He felt Jim shake his head. "Only human, Chief. And that's more than I can say for myself when I went after him. I felt... I don't know really, like something very primitive."
"Do you remember much?" he asked.
"Not really. Only flashes of sensation. The smell. The feel of my fist...well, you know."
"I think I can imagine. Do you remember anything you said?"
"I could talk?"
Blair smiled against Jim's shoulder, amazed that he could find anything funny. "Only sort of. It was more like grunting. Classic caveman behavior, real throwback stuff," he teased his Sentinel, and it made him feel lighter, more normal, deeply relieved, in an odd way. "You did manage to scream that I was hurt, which apparently upset you."
"If he'd really hurt you, I would have killed him. I can't say how I know that. I just do."
Jim's voice was fiercely matter-of-fact, and it gave Blair the courage he needed to ask the next question.
"You also said I was yours. You kept saying it, in fact, like it meant something. Did it, Jim?"
His ear was pressed to Jim's chest, and he could hear his heart racing.
"I felt...it was like he was trying to take something away from me. It wasn't just that he was going to hurt you, which was bad enough. But I also didn't want him to have you that way. I didn't want anyone else to... Shit! That makes it sound like...and I wouldn't. You know I'd never, never, not unless..."
"Unless I wanted it. What if I did? What if I wanted that with you?"
Blair held his breath waiting for the answer, and fear clenched his heart when Jim gently but firmly extricated himself from his embrace, pushing him back a little, so he could look at him.
"Blair, there's something I have to tell you before we get into any of that. It might change how you feel. I don't know. So I need to come clean with you. I did something...something wrong...while you were in Larchmore. I could tell you my reasons, that I was really worried about you, that my instincts told me there was more going on with you than you were willing to admit. And all that would be true. But it was still wrong. And I am sorry."
"I pried into your life. I investigated you. And I found out about David."
He gasped. "Jesus, Jim."
"I know. And God, I'm sorry. But I was going kind of crazy. I just needed to know."
"How'd you find out?"
Jim looked down at his hands, unable to meet Blair's eyes. "I went to the hospital where you worked and used the badge to get a look at your employment records. I knew you would think it meant I didn't trust you, but..."
"You couldn't help yourself."
Jim shook his head. "I saw that you'd been fired, but there weren't any details. So I asked around and found a nurse who'd been there back when you were. Terri Haskins."
"I always liked her."
"Yeah, she liked you too. Said you were a good kid. Anyway, she told me the story. The real story."
"And then you knew."
"Yeah, then I knew. I finally understood why it was so important to you to go undercover, even though I could tell it was hard as hell and there was a part of you that didn't want to do it."
"I always felt like it was my fault," he admitted. "If I hadn't gotten involved with David, he wouldn't have ended up in that terrible place. It made me reconsider... I mean, Naomi taught me that all kinds of love are beautiful, but after that, I just wasn't so sure anymore."
"It wasn't your fault, Chief. You have to know that."
"His parents thought it was. God, did they ever hate me."
"Then they must have been narrow, blind, ignorant people."
"You didn't know me back then. I was young, and I could be really self-involved. I got very enthusiastic about things and people and wanted stuff very ferociously and thought it was right to go after whatever caught my eye. Like David. But it...it killed him."
"It didn't kill him, Blair. He killed himself. Maybe he couldn't accept who he was or maybe he couldn't live with his parents' disapproval. But you didn't do anything wrong. He made all his own choices. And we're all self-involved when we're young, Chief. But you were still you, with all your good qualities, the first and foremost of which is that you care very deeply about other people's feelings."
"I should have paid better attention to how David felt."
"No, Chief. That's what his parents should have done. I know it's really late and you've already been through so much today. But do you want to tell me the rest of the story about you and David?"
Blair sighed. "I don't know. Not really. Although I guess I should."
"You always tell me it helps."
"Sometimes I really do talk too much."
Jim smiled, but then said, "You don't have to, not now. We can save it for another time."
"No. I want to tell you. It's just that it's hard, you know? It really hurts."
"Terri told you I tried to break him out?"
"Then you also know I wasn't successful and got fired. So I had no contact with him for a couple of months. I went to his parents' house once, just to ask how he was. Big mistake. You can imagine how they reacted. Threatened to call the cops if I ever came back. So I left. And I didn't go back. I really tried to put it out of my mind, seemed like the only way to hold myself together. I can't tell you how bad it makes me feel to say that. I abandoned him in that place, that horrible, horrible place."
"Do you think Stacey abandoned Jennifer?"
"No. Of course not."
"So how come it's different with you? You tried to help just like she did. The only difference is that she got lucky. She found someone who cared enough to go way out on a limb for her and Jennifer. You didn't have anyone."
"That makes sense logically, but it just doesn't make me feel better, you know?"
"I know, Chief."
"Even without my help, David did finally get out, after I don't know how many months. I never found out how he managed to con his way out of there. Or maybe the insurance just ran out. That's what Ritchie said. He was one of the kids I got to know at Larchmore, the one with Jennifer tonight. He said that all the kids would just be miraculously 'cured' when the insurance money ran dry. I didn't even know David had been released until I happened to run into him one day at the mall. He was with his parents, and he said some things to me...well, let's just say I've never forgotten them."
"What things, Chief?" Jim asked, the protective tone returning to his voice.
Blair hesitated, not quite certain he wanted Jim to hear these ugly things, not when there had already been so many ugly things that day.
He lowered his head. "He called me a pervert. He blamed me for turning him into something unnatural, against his will. But I swear, Jim, I never tried to force anything on him. I thought he was as into it as I was. God, I swear."
Jim touched his face, lightly, a gesture of comfort and belief and connection. "Of course, Chief. I know that. I know you. You always want everyone to be comfortable and happy. I know you cared about David, and I'm sure he cared about you. But being in that place messed with his head. And he was with his parents that day when he said those things. He was probably worried about being sent back if he wasn't the perfect picture of rehabilitation."
"Yeah. You're probably right. But God, it still hurt, Jim. It really, really hurt."
"I'm so sorry, Blair."
"I never told anybody about it. Not even Naomi. I felt so guilty and ashamed."
Jim stroked his shoulder. "That's a lot for a kid to handle all by himself. That's a long time to carry around a burden like that."
He'd been so careful not to cry, but now the tears were welling up and he couldn't keep the sound of them out of his voice. "I'm glad I told you."
Jim pressed a kiss to his head. "I'm glad you told me too. Thank you."
"It was Thanksgiving when he did it."
Comprehension dawned on Jim's face. "That's why you never like to celebrate," he said.
Blair nodded. "He used his father's carving knife. I guess it was a message to his family. I hadn't tried to call him or see him after that day at the mall, but then when he...I was just so sorry I'd stayed away, like I'd really let him down. I should have... Maybe I could have..."
Jim shook his head. "Don't do that, Chief. I know it's only natural, but please, don't. You weren't the cause of his death, and you couldn't have done anything to stop it. The way I look at it, you were the only one who didn't let David down."
"You don't have to say that to make me feel better."
"I'm not. You know me. I always tell you everything plain out. You didn't fail David. There was just no way for you to save him."
"In a way that makes me feel better, and in a way, it doesn't."
"Yeah, I can understand that. It's always going to be sad, Chief. There's just no help for that. But I wish...I wish you hadn't had to carry it around with you all these years. I hate the thought of your being alone with all this heavy stuff. I hate the thought of your being so young and going through shit like that with nobody there for you."
"Ever since then, I've had this terrible fear that anyone I got involved with would turn on me one day. I completely wrote men off as a possibility. Way too afraid to go there again. But even with women, I was always just a little uneasy somehow. I mean, David loved me and then he hated me. And I didn't understand why. I just never wanted that to happen to me again."
It made him feel shaky to admit all this, things he'd never said out loud before.
But there was nothing but understanding and conviction in Jim's voice as he said, "I will never turn on you , Chief. I will never deny you. And I will certainly never hate you."
"Are you sure?" he had to ask.
"Very sure. And I've been sure for a long time now."
"I just never thought..."
"So you never knew?"
"Not really, never even considered it until recently. There were some things that started to make me wonder, the way you'd look at me sometimes or touch me. But still, it didn't seem possible that you were..."
"Gay? I really did think you'd figured it out. I know I never came out and said anything. But still... I wasn't trying to hide it. I don't want you to think that. I just never wanted to make you uncomfortable. So I didn't flaunt it."
"I thought...well, I don't know what I thought."
"That I had the least active love life in the history of the world maybe? That I was impotent or had bad breath or some terrible disease that kept me from getting dates with women?" Jim asked, smiling.
"No!" he said, squeezing Jim's arm. "It's just like you were really selective, you know? Like you couldn't be bothered wasting time with anybody who wasn't going to be the one. You're not at all casual about stuff like that. After I understood that about you, it never seemed weird that you didn't go out that often or talk about women you were interested in. I figured I'd just get a wedding invitation one day, and that's how I'd find out you'd fallen in love with somebody."
"That would have sucked. Of course, I'm not sure this way is any better. You could have been killed in there or..."
"Wait. So you're saying..."
"Yes. Always have. From way back at the beginning."
"Why tell me now?"
"Because I'm an idiot who wouldn't let himself see the handwriting until I'd almost lost you. I promised myself I'd tell you as soon as I got you home."
"I don't know, Jim. I want to believe... But you got scared for me. You're glad to have me back. That doesn't necessarily mean... I just need to make sure..."
"I love you. I always have. I always will. I missed you while you were gone. Apart from the danger and my worrying about you, I just missed you."
The tears threatened again. "I missed you, too. And I love you. I promised myself too, that when, if, I got out of there I'd tell you. I wouldn't waste any more time being afraid. It's just that..."
"I worry that it could happen again. I mean, not exactly the way it did with David, but the same result. You'd be taken away from me."
"That would never"
"The department is just like David's parents. There's no way the people down there are going to want you to be with me. And it's dangerous to be a gay cop. I don't want to lose you."
His hand began to tremble, and it made him feel weak all over again. But Jim simply reached for him and held his hand, long, capable Sentinel fingers curving warmly around his.
"First, you're not going to lose me," Jim said. "Because no matter what happens, I would choose you. You're the most important thing in the world to me. You have to know that by now. And second, I've been a gay cop as long as I've been on the force. Now granted, I was in some serious denial for part of the time. I mean, look at my travesty of a marriage. But in the past couple of years, I've lived my life as a gay man, an extremely discreet gay man, I grant you. But I go to the bars. I've dated guys. I haven't sent everyone down at the station a memo, but I haven't tried to hide it either. And I'm not saying that there might not be problems. Maybe there would be. Being out can be tough. Being in a relationship with someone who also works in the department might prove even tougher. But that brings us back to point one, that I'd always choose you. If it got unbearable, we'd make a change. The department is not my parent. It has absolutely no power over me, because I can always quit and move on."
"But I wouldn't want you to..."
Jim held up a hand. "That's only a worse case scenario. And it would be worth it."
Jim ran his thumb lightly, lovingly from his hairline to his temple, and down the side of his cheek to his chin, absorbed, as if memorizing the topography of his face. "Take a chance on us, Chief," he whispered, his voice urgent and filled with want.
No one had ever sounded like that before, like he was some kind of erotic pinnacle, a wet dream come true. Blair shivered. This was everything he'd ever wanted, laid out before him like a banquet, his for the taking. All he had to do was move beyond his fear, to realize that Jim was not David, that Jim was his own man, impossible to intimidate, about as far from a scared college student as a person could get. He thought about how stubborn his Sentinel could be, how he always honored his commitments. If Jim promised to choose him, then that's exactly what he would do. With that realization, he finally felt the tremendous burden of all those years of guilt and regret beginning to lift, the fear dissipating, the need building.
Blair moved closer, running his hands up Jim's arms, reveling in the sheer power of that miraculous body, that was his now to touch, his to pleasure. He brought his lips to Jim's. But then he paused a moment, feeling Jim's breath, deepened and anticipatory, on his sensitive skin, allowing Jim to feel his, moist and trembling with excitement. He knew the moment would pass in a blur if he didn't stop to appreciate it, their first kiss. He needed to remember it, always, wanted to be able to wrap himself up in the warm cocoon of it during the inevitable bleak moments life would throw at him, a safety blanket of recollection.
When it was vividly set in his memory, he leaned forward and completed the connection, mouth to mouth, tongue to tongue. It had been a long time since he'd kissed somebody he loved. He'd forgotten how much more it could be, not merely a tease or a perfunctory prelude, but a distinct pleasure, in and of itself, something to luxuriate in, to savor. It surprised him how curious he could be about another person's taste, how joyously he could relish the freedom to return again and again to complete his discovery.
For so long he'd found a sense of safety in neglecting the subtle delights in favor of the blunt ones, pursuing gratification to the detriment of erotic awareness. It had been forever since he'd lingered in someone's arms, simply kissing, feeling himself getting hard by degrees, completely in tune with each upward spiral of his desire. He'd forgotten all about that dizzying, expectant feeling, like waiting for lightning, as he lost himself in someone's mouth, someone who loved him in return, whose love had gravity and would leave its mark on him.
Or perhaps he'd never known these things before now, before Jim.
It didn't really surprise him that he couldn't match mundane flavors to Jim's taste. Jim wasn't cotton candy or pears, French toast or almonds. He wasn't merely sweet or salty. He couldn't be reduced down to anything as simple as tart or savory, peppery or mild. Jim tasted like virtue. He was wholesome, refreshing. He tasted like loyalty and perseverance, with more than a hint of devotion. He was exactly the flavor of forever.
"Blair," Jim said, between kisses, because Blair wouldn't let him go, wouldn't let him stop.
"We don't have to do this."
If Blair had been willing to take time away from their kissing, he would have said that there were really only a few things in life a person had to do, stuff like death and taxes. Most things were pretty optional. A few select things were pretty much a foregone conclusion. Making love with your soul mate certainly qualified as one of those. Of course, Blair wasn't willing to take time away from their kissing, so he hoped Jim would figure it out for himself from the determined way he continued to devour his mouth.
"It's just that you've been through a lot today. I don't want to push you. I don't want it to bring back anything..."
Blair finally paused, to catch his breath and reassure his Sentinel. "You won't. You couldn't. I want you. Please."
He dove back in.
"Mmmm. Just want to make sure," Jim said, against his lips.
Blair reached for his hand and entwined their fingers for a moment, then guided Jim's hand to his lap, to his erection, the most convincing proof of his desire.
"Oooh," Jim groaned, into his mouth.
Jim stopped talking then and threw himself back into their kissing whole-heartedly. He left his hand on Blair's cock, not stroking, not teasing, just feeling him, his heat, his need. It shot blistering, electric needles of want all through Blair's body. He doubted he'd ever been harder in his whole long history of hard-ons.
"Would you come upstairs with me?" Jim asked, still kissing.
"Yes," Blair answered, also not stopping.
They did finally have to detach from one another, long enough to make it up the steps to the bedroom. Fortunately, it was a quick trip. At the top of the stairs, Jim turned and hugged him. It was warm and affectionate, the way a best friend would hug him. It was hot and provoking, exactly what he wanted from a lover.
"I've wanted you up here for forever," Jim said, sounding a little choked up. "Thank you," he whispered against Blair's ear.
No one had ever thanked him before. No one had ever wanted him enough to bother or even to think of it. It had been an emotional day, and he suddenly felt like crying. But it was a good kind of teary-eyed, like he sometimes felt when he couldn't believe his own good luck.
Jim pulled back and kissed him on the forehead. "I love you."
"I love you, too," he said, trembling with the truth of it.
Jim smiled. It wasn't like anything he'd ever seen before, and he was an expert. He'd cataloged every crook of Jim's lips, every grin, every half-smile, every beam of pure pleasurewith a zealousness he didn't feel even for his favorite anthropological subjects. He shivered with the thrill of discovery. This smile was naked and kind, a little shy, filled with secrets, but ones about to be shared. He had the distinct impression that he was the first one ever to see this smile and also that he would be the last. Warmth flashed through him at the thought, that something this beautiful belonged to him and only him, because he was Jim's lover, no one else, just him.
Jim sat down on the edge of the bed and waited for him. He took a step forward. His feet were hesitant, and that was not at all what he was expecting. He tried to take another step, but now the hesitation had mutated into paralysis and he stopped, despite his will. He sighed. He should have known that the first flush of freedom would give way sooner or later, that he would have to deal with the baggage before he could give himself over to loving Jim. It just surprised him that the thing holding him back had nothing to do with the attempted sexual assault that happened only hours ago, but had everything to do with the man he'd tried not to think about for the past ten years.
He couldn't help but remember how it had been with David in the beginning, not so very different from this, before it all got so ruined.
Jim watched him for a moment, then stretched out on the bed, on his side, leaving room for him. He held out his hand. "Just let me hold you."
Blair smiled. He could always count on Jim to come up with a simple but perfect solution.
His feet unfroze, and he joined Jim on the bed. Jim tucked him close, one arm curved around his head, the other draped over his body. He rubbed his arm in warm, comforting circles and stroked his hair. Blair lay there quietly a long while, and Jim was content simply to hold him and let him think.
"I wish this were the first time," he finally said.
"I mean ever."
"That stuff...it can't touch us."
"I wish it were that easy."
"Let me show you how easy it can be."
It took Blair a moment to consider that, and then he nodded. "Like it's all new," he said.
Jim kissed him. "Just like it's the first time," he promised and kissed him again, more thoroughly.
It was the first time anyone had loved him with such care and indulgence. It was the first time he'd been equally as patient, wanting, actually needing, to take his time, to rush nothing, to lose none of the small moments, none of the subtlety. Jim held him and kissed him. They were both still fully clothed, and it reminded him of youth, when being close like this was the prize, not simply the first step to more adult intimacy. He relaxed into the warmth and security of the embrace. He was still hard, and he could feel Jim's erect cock pressed against his thigh. But it was still a manageable kind of need, not desperate, not yet. They could afford to linger, to explore, just kissing and holding hands. They could splurge on simple, sweet affection.
Jim undressed them both, slowly, one piece of clothing at a time. He took off Blair's flannel shirt and his own sweat shirt, and they got to know each other's arms. Blair could never have imagined that the skin on the inside of Jim's wrists could be so baby soft, but it was, tender and sensitive. He caressed it and could feel Jim's pulse thundering beneath his fingers. The hairs on the back of Jim's arms felt crisp, and the hollow of his elbows were warm. Jim's biceps flexed when he touched them; he'd never imagined having such coiled strength beneath his hands, could not have predicted how hungry and powerful it would make him feel.
They pulled off their T-shirts and touched each other's chests. Jim lovingly stroked his sides and then ran a hand between his nipples, down to his belly, playing in his hair. Blair appreciated Jim's smoothness, the skin firm and flawless. He laid his hand flat against Jim's stomach and enjoyed how warm and soft it felt, how rock solid the muscles were, how they trembled as he stroked them. He walked his fingers up Jim's torso and circled them lazily around the nipples. He teased, until Jim begged prettily enough, and then he fingered them, making Jim beg even harder. Quid pro quo seemed to be Jim's motto, because he reached for Blair and gently pinched his nipples. Blair cried out in pleasure, and Jim did it again and again.
Blair didn't expect to feel shy when it came time to take off their pants, but his hands shook and he fumbled as he tried to untie the drawstring of his sweats. Jim kissed him and took care of it, getting them both naked with startling efficiency. Then he leaned back a little, so they had room to look at each other.
Blair sucked in his breath. It had been a long time since he'd been able to indulge his appreciation for nude male beauty, and Jim was nothing if not beautiful. It wasn't the easy, young kind of loveliness that David had possessed, that had left Blair so starry-eyed. He wasn't under any illusions about Jim's body. He knew exactly what it could and could not do. He'd seen its power and its vulnerabilities. He'd been amazed watching Jim leap and vault, sprint and tackle, perform miracles with his senses, all in an average day on the job. But he'd also held Jim, dazed and blinded when he'd been exposed to Golden. He'd brought him out of a zone more times than he could count, had tended him through illness and injury. Jim's body wasn't a fantasy, and Blair's reverence for it was borne of knowledge and experience. That made finally being able to feast on Jim's nakedness all the more poignant.
Added to that was the utterly carnal experience of feverish Sentinel eyes raking over him, an exploration as palpable as any caress. He began to breathe harder, and his need, which had been a dull ache, grew exponentially more urgent.
"I looked," he found himself admitting.
Jim smiled. "So did I."
"I mean before, that time when I walked in on you when you were coming out of the shower. I looked."
Jim laughed. "I know. And that time on the rig, too."
Blair blushed. "I guess I wasn't so subtle, huh?"
"I still didn't think it meant anything. I guess that doesn't make me too bright."
"Yeah. I suppose that's what it was."
"I'm glad that's over now."
Jim smiled, and it was the smile, the one that belonged only to Blair. "Me too," he agreed. "Would you do something for me?"
"Yeah. Sure. Anything, man."
"Would you touch yourself?"
Blair wasn't expecting that, and he shuddered with the unforeseen delight of it. "Yeah, man. Yeah. If you will, too."
"I wouldn't want to get left behind, Chief."
Blair took his cock in his hand and watched Jim do the same. He was out of breath and more turned on than he'd ever been in his life. He began to stroke himself, teasing a little, before really getting down to business. He stared while Jim pleasured himself and stored away that precious knowledge, the strokes his lover liked best.
"You don't know how gorgeous you are doing that," Jim told him.
"Can't be half as beautiful as you are."
"Could we switch now? Can I touch you, Blair?"
"God, yes. Please."
Once more, he was rewarded with the special smile. Then Jim put his hand on him, and he had to close his eyes, afraid he would come right then if he didn't. It really did feel like the first time, like his cock had never been touched before, because Jim had never touched him. He shook as Jim began to explore him, skillfully, imitating the things he had done to himself. Apparently, he had not been the only one watching and learning. He kept his eyes closed and concentrated on the amazing things Jim's wickedly talented fingers were doing. It was only Jim's desperate little whimper that finally made him open his eyes again. He found his lover looking at him, pleadingly.
"Blair," Jim murmured, his voice raspy with need.
"Sorry, man. Sorry."
He put his hand on Jim, and then his Sentinel began whimpering in earnest. Jim's cock was beautiful, so hot, so hard, throbbing in his hand. The combined sensation of touching Jim and being touched in return was almost more than he could handle. He'd thought about it, dreamed about it, fantasized about it for so long, and now he was finally living it.
They were getting close, and they both knew it. Jim rolled over onto his back and pulled Blair on top of him. Their slicked cocks nestled against each other, and Blair gasped through his teeth, every nerve ending in his body electrified by the sensation. Their need had long since outgrown their control, and they began thrusting against each other, a little wildly, instinct setting their rhythm, nature driving them toward completion.
Blair held onto Jim's arms with a death grip, leaving bruises. Jim's big hands cupped his bottom, guiding him. And it really was the first time. He'd never made love with a man before, he realized that now. He and David had both still been boys in so many ways. Their couplings had always been a little tremulous, a little unsure, beautiful but in a coltish sort of way, their bodies still awkward and gangling, still tentative in their pleasure. It was not at all the same as the mature, robust loving of grown men. It had not made him feel anything like what he felt with Jim, the sheer miracle of their solid male bodies moving confidently against one another, understanding what they both wanted, knowing exactly how to get it.
Blair would have loved for it to go on forever, was amazed that it lasted as long as it did. But he was now on the verge coming. He could feel his balls drawing up, the tingling sensation building at the base of his cock. He could feel Jim's muscles coiling beneath him and knew he was also going to come any minute. The first warm spurt of Jim's release against his belly caused him to lose control, and he gave himself over to his orgasm. It was the first time his pleasure had been so intense, so close to bordering on pain, that he felt like his life force, his very soul was ripped from his body, along with his seed. His cum mixed with Jim's between their bodies, and nothing had ever seemed more right, like their very essences were combining, becoming indistinguishable from one another, like they were one.
He was too sated and far too comfortable to move, and Jim didn't seem in any hurry to be rid of his weight. So he stayed, lounging on Jim like he was his own personal mattress. He rested his head against Jim's chest, ear pressed over his heart. He listened as his lover's breathing gradually slowed back to normal and his pulse quieted down from its thunderous gallop. Jim held onto him, his hands ghosting languorously over his back, his arms, his shoulders, wherever Jim could reach, in gentle random patterns.
"I guess we shot the no sex in the loft rule all to hell," Blair said.
He felt a gentle roll, then a shake, then great wracking shudders in the body beneath him as Jim burst into laughter. Seeing Jim let loose like that amused Blair, and he started laughing too.
"No reason any more," Jim finally said, when his hilarity had died down enough for him to speak. "I don't have to worry about walking in on you with some woman." And then Jim stopped laughing altogether. "I won't walk in on you with a woman, right, Chief?"
"What do you think?"
"I just...you know, want to make sure."
"Be sure, Jim."
"I love you, Chief."
Epilogue: Six months later
It was a smoky day. That's how Jim thought of this particular kind of late fall weather. The sky was gray and granular, not overcast exactly, certainly not the monolithic cloud cover of winter, just sort of...well, smoky. He leaned against the side of the truck, pushing his gloved hands a little deeper into the pockets of his coat, tucking his chin into his collar. It wasn't too cold yet, but the northerly wind could be merciless when it whipped down from the mountains. It would probably warm up later in the day, but for now, there was still a morning chill in the air.
Of course, he could have waited for Blair in the truck, but somehow he didn't feel right sitting in heated comfort while his lover braved the elements. If he'd focused his eyes, used his Sentinel abilities, he could have seen Blair kneeling at the grave, but he didn't do that, out of respect. Blair had come to say good-bye to David, and that was a private thing.
Later, they would have a house full of their friends, his brother, Blair's mother coming to celebrate Thanksgiving with them. They had spent weeks preparing for it. Blair had planned and replanned the menu, nervous, wanting it to be perfect. They had shopped and shopped and shopped some more. Jim had scoured the loft within an inch of its life, also nervous, needing everything orderly and spotless. He'd tried to tell himself that it was just a holiday, like all the others he'd celebrated over the years, but then again, it really wasn't. It was their first major holiday as a couple. It was the first time Blair had celebrated Thanksgiving since David died. It was only a few weeks since they had officially come out to their friends at work. Of course, he'd overheard their colleagues speculating about it for months. But still, it was different now that they'd said it. It meant something, something important, that the gang from Major Crimes was coming to their home to share Thanksgiving with them.
A lot had happened in the six months they'd been together. Some of that time they'd spent in and out of courtrooms. Dr. Thompson had been indicted and then convicted on numerous counts of insurance fraud and false imprisonment, as well as two counts of conspiracy to commit murder for his actions toward Blair and Dr. Hannigan. Once the whole mess at Larchmore was blown open, some very interesting information came out about his previous association with Ralph Wilson, the orderly who'd terrorized so many patients under his care. Ralph had been arrested five years before for a string of rapes in Oregon. Based on the expert testimony of Dr. Thompson, who was then the director of a facility for the criminally insane in Portland, Wilson had been found not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect. He had been remanded to the hospital where Thompson was on staff, and only a year later, Dr. Thompson had pronounced him well enough to be released.
This news spurred current and former patients whom Wilson had victimized to come forward. The sheer numbers were staggering. Wilson was indicted on 43 separate counts of aggravated sexual assault and was convicted on all of them. He was also convicted of conspiracy to commit murder against Blair. The judge ordered his sentences to be served consecutively, rather than concurrently, so there was no way he would ever be eligible for parole, no chance that he would ever again see the light of day. Because of that, Blair had been spared the need to press charges for the attempted rape. Jim had felt inordinately grateful that his lover only needed to testify about Ralph holding the gun on him, that he hadn't been forced to recount what happened after that, that those details could remain private.
The charges for resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer were dropped when Wilson stopped making noises about suing for police brutality.
A couple of the patients who came forward were able to corroborate Jennifer's suspicions that Ralph had raped and brutalized Dougie, the boy who'd slipped into a catatonic state. Apparently, the orderly enjoyed bragging about his past victims to his current victims. He'd told them in detail how he'd lured Dougie into the isolation room, telling him it was a special game just the two of them would play. He'd beaten and then restrained the boy, just as he had with Blair, and then anally raped him. Afterwards, he'd told Dougie that it had been all his fault and that he would get in terrible trouble if anyone ever found out. He was able to coerce the boy into doing anything he wanted by threatening to report him to Dr. Thompson. Ralph had victimized Dougie nearly every day for almost a month, before it finally became too much for the boy and he slipped into the numb safety of his inner world, the only way he could protect himself.
Because Dougie was unable to testify and there was no physical evidence, the state was unable to prosecute the orderly for his crimes against the boy. However, his parents brought a multi-million dollar lawsuit against Dr. Thompson and the hospital alleging gross negligence for allowing someone with a record of rape and criminal insanity to work with patients at Larchmore. Numerous other lawsuits had also been filed, by other rape victims, as well as those who had been falsely committed. The hospital was trying every stall tactic their lawyers could dream up, but they were bracing for potential losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Dougie's condition remained unchanged, and his doctors were not optimistic. It appeared that he'd retreated from this world for good, that he was gone forever.
Jennifer had returned home to Stacey. They had immediately begun looking for another apartment, a bigger place, with a second bedroom for Ritchie. Neither girl had ever said so, but Jim had received the impression that they also wanted to leave behind the bad memories. As long as they stayed in that same apartment, they would always picture where they had been, what they had been doing the night the men came to take Jennifer away. Whenever Jim and Blair visited them, Jennifer went out of her way to assure them that she was doing well, that she was putting it all behind her. But Stacey would later confide in them that Jennifer had problems sleeping, that she was on edge much of the time, that she would wake up in the middle of the night sobbing, terrified that they could come and take her away again.
Still, Jennifer and Stacey were overjoyed to be reunited, and that happiness shone through whenever they were together. Both girls had gone back to school in the fall, and they would graduate in May. Jim and Blair, who'd become surrogate older brothers, had promised them a graduation party at the loft. Stacey was already in the process of applying to law school. Jennifer was planning to get her master's degree in social work.
The thing that amazed Jim the most was how determined they seemed to turn their suffering into something that would help other people. Jennifer, who had always felt burdened by her money, had endowed a foundation that would act as an advocacy group for gay teens and young adults. They would provide free counseling, develop anti-violence initiatives, mediate between gay kids and their families, offer legal counsel. Jennifer was determined that what happened to her should never happen to anyone else. Stacey wanted same sex partners to have somewhere to turn, someone who would help in a time of crisis. She never wanted anyone to feel as powerless or desperate as she had. The girls planned to run the foundation themselves as soon as they completed their education. Jim and Blair had already volunteered for the mentor program they envisioned.
Dr. Thompson had made a deal with the authorities and turned state's evidence against Herbert Ross, Jennifer's uncle, testifying that the man had bribed him to order her commitment and keep her institutionalized indefinitely. Ross was also convicted of fraud and embezzlement when the auditors found discrepancies in the estate books and missing funds from Jennifer's trust.
Ritchie's relationship with his family unfortunately had not improved. If anything, it had worsened. His father still refused to accept that he was gay and had been completely unapologetic for having him committed to Larchmore, even after he'd heard about all the abuses that had taken place. That had made Ritchie finally lose his cool and explode at his father, something he'd never done before. Ritchie had turned seventeen while at Larchmore, legally old enough to live on his own and make his own decisions according to the state of Washington. He'd refused to return to the family home, severed all ties, and stopped all communication. His father had made no effort to contact him since then.
But living with Jennifer and Stacey, two people who loved him as a brother and appreciated him for just exactly who he was, had given him the support and security he needed to flourish. He'd received his GED over the summer and was accepted for the spring semester at Rainier. It surprised no one that he planned to major in drama. Being at Larchmore had given him perspective on his life and especially his relationships. When Jose, the dog, came sniffing around, he sent him packing, finally, for good. He still hadn't found a hero of his own, but he was determined to keep looking, to hold out until he found one.
Jim and Blair had settled into their life together without too much upheaval. After all, they'd acted married long before they'd become lovers. Blair had been terribly worried about what would happen down at the station when people began to notice the change between them, desperately afraid that Jim would get hurt. Of course, Jim had just the opposite fear, sick with dread that something would happen to Blair. Fortunately, he had the advantage of Sentinel hearing, and he used it without even a pang of conscience. The buzzing voices did pick up again, noting the shift in their connection, the intensification of the bond that had always been between them. Their friends seemed pleased for them. A few people sounded disgusted. But hardly anybody was surprised. It made Jim smile a little. It really was as if he and Blair were the last to know.
Their lovemaking had only grown more tender and more explosive since that first sweet night together. The only hitch had come when Blair started insisting that Jim take him. Even though Blair was the one who had nearly been raped, Jim was the one who needed time to recover from what he'd witnessed. Finally, after many long discussions and a strong lobbying effort from Blair, Jim made love him to him, taking his virginity, whispering promises filled with words like "everything" and "always," words he needed to say, words Blair needed to hear.
The wind whistled a little harder in the trees. Jim heard the dull crunch of fallen, dried leaves underfoot and saw Blair coming back down the path toward him.
"Are you okay?" he asked, when Blair came to stand beside him.
"I think so."
"You said good-bye?"
His lover nodded. "And that I was sorry. Even if I couldn't have changed it, I still feel so sorry that this was how it ended."
"Of course you do, Chief."
"Thanks for coming with me."
"My pleasure, buddy. You ready to go home now?"
Jim opened the door for him, and then headed around to the driver's side. He got in, they both buckled up, and he pulled the truck out, heading home to the loft.
Blair was quiet at first, just staring out the windows at the passing scenery. Then he turned to Jim and said, "I hope Terri gets off in time to come."
"Yeah, me too, Chief. She seemed to think she'd be able to."
When Blair had gotten his balance back after his stay in Larchmore, he'd decided to renew his acquaintance with Terri Haskins, the nurse who had befriended him while he'd worked at Pine Crest. At first Jim had been a little concerned, worried that it might stir up more painful memories than Blair was ready to handle. But instead, talking to Terri about the old days seemed to have helped Blair finally come to terms with it all. More than anyone else, it was Terri who had helped Blair understand that he really had done everything he could back then, that David's suicide was not his fault. For that, Terri Haskins would have Jim's undying gratitude. He was really happy she'd agreed to spend Thanksgiving with them, especially since it meant so much to Blair.
"I hope Mom remembered to put the turkey in," Blair said.
"I'm sure she did."
"This is my mom we're talking about here, Jim."
Jim grinned. "Okay, so there's at least a fifty-fifty chance."
"Do you think she was really surprised when we told her or was she just humoring us?"
"Just humoring us."
"Yeah, that's what I thought. So basically nobody's been surprised."
"Nope. Not even Steven. I really thought it would shock him," Jim said.
"He said he knew that first day when he saw us at the race track together."
"But we weren't even involved then."
"We weren't lovers then. But we've always been involved."
"Yeah, Chief. I guess you're right about that."
Jim pulled up to the loft and parked the truck. He and Blair both got out and headed for the entrance.
Jim wrapped an arm around his shoulders. "Hey, Chief, you sure you're okay?"
"Yeah, man. Sorry to get so distracted. I was just thinking about something Ritchie said while we were at Larchmore."
"When I told him who I really was, that I was trying to get him out, he wasn't glad. In fact, he got really upset. He said there was no one waiting for him on the outside, no one who would welcome him with open arms. He said he didn't even know why he should go home."
"But he's doing okay now, Chief. He likes living with Jennifer and Stacey. He's excited about school. When they get here later, ask him about it. You'll see."
"No, you're right. I know he's doing great. What I was thinking was how nice it is never to have to worry about that, to always have the best reason in the world for coming home. Thank you for giving that to me, Jim."
It took him a moment to be able to react, and then he practically hugged the stuffings out of his lover. He kissed Blair soundly and promised, "Always, Chief. Always."