It was pouring down rain, the kind of rain that Cascade was known for, an annoying, persistent drizzle down the back of Jim's collar all during the stake-out. For once, Sandburg was all too willing to stay in the truck, cozy with the heater and a biggie side of Wonder Fries to keep him company; meanwhile, on the roof across from Pence Fordham's hotel room, Jim ate his soggy burger under his poncho and tried to keep his stomach from turning while staring at the racketeer's lifestyle habits: the booze and cocaine, and the poor girls he had strewn around his apartment like blow-up dolls, more than a few of them underage, Jim was pretty certain.
Finally, finally Fordham made the phone call Jim had been waiting for. Jim listened in, at the same time rubbing his fingers against the gritty tarpaper of the balustrade to keep from zoning, just like Blair had taught him.
After Fordham hung up, Jim lifted a pair of damp binoculars up to his eyes for show, just in case—Simon was adamant these days, and Jim had even taken a lip-reading course for cover—and then traded them for the radio. "Sandburg, write this down: the meet with Scholia is noon tomorrow. Scholia is coming to the hotel room, so we can bag them all up clean. Over."
"Good deal, Jim. You coming in? Over?" Sandburg added belatedly.
"Yes, I'm coming in. And you'd better have a towel waiting on my seat. I don't want the truck to suffer like I've been. Over."
"Sure thing, Jim," came Blair's amused reply.
Jim finished off his soggy burger and then packed up, fastening his duffel around his waist with a cinch clip and then tightening it so it hung off his hip. Then he settled his poncho and headed down the fire escape.
He was in the alleyway headed for the truck when he heard it—
—just under the patter of the rain. It could be the cry of gulls, except it was too faint, too close—the sound of small critters in trouble. Nah, just some kittens crying for their mom. She'd be back soon, Jim told himself, and kept walking, except as soon as he thought about it, about being in the truck next to Blair with the heater blasting, he heard it again, the soft cries, meer-meer, and without even intending it his eyesight piggy-backed onto his hearing and he zoomed right in so he could see them. They were packed all together in a damp cardboard box with inches of water in the bottom, wriggling against each other in distress, the box in the bottom of an empty garbage can. No mom in sight. Some asshole had just dumped a box full of kittens in the trash.
Jim imagined being in the warm truck next to Sandburg driving away from a box full of kittens and he just couldn't do it.
With a sigh, he trotted over toward the garbage can.
"Jim? Whatcha got there?"
"Nothing. And not a word, Sandburg," Jim said, pushing his seat forward to open the cargo space behind. He dropped his poncho there, then set the box on top, the rain dribbling down his unprotected back. After a second, he grabbed the towel off his seat and used it to dry off the kittens, who made a ruckus at the handling, but then started to sound happier, their meers turning to mows. A couple of them started to purr in registers that tingled along his fingers and up his arms.
He looked up to find Blair leaning over his seat and laughing at him soundlessly.
"That's enough out of you," Jim said gruffly. "Someone left 'em to die; what the hell was I supposed to do?"
Blair raised his palms. "Peace! Peace, my brother."
Jim picked up the towel, intending to use it on his seat, but it was now covered with black and white hair. He grimaced with disgust and draped it over the kittens, who just kept purring up a storm.
Pushing the chair back in place carefully, Jim shot Blair another warning look before getting into the truck and slamming the door. Christ. He'd have to vacuum the whole thing later.
"We'd better stop at a pet store," Blair said as soon as they were on the road. "Kittens need a special formula." He seemed way too happy about this whole thing.
Jim ground his teeth.
"Just until we can find them homes," Blair continued blithely, throwing his arm over the back of the seat and patting Jim's shoulder. "Oh, we'll need a litter box, too."
Jim's nose wrinkled at the thought. Ugh.
"And toys. Something with bells."
"Yup, bells." Blair was laughing again, the bastard.
Jim won the bell argument, but it took some serious looming over the pet shopkeeper. It helped that Jim was the one paying for all this shit—and seriously, how was it kitten formula cost more than people food, anyway? There ought to be a law or something.
And didn't it take the cake that Jim ended up carrying all that crap upstairs while Blair babbled at the kittens in their new kitten bed while toting them carefully upstairs, one step at a time because they were already asleep and he didn't want them disturbed?
"Quit clomping," Blair said.
"I don't clomp."
"Do so. You always clomp when you're pissed." Blair's smile was weirdly fond, though.
Jim had a response to that, honestly, but Blair held his finger up to his lips and then pointed down to the sleeping pile of kittens, their eyes shut tight, bodies mashed together in trusting comfort. Jim found himself speechless for once, and just opened the door and tiptoed in as best he could.
"I'll put them by the fireplace," Blair whispered. "Infants can be tricked into somnolence by imitating the conditions of the womb. If we add some sort of heart-beat pulse—"
"A ticking clock, for example," Blair said, setting the plush bed down next to the fireplace and then cranking on the gas before picking up the fire-starter and flicking it on. The fake log burst into satisfying flame, and Blair closed the window screen. "Or we can lend them your sound machine."
"Or not." Blair smiled winningly.
Jim's feet seemed to pull him over to look at the bed of kittens, and he sat down on the arm of the couch to watch them for a bit. When they'd been wet, they'd looked kind of skinny and bedraggled, but now they were dry, they seemed fat and sassy; fluffy and happy. Jim nodded, content.
"The great Sentinel surveys his tribe," Blair said, and Jim looked up in time to catch him stifling a grin behind his hand. Something had gotten into the kid tonight.
"Well, the great Observer had better haul ass and get that litter set up, because if this nose smells even one accident, there will be hell to pay."
One of the kittens—the tiger-striped one that Jim had pegged from the start as a troublemaker, sat up with a mow and tumbled off to the side, seeking something. Her—Jim double-checked—his blue eyes were open only a slit, but they seemed to search Jim out. He crouched down and poked out his finger, and the little guy grabbed on with both paws and started gnawing on it.
"Scratch that. We'd better get one of those bottles ready first." Jim's face ached, and he realized he was grinning for bear. "Oh, you're a tough guy," Jim said, playing tug-o-war with those fierce paws. The kitten didn't use his claws, though, just hung on and chewed at him, rasping at his finger with his pink tongue. Jim sat down cross-legged next to the bed.
"Already on it," Blair said, kneeling at his side. Blair put down the can of formula and then screwed the cap on the feeding bottle. It was tiny, like a children's toy, with a miniature nipple at the end. Blair handed it over, and Jim picked up the kitten with one hand, and held the bottle with the other. The kitten latched right on like he knew what he was doing.
Jim felt a tug in his chest, and turned to see Blair smiling down at him, blue eyes glowing with something Jim could nearly name. Jim looked back down at the kitten sucking contentedly, then back up at Blair, wondering when he'd become this guy. He'd been an Army Ranger, had seen shit that made other people lose their lunch, and had survived things that would kill most people. As a cop on the street he'd hardened even further, not that he didn't think he was a good guy, a nice guy to his friends. But since when had he turned into such a softie that he went around picking up strays?
He wanted to blame Sandburg; after all, he was Jim's first stray, and he'd never left. But maybe Jim was just kidding himself. He ruffled his thumb behind the kitten's head and soaked up the purrs through his fingertips.
When he looked up again at Blair, he let him see his grin.
"Ya big sap," Blair said, sounding delighted. And that something was back in Blair's eyes.
"Yup." Jim leaned closer, with intent. "C'mere."
Jim was pretty sure Blair knew already, but he could spell it out if that was what Blair needed. "Wanna kiss you."
Blair's eyes widened and then narrowed playfully. "And what if I don't wanna?"
"Sandburg." Jim cradled the kitten closer to his chest and blinked at him. "I'm sitting here holding a tiny kitten. And I want to kiss you."
Blair slapped his hand over his eyes. "You make a strong argument, Ellison. I don't know how I can fight that."
"Don't even try," Jim suggested.
Jim's pulse picked up a little, waiting, not quite believing. And then Blair put his hands on Jim's shoulders and leaned over him. It was weird, having to look up at Blair's face, but Jim kind of liked it, especially when Blair fitted his mouth to Jim's and kissed him slowly, lips pressing and lingering, easing back and then kissing him again. Jim's hands were full or he would have been tempted to sink his fingers into Blair's hair and pull him closer, make it deeper, but instead he just had to let it ride, slow and soft and easy, while the kitten purred in his hand.
When Blair pulled away his eyes were closed in happy bliss, just like the kitten's. Jim grinned.
"Not bad, Sandburg," Jim managed to say steadily even though his heart was pounding in his chest.
Blair punched him in the shoulder. "Not bad! I'll give you 'not bad,' you cretin."
Jim made a dumb face. "Cretin? Is that like, a pancake?"
"Har, har." Blair was smiling though.
Just then the kitten squirmed in Jim's hand, and suddenly his palm was warm and wet and dribbling.
"Oh, yeech. Sandburg! The litter."
"Little too late for that," Blair said gleefully.
"Get it anyway," Jim said, struggling to his feet, damp kitten in his hand. "We'll at least show him after the fact."
"Not sure that's how it works." But Blair was scrambling for the supplies, so that was something.
They showed T.M.—short for Trouble Maker—the ways of litter usage, and put him back to bed. Jim washed his hands and swapped into a clean shirt and pants. Then they both settled back at the kitten bed to watch over the squirming lumps of fur.
Every so often Blair would lean over and kiss the side of Jim's neck, and Jim would respond by nuzzling Blair's temple, or maybe planting a kiss on Blair's mouth, slow and deliberate, before pulling back just to see Blair's eyes blinking open hazily.
It was new; yet it wasn't. Maybe Jim was always this guy, this soft guy who found helpless kittens and anthropologists irresistible. What a chump.
Jim knew by tonight the kittens would have his sound machine stationed next to their bed to keep them company.
But then, having Blair's heartbeat right beside him every night would make it a pretty awesome trade.