The dead were strangely vulnerable. No matter how many homicides Jim investigated, he never quite got over this feeling. Even though he realized it was a mistaken perception. The dead were gone, in the truest sense of the word. That's what you saw when you looked into the vacant eyes of the body left behind. Nothing. The person it had once been was out of reach now, beyond everythingoutside of suffering and harm and regret. Still, there was always something horrible about the lifeless way a body lay sprawled where it had fallen, like an ungainly rag doll, the hapless skew of arms and legs, a jarring reminder that the person would not be getting up again.
It made it worse that the latest murdered girl had been dumped in the most desolate surroundings Jim had ever seen. It was a wayside on the outskirts of townonce envisioned as a place where tourists could stop for a picnic lunch on their way to the national forest north of the city. Unfortunately, the designers hadn't thought the concept through very well, and it was too far off the road to attract many visitors. As a result, it had the air of a ghost towndilapidated picnic tables rotting in the moist climate, grills rusted and unusable, everything wildly overrun by weeds and trash that looked years old.
He had to walk to get to the body, which had been found in a small gully in a circle of trees several hundred yards beyond the parking lot. With his Sentinel sight, he could see the naked form lying face down in the deep mulch, arms and legs splayed. He could make out the delicate line of a back, the long curly hair. He froze. Curly red hair. A spike of adrenalin slapped him across the face. No! Don't let it be. Please God. Please. He ran. He could see Simon standing over the body with a look of...God, what was that look on his face? Please don't let it be her. Please, I'll do anything. Just don't let it be her. His heart hammered, and he could not catch his breath. He kept running.
The world spun away from him.
"Jim!" He could feel Simon shaking him by the shoulders. "Jim! Listen to me. It's not her. It's not Molly. Can you hear me? Damn it, where the hell is Sandburg when I need him?"
And then the world spun back again. He was gasping for air, but he was at least inside himself once more. "It's okay, sir. You can stop that now."
Simon let out a deep breath and released him, looking more than a little relieved. Jim knelt down by the body.
"Are you sure?" It came out soft and trembling, despite his best efforts to regain control.
He felt the pressure of Simon's broad hand on his shoulder. "Yes, Jim. When I first got to the scene, I had the same concern. I had the people from the ME's office turn her over just enough to make sure it wasn't Molly."
He hid his face in hands that still shook. Not her. Not her. Thank God. He looked over at the small, defenseless body. But it could have been. God, it could have been her. His Sentinel eyes fastened on the victim's hair, dulled and matted from exposure to the earth and elements. In his mind, he substituted the deeply familiar image of coppery curls alive with warmth and light. And the sweet, shining face that laughed at his bad jokes, asked him a thousand questions, listened between his words for what he was really trying to say. And the clear eyes that grew wide with wonder when he told a story, that watched him with unfaltering compassion even in his ugliest moments. And he saw all that beauty and possibility crumpled on the ground at his feet, lifeless and empty, abandoned in this bleak and comfortless grave. And he could not stop shaking, caught up in a spiral of imagined loss.
"JIM! Don't you dare do that zoning thing or whatever Sandburg calls it. Do you hear me? JIM! Snap out of it, Detective!"
He hadn't lost control of his senses in a long time, and he'd forgotten how painful it was when he jolted back to awareness.
Simon helped him up. "It's okay. I know you can't help it. You just had me worried there for a minute. But don't go checking out on me like that again. I'm not Sandburg."
He couldn't help wincing.
"Sorry, Jim. I shouldn't have said that."
He shrugged. It was the truth, after all. No one else could ever be Blair. No one else could ever be Molly. It had taken him all these months to grasp that simple fact. He'd thought Molly's friendship could fill the hole Blair's absence had left in his heart, but that loss was still a loss. And now, Molly had her own place in his affections, one that belonged to her and no one else. And if he lost her like he'd lost Blair, nobody would ever be able to fill that empty, broken place in him where he loved heranymore than anyone could ever fill the empty, broken place in him where he loved and missed Blair.
He felt Simon move closer, his observant eyes boring into him. "Why don't you call her?"
He shook his head. "She won't be back from school yet."
He could feel Simon's breath as he let it out in a frustrated sigh. "Go home, Jim. We can take it from here."
"Do it, Detective. You won't be good for anything until you see for yourself that she's okay."
The professional in him wanted to protest, but the rest of him was weary. And worried. And teetering on the edge of something too emotional to be of any use at a crime scene. He nodded and laid his hand on Simon's shoulder in a silent thank you and trudged back to his truck that now seemed much further away than he remembered. He gunned the engine and the sound felt oddly comforting. He put the truck into gear and felt a rush of relief so intensely physical he thought for a second he would not be able to drive. It was like stepping away from the edge of a precipice. It was like waking up from your worst nightmare and realizing it was all just a dream. It was like getting a second chance.
Back at the loft, he ran up the steps two at a time and listened for her heartbeat, although he knew it was silly to expect to hear it above the wild jackhammering in his own chest. At the door, he fumbled with the key and cursed his clumsy fingers. The suspense was so terrible it felt like it would break him. He summoned every bit of command he'd ever had and re-exerted control over his body, just the way Blair had taught him, regulating his breathing, subduing his runaway pulse. He opened his hearing, and there it was. The rhythmic ebb and flow of blood in her arteries and veins, the tidal beating of her heart. Serene, untroubled, lulling. Alive. He had to blink back the tears. There was no reason why she wouldn't be home, why she shouldn't be safe, and he felt enormously grateful anyway.
He found her sitting on the terrace, beneath a blanket, warming her hands with a mug of tea. One corner of his mouth turned up. It was too hard to actually smile. Okay, so there were many ways in which she was completely opposite Blair. She wanted to be outside all the time, even in the rain. She never seemed to mind the cold. She adapted to any weather. She was ecstatic when it was sunny, but she took joy in all the seasons.
He didn't know whether to speak or not. She seemed lost in reverie, staring up at the sky as if she expected to find answers in it. He didn't want to startle her, so he eased into the chair beside her with the quietness only a Sentinel could manage.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" she said, sounding dreamy and far away.
"And the light. It's actually silver. Not grey or white or pale blue. I've never seen that anywhere else. It makes everything look still and mysterious and just a little bit sad."
He'd always thought of the Cascade sky as opaque grey, but when he tilted his head back, he could see what she meant. There was subtlety he'd never noticed before, so many shades and variations, one flowing into the next, so many patterns, like an ever-shifting tapestry. And the light was silver. And it hung on the landscape like a halo. And it filled him with a silvery kind of sadness the way life was just sad sometimes.
And he had no idea when he started to cry or why or how he was going to stop.
"Do you want to tell me?" she asked, her voice soft and low and soothing, a pliant vine twining itself in his thoughts, like Blair's when he used it to guide him.
He shook his head.
"Do you want some tea?"
He didn't have the energy to shake his head again. She put her hand on his arm and left it there and went back to studying the sky. The quiet grew until it became a sound. And he could feel the stillness flowing into him and becoming part of his body, and only then did he realize how tired he was. Not the tired of a long day or an ambitious workout or even the aftermath of a really bad scare. It was the kind of weariness that went to the bone, that followed him everywhere, that had taken the place of his bones. It had been with him since Blair walked out the door. And long before that. It had been with him as long as he could remember. He had worn himself out carrying around a weight of silence. He had exhausted his strength trying to keep a lid on all the parts of his spirit his father had thought were of no value: the tender, joyous self that loved and felt wonder, the darkness he didn't want to admit even to himself, the wounded places he was too frightened to touch. He didn't know what it was to be Jimthe fully realized, spontaneous, whole Jim. The Jim who had no false constraints. The Jim who did not have to close away his feelings in a tight, locked box.
The Jim who cried and could not guess the reason.
He smiled ruefully. Things were certainly changing. He was changing. In the past, this thought would have panicked him, but it didn't now. He felt peaceful at long last. The doors were flung open and the ghosts rushing out and the dread was gone. Molly's presence surrounded and comforted him. It was as if her serenity flowed through her hand and into him. It was powerful, like what he felt when his Guide touched him, but different too. With Blair, the touch melted all the boundaries between them, merging them, until he could not differentiate Blair's hand from his own arm, could not begin to guess where he ended and Blair began. Molly retained her separateness. He could feel what was hers coming into him, her vital essence steadying him, giving him the calm he needed to finally look at the ghosts of his memory. It was her gift to him, and he was grateful.
Somehow it did not surprise him that the ghosts were all pain.
In the truck coming home that afternoon, his mind had not been able to let go of the crime scene. The image wove itself into his worst fears and replayed over and again in his mind with technicolor detail. Sometimes it was curly red hair wet and matted with weeds and sometimes it was curly brown hair. Either way, it was excruciating. It could have been her. For that matter, it could have been Blair. If not this time, then some other time, with some other deranged monster. The world was nothing but danger. Blair could catch some god-awful plague in the jungle. Molly could die in a freak accident crossing the street. There were no guarantees. Everything ended. That was something even a Blessed Protector couldn't do a blessed thing about. It was the everyday reality of loving people. It was the pain of being alive.
And it scared him. He could admit that to himself at last. It scared the living hell out of him. That's why he had stayed so solitary for so long. Even during his marriage, he had held onto aloneness like it was a shield. He thought it was his nature, but really it was his father's perverse idea of what his nature should be and his own fear getting in the way. Fear did not become him. He cringed whenever he thought about what he had been before Blair. A hard ass with no life outside the job, rigid and emotionless, with an attitude the size of Mt. Rainier. He remembered slamming Blair against the wall that first day in his office at the university, even though his every instinct registered the younger man's sincerity, even though he was a trained cop and much bigger than Blair, even though he had no right. Back then, he had been an explosion waiting to happen. He had been a scary man. He was not proud of that.
Blair had never held it against him though, not any of it. He was the very incarnation of generosity. He had offered up his wonderful sweetness without any expectation of having it returned. He had poured out his care and kindness, bringing life back to the desert. It was only fitting that Blair had become a shaman. He performed miracles.
And he loved Blair with everything he was. He loved Molly, too. Differently, but no less deeply. He had turned into a man who could love. Nothing in his past had prepared him for that. There had been no love in his father's house. Maybe that's why his mother had left. Another ghost, more pain. He couldn't even remember her very clearly anymore, like an old photograph that had long since faded. For most of his adult life, he had not thought about love. Carolyn had been his first attempt and he'd failed and they'd both been miserable. And then Blair had come along. And now Molly. And it was overwhelming. Watching Blair tuck a strand of hair behind his ear could make his heart stand still. He had an absurd fondness for the laptop and backpack and the big, dusty tomes and every other object Blair owned, just because they were Blair's. And the same now with Molly. Whenever he touched her sweater or scarf or books, he could feel her presence clinging to it, her unique energy, and it was enough to bring tears to his eyes.
And God, it was just as frightening to be loved as it was to love. Wait. When had he realized that? That he was loved. He couldn't pinpoint it. He only knew how it made him feelkind of weird and abjectly grateful and more alive inside than he'd ever imagined.
It was good, very good, although sometimes it seemed like life in the deep freeze had been simpler. He'd certainly held out as long as possible, resisting connection for all he was worth. Sometimes, that still seemed like the safer course. Don't get involved. Don't get hurt. But there was no going back now, and he wouldn't have wanted to even if it were possible. Blair had thawed him. He hadn't fully realized that before. The ice was gone, and he craved warmth. He craved Blair. He wanted to hear the beloved voice, let it wash over him like a balm. He wanted to feel the living pulse that anchored him to the world. He wanted to smell the unique tangle of scentsapple shampoo and sandalwood cologne, warm sweat and Blair essence. He wanted to see his Guide as he'd never before been brave enough to imagine himgloriously naked, stretched out like a feast on his big bed, eager for his loving. And then he wanted time to stand still, so he could learn the braille of his love's body and that tactile bliss would be his universe and there would never be anything else.
But he had let Blair leave. Like a moron. It was the single most monumentally stupid decision of his life, and that was saying something considering his marriage, his renegade days in Vice and his entire youth. If he'd just asked Blair to stay, he would have. He could see that now. All it would have taken was that one word. Stay. Only the briefest intimation that Blair was important to him. It's about friendship, that's what Blair had said when he turned down Borneo. God knew he wished he'd been a better friend in return. He hadn't even thanked him properly. His terror at the prospect of losing him had frozen in his throat and even his gladness that he was staying could not dislodge it. He'd become more afraid than ever to let himself love him.
So he'd done what he always did when he was scared, he'd withheld himself. And it pained him now. It made his chest hurt when he considered how little of his feelings he'd shared with Blair. And if he didn't tell him, how would he ever know? He wouldn't. He would think Jim didn't need him and didn't care whether he was around or not, and he'd go off to Africa and never know how profoundly he was loved and missed. That was not a kind or loving way to treat the person who had given him back his life and sanity. And all because he was afraid. Blair deserved much better than that. He always had.
Of all the regretful emotions, shame was the worst, and Jim wished it were literally a bad taste in his mouth so he could spit it out.
If only he could have a second chance. He didn't know how to pray, but he had some familiarity with begging. Please. He'd do it differently. No matter how hard it seemed or how inept he felt with words, he'd find a way. He'd tell Blair. He'd tell him all of it. And even if Blair didn't return his feelings in the same way, they could work it out. There was nothing cruel or closed about Blair. Even if he couldn't be Jim's lover, he would still be his Guide. He would still love him. He had been a fool not to see that before, not to trust what he knew so well about his friend. No matter what, there was a part of Blair that would always belong to him. Just as there was a place in him that only Blair could fill. If only he could have another chance. If only Blair would come back from Africa. And step back into his life, where he had always belonged.
When he opened his eyes, the light had faded, and he could tell it was hours later, even though it felt like minutes. He was covered up with Molly's blanket, and he could hear her in the kitchen making dinner. He stretched in the chair, slightly stiff, but not as cold as he would have expected. He got up, and it was strange...he felt lighter. The odd calm was still with him. He folded the blanket and carried it inside.
Molly smiled at him. "I was going to come get you in a minute. Dinner's almost ready."
"I hope you're in the mood for chicken."
He went to stand beside her. "Smells good."
She took one of his hands in hers. "Not too cold. I wasn't sure if I should leave you out there, but you seemed to need it."
He held onto her hand. She didn't try to take it back. Somehow, he knew she didn't just mean rest. She was watching him in that careful way of hers, with clear eyes that saw everything. There was no point in hiding, and he didn't want to anyway.
"You know, it would unburden you to tell me. At least the part that has to do with me."
"Just the way you looked at me when you got home. So what happened today?"
He hesitated for a moment. The protective part of him did not want to tell her. The wise part of him knew it was pointless not to. "I saw something...upsetting."
"At a crime scene?"
He nodded. "The same serial killer, the one I warned you about. Another dead college girl. I was walking through the trees. To get to the body. And from a distance, all I could see...I thought for a moment that it was you."
"Oh, my God. How horrible," she said, grabbing his arm, her face filled with compassion.
"She was about your age and your size. She had your same hair color and it was long and curly, just like yours. And she was face down, so I couldn't tell," he said, feeling the trembling start again. "And even after Simon told me it wasn't, all I could think was it could have been. It could have been you."
She took his face in her hands and looked deeply and deliberately into his eyes. "You had a terrible scare today. If I'd been in your position, I would have felt exactly the same way. But it wasn't me out there. I was safe and sound all day long, at school and then here at home. Nothing happened to me and nothing is going to. You don't have to worry."
He nodded. She was right. Of course, he couldn't not worry about her, that's just what he did. But this danger had passed, it was never real. He could let it go. He hugged her and for once, he forgot the differences in their size and strength. He crushed her against him with all the emotions of the daythe fear and the pain, the relief and the love and the joy of second chances. She was alive and well and safe. And he felt the burden of all those weighty emotions lift.
"I just wanted you to know..." he stumbled, but he had to say it. "Nothing would ever be the same...I just couldn't stand it..."
She pulled back and smiled up at him, touching his face. "You're important to me, too."
He hugged her again, before letting her go back to cooking dinner. She handed him plates and silverware, and they set the table together, teasing each other about who could do it more neatly. And the world resumed its normal rhythm.
Molly took the elevator up to Major Crimes, nodding to the people she recognized as she went. She'd thought carefully about how and where she should get Jim and Blair together and had decided on the obvious choice of the loft and as soon as possible. Just one last pretense, that's all it would take and hopefully they'd be able to figure it out from there. She'd laid the groundwork. She'd given them things to think about. If they loved each other half as much as she suspected, they'd find a way to make it work.
"Hey, Molly," Brown greeted her, as she came through the door into the bullpen.
"Hi, Henri. How are you?" she smiled.
"Real good. It's nice to see you."
"Molly! To what do we owe the pleasure?" Simon called out to her.
"Hi, Simon. I was hoping to catch Jim. Is he out on a case?"
"No. Just had to go check something in Forensics. I expect him back any minute. You're welcome to wait at his desk if you like."
"Thanks," she said, taking a seat.
She hoped Jim would take her up on the pretense she had in mind. A party would be an ideal way to reunite them. There would be alcohol. That would be key. And other people, so they couldn't make too much of a scene when they realized what she'd been up to. And hopefully, there would be enough hormones in the air to give them the right idea. If nothing else, it would at least be fun to have her fellow anthropology students over for a little end-of-semester soiree.
The whole thing seemed pretty foolproof. She felt certain that once she gave Blair the address he would come, if only out of morbid curiosity about her living arrangements with Jim. She didn't like the idea of letting him believe there was anything romantic between her and Jim when nothing could be further from the truth. But she knew that was where his mind would leap. And she'd make use of it. After all her futile efforts to get them reunited, she'd had to adopt an ends-justify-the-means type of approach. It didn't exactly please her, but it did seem necessary.
She felt sure Jim would agree to the party, since he never actually said no to anything she wanted. The problem was that he'd plan to be anywhere else that night to avoid having his senses blown out. She'd also have to give him an incentive to show up. She was always telling him how interesting her anthro class was and how much she liked her professor. Now, she'd just have to drop the professor's name in casual conversation.
Maybe too easy. She was beginning to worry about her character. But the duplicity would be over soon. No more plotting and matchmaking. No more half-truths. No more secrets. Everything would be out in the open, for better or worse.
She really hoped it would be for the better. She knew something had happened to Jim the other day while he was out on the terracesome demons faced, some decisions made. When he'd come back in, he had been clearer, unburdened, more at peace with his own feelings than she'd ever seen him. That's why the time was right. Jim was finally ready to see Blair again, to face him, tell him, love him, welcome him back home and back into his life. He just didn't know Blair was already in Cascade, that a second chance was well within his reach.
And that's where she and her plan came in.
"We still haven't been able to fully identify the oily compound," Jim was telling Rafe as they came back into the bullpen. "It's mostly rosemary oil, with traces of several herbs, mugwort, angelica, sage, along with something else that the lab hasn't been able to...Molly, hi. I didn't remember us having lunch plans. Did I forget?"
She shook her head. "I just needed to ask you something. But it's not urgent. I can talk to you later if you're busy."
"No. That's okay. Is here all right?"
"Here's fine," she said.
He put down the handful of photographs he was carrying and sat down behind his desk. "So what's up?"
"Well, I wanted to ask you a favor. I was thinking it would be nice if..." She stopped, the pictures on his desk catching her attention.
They were autopsy photographs of a young woman in her early twenties, with wounds cut into her body in some kind of grotesque pattern. She felt a terrible wave of sickening energy coming off the pictures. Her vision blurred along the edges, and everything began spinning. Time tilted, and she could feel the shivering cold on her body, slick fingers marking her, could see the flash of metal in the ominous dark, could sense the blackness stealing over her.
When she regained consciousness, she was in Simon's office, where Jim had carried her. She struggled to pull herself together, feeling the worry literally radiating off him.
"Don't sit up too quickly," he warned. "It'll make you dizzy again."
"I'm okay. Really."
"Do you remember what happened?" Simon asked.
She shook her head slightly. "I guess I fainted. The pictures on your desk caught my eye. And Jim, you know how squeamish I am."
"Before you passed out you murmured something about the ritual. Do you know what you meant by that?" She could feel Jim watching her closely.
"I'm sorry. I don't really remember it. I must have already been on my way to passing out. But I guess I was filling in the blanks of what I read in the paper. You know about the serial killing. Those pictures...they were really gruesome."
Jim shook his head. "I'm sorry you saw them. I should have been more careful."
She smiled ruefully. "It's not your fault. You know how I get. Even the movies can put me off my stomach."
Jim patted her shoulder. "You're sensitive."
"I'm kind of a baby. But it's nice of you to call it sensitive. Anyway, I'm really sorry to come down here and faint on you and cause a big scene and then run. But I've got to get going. My ride is coming to pick me up to take me to class."
"But you're still pale," Jim protested.
"Maybe we ought to take you to the emergency room. Just to make sure it's nothing more serious than a little squeamishness," Simon suggested.
"I'm fine, guys. Really. A little embarrassed, but physically fine."
Jim put his hand on her forehead. "I don't know if you should be going to class. Maybe I should just run you home."
"No," she said firmly. "I'm all right. Really. Except that I'm late. I'll see you later."
"Molly," he called after her.
"What did you want to ask me?"
"Oh," she said, needing only a moment to redirect her plan. "My friend has to go to work after class. Do you think you could give me a ride home? I could take the bus, but I'd feel better if..."
"Just tell me where and when. I'll be there."
"3 o'clock. By the north quad. I'll meet you in the parking lot."
Jim nodded. "See you then."
If she weren't a master of controlling and masking her physical responses, Jim would never have let her go cheerfully on her way. He would have sensed her terror and the cold sick feeling curling in her stomach. And he would have known she was lying about the photographs. He would have forced her to tell him everything, and it wasn't quite time yet. Oh, God. She tried to breathe, tried to stay calm, but the dark thing had found its way to Cascade. It had been performing the ritual, testing it, perfecting it, biding its time, preparing to strike.
And she had not even managed to get Blair and Jim back together yet, much less ready them for what lay ahead. Just this morning she had thought there would be more than enough time to let things unfold in a natural way. Now she was possessed by a dire sense of urgency. It would have to be today. All of it. They would have to see what they were to one another. And they would also have to see what she was to them. Today. Three o'clock. That would give her all of fifteen minutes after Blair's afternoon class to get him in the right place at the right time and stall him until Jim showed up.
And hopefully there would still be enough time to prepare before the darkness descended.
Blair gathered up his notes and books, answered a few last questions from the after-class stragglers and headed back to his office. Outside the day was level and clear, the sun a bright yellow-orange, a welcome change from the usual drab and drizzly spring days in Cascade. He settled the heavy pack more comfortably on his shoulder and started making a list of all the things he needed to do before the end of the semester. As usual, it was a long list.
"Hey, Blair! Wait up."
Molly ran across the quad to join him, her riotous red curls bouncing around her face. She was wearing a short-sleeved shirt, no jacket, making the most of the good weather while it lasted. Her face was as sunny as the spring day. He smiled, happy to see her.
"Hey, Molly. How's it going?"
"Great! The sun is finally shining and that puts me in a very good mood."
"Me too. Man, April in Cascade really is the cruelest month."
"Tell me about it. Hey listen, I wanted to invite you to a little get-together I'm having. Last day of class celebration for us anthropology geeks. I really hope you can make it."
Her face was open and expectant and hopeful, and he felt a rush of affection for her. Somehow when he hadn't been looking, she had settled into his heart. He had given up telling himself he was just a proud teacher with a gifted student. He treasured her friendship and hoped it wouldn't end with the semester or when she left school or ever.
He smiled at her. "I'd love to come."
"Great! Let me give you the address. It's 852 Prospect Avenue, #307."
His whole world turned upside down in that single moment. No, not possible. Jim must have...no, he wouldn't do that, would he?
He realized Molly was watching him closely and that he probably looked as stricken as he felt. He must have heard her wrong. It was another apartment in Jim's building. Still a weird coincidence, but it was a small world, right? He tried to make his voice light and breezy to cover up his misery, "Let me just make sure I got that. 852 Prospect Avenue, #307?"
She nodded, and he felt a stab of pain so intense it was almost physical. It took everything he had to keep up a friendly conversation. "Hey, nice neighborhood. Must be one heck of a scholarship you're on." "Don't I wish. No, I have a roommate, a real person with a real job and a steady salary. A cop, of all things. I rent out his spare room. Fortunately for me, he doesn't seem to know much about Cascade property values. And I'm certainly not going to tell him how much he's undercharging me."
For one terrible moment, he feared he was going to be sick. Actually throw up right on the quad. That was so not cool. His mind raced, desperate for some explanation other than the obvious. Was it possible Jim could have set this up just to make him jealous? He almost laughed out loud at the thought. Bitterly. And maybe the second shooter from the grassy knoll was alive and well and shacked up on a tropical island with Amelia Earhart. And they were living down the street from Elvis. Who was he kidding? Jim would have an aneurysm if he knew Blair even thought about him that way. And he'd been so worried about how the big guy was getting along without him. Pretty well, he could see. He'd probably been waiting for Blair to move out for years so he could find some pretty young thing to take his place.
And he liked Molly, god damn it. No. He loved her. Obviously not the same way Jim did. God, that hurt. But as a friend, a fascinating mind, a kindred spirit. She'd been one of his few sources of comfort during the past months without Jim. That made him even more bitter. He was being deprived of what he had every right to enjoy, hating the woman who had taken Jim from him. Oh God, what was he talking about? Jim never was his. Molly had every right to him, if that's what Jim wanted. He'd even try to be happy for them. Really. He loved them both, cared about their welfare, wanted the best for them.
"So what's it like? Living with a cop?"
What the hell was he doing? He should make up an excuse, go hide in his office and cry his eyes out. What he most certainly should not do was pump her for the gory details of her private life with Jim.
"I didn't know what to expect really. A cop and all. But he's nice. I like living with him. Not that he wasn't a little off-putting at first. He's got a very cool, cop kind of exterior. But he's a wonderful person once you get to know him, and he's been very kind to me. I don't have any family, and he really took me in and made me at home."
Family. Home. That didn't sound particularly sexy. At all. It sounded...fatherly, almost. Jim being his usual protective self. Maybe he'd jumped to the wrong conclusion. She was awfully young after all. And vulnerable in some way. Or so he'd always thought. Jim would never take advantage of that. Maybe...God, he had to know the truth.
"So will your cop be there? At the party. I mean, are you guys like..."
"Oh, no. Nothing like that," she reassured him, "I don't know yet whether he'll make it to the party. He might have to work. But we're just friends in any event. He's quite an attractive man, but I just don't have those feelings for him, you know? It's more a family thing. Besides his heart is so totally broken over somebody else that romance is the last thing on his mind. I think he just likes to have me around for the company."
"He was in love with somebody?"
She laughed out loud, "Don't look so surprised. Even cops are capable of tender feelings. Not that he's ever said anything about a break up. He's pretty closed mouthed. It's just a feeling I get sometimes. The way he looks around the apartment like something's missing. I think he used to live with someone and it didn't work out."
Blair felt his heart race and his breath quicken. Jim in love with someone he used to live with? Was that possible? Oh God, maybe he'd colossally misread the situation. Maybe all those months in Madagascar and then back in Cascade had just been needless suffering. For both him and Jim. Maybe all the nights he had lain awake wracked with unbearable longing, Jim had been missing him just the same, just as badly. Well, almost as badly. No one could possibly want anyone as much as he wanted Jim.
"Hey, Blair. You still with me?"
"Sorry. I...um, just thought of something I have to do. Kind of an emergency."
"Oh, okay. So let's say eight o'clock for the party?"
"Sure. I'll be there. And Molly, thank you." He wrapped her in his arms and kissed her cheek.
She smiled sweetly, almost knowingly. "Oh, you're welcome. Hey, there's my roommate now. Why don't you come say hello?"
Blair froze. He watched her wave, like it was happening in slow motion, a moment from a bad dream. When he looked in that direction, he saw Jim standing by his truck, taking them both in, watching with sky blue eyes the exact shade of Molly's, Sentinel eyes, scrutinizing them. What else had those Sentinel senses witnessed? He felt a blush creeping up his cheeks. And he was supposed to be in Africa. Shit! He didn't need enhanced sight to see how hurt Jim looked.
An insistent tugging at his sleeve pulled him out of his panic. Molly. He looked down into her face, and it was completely changed. Quiet and serious. Not the bubbling coed from a moment ago, but the wise woman he had always sensed in her.
"Come on, Blair. You and Jim need to talk. And I have things I need to tell you both."
Jim got to the university a little early. He didn't want Molly waiting around for him, not with a serial killer targeting female students. His unshakable dread the other day at the crime scene and Molly's odd reaction earlier at the station had pumped up his protective instincts even more than usual.
He sat in the truck, waiting, scanning the crowds of students for a familiar face. And then he found one. At first, he couldn't take it in. It was like seeing a ghost...no, it couldn't be. But it was. Blair. Just walking across the quad like he'd never been gone. His beautiful hair shining in the sun like an angel's halo. Jim tightened his grip on the steering wheel, emotion clenching his throat. Blair was back. He had another chance. Thank God. Thank God.
And then he saw her. Running to catch up with Blair. And oh God, the way Blair turned to her, his face lighting up like the Fourth of July.
The luminous smile that haunted his dreams. And her face was shining back at him, full of the sweetness and laughter he loved so much. Blair and Molly. One the love of his life, the other the light of his days. Together. He watched the way they leaned into one another, their smiles warm with affection, the comfortable touching. He would have listened in on their conversation, but the shock had knocked his hearing offline. He cursed and closed his eyes tightly against the pain. No! He had a sudden vision of his own future, cold and dark, outside the radiance of the two people he loved the most, who it now appeared loved each other.
He was out of the truck in a flash and losing his lunch in the nearby shrubbery. He straightened up just in time to see Blair kiss Molly. His mind screamed. NO! Blair was his. His friend, his guide, his partner, his mate. The last part jolted through him like an electrical charge. But it was true, all true. God, what an idiot he'd been! He'd thrown it away. He'd let Blair leave, rationalizing that it was for his own good, too afraid to tell him, too terrified to even admit it himself. He hadn't even asked him to stay. His Blair, who belonged to him and no one else.
And now Blair was with Molly. His Molly. His...whatever she was to him. How much worse could it be? Okay, so he knew Molly didn't actually belong to him. She belonged to herself and no one else, and he found that indescribably beautiful. God help him, he never wanted her to be anyone's, ever. He loved her young innocence and the way she was so many things at once and her beautiful self-sufficiency. And he never wanted her to change, not ever, not in any way.
He didn't know how long he stared at them before Blair noticed him. The much-loved blue eyes were large and filled with emotion, stricken, almost terrified. But why would Blair be afraid? He caught Molly's eye, and she held it, almost as if trying to reassure him. She took Blair's arm and pulled him along after her, in his direction. Oh God. Oh God. He didn't know if he could handle it. He didn't want to hear their story. He wanted to get into his truck and drive away and never have another feeling as long as he lived.
"Jim. Thanks for coming to pick me up."
He only nodded and then stared at her helplessly and then at Blair. "Chief, I thought you were in Madagascar?
"I was. But I'm back now, Jim."
Blair hesitated, "Beginning of the semester."
His throat closed. "You didn't call."
Blair's voice got very quiet. "I'm sorry."
"Molly, look..." Jim had to explain to her. He hated the idea of her being with Blair, but he didn't want her hurt either.
"There's something we have to..." Blair chimed in.
"Tell me. I know. We all need to talk. There are some things I haven't told you either. Important things. And you guys obviously need to have a long heart-to-heart with one another."
He looked at Blair, and they both stared at Molly like she was insane. He watched the same recognition that was forming in his own dim brain dawn on his partner's face. She knew everything, and somehow she was responsible for bringing them together again.
"Yes. And I can explain. I'd just rather not do it here," she opened the truck door and slid in to the middle, "Can we? Please."
He watched Blair shrug, just as confused as he was, but following her anyway. Okay. If Blair could do it, he could too. He took his place behind the wheel and started the engine. Once en route, he kept his eyes glued to the road. It gave him something to concentrate on, and he was transporting the two most important people in his life. No one spoke. Molly had her hand on Blair's arm, to steady him. At a light, she made him look at her. He stared into her face for a long moment, seeing it filled with compassion and love for him. Somehow that made him let go of the panic he'd felt ever since he saw the two of them standing together on the quad. It suddenly felt right to him, being in this place with these two people. Something glimmered before his eyes for a moment. Hope.