needier part of me overruled it.
I had spent too many years dreaming of being Jim’s lover, not just a man he marked with his senses, used as his Guide, and called his friend. Like a squirrel, I wanted to hoard this moment for the someday when Jim’s fear-based reactions would strike back at everything we had built.
After our shower, we made breakfast and took some time to do the usual host of weekend errands like laundry, groceries, and cleaning. The penthouse was big enough that Jim had admitted defeat long before I arrived and hired a maid service to come twice a month to clean, but that didn’t mean we slacked off in between their visits. Once all the chores were done, it was dinner time.
To my surprise, Jim stopped me before I could do more than put a pan on the stove. He had changed clothes, trading the t-shirt and jeans he’d worn for a button-down shirt and khakis. “Steven called me while were shopping and asked if I wanted to go with him to an artist premiere at the museum tonight. His date cancelled and it’s too late to get a refund on the tickets. I said yes.”
“You sure?” I asked.
Jim grinned. “You feel like you need some time alone to think, and it’s been a while since I hung out with my brother. Plus, it’ll be interesting to see if the artist is the one I think it is. My art appreciation skills are rusty.”
I barked a laugh at that. “No, they aren’t. You just hate art that looks like it could’ve been done by a kindergartner and sells for more money than you make in a year.”
“Yeah, well, you know what I like. I’ll be back around ten.” He kissed me and, after a pause to pick up his truck keys, headed out the door.
Alone, I debated the merits of cooking for one and decided against it. I grabbed my wallet and my keys and headed for the teriyaki place four blocks away.
It wasn’t until I was halfway through eating that Jim’s words hit me. He had said “feel like,” not “look like,” which meant he could pick up on my emotions now as well. That startled me. I needed to do more research; I needed more data upon which to base this new theory.
In the back of my head, I could hear myself thinking, in a voice that sounded like Jim’s, that gathering said data meant more oral sex. I could not find an argument against that notion. Part of me wanted to run and scream, but I had learned the hard way that doing so meant only delaying the inevitable. I loved Jim but loving him had always meant living on the edge of disaster or danger or both.
Under the table at the teriyaki restaurant, I felt the cold brush of my spirit wolf, and shivered.
“I’m looking for Lieutenant Ellison,” a male voice announced quietly late the following Friday afternoon, leaning down to ask McKnight, whose desk was near the main door to the squad room and therefore the natural choice.
“Back corner to your left,” McKnight answered, and from across the room, I heard him.
I sat up, cueing Blair, who caught the movement.
“Ma’am,” Blair said to the old woman who occupied our shared guest chair, “we thank you for the information, but there’s really nothing we can do legally if your neighbor’s cat keeps using your rosebushes as a litter box. As the fine people down in Animal Control told you, there’s not a leash law on cats in Cascade.”
The woman sighed, frustrated, but she took her cue to leave. “Well, I thank you for your time. At least you listened, unlike those idiots down in Animal Control.”
She drifted out of the way, mindful of where to place her walker, and Blair sighed, relieved. “Thank God,” he said when she was out of earshot.
“Hold that thought,” I warned.
It took the man who’d come looking for me a few moments longer to get to where we were. He turned out to be a black man of medium build, tall enough to have been a candidate for basketball. He wore what I recognized as ‘cop wear’ – mid-priced blazer over a dress shirt, slacks, and shoes that had seen far better days, in CPD-approved colors. Then he shifted slightly, and I caught sight of the badge on his belt. “Which one of you is Lieutenant Ellison?”
“That would be me,” I spoke up. “And –” I gestured to Blair, “this is Sandburg, my partner. You are?”
“Detective Curt Wright, Narcotics,” he introduced himself. “Did you date a Catherine Landren?”
“Yeah, earlier this summer, why?”
“Damn. That makes eleven of us.”
“Eleven of us what?” I asked.
“Eleven cops she’s dated since April. I got to talking with my cousin down in Tech Crimes, and he said his buddy introduced them. We compared notes – asking questions, just of the guys who go to O’Brien’s on Fridays. Catherine has a talent for choosing cops who would be the go-to guys for certain types of crimes, and she always dates at least two at a time.”
“Damn,” Blair echoed. “You confront her yet?”
“Of being a cheating, lying, two-timing bitch?” Detective Wright laughed shortly. “Sure, but that doesn’t make up an arrest.” He pulled out a folded piece of paper from a pocket and handed it to me. “But this might interested you. It’s the addresses of everyone she’s dated, and where the nearest recruiting stations are.”
“So why don’t you go get her yourself, if you think she’s been helping?”
“Not my case, man; I got enough of my own,” Detective Wright said, vigorously waving off the suggestion Blair made. “The only things I know are what I put together from the news and the gossip mill, y’know? I was told to take what I thought to the LT here. What you do with that is your business, not mine.”
Blair and I exchanged glances. “Appreciate the favor, Detective Wright,” I said formally. “I owe you one.”
Detective Wright nodded. “Good luck.” He turned and left.
Blair looked at me, who just held up his hands in surrender. “I know, I know,” I said tiredly, “you told me you didn’t like her. Come on, let’s go find her, see if she’ll talk.”
Catherine did not want to talk. She tried to lie, but her respiration and heart rate betrayed her. She also foolishly tried to rabbit, but we caught her anyway. Arresting Catherine started a six-week investigation that uncovered an anti-war group who had been planning to bomb the local Army base as their final hurrah. Blair’s careful, insightful interviewing of her and several other key suspects – along with my Sentinel abilities – broke the case wide open.
“Hey, Ellison, where’s your partner?” Captain Cabraio asked as he stepped up in the crowded pub where most of Major Crimes was celebrating our victory. “You did an excellent job on the Landren case. You two prevented a huge disaster, uncovering that anti-war group she was involved in. I can’t believe they were planning on bombing the Army base, Beirut-style.”
I blinked, realizing for the first time in at least an hour I didn’t know where Blair had gone. “He was here, sir. Must’ve slipped out after the reporters showed up.”
“Yeah, well, you tell him I said good work. Take the next four days off and go enjoy yourselves.”
I rolled my eyes. “Sir, we were already scheduled to be off the next four days anyway.”
“See how generous I am?” Cabraio joked, slapping me on the back. “Enjoy your weekend, Ellison.”
“Thank you, I will.” Cabraio wasn’t Simon, but he was a solid captain who looked out for his people, and took the time to recognize individuals and the whole team. I settled my bar tab and made my goodbyes.
There were a dozen places Sandburg went he wanted to disappear, but I narrowed my list down to three since they did not involve being around many people. I found him an hour later, sitting on the retaining wall of Bayview Park, one of the city’s primary places to look out over the city and Puget Sound. At nine-thirty at night, no one else was in the park, but the view was still spectacular.
“Crowd got to you?” I asked as I walked up.
“Yeah,” Sandburg admitted. He didn’t turn around, and I bit back a sigh. The intensity of the last six weeks meant we had not had time to be lovers. We had fallen into bed without a kiss goodnight. I ached for the connection.
Not for the first time since he’d come back in April, I wished he hadn’t left. He was quieter, more reserved with people he didn’t know well, and didn’t feel comfortable in crowded rooms unless he had a clear line of sight to an exit. The reasons for his behavior were all tied up in a confidentiality agreement that mirrored some of the ones I’d signed as a Ranger. Whatever Sandburg had done for the firm in Colorado hadn’t been the “fantastic anthropological opportunity” as advertised. Experience told me it was tied up to some covert military operation. I’d once been assigned to help guard cultural artifacts as they were being transported out of a war zone to “save” them. I knew better now, but I’d been so naive then, and I was sure Sandburg had been the same.
I wish to God his innocence hadn’t been taken so; it meant I’d failed as his Blessed Protector, again. Realistically I knew there were only so many things I could control, but it didn’t stop me from wanting to make Sandburg’s life easier. I owed him so much, more than I could ever say. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here now.
This wasn’t the first time he had ever bolted, looking for a place to recharge, but he usually came back long before I had to go looking for him. It was, however, the first time since we had become lovers, and I worried our jobs weren’t the only reason for this behavior.
“You plan on telling me why you got spooked this time?”
Now he turned to face me and shrugged. “Too many people. Needed air. Franklin was harassing me about being your boytoy. Pick one.”
“You told Franklin to shove it, didn’t you?”
Again with the shrug. “You know we’ve been fighting that gossip for years. Didn’t see the point, since there’s truth in it now. He’s a redneck; what he’s doing in Major Crimes with that kind of attitude is beyond me.”
“You know, you used to be better at telling people off and turning them into your friend.”
He laughed humorlessly. “Yeah, well, maybe I learned when to shut up, and Franklin’s so not worth my friendship.”
The September night air held the promise of more rain; I could smell the storm on the wind. If I let myself, I could sense the precise meteorology of the weather and could determine whether we’d have a thunderstorm that made the local news or just another September rain. I focused my attention on Blair instead, realizing as I did so he was more exhausted than the day’s events called for.
I swore silently. His exhaustion was a tangible thing for me. Having sex had given me a deeper connection to him. Without too much effort I knew he’d tapped into some of the power he usually reserved for guiding me. Cabraio had been wrong to separate us when we interviewed the suspects. If I’d been there when Blair had been doing his interviews, I would’ve been able to pull him back from this. I looked at him again and realized abruptly it wouldn’t have mattered: he’d have given that much – or more – of himself anyway.
“Come on, you look worn out,” I told him. “Let’s go home.”
He shook his head. “Not yet. Don’t want to be inside just yet.” He took a deep breath and looked at the city below us.
I said nothing, but moved to hold him against me, driven by a need to make sure he knew I could be his anchor. He stiffened slightly at the first touch of my body against his and moved away. “Not now,” he said quietly. “Go on home, Jim. I’ll catch a ride.”
“I can wait,” I countered, watching him. He was too still where once he would’ve paced. “Talk, Chief.”
He shook his head again, and I wondered when we’d switched roles. Usually it was me who was this reluctant to talk – hell, if Rachel hadn’t been so adept at pulling stories out of people I doubt we’d have lasted. In the light of the park lamps, I studied Blair a moment longer and decided enough was enough. “Fine. But you’re still coming home with me.”
Blair breathed in, hesitating still, and then let out his breath, shuddering as he did so. “You know what will happen if I go home with you now.”
“Do you mean we go to bed and you pretend we aren’t lovers? Pretend we’re only indulging in an advanced form of the marking exercise we’ve always done?” I didn’t know where the words were coming from; I only knew they needed to be said. “We can’t go backwards, Chief. We’re already in too far.”
“And what the fuck do you propose we do?” Blair demanded, turning to face me. He gestured wildly. “What more do you think needs to happen? That week we spent having sex every night bonded us to each other. You gave me space that first night, but the moment you got home, I couldn’t keep my hands off you, and you were the same way.” He bit his lip. “You feel my exhaustion; I know when your dials are out of whack even before you say a word. I can tell you’re fighting for normal because you’re as tired as I am.”
“Well,” I shrugged, “we could fuck, see if that helps reset us.”
His eyes widened with shock, both at my blunt language and my assessment. Sometimes, I swear he forgot I solved puzzles for a living as a detective.
I pressed my advantage. “That week you and I had sex gave us both what we needed. You got the strength you needed to see your way clear to the truth. I got a baseline that meant I could get through the last six weeks with no need to ground on you every hour. Isn’t that enough of a reason to try?”
“No.” He crossed his arms.
“Okay, how about: I need, want, and love you. I already love the way you taste when I suck you off. You already know I’ve had toys in my ass before. I’d like to know what it’s like when it’s your cock. What are you afraid of? That I’ll freak? That we’re not good at loving each other that way, just because I haven’t ever been with you that way before?”
“Yes,” he snapped.
“Then it can wait until tomorrow, when we’re both a little less tired,” I said reasonably. “At the least, let’s go home. You need rest, and I want to cuddle you while you do.”
Unable to argue with that logic, Blair sighed. “All right.”
Last chapter is in process, so it will likely be a week or so (maybe less) before it's posted. As always: comments, suggestions for how it ends, and kudos welcome. :-) I love hearing from my readers!
Once home, Blair stood in the loft, looking as if he wanted to do anything other than move forward. For a moment, I had a flash of myself, hustling him upstairs as if I could somehow make what happened next happen faster so I could have my freak-out in private. The memory made me grimace mentally. I had been an idiot back then, thinking if I made Blair fuck me, I could somehow ignore how attractive he was to me or that I had never been 100% straight. I had not expected how I would freeze in the moment, or how much we needed to talk before we got that far. Needing to erase that thought, I kissed him. “Love you, Blair.”
“Love you too,” he echoed, and looked at me. “Your first time with a real cock should be special.”
“Then it will be,” I said, “tomorrow, when we’re both rested. You’re making a bigger deal out of it than you need to, love. I just want to feel you in me. I’m not looking for a gold medal.”
That made him laugh, as I hoped it would.
“Go take a shower. I’ll meet you upstairs.”
He nodded and headed to his room. Twenty minutes later, I met him in what I thought of as our bed. He looked so nervous, I had to kiss him. He relaxed into the kiss and I guided him down to the bed. Letting him go long enough to turn off the light, I then crawled into bed beside him, shifting until his back was against my chest, my right arm around him. Closing my eyes, I ignored the tenseness I could feel in his body, and fell asleep.
As I lay awake, my mind raced, trying to parse everything that had happened over the last six weeks and Jim’s words. Work had taken precedence; we both had been too tired to do anything other than fall into bed together. Some nights, I hadn’t made it upstairs, taking refuge in my bedroom instead. My spirit wolf pressed on my chest and I looked up to see a doggy grin as he made himself comfortable. He cocked his head, as if to ask me if I would sleep now. Realizing I would lie awake if I let myself spin around in mental circles, I inhaled deeply, stuck my tongue in the roof of my mouth, and closed my eyes.
That night, I dreamed. I stood at the edge of a battlefield, dead war dogs and shattered tanks littering the bloodstained field.
Why do you not take the reward you have earned, Shaman? my spirit guide asked me. You and your Sentinel have won this battle. What do you fear lies ahead?
“Jim finding someone else, another Sentinel, another guide, someone who will make him react the way he did years ago. He let me almost fuck him before I left, in the name of a list of things to make me happy and keep me in Cascade.”
He is not the same man he was then, the wolf told me. Neither are you. Do you regret the years you were friends before you left?
“Of course not,” I told the wolf. “Some parts of it I’d like to not repeat ever again.” I thought of dying, of being brought back by Jim, our spirits merging. Of how much I had wanted Jim beside me when I woke up in the hospital in Denver.
The wolf nodded. Do you regret the time you have been lovers now?
“No,” I said, insulted by the question. “I just worry it won’t last.”
Nothing is forever, the wolf warned me. Your Sentinel loves you without reservations. He is as terrified of your rejection as you are of his embrace of all the ways you can express love.
“He doesn’t seem like it,” I said, certain the spirit wolf was seeing things.
The wolf scoffed at my skepticism. Your Sentinel goes quiet when he once would have raged and demanded answers becaue he learned from his mistakes. He loved you enough to recognize he was wrong to change himself to suit you, instead of changing because he wanted to grow as a person. Rachel was a catalyst, but even she could not convince him to contact you when he was in need. He felt he did not have the right.
My jaw dropped as I remembered how Jim had handled my attempt at gaining distance last night. He had been emphatic but not angry – and I remembered when he would have been. My wolf was correct: Jim was not the man I had left, five years ago. That man would not have held me close, let me suck his cock, convince me it was okay to use sex to charge us both. Nor would the Jim he had been when I left been willing to believe the visions he had.
Looking back, I now doubted his attendance at that conference in Denver was as random as I had first thought. The spirits conspired to make things happen, to make the stars align. I had forgotten how much of my relationship with Jim owed to that fact. If I hadn’t been on campus that first day, hadn’t been in a position for him to save me, had walked left instead of right…so many alternate paths not taken, and none of them would have led me to this place where one of the strongest men I had ever known had become open to all the love I had to give him. Who now offered that love to me. Jim had always been a deeply emotional man, who committed with the entirety of his being. He was either in love with you one hundred percent or he was not, and he did not do anything in half measures.
Take the love offered to you. Use it to strengthen you both in the days ahead, the wolf recommended, as Jim’s jaguar stepped up beside him to take up position. The staggering power of them combined hit me like a tidal wave, and I dug my feet into the ground, trying to stand tall in the face of it.
This is the power of the love you share with your Sentinel, the spirit guides said as one. Believe in it, drink it in, and do all you can to renew it every day.
In my dream, I breathed deep and nodded, accepting the spirit guide’s advice.
I woke up alone in Jim’s bed, fresh-brewed coffee perfuming the air. I got up, used the toilet, and took a shower, needing the steam to wake me up further. Since I had not moved my clothes to the master, I borrowed Jim’s robe and headed to my bedroom for a change of clothes. Jim was nowhere to be seen.
In hindsight, I should have predicted where Jim was. We had always had sex in his bed, which was bigger than mine. Today, however, he was naked in mine, the covers pulled back, waiting for me. He had a dildo in his ass. One fantasy about Jim I had never let myself breathe aloud was suddenly real. A washcloth and a bottle of lube sat on the nightstand.
For a moment, I hesitated, unsure, but shook myself. Being ridiculous enough to reject what Jim was offering – when it was precisely something I wanted – was asinine. Even if someday he – or hell, I – decided what we had was no longer suitable, I wanted it now. I remembered the vision I had while I was sleeping. Suddenly, I understood what I regretted about my relationship with Jim was not how he touched me, loved me, or cared for me. It was how he tended to react when the unexpected happened – and given the extenuating circumstances around the incidents in question, I began to see I was viewing his behavior through an unfair lens.
Here before me was the man who had loved a woman fearless enough to introduce him to anal sex, both giving and receiving. Here before me was a man who was encouraging me to take my shamanic power and grow, and who was willing to experiment to make it happen. The man I had known before was not this one. I realized I had let my fears blow this out of proportion. Jim wanted me, enough he would take the time to prepare himself for my cock. Jim loved me as much as I loved him, wanted me the way I wanted him. Guess Jim wasn’t the only one in this house with fear-based reactions. I cast my fears aside and focused on the fantasy come to life.
“How did you guess I wanted this?” I asked him, stepping forward and discarding the robe I’d borrowed.
Jim leaned on one elbow and kissed me, drawing me down into the bed. “Because you didn’t ask. If you really want something, you either talk my ear off or don’t tell me at all.”
I chuckled. “Suppose that means I’ve gotten predictable.”
Jim made a noise of agreement. “I still love you,” he assured me, and kissed me, open-mouthed and heated, with a clear intent to arouse. Returning his kiss eagerly, I wanted to give as much as I received, and stroked his body wherever I could reach.
Jim encouraged me, letting me lick and nibble and explore my way down his body until I reached my destination. Jim was already half-hard. I didn’t hesitate, opening my mouth and taking in as much of his cock as I could in one go. Sucking as hard as I could as I backed off and dived down again, I worked my mouth on Jim’s cock, loving the taste and feel. I couldn’t take it all in my mouth, so I used my hand to stroke the rest. Jim did his best not to thrust too hard as he flexed his hips.
Abruptly, I wanted him to come on my cock, not some sex toy or in my mouth. I rose on my knees. “Want to be in you when you come,” I told him.
Expecting that pleasure, he shivered and exhaled. I reached for the toy, careful to drag it across his prostate as I did so. It turned out to be a realistic cock, and I set it aside on the nightstand on the washcloth.
I grabbed the lube and swabbed my cock, inhaling as my touch reminded me how aroused I was. Jim spread his legs a little further apart and lifted his hips as I aimed for my target. I lined my cock up with his asshole, stretched by the sex toy, and slid in with little resistance. The contact hitched my breath and I nearly came, but I staved it off, wanting more.
Together, Jim and I set up a rhythm. He was warm and tight and everything I had ever dreamed. “God, Jim, you feel so good,” I babbled. “So good.”
“Wanted you like this,” Jim told me. “Feel good in me.”
I would not last long, but I wanted to make it as good for Jim as I could, aware this was his first time with a cock instead of a fake one. I stroked his cock with my hand and tried to make sure my thrusts were pressing against his prostate. With every thrust, Jim tightened down around my shaft when I backed off to start over again. My efforts were soon rewarded when I heard Jim groan and felt his cock pulse with his release. His climax triggered mine, and I moaned his name as I spilled inside him.
With an effort, I held myself upright before carefully easing out of Jim’s rear passage. Jim’s arms came around me and he pulled me closer to kiss me.
“Love you. Thank you.”
“Love you, too, Jim, and you’re welcome. Don’t take this wrong, but I’m glad you waited for me.”
“Thought about trying with someone,” Jim admitted, “but I was always scared I’d zone. Part of me never stopped looking for you.”
“Even when you were with Rachel?” Startled, I looked at him.
He chuckled ruefully. “Even when. She had a different rhythm to her heart beat and respiration. I never could really let go. Not like when I’m with you.”
As I lay in his arms, a sense of reconnection filled me, as if we had been apart for years. Still, I wondered. “Do you want to get fucked that way again?”
Jim rolled so we faced each other. “In a heartbeat,” he told me. “You want to use that toy to tease and prep me for your cock, you have my permission.”
“And if I said I wanted you in me?”
Jim shrugged. “Only if you want.”
“Only if I want?” I asked incredulously. “This isn’t on the ‘ways you keep me happy’ list, is it?”
“It’s not. The guy who was desperate enough to make that list isn’t who I am now. I like it, but I’ve only had anal sex that way with a woman. If you don’t want to make love that way, then we don’t.” Jim studied me. “Or does that not turn you on?”
He was serious. “Not as much as what we just did,” I admitted. “Usually takes me a lot of stimulation and most guys don’t want to bother.”
He kissed me. “I’m okay with that. Will you let me know when that’s something you want?”
Searching his eyes, I wondered how I could be so lucky. “I will.” Pausing, I flipped through my mental schedule of what we had planned. “Are we expected anywhere today?”
“No,” Jim said. “But if we'll spend a lot in this bed, we should probably get up and eat.”
“And what makes you think we will spend the day here?”
He kissed me. “Because you’re that tempting.”
I laughed. “I’m already in your bed. What makes you think flattering me will make a difference?”
Jim shrugged and rolled to his feet. “Can’t hurt to try. What do you want for breakfast?”
“Pancakes? I think we have some mix left,” I replied as I stepped into the bathroom to swipe myself clean with a washcloth. Whatever happened next, I was certain of one thing: we loved each other enough to find a path through it.
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