It was too late to go out to lunch, but someone had made up a plate for Blair and left it along with silverware, a linen napkin, and a tall glass of seltzer at his place around the table. There was no such plate for Jim, which made him scowl.
"I guess I'll have to go see what's left," he grumbled.
Blair grinned. "I'm sure there are some leftovers, man."
Jim gave his amused companion one of his best dark looks, but that only made Blair start laughing.
"I'm glad you find it so hilarious that I'm going to go hungry," he said, sounding more sulky than menacing.
Blair reached out for his arm with one hand and wiped his eyes with the other. "Nah, man. I'm just teasing. I'll share. You know what's mine is yours."
The way Blair said that and the expression in his eyes left Jim feeling singed along the edges. Even though he had, in fact, just finished sampling what was Blair's only moments ago, he had the overwhelming desire to drag him off somewhere private and get another taste. And he damned well didn't mean of Blair's lunch.
"See, Jim? There are definite advantages to hanging out with the head honcho," Blair said, his voice low and sultry and practically purring.
Jim could see that he was going to pay for not abiding by his own good judgment, for giving in to his feelings. With Blair in such an obviously playful mood, he knew it was going to be a long day of flirtation and sensual teasing. If he made it through the rest of the meeting without lasting physical damage or profound embarrassment, he'd consider himself lucky.
Blair picked up the fork and tried some of the pasta salad. "Not bad," he said. "Although I would have added more lemon juice to the dressing and a little less olive oil."
Jim watched him lift the fork and take another bite. His full lips parted around the fork, and then closed again. "Mmm," he said, as he chewed. He swallowed, and Jim watched the action of his throat muscles as if it were the most mesmerizing thing. "It really is good," Blair said, licking his lips. He held out the fork to him. "Want a bite?" he asked, his eyes sparkling with naughty enjoyment.
Jim could sense the sharp spike in Blair's body temperature and the deepening of his natural scent and realized Blair was getting seriously turned on. He started to think that maybe it would be Blair who dragged him off somewhere private, threw him up against the wall and sampled his pleasures.
He would have liked to dwell on that thought, to revel in the pungent spice of Blair's sex smell, to soak in the undeniable heat radiating off the young man's body, knowing it was all for him, relishing the knowledge that he was the one filling Blair with such unmistakable and insistent want. But somewhere below all the good scentsBlair's herbal shampoo and his honest sweat and the rose scented hand lotion that certainly would have given Jim a hard on if he had lingered on it even a moment longer than he didthere was something sharp and incongruous, something he recognized from somewhere else. He couldn't quite place what he was smelling or where he remembered it from, but somehow he knew it was terribly out of place in this environment. And anything that didn't fit, no matter how vague, set off all his internal alarms, trip wires honed by years of experience.
"Jim?" Blair called to him. "What is it?"
"I smell something. Something wrong."
"Can you isolate it?"
Jim frowned. "There's not enough of it, or it's being drowned out by something else."
"And you can't tell where it's coming from?"
He shook his head.
"Okay," Blair said. "I'm going to walk you through it, help you concentrate. I want you to close your eyes and focus on the scent. Filter out all the other smells in the room, until you've got just the one. Picture it like you're unraveling threads. Imagine the scent you want to track is bright red. Push aside all the other colors of thread, until you're following just the red one. Can you see it?"
Jim followed his instructions, closed his eyes tightly and focused his sense of smell with great effort. In his head, he converted the data into vibrant shades of thread. "I can see it," he told Blair, both surprised and gratified.
"That's great, man! That's great!" Blair said, even more enthusiastic than usual.
It made Jim smile, and he lost sight of the thread for a moment, until he turned his mind away from his companion and back to business. And then, there it was again.
"Are you following it?" Blair asked.
He nodded. Now that he had teased it apart from the other threads, he imagined it as a red marking on pavement, like the center line of a highway, and he walked alongside it, tracing it back in his imagination to its source. He had expected it to lead him to some spot in the board room, but instead, he found himself in a desolate alley, the ground filthy, littered with refuse and broken glass, the pavement ancient and chewed up. It was a scene out of his own history, from a case he had worked during a brief stint as a private investigator, before the vagaries of his senses lost him that job too.
"Do you see anything?" Blair asked.
"Yes. I'm going to follow it a little farther."
"Okay, man, but don't go too far. I don't want you zoning."
He nodded, obeying Blair's instructions, keeping one small part of his awareness focused on the young man's heart beat, using him as an anchor. He marshaled the rest of his concentration to imagine himself walking further down that alley, just as he had all those years ago when he'd been working for the distraught parents of a runaway fifteen year old boy. He had used his contacts on the street to track the kid to this place, a burned out building at the end of a cul de sac in one of the worst parts of town. In his mind, he retraced his steps from that day, into the darkened, decrepit structure, using his heightened eyesight to avoid rotting floor boards. He could hear heartbeats all around him, and when he focused his eyes, he could see kids cowering in the shadowy recesses, trying to hide, along with others who were splayed heedlessly on the grimy floor, too high to care who he was or what he wanted. He moved through room after room, scanning the disheveled faces for the boy he had been sent to bring home.
He had finally found him in a small room on the third floor, after a perilous journey up the stairs. The boy lay face up, his body completely still, his eyes wide and white and staring. Jim couldn't tell how long he had been dead, although it couldn't have been more than a short while since there wasn't really a smell, not of death or decay, at least not yet. But there had been something. Jim frowned as he remembered, as the scent came back to him in his imagination. It was the same sharp smell he sensed now, bitter, almost medicinal.
His eyes snapped open wide. Blair was watching him intently, the forgotten glass of seltzer still in his hand.
"No!" Jim screamed and knocked it away, sending the water spraying everywhere.
Blair stared at him with a bewilderment that bordered on shock. "What the fuck!?"
"Tell me you didn't drink any of that," Jim said, frantically.
"I didn't," Blair said, his eyes large and round. "Why?"
"That's what I was smelling. There was enough cocaine dissolved in that glass to kill ten people," he told the young man, and then spoke into his headset. "Rafe, Brown, have your men seal off the exits. Someone just tried to poison Mr. Sandburg. No one gets out of here without being searched. And we need to get a forensics team down here to secure the evidence."
"Copy," Brown answered.
Blair blanched. "Oh, fuck! Fuck!" He ran a hand through his hair, and Jim could see that he was trembling.
It pissed him off that some sick bastard was scaring the shit out of Blair. It made him furious with himself that they'd been able to get this close.
Jim raised his voice and addressed the nearby throngs who had stopped to stare. "Could everyone please move back from this area, and no one touch anything." The crowd murmured in confusion, but obeyed Jim's instructions. "Thank you. Now, can someone tell me who is responsible for leaving this lunch here for Mr. Sandburg?"
A startled young woman stepped forward. "I am," she said.
Jim crowded into her personal space, confrontationally. The young woman tried to take a step back, but curious onlookers hemmed her in. He leaned down in an intimidating way and asked, "Did you put the drug in Mr. Sandburg's soda?"
The young woman gasped audibly and went completely pale. "Oh, no! No! I didn't I would never do anything like that. Especially not to Mr. Sandburg. He's always been so nice to me. I wouldn't try to hurt him. I swear!"
Blair put a hand on his arm. "Jim, I know Celia. She's one of the assistants in the executive office. She wouldn't do something like this," he said, and then turned to the young woman. "It's okay. Jim's just trying to figure out who knows what. We're not accusing you of anything. I promise."
Celia blinked back tears. "I'm so sorry. I really was trying to help."
Blair put his hand on the young woman's shoulder. "And it was very thoughtful of you, Celia. It's not your fault. You couldn't have known that someone would do something like this. You're an asset to the company, and I appreciate the good job you do for us."
The woman's face brightened. "Really? Thank you. Thank you so much."
"Sorry we upset you."
"It's okay. I'm just glad you're okay."
Blair smiled at her. "Me, too."
"Thank you for being so nice," she said and blushed a little, before hurrying off to resume her duties.
Jim crossed his arms over his chest. "Does everyone who works for this company have a thing for you?"
"Shh! She'll hear you," Blair said. "Jim, man, you have got to start taking it easier on the employees."
Jim sighed. "I'm sorry, Chief. I just want to find out who's doing this and " Jim trailed off, with a vaguely violent gesture.
"I know. Me too."
Blair sounded shaken, and Jim put his arm around him.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
"Yeah, man. Yeah. Thanks to you," he said, trying to sound brave, but Jim could feel him trembling. "Shit, Jim I just can't believe someone wants me dead this much."
"I'm not going to let anyone hurt you. I promise," he said, and then something struck him. "It's kind of weird, though."
"What? That someone's willing to waste a fortune in recreational drugs trying to put me six feet under?"
Jim frowned. "Yeah, actually. I mean, this just isn't the MO of a professional killer. And the Ice" he stopped himself just in time. "It just doesn't fit."
"So what does that mean, man? That somebody else is after me?"
Jim shook his head. "I don't know, Chief. The professional failed. Maybe the client is taking matters into his own hands."
"Well, that's just great, man. That's fucking terrific."
"We don't know that for sure. It's just a theory at this point. But I'm not comfortable with your staying here any longer. We need to get you to a secured location."
"But nothing, Chief," Jim said, putting his foot down. "Somebody just tried to kill you. Again. That's it. End of the meeting. These people can just read the damned report. If they have more questions, someone else can answer them. I'm taking you home. Now."
Blair didn't look particularly happy, but he didn't argue either. After all, he had promised to follow Jim's instructions when it came to security matters. Plus, Jim figured even Blair couldn't argue with the common sense logic of not staying in the place where someone had just tried to feed you a lethal dose of illegal drugs.
Jim shepherded him to the exit, fending off everyone who wanted to know where their CEO was going, not letting Blair stop to answer their questions. There was a crowd around both doors since the police weren't allowing people to leave, and Jim began to push his way through, keeping one arm carefully wrapped around Blair's waist.
"Excuse me. Pardon me. Make way," he said as he went.
They were almost to the exit when a loud voice caught everyone's attention. "What do you mean no one's allowed to leave? How dare you! Do you know who I am? I will not be told by some flat footed dolt of a policeman that I may not freely come and go from my own family's business headquarters," Andrew said, his voice getting louder and more hostile.
Jim was about to intervene, to tell Brown that it was all right to let the young man pass, when a sudden spike of sensation hit him. He froze, trying to figure out what was sending his senses into fits.
"Hey, man, are you all right?" Blair whispered, sounding concerned.
"I don't know. There's something "
"Get out of my way!" Andrew demanded, trying to push past the detective.
Jim's sensory awareness zeroed in on him, and the image of a red thread flashed across his imagination. A wave of scent hit him, and it was the same bitter chemical smell from before. He and Andrew exchanged a look. In a flash, Andrew kneed the police officer in the groin, causing him to screech in pain, and then he was gone, out of the room and through the door to the fire stairs before anyone could react.
"Stay here!" Jim commanded Blair.
And then he took off after Andrew Sandburg. He dashed through the doors into the stairwell and chased after him. He could hear Andrew's footfalls on the steps echoing from below. The kid was twenty years younger than he was and had a head start. He pushed himself, straining his middle-aged muscles to their absolute limit. Luckily, he was fueled on by a good measure of fury. Andrew had tried to hurt the person he cared about, and that meant Andrew was going down.
He heard the door click shut and realized that Andrew had made it to the lobby. He raced down the last flight of steps and out of the stairwell just in time to see the kid head out the double doors that led to the street. Once outside, all Jim had to do was follow the trail of mayhem Andrew left in his wake. There was an overturned cart belonging to one of the flower sellers who worked the downtown area and several complaining pedestrians the fleeing young man had knocked down. Jim ran after him and used his special sensory abilities to track him. He could see the boy running in the direction of the main parking garage that served the surrounding businesses including Sandburg Enterprises, most likely where the kid's car was parked.
Fortunately, Jim knew the back way, and he turned down one long alleyway and then another, until he got to Main Street. He darted out into the street, into oncoming traffic, holding up his hand, somehow managing not to get hit. He rounded the corner to the parking garage just at the same moment Andrew was coming from they opposite direction, and they ran headlong into each other. They were about the same height, but Jim had at least thirty more pounds of muscle on his frame. Andrew went sailing and hit the pavement with a thud and a scream, more shock than pain.
"Get up, asshole," Jim said, hauling him up by the collar.
He kept a tight grip on the struggling fugitive and began half pushing, half pulling him back to Sandburg Enterprises. Now that he was this close to Andrew, the kid practically reeked of illicit drugs, at least to Jim's sensitive nose.
"Let go of me!" the boy demanded and fought to free himself.
Jim tightened his hold enough to begin cutting off the supply of oxygen.
Andrew frantically tugged at the fabric pulled tightly across his neck. "Can't. Breathe," he managed to gasp.
"If you can't breathe, you can't run away," Jim said, with no sympathy.
As they turned onto Mercer Place, the street where the corporate headquarters was located, they were met by Blair, Rafe, Brown, the other police officers, Elliot, Marissa and several uniformed Sandburg Enterprises security guards all streaming down the sidewalk in their direction.
"Are you okay?" Blair asked Jim.
"Yeah. Fine. Just a little winded," he said.
"Is this the suspect?" Rafe asked.
"What are you doing with my brother?" Elliot demanded.
"What stupid thing have you done now, Andrew?" Marissa wanted to know.
"Oh, fuck you, Ris," Andrew answered, apparently unchastened by his predicament.
"He poisoned Blair's glass of seltzer with cocaine. I'm sure if you search him you'll find the drugs. Did you secure the evidence upstairs?" he asked the police detectives.
Brown nodded. "Yeah, we got it."
"Mr. Sandburg, you have the right to remain silent," Rafe told him. "Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law"
"What was I supposed to do?" Andrew insisted. "I couldn't let this little hippie know-nothing bastard piss away the family business. That's our legacy. We put up with grandfather's constant criticisms and digs and commandments for it. We deserve it. I'm not the least bit sorry for trying to take back what's rightfully ours."
"Shut the hell up, Andrew!" Elliot yelled. "Don't say one more word until we get you proper legal representation."
"You have the right to an attorney," Rafe continued. "If you cannot afford one"
Andrew snorted disdainfully.
"One will be appointed for you. Do you understand these rights as I have explained them to you?" Rafe asked.
"Yes," the youngest Sandburg answered sullenly.
Rafe patted him down and pulled a small ziplock bag out of his pants pocket. It contained traces of a white powder.
"You're being arrested on suspicion of attempted murder and possession of a controlled substance," Brown told him. "You'll be taken back to police headquarters for processing and questioning."
"Remember what I said," Elliot told him. "Not a word until I can get Eric Matthews over there to represent you."
Andrew nodded to his brother as the uniformed officers began hauling him off to their squad car.
Elliot turned to Blair. "I can't believe you'd allow a member of your own family to be dragged away to jail like this."
"I can't believe Andrew would be such an idiot," Marissa said.
Elliot glared at his sister, and then hurried off to arrange for his brother's legal counsel.
"I should go down to the police station too and try to help Elliot get Andrew out of the deep shit he's in," Marissa said, with a heavy sigh.
"It's hardly Blair's fault," Jim said, angrily, offended on his behalf. "He's the victim here."
"I know. Really. I'm sorry for what Elliot said. He's tried to take on a fatherly role with Andrew since Dad died, but it hasn't been very successful, I'm afraid. Look, Blair, I want to apologize. I swear to God I had no idea it was Andrew who was after you. In all honesty, I really did just think they were accidents. I guess I thought you were unnerved about taking over the company and it had made you a little paranoid."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence."
She colored. "I'm sorry. That didn't come out quite right. Listen, Blair, we're not friends, and we probably never will be. But I do want you to know that Grandfather's leaving the company to you wasn't any accident or because he was senile or anything like that. He was a man who was very much bound by propriety, and he could never forget the circumstances of your birth, very much the way he could never get over the fact that I'm a woman interested in business. But in his own way, he did respect you. He admired that you were your own man, making your own way in the world, relying on your own abilities, not the family money or connections to get you where you wanted to go. At the end of his life, he became very thoughtful and reconsidered a lot of things. I'm positive he left you his company because he knew you would make things happen, positive improvements, just like the plan you laid out today. It made me furious that he didn't trust me enough to leave the company in my hands, but now, with all that's happened, I'm letting that go. You'll have my support for your new strategy."
Blair's eyes grew wide with surprise. "Wow. Thanks, Marissa. I can't tell you how good that is to hear."
"Well," she said. "It's the truth. I didn't think it was fair not to tell you."
He watched her appraisingly. "You must have really loved our grandfather."
She smiled, softly, a little sadly. "Yes, I did. Very much. As exasperating as he could be, I really, really did love him."
"I wish I'd known him," Blair said, wistfully.
Marissa nodded and actually looked sympathetic.
"I'm sorry about Andrew," Blair told her.
She sighed. "Yes, well, I guess I'd better go see what can be salvaged. See you later."
She turned and headed off in the same direction her brother had gone.
"Good work, Ellison," Brown said, slapping Jim on the back. "How on earth did you know there was cocaine in that glass?"
Jim shrugged. "I guess I just have good instincts."
Rafe and Brown looked at each other, disbelievingly.
"Uh-huh," Brown said. "And I'm the King of Siam."
Jim arched an eyebrow and smiled at the two cops. "How else would you explain it?"
Rafe shook his head. "I don't even want to try."
"We'll need you to make a statement," Brown said. "But it's been a long, hectic day. I think it's okay if you come down to the station in the morning to take care of it."
"That's becoming a pattern," Blair remarked, not sounding very happy.
"Well, hopefully it will be the last time now that we've got the guy," Rafe said.
"That's a relief, at least," Blair said.
"See you guys in the morning," Brown said.
The two police detectives headed back to their car to return to the station and take care of the paperwork.
"Can you go?" Jim asked.
Blair nodded. "Under the circumstances, we felt it best to adjourn, give everyone a chance to read and digest the report, and then vote tomorrow."
"Good. Then I can take you home." Jim slung an arm around his shoulders and turned him in the direction of the truck. "You know, Chief, running down the sidewalk trailing after me is not exactly my idea of staying put."
Blair snorted. "Well, get used to it, Jim. That's as close to staying put as I'm ever going to get when I think you need my help."
Jim shook his head and pulled the young man at his side into an even tighter embrace.
The first thing Jim did when he got Blair back to the loft was to kiss him, no more than two steps inside the apartment, with the door still standing wide open. It had been everything he could do to restrain himself in the truck and then on the way up in the elevator. Now that they were finally home, he couldn't bear to waste any more time. He pulled Blair to him and kissed him in earnest, with open-mouthed hunger. It felt so wonderful finally to indulge his desire freely, without worry about safety or the need for restraint. It felt so wonderful to know that the man in his arms was much more than a client, that he was the most exciting and affectionate lover Jim had ever had.
For however long it lasted, anyway.
As thrilling as it was to feel Blair responding to him, kissing him back with a matching passion, Jim was still under no illusions about what it meant. Blair was an important man now. Even if it was not the role he would have chosen for himself, he had stepped into it as naturally as if it had been his lifelong ambition. Jim had never seen anyone more impressive than Blair had been as he'd handled the demanding investors, overcoming their prejudices, winning them over to his way of thinking. And even if his grandfather had never left him the family company, he would still have been out of Jim's league. Hell, Blair was bright, talented, beautiful, funnydestined for big and wonderful things, at Sandburg Enterprises, in academia or any other pursuit he chose. And what could Jim say for himself? He was a half broken down ex-military throwback, still something of a freak in his own opinion, no matter how much Blair tried to convince him otherwise.
Jim was far too experienced in the ways of the world not to realize that he wouldn't be able to keep Blair's interest for long. The novelty of the whole Sentinel thing would wear off, and there would be an endless supply of Jay Etrises just lining up for the chance to distract Blair's attention from him. But he was determined to enjoy and appreciate the time he did have with him. He pulled the young man closer and kissed him as if it were his last chance, making the most of it.
When he finally pulled back and released his lover he realized just how tired Blair looked, despite his enthusiastic response to the kissing.
"Damn, Chief. Here I am all over you, and you're practically dead on your feet. Let's get you over to the sofa, so you can sit down and rest."
Blair smiled through his weariness and followed him into the living room. They sat down together.
"Jim, man, you have got to stop apologizing for the good things you do for me.
"You do look wiped out though."
"I'm still a little jet lagged," he said, yawning, looking completely exhausted. And then something else stole into his expression. "I can't believe my own cousin wanted to kill me. I mean, it's not like I ever really knew Andrew that well. But still..."
"It must hurt," Jim said.
Blair nodded. "A lot," he said, and his voice cracked.
Jim reached for him and hugged him tightly. "I'm so sorry."
"How could he hate me so much when he doesn't even know me?"
"He doesn't hate you, Chief. He's a spoiled little rich kid used to getting everything he wants. But in this case, you got what he wanted. So he tried to take it back. To somebody as self-centered and unscrupulous as Andrew, it's that simple."
"I know you're probably right, that it's not personal. But it feels..." Blair trailed off, something in his voice, something Jim didn't like hearing. It sounded a lot like shame.
"What does it feel like?" he asked, gently.
Blair hesitated. "Uh... It just kind of reminds me of all those times as a kid when Naomi would get it into her head to go and visit her father. Oh, God, Jim, I can't tell you how awful that always was. I wasn't usually self-conscious, but when we'd go there and they'd look us over, judge us by our clothes and stuff, I never felt like more of an outsider. It was as if they hated us for being different. And today, it was just like those bad old days all over again."
Jim rubbed his back and tried to console him. "It's always sad when people can't accept that we're all different and that's what makes life so interesting. Their money may have given them some sense of entitlement, made them feel they could look down on you, but it certainly didn't help them become better people. Andrew's a criminal. Marissa is unhappy and unfulfilled. And Elliot looks like if that stick gets any further up his butt it's going to do some serious damage to his colon."
Blair laughed, and Jim felt glad for it.
"You're the quality person in your family, Chief. You've got a good heart and a wonderful mind and a beautiful spirit. That's what really matters, not the money or the fitting into corporate America thing. You are your own man, and it's no wonder your grandfather respected you enough to leave his company to you. It's just a shame he was too proud an old coot to welcome you into his life. He had no idea what he was missing."
"Do you think so?" Blair asked, a young, uncertain, hopeful sound in his voice that made Jim's heart break.
"Absolutely," he said, stroking his hair to soothe and reassure him.
Blair hugged him hard." Thank you. And thanks for saving me. Again."
Jim smiled and kissed the top of his head. "Don't mention it. Hey, you know what? We should do something special tonight," Jim suggested.
Jim had to shake his head. "I wish we could, but until we establish the link between Andrew and Zoell"
Jim sighed. He would still have preferred not to tell Blair about the Ice Man, to spare him full knowledge of the lengths his cousin had gone to. But he knew Blair wouldn't let it drop.
"Captain Banks was able to identify the MO of the killer who took the shots at you. His name is Klaus Zoeller. He has a long and ugly history, not to mention a freakish sense of pride in his work. He won't leave the job undone, even with Andrew in jail. It's not really going to be over until we catch Zoeller. Hopefully, your cousin will tell the cops something that will help us track him down."
Blair's face fell.
"You're safe here, Blair. I promise."
"I know," he said softly, still sounding crestfallen.
"We will catch him."
"I just want this to be over."
"What if we can't catch him? What if he's just always out there and"
Jim shook his head. "That's not going to happen. His pride is hurt. He's going to make a mistake, and I'll be there when he does. He doesn't know about the advantage we have with my senses. That works in our favor."
Something flickered in Blair's eyes.
"What?" Jim asked him.
"That's the first time you've ever said anything positive about your senses."
"Yeah, well, if they can help me do something worthwhile like looking out for you, then I guess they're not so bad."
Blair's huge smile was the best reward Jim had ever received.
"Thanks, man," the young man said.
"So even though we should stay close to home, I was still thinking we could have dinner and maybe see a movie afterwards, if you're not too tired. We could get some takeout and pick something out at the Blockbuster."
Blair tilted his head, his eyes sparkling. "That sounds a lot like a date."
"I guess you finally wore me down. You're my client, and it still would be better if I weren't so personally involved with you. But we both know how successful that's been. So would you, Blair? Would you go out with me?"
Blair smiled luminously. "Yes, Jim. I'd love to."
"Good. You know, despite what happened with Andrew, we really do have some celebrating to do."
Blair's expression turned self-satisfied. "I was really good, wasn't I?"
Jim laughed. "Yeah, Chief, you were great. Modest, not so much. But really, really persuasive, definitely."
"I think they'll vote to back my plan."
Jim nodded. "So do I."
"That is worth celebrating."
"So let's get to it."
"I just need to get cleaned up first. I was nervous all morning, sweating like a pig."
"Thanks for sharing."
Blair stood up to head for the bathroom. "Yeah, well, just be glad I'm taking care of it before we begin our date."
"You really enjoy the fact that this is a date, don't you?"
"Very much, yeah. I mean, I know you said the keeping your distance thing was only because you needed to be professional and all, but "
"I wasn't always sure."
Jim stood up and scooped Blair into his arms. "But you're sure now, right?"
Blair nuzzled his neck. "Mmm."
Blair moved to the phone. "I'm just going to check my messages, shower, and I'll be ready to go."
"Great. I'm going to change for my date," Jim told him with a smile and headed upstairs.
He could hear Blair dialing, as he opened his closet and looked for just the right shirt.
"Oh, for God's sake." Blair's words floated up to him. He sounded disgusted.
"What's wrong, Chief?"
"I've got two messages, both urgent, both about those damned artifacts. One is from Professor O'Neill who gave them to me to bring to Cascade. The other's from Professor Jacobs, the guy I'm supposed to deliver them to. Geezus, if I'd known I was going to be hounded about it, I wouldn't have agreed to do this favor."
"No sweat, Chief. We can run them by the university on our way to pick up dinner and get those guys off your back."
"That would be great, man. Thanks."
"Okay, then I'm going to go get cleaned up, and then we can head out."
Jim unbuttoned his shirt, undid his trousers and stepped out of them. He'd picked out the dark blue silk shirt, and that really looked better with his jeans. Plus, it would be more comfortable for lounging around on the sofa. He listened as the water went on in the bathroom, and memories surged back to him. His hearing pricked up, and he zeroed in on the metallic slide of Blair's zipper, the soft, heavy fall of his clothes hitting the floor. He was hard in an instant. Just like last night, his mind jumped to pictures of Blair nude and water slicked and wanting him. He was filled with the same desperate longing to go to him, have him, take him, love him, but unlike last night, this time he felt no hesitation.
Jim was down the stairs in a flash. He stripped off his boxers in the living room, hopping on one foot and then the other to get them off without impeding his progress. Once again, the door was unlocked, and he slipped into the bathroom. He pulled back the shower curtain slowly, careful not to startle Blair, and stepped in behind him. He wound an arm around his lover's waist and pressed his chest tightly to Blair's back.
"Mmm," Blair moaned in pleasure, obviously not minding that Jim was sharing his shower.
"I fantasized about joining you like this last night," Jim whispered into his ear, and he could feel the goosebumps prickling along Blair's skin.
"Funny. I had the same fantasy," Blair murmured, eyes closed, enjoying the feel of Jim against him.
He kissed Blair's neck and wrapped both hands around his cock.
Blair's little gasp of surprised delight did something erotic and thrilling to Jim. He began to pump his lover's hardness, luxuriating in the hot, slick feel of him. Jim undulated his hips and pressed his own cock against the firm, round swell of Blair's perfect bottom. Blair ran his hands up and down Jim's forearms, caressing him, mirroring Jim's movement, stroking him in the same rhythm that Jim stroked his erection.
He pressed a kiss to Blair's temple. "I love you," he said, softly.
"Oh, my God."
The admission startled Jim almost as much as it did Blair. It just slipped out somehow, although there were a hundred reasons not to say it. He'd only known Blair for two days. It was incredibly precipitous, and it might very well freak the young man out, scare him off. He didn't know if his lover's gasp of surprise meant he was pleased. Or perhaps he was now frantically trying to find a way out of the situation, to get away from Jim. And then there was the realization he had faced only a little while earlier, that there really was no way, at least no way he could see, that it would ever work out between them, not in any permanent way. But still it was the truth, he did love Blair, and he wanted to say it.
In fact, it felt great to speak it out loud.
He pulled Blair's damp hair back and kissed behind his ear. "I love you," he told him.
Blair trembled harder, and Jim could sense the sharp surge in his arousal. Blair got off on hearing that Jim loved him. It occurred to Jim that maybe he'd been wrong, after all. Maybe there was some way it could work out. He smiled, genuinely happy, the first time he could remember feeling so light, so carefree, like life actually held some promise.
He worried the pulse point at the base of Blair's throat. "I love you."
He pressed a kiss to his shoulder. "Love you."
He pecked him on the cheek. "I really, really love you."
He pushed his damp hair to the side and suckled the back of his neck. "I love you so much."
Blair came violently in his hands, completely silently, his whole body shuddering, his back heaving, great, wracking, noiseless sobs torn from deep inside him.
His young lover collapsed back against him, undone, his muscles weak and shaky from the strenuousness of his orgasm. Jim held him tightly around the waist to prevent him from falling.
He brushed his lips against Blair's ear. "Thank you so much. That was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. You are so, so gorgeous. I don't know what I ever did to deserve you. But I'm so glad you're here with me now."
Jim's hard cock still nestled in the slick cleft of Blair's ass, as if it had found a home there. Blair tightened his grip on Jim's arms and rocked his hips back, rubbing his bottom against Jim's erection.
Jim gasped. "Oh, God, yeah. Yeah, Chief. Please."
But Blair pulled away, and Jim couldn't stifle the groan of disappointment that came out of him. Then Blair leaned forward, braced his hands against the tiled wall, spread his legs and offered himself. And Jim groaned again, only this time it was most certainly not with disappointment.
A flash of guilt stilled him a moment, as he remembered how roughly he'd taken Blair earlier that day. "I don't want to make you sore," he said.
Blair looked at him over his shoulder. "Please. I want you."
That was enough for Jim, all the invitation he needed. He poured some shower gel into his hand and lubed his cock. He took Blair's hips in his hands and slid gently inside him. Blair was relaxed, his muscles loose from his orgasm and their intercourse earlier in the day, ready to receive him. He pressed his chest against Blair's back and began to move inside him.
Blair twisted around awkwardly so they could kiss. "I love you too, so much," the young man told him.
It was almost too much. He nearly came from just thatthose sweet words from the man he cherished, the look and smell and feel of him, the impossibly erotic sensation of that hot, throbbing body holding his cock in its clenching muscular grasp, driving him nearly out of his mind with pleasure. But he held on, regained his control. It was too good to be over so soon. He thrust in and out of Blair's body, deliberately, in long, smooth strokes, loving every moment of it.
"Oh, yeah, Jim," Blair said, his voice thick and slurred with passion. "So good. So good. I love you so much."
Jim braced his hips and pounded into him harder, wildly losing control.
But Blair pushed back against his cock, wanting still more. "Give it to me, Jim. Give it to me. God, I love you. Oh, God."
It was the words of love that sent him over the edge. His cock swelled, his balls drew up, and he came, wave after wave of completion, filling his partner, the man he loved, who loved him back, with his heated seed.
A moment later, Blair howled, his head flopped back onto Jim's shoulder, and Jim could feel the magnificent body he was buried in spasm hotly around his cock. He hardened again and came in nearly the same instant, shooting yet more semen deep into his lover's ass.
Blair's muscles had all gone weak, tapped out by the strain of back-to-back orgasms. Jim was not much more steady on his feet, but he did manage to hold them both up. Now that he was starting to come back to his senses, he felt the freezing water stinging his skin.
He quickly washed them both off and then said, "'Let's get out of here and get warm, Chief."
Blair could only nod, still undone. Jim helped him out of the shower and briskly dried him off, warming the chill, wrapping the towel around his waist when he was finished. He dried himself as well and slipped on his bathrobe.
He turned Blair around to the face the mirror and stayed pressed close behind him.
"What do you do with your hair, Chief?" he asked.
Blair leaned back against him. "I just pick it out to keep it from getting tangled, then I can pull it back."
"Can I?" he asked, reaching for the pick Blair had left on the vanity.
His lover smiled at him in the mirror. "That would be great," he said, sounding as happy as Jim felt.
Jim returned the smile and kissed his shoulder. He took the pick and carefully set to work on Blair's hair.
"Mmm," Blair murmured.
"Good," Jim said.
He gently untangled the young man's hair, working methodically, section by section, until it was all done.
"That's great, Jim. Thanks."
"My pleasure, Chief."
"And thank you for...you know," Blair said and broke into a huge smile.
Jim couldn't help blushing a little. "I'm pretty sure I should be thanking you for that."
"Why don't we settle for thanking each other?"
"That sounds right," Jim said, and then he asked, "Can I ask you about that...uh, that thing you did...um, to me last night...when we..."
"The suck and fuck?"
"Yeah," he mumbled, feeling unaccountably shy, even after all they'd shared, the lovemaking and the declarations and the amazing connection.
"Sure, man. You can ask me anything."
"Uh, well, I wonder... Where'd you learn to do that?"
"The Internet. It really can be educational."
"How'd you practice?"
Blair shook his head. "I didn't. You were the first person I ever tried it on. I wanted to give you something special."
Jim blinked in reaction, at first out of surprise, and then with such a profound rush of love it brought tears to his eyes. He crushed Blair against him in a rib-cracking hug. "Thank you," he whispered.
"I already loved you then," Blair explained.
"Oh, Chief. Chief." He could have held Blair like that forever, but eventually, he did let him go, so his lover could breathe again. "That's it, Chief. No more sex standing up. I want to give you something special, too. Tonight, I'm taking you to bed properly, and we're going to stay there for a long, long time. Maybe you'll even give me some lessons on the things you've learned from the Internet."
Blair laughed with delight. The sound seemed to bubble up from somewhere deep in his belly and spilled out into the room, rich and deep, the most joyful thing Jim had ever heard. "Works for me," Blair agreed and then he tugged on Jim's arm, urging him out of the bathroom. "Let's get going on our date, so we can get started on your education. You know, I'm really beginning to appreciate that we have to stay home."
And then Jim was the one laughing. His mirth came from somewhere in the vicinity of his toes. In forty years, he'd never heard himself sound so free or so glad at heart.
Jim honestly thought nothing could spoil his jubilant mood. With Blair by his side, everything just seemed brighter and cheerier and better. Riding in the truck felt like a companionable adventure. His senses practically hummed with contentment, acute but not overpowering, pleasurable for the first time in his life. Blair turned on the radio, and they sang along with the tunes on the oldies station, smiling at each other every few seconds.
Jim Ellison was in love. He was loved in return. He was the luckiest man on earth.
They turned into the university and parked in the nearest lot to Hargrove Hall. Blair wanted to stop by his office and check his mail. The university had allowed him to keep the space, even though he was no longer officially an employee or a graduate student at the institution. However, he was the top corporate officer at one of the school's primary donors, so in all likelihood, the office would remain his as long as he cared to keep it. After Blair caught up with his correspondence and sent a few e-mails, they'd drop off the artifacts with Professor Jacobs. Then they'd head to the restaurant and video store and go home to begin their date.
They both got out of the truck, and Jim slung his arm around Blair's shoulders as they walked to the anthro building. They headed up the stairs to the entrance, and Jim's cell phone rang. He felt a strong wave of impatience, matched by an equally urgent sense of responsibility. He reluctantly detached himself from his lover and fished the phone out of his pocket.
"Ellison," he answered, following Blair into the building.
"Jim, it's Simon Banks. I got your mobile number from the security company. Look, we've got a problem."
"Don't tell me you had to let Andrew Sandburg go for some reason."
"No. In fact, he spilled his guts even before his lawyer could make it down to the station. Hell, the kid seemed almost proud of what he'd done. He told us all about how he blackmailed the family's chauffeur into sabotaging the brakes on Blair's car. It seems the guy had been arrested more than once for drunk driving, and he would have lost his job if anyone else found out about it. The kid also bragged about how he'd paid another staff member at the house in England to rig the chandelier. He didn't spare us any of the details. But he's consistently refused to admit that he hired a professional assassin. Of course, he could just be holding out, but..."
"Why admit to everything else then," Jim said, heading up the stairs with Blair.
"So he may not be responsible for that part of it."
"That seems the most likely explanation."
"Is Blair still with you?"
"At least there's that. You can keep an eye on him."
"I'll do that, of course. But we've got to figure this out, Simon. We've got to catch this prick."
"I'm with you on that, Jim."
"Keep me posted."
Jim flipped his phone closed and returned it to his jacket pocket. They had reached Blair's office, and the young man was watching him expectantly.
"What was that all about?" he asked, as he unlocked the door.
"Chief, I don't know how to tell you this"
"Fuck!" Blair swore the moment he stepped into the room. "Fuck, fuck. Double fuck!"
"Oh, shit," Jim said.
The room looked like a natural disaster had hit it. There was furniture overturned. Files had been dumped out of the cabinets. Artifacts were scattered, some broken. Papers were strewn everywhere.
"Damn," Blair swore. "Damn, damn, damn!"
"Chief, we've got to get out of here."
"How am I ever going to sort this all out?" Blair asked, sounding sick at heart. "Oh, God. I mean, I've never exactly been a poster boy for organization, but at least, I could always find what I was looking for. But now... This is my work, Jim. Years and years of research, and it's all practically useless to me now. I don't know if I'll ever been able to put it all back together in some way that makes sense, that I can work with."
Jim put his hands on Blair's shoulders and turned him around. "I know this is upsetting, but we've got big trouble, Chief. Andrew has admitted to arranging all the attempts on your life except for the shooting. Simon and I believe someone else is responsible for that. It may be the same person who tore up your office."
"But why? Why here? Why not over at the company?"
"I don't know. But we don't have time to worry about that now. If they were here before, they could come back again. There's no one else around here but us. It's the perfect place to carry out a hit. We've got to get you somewhere safe."
Blair looked stricken, the fear returned to his eyes, all the light-hearted good feeling they'd both been enjoying just moments earlier now gone completely. "Okay, Jim. Whatever you think is best."
He put his arm around his lover's shoulders and pulled him close, a protective gesture. "On our way out, we can alert campus security that your office was broken into."
Blair nodded and let Jim guide him to the door. But as he was about to open it and go out, Jim grabbed his arm and pulled him back, his Sentinel hearing picking up the dull echo of footsteps coming up the stairs.
"Get under the desk."
"Do it, Blair!"
Blair turned completely pale, and Jim could hear his heart rate speed up, racing with terror. But he complied and knelt down under the desk, the only spot in the entire room that provided even the least bit of cover.
Jim pulled his gun and plastered himself against the wall beside the door. He waited and listened carefully, tracking the footsteps. He could hear them turning the corner, coming down the hall. They paused outside the office, and he could see the shadow on the frosted glass of the door. The knob turned, the door pushed open, and a man stepped into the room.
Jim practically leaped on him. "Get down! Hands behind your head!" he screamed at the intruder, grabbing him by the collar, pushing him to the floor, training the gun on him.
"Don't shoot! Don't shoot! I'll give you my wallet. Please!"
"Jim, wait!" Blair called out to him, scrambling out from under the desk. "It's okay, Jim. It's Professor Jacobs."
"Blair?" the grey-haired man said. "Oh, God. Thank God, Blair. I thought I'd interrupted some sort of break in."
Blair helped him up, dusted him off. "I'm so sorry."
When the man got to his feet, he looked around. "Oh, heavens, it looks like you have had a break in here."
"Yeah. And it's made us jumpy. I'm sorry. Obviously, we thought you were someone else."
The professor held up a hand. "I can understand how you would make that assumption under the circumstances. It's all right, Blair. I was startled, to say the least, but there's no harm done. I was on my way home and thought I'd stop by on the offhand chance that you might be in your office. Or leave you a note if you weren't and arrange a time I could pick up the statuettes. "
"Oh, sure. I really apologize for not getting them to you sooner."
The professor smiled. "That's okay, Blair. I understand you have more pressing concerns these days. Congratulations, by the way, on your new position. It must be very exciting to take over the family business."
"It's definitely been interesting."
"So, do you have the artifacts with you?" Professor Jacobs asked.
"Yes, they're right here. Let me get them for you."
Blair fished the carrying case out from under the desk.
"Here you are," he said, handing it to the professor.
The man smiled. "I can't tell you how happy I am to get them. This will mean so much to my work. Thank you so much for your generosity in bringing them to me. I was too anxious to begin studying them to wait weeks while they were shipped or Professor O'Neill was able to bring them."
Blair returned his smile, and Jim could see that he understood this kind of enthusiasm perfectly well.
"I hope they'll prove enlightening to your research," Blair said.
"Oh, I'm sure they'll be incredibly valuable. Would you mind if I took a quick look before I head out? I'm just so eager to see if they're everything I was told they would be."
"Of course," Blair said. "Be my guest."
Jim stared at him disbelievingly. They were supposed to be getting out of there. But Blair gave him a look that said he should be patient. It would only take a minute.
The professor rested the carrying case on the desk, opened it and took out one carefully wrapped bundle. The man unrolled it, treating it with great delicacy and took out the statuette. Jim found it difficult to understand what all the excitement was about. In his opinion, the statuette was...well, ugly. It was short and squat and weirdly two-dimensional for a sculpture, the features inscribed into the surface, so ambiguously that Jim couldn't even tell if the figure was supposed to be male or female.
"It's remarkable," the professor said, staring at it, nearly transfixed. "Look at the details. There's such rich iconography. Each piece tells part of the legend. It should really help me decipher some of the more arcane points of the story."
"I'd love to read your paper when it's finished," Blair said.
"Of course, of course. I'd appreciate having your insight, and thank you again for helping me out like this."
"No problem," Blair assured him.
Jim shifted his weight from one foot to the other, eager to be gone. Professor Jacobs noticed his restlessness.
"I'm sorry," he apologized. "I'm holding you up. Let me just get this back in the carrying case, and I'll be on my way."
"I'm sorry," Blair told him. "It's just that we have dinner plans."
The man shook his head. "No need to apologize. I should have realized." He sat the statuette down on the desk, while he spread out the soft cloth in which it had been stored, so he could roll it up again.
In that moment of quiet, Jim heard a telltale clicking, and his stomach clenched with sickness.
"Everybody down! Now!"
In the next moment, the quiet was shattered by the splintering of glass as bullets sprayed the room. Jim leaped and pushed Blair down. The professor also ducked for cover. All three of them retreated to relative safety behind the desk. The door swung open, kicked in, nearly swaying on its hinges, and a man appeared in the doorway, wearing a kevlar vest, a gun in each hand. Jim knew it had to be Zoeller.
The hit man fired wildly, and the room practically exploded with the play of gunfire. Glass and pottery shattered. Wood splintered. Tufts of sofa stuffing flew into the air and settled to the ground like a freakish snowfall. Jim returned rounds as best he could, but he realized with a sick, sinking sensation in his gut that the odds were not in their favor. There was nowhere to run, no place really to hide, and Zoeller had the superior arsenal.
Professor Jacobs gasped out loud when a shot hit the statuette that he'd left sitting on Blair's desk in the panic. It exploded and sparkling green flashes of light flew everywhere. From what Jim could tell, they were uncut emeralds, and he finally understood what they were dealing with.
He edged out from behind the desk a little, to get a better shot, but he wasn't quite fast enough and Zoeller caught him in the shoulder.
"Jim!" Blair screamed in horror.
Fortunately, it was not an incapacitating wound. The force of the impact knocked him back a little, but he held onto his gun and was able to scramble back to safety. It was his left shoulder that had been hit, so he could still fire his weapon. Zoeller continued strafing the room, but one of his guns seized up and he discarded it. Jim took that opportunity to get off a shot, focusing his Sentinel sight, aiming for Zoeller's gun hand.
His aim was perfect. Zoeller screeched in pain and dropped the gun. He quickly turned and made a run for it. Jim leaped over the desk.
On his way out of the room, he yelled to Blair, "Stay here!"
Then he sprinted down the hall after Zoeller, tracking the other man's heart beat and respiration. The assassin had headed up the stairs, and Jim followed him, taking the steps two at a time, holding his left arm close against his side, trying to ignore the throbbing ache in his shoulder. The trail kept leading up and up until Jim finally came to the metal door that provided access to the roof. He tried to open it quietly, but it was old and rusty, the hinges in terrible need of oiling. It screeched and groaned as he pushed through it, alerting Zoeller to his presence.
He flattened himself against the side of the building and used his senses to search the roof for the other man. He tracked him to the far side of the building and carefully made his way over there. He found Zoeller in the process of going over the edge using rappelling gear that he must have set up in advance to ensure his escape. Jim pointed his gun at him and seriously considered firing. The man had shot Blair's office so full of lead that there was no way the police would ever deem it anything but a justifiable shooting. Then Zoeller would never again be a problem for Blair or anyone else. But Jim thought a moment longer and then lowered the weapon. If he killed Zoeller, they'd have no chance of finding out who had hired him, and that person might very well send somebody else after Blair. He would be in constant danger. He'd be forced to live in hiding, his life poisoned by fear. Jim couldn't let that happen.
But he also knew he couldn't let Zoeller get away. A professional always returned to finish the job. So he jumped on the man and managed to pull him back to the roof before he could begin his descent. Unfortunately, at the same time, Zoeller managed to knock Jim's gun out of his hand, and it went sailing halfway across the roof.
Zoeller grabbed Jim by the throat and wrestled him down to the ground. Jim landed a blow to his ribs, and the assassin screamed, releasing the pressure long enough for Jim to get out from under him, to turn the tables, to wrestle Zoeller down onto his stomach. He tried to pull the man's arms behind his back to subdue him, but Zoeller managed to punch Jim in the gut, turn over and use both his feet to kick him off, sending him skidding several yards over the tarred surface of the roof.
Before he could get up, Zoeller descended on him, yanked him by the jacket, swung him around, let him go, sent him flying toward the low edge of the roof. It took all Jim's strength to catch himself, to keep from plunging to his death over the side. He didn't have a chance to move before Zoeller was on top of him again, the man's hands around his neck, squeezing the life out of him, bending him backward over the wall, trying to push him off the building. Jim had to fight for every breath, and he could feel his clothing sliding on the rough surface of the wall. Another few inches, a little more pressure from Zoeller, and he would lose his balance and topple over the edge.
Oh, God, Chief. I'm so sorry. I wish we'd found each other sooner. I wish I hadn't wasted so much time not understanding what I am, being miserable, feeling sorry for myself, when I could have been happy by your side. Oh, God, I love you so much. I hope you know that.
Jim closed his eyes and tried to prepare for the moment of impact. When it came, though, it was not what he was expecting. There was a loud crack, and then Zoeller's body seized and bucked up. Jim managed to push him to the side to prevent his weight from taking them both over the edge, but he still had to grapple frantically to keep his hold on the wall. The force of momentum sent Zoeller plummeting. Jim took a deep breath and a shaky step away from the edge. His shoulder was really beginning to hurt, and he was terribly glad to be alive.
Blair stood frozen, rooted to the spot, his arm still extended, Jim's gun in his hand. Professor Jacobs was a couple of paces behind him, white-faced with alarm. Blair's face was a mask of shock at first. But as recognition of what he'd done began to filter into his awareness, his expression turned to profound dismay. His hand began to shake, and he stared at the gun as if it were something alien. Then he dropped the pistol and pulled back his hand as if he'd been burned.
Jim went to him and took him in his arms. "It's all right, Chief," he said, soothingly. "I know you didn't want to, but he was going to push me off the roof."
"I've never killed anyone before. Or anything, for that matter. I never thought I would." He sounded appalled and shaken.
Jim hugged him harder. "I'm so sorry, Blair. I'm so sorry you had to do that."
"I couldn't let him hurt you. Couldn't. Just couldn't."
"I know, Chief. And thank you. He would have killed me if you hadn't come to my rescue. You know, I'm really beginning to appreciate that you never stay put when I ask you to."
"I love you, Jim," Blair whispered.
Jim kissed the top of his head. "I love you, too."
The professor cleared his voice. "I hate to interrupt this tender moment, but"
They looked up only to find the man pointing a gun at them, the one Jim had shot out of Zoeller's hand downstairs in Blair's office.
Blair groaned pitifully and buried his face in Jim's shoulder. "What now?"
"I think we just found out who's smuggling the emeralds hidden in the statuettes."
"Very good, Jim," the man said, smiling nastily. "Colombia mines some of the finest emeralds in the world, more rare than diamonds, more valuable than heroin. What better way to get them out of the country and into the U.S. than hidden inside worthless artifacts, carried through customs by a well-respected anthropologist who's the head of a multi-national corporation?"
"But why?" Blair asked.
"Wait until you've been a poor professor for twenty years, overlooked for advancement, not able to afford even the smallest of luxuries, watching undergraduate students who were complete dullards in your class take jobs as investment bankers and stock brokers right after graduation for twice your salary. But then, I guess you'll never be a poor anything, will you, Blair?"
"I've been plenty poor in my life," Blair told him, angrily. "I've never had a penny of money from my family, and I've never felt the need to commit a crime."
"You're a moral paragon then, aren't you?" the professor sneered. "What can I say? I prefer cash to righteousness."
"Don't tell me Professor O'Neill was in on it, too?" Blair asked.
The man shook his head. "He was just a convenient dupe. Like you. Unfortunately, he couldn't let well enough alone and had to go digging into things. I was forced to take care of him. I didn't know what he might have told you, so then I had to take care of you, too."
"Oh, God! He called me earlier today and left a message, said it was urgent. He must have been trying to warn me."
"No doubt. He called me this morning, too. To confront me, to chastise me for my 'unseemly' activities, for bringing dishonor to the academic profession. Stupid old bastard. Fortunately, the people I'm working with in Colombia have connections everywhere. It wasn't difficult to take care of him. In fact, it only took a phone call. It's too bad you were too busy to take O'Neill's call. Maybe things would have worked out better for you. Ah, well, your loss, my gain."
"What are you going to tell the cops, Jacobs?" Jim asked. "You know they'll figure it out."
"Oh, I don't think so. They think somebody's after Blair because of his role at the corporation. I'll take my emeralds and be on my way before they arrive. They'll never even know I was here. They'll assume you both died at the hands of the assassin and that you somehow managed to take him out in the process. When they perform the autopsies and do the ballistics analysis, they'll find he was shot with your gun and both of you with his. He was wearing gloves, so they won't think anything about it being wiped clean of prints. It will be terribly tragic. I'm sure you'll make the front page." The professor took aim. "Now, enough talking. Time to finish this once and for all."
"I'm sorry, Jim. If it weren't for me" Blair said.
Jim shook his head. "I'm the one who let you down, Chief. I told you'd I keep you safe."
Jim held him tightly, in part to comfort Blair, in part to comfort himself.
A shot rang out, but Professor Jacobs was the one who fell.
"Oh, my God," Blair gasped, pale and shaking.
Simon stood in the doorway, gun in hand, surrounded by a crowd of other cops.
"Oh, my God," Blair said again.
"It's okay, Chief," Jim tried to reassure him.
"Oh, God. Oh, God."
"Thanks for the save, Simon," Jim told the police captain.
"Actually, you can thank Sandburg. He had the good sense to call 911. They routed it to me. I was on my way home, so I was already in the vicinity. So were a couple of patrol cars, so we all responded to the call. We saw the body and headed for the roof. And it's a good thing, too. If this guy had used the two of you for target practice, the mayor would have had my ass." The police captain eyed Jim's wound. "How's the shoulder?"
"Hurts like a bitch. But I'm pretty sure it's just a flesh wound."
"Oh, God," Blair murmured again.
"Is he all right?" Simon asked.
Jim pulled Blair closer and hugged him. "I think so," he told Simon. Then he asked Blair, "You're all right, aren't you, Chief?"
Blair managed to nod, and Jim kissed him on the forehead. He didn't miss the self-satisfied expression on Simon's face when he saw that gesture of affection, as if it pleased the man to have confirmation of what he'd suspected all along. However, Jim couldn't discern any sign of judgment or disgust in his reaction, and he appreciated the police captain's tolerant attitude.
"So who was this guy?" Simon asked.
"Professor Henry Jacobs, with the Folklore department here at the U," Blair said, his voice still a little shaky. But his body had stopped trembling, and Jim could tell the shock was beginning to wear off.
"The professor was smuggling emeralds," Jim explained to Simon. "They were hidden in some Colombian artifacts he had Blair bring into the country for him. Apparently, his scheme started to unravel, and he decided to take out everyone involved, just in case they'd realized what he was up to. So he hired Zoeller. He also arranged for the murder of one of Blair's colleagues who'd figured it all out."
Jim had thought he was holding up pretty well from the gunshot wound, but suddenly his head began to spin and his knees went weak. He stumbled a little. Blair caught him around the waist and held him up.
"Let's talk about this later," Blair said. "We need to get Jim to the hospital."
"There's an ambulance on the way," Simon told him.
"I'm not staying," Jim insisted.
"What?" Blair asked.
"I'll go the hospital, but I won't stay overnight," he declared stubbornly.
"No, Chief. I made you a promise, and I always keep my word. When we get home tonight, I'm taking you to bed, even if I'm doped up on pain killers and all we can do together is sleep."
Blair shook his head. "You are mule-headed, man."
Jim smiled at him, even though he was beginning to feel seriously dizzy. "Only when it's important, Chief. Only when it's important."
It was a week later when he, Blair and Simon met at a local watering hole to have a drink together and congratulate one another on solving the case, even if it had been in the eleventh hour, with their lives hanging in the balance. Jim's arm was in a sling, still sore, but well on it's way to healing, no more than a flesh wound, as he'd suspected. However, he was still taking antibiotics, and Blair refused to let him have a beer, ordering him ginger ale instead, which he drank with a sour expression on his face.
Blair had been watching him like a hawk while he recuperated, on the look out for any sign of complications or sensory distress from the pain or the medicine, waiting on him hand and foot, making him drink weird tasting herbal concoctions, basically lavishing him with attention, some of it wonderful, some of it annoying.
All in all, he'd never enjoyed a gunshot wound more in his life.
"So here's to the successful resolution of the case," Simon said, holding up his glass.
He and Blair raised their glasses as well, and they all clinked them together.
"And here's to the CEO of Sandburg Enterprises, alive and well and still on the job," Simon added.
But Blair shook his head. "I'm getting out of the CEO biz, Simon. I'm going back to the university to resume my doctoral work."
Simon's expression turned curious. "What about the company?"
"I turned it over to my cousin Marissa. Technically speaking, I'm still the major shareholder, but I gave her my proxy to run things. My grandfather's prejudice against women in business blinded him to the truth about who'd be the best person to run the company. I needed to set that straight."
"But what about your reforms?" Simon asked.
"The investors voted to adopt Blair's strategic vision," Jim said, proudly.
"And Marissa has turned out to be weirdly amenable to it," Blair said. "In fact, she's already had some really good ideas for how to make the best use out of the PR value of the new initiative."
"So you're back at the university, back where you belong, picking up where you left off," Simon said.
"Almost," Blair said. "I've re-enrolled in my Ph..D. program, but I've decided on a new direction for my research. It should prove very interesting."
He smiled knowingly at Jim, who smiled back at him.
"Of course, I still have my eye on the company," Blair continued. "If I don't like the way things are going, I'll step back in. And I have some other business ideas I'd like to research when I have the time, so I guess I haven't really stepped aside, just kind of faded to the background. I feel like my grandfather trusted me with something, and I have to see it through."
Simon nodded. "That's to your credit, although it sounds like it's going to keep you pretty busy."
Blair smiled. "There won't be anything new about that."
"And what about you?" Simon asked Jim.
Jim shook his head. "Nothing much has changed. I've been out of commission this week, but I'll head back to work in a day or two."
"You know, you'd make a good cop," Simon said.
"I'm not looking to change careers."
"It's a shame to waste all that ability babysitting spoiled rich people. No offense, Blair. I don't mean you, of course."
Blair waved his hand. "None taken. I'm donating my profits from the company to a fund to preserve the rain forest, so I'm officially back to being poor now, anyway. Well, except for the rainy day money I have stashed away. I mean, a guy does have to look out for his future."
Simon shook his head. "So Sandburg's got a trust fund to fall back on. I can't offer you anything like that, Jim, but it is a good, solid career path. It's work you can be proud of."
"I really don't think I'm cop material, Simon," Jim said.
"Well, I do, and I've been on the force for twenty years. I know what I'm talking about. I know talent when I see it."
"I just wouldn't want to have to start all over again, alongside the eighteen-year-olds."
Simon shook his head. "You wouldn't have to. There's a special accelerated program for candidates with the right education and/or prior professional experience. You'd get credit for your military background and your experience working security."
"I don't know"
Blair put a hand on his shoulder and looked deeply into his eyes, his expression almost solemn. "I really think you ought to give it some thought, Jim. This could be just what you've been looking for."
"But what if I can't control"
"I'd help you. I know you can do it," Blair said.
"Sometimes, it seems like this is becoming the most dangerous city in America," Simon said. "That special gift of yours would really give us an advantage over the bad guys."
Jim turned his expression blank. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Simon sighed. "No, I don't know what I'm talking about. I still haven't figured out how you do it. But you know exactly what I mean."
Jim said nothing, still not prepared to reveal his secret to another person. Right now, it was enough to have Blair's understanding, his help, his love.
"You know, Simon," Blair said, and Jim could tell by his tone of voice that he'd just had a brain storm. "I have this new idea for my dissertation. I'm thinking about writing about closed societies, you know, like the police department. Any chance you could swing an observer's pass?"
Jim exchanged a glance with his lover. In so many ways, he barely knew this man, but in other, strange ways, it seemed like they'd known each other forever. And if they could work together, it would give them even more time together to deepen their relationship. Blair had found the perfect solution.
If he was really honest with himself, he had to admit that he was genuinely interested in joining the force, now that Simon had suggested it. He had been so hungry for so long for work that would give his life a sense of meaning, of purpose. Maybe he was a Sentinel, after all. Protecting and serving the good people of Cascade appealed to him, very much. He just wasn't sure he could do the job and handle his senses without his Guide by his side. And somehow, Blair knew that and had found a way to make it all work out. He reached for his lover's hand and held onto him with a deep sense of affection and gratitude.
Simon eyed them both. "Why do I get the feeling that the two of you come as a matched set or you don't join the force at all?"
Jim shrugged and smiled at the man, revealing nothing.
"So how 'bout it, Simon?" Blair asked.
"Before anybody gets any observer's pass, I want to know what this dissertation of yours is really about," Simon said, looking meaningfully from Blair over to Jim. "I'm also going to want to know how Jim knew there was cocaine in your glass that day. Rafe and Brown still haven't stopped talking about it."
Jim looked at Blair, and they smiled at each other.
"Simon," Jim said. "If it works out the way we're hoping, we promise to tell you the whole story."