Originally published in the zine Primal Instincts 4
The first day of class was always a hassle. No matter how well you prepared ahead of time, there were always a hundred unforeseeable problems that came up. Lost students wandering into your class, those that were closed out of registering interrupting to beg for an over-tally, while those students that were registered were among the missing ? presumably wandering the building bothering other professors while searching for you. Once you managed to get the class assembled and settled down, you had to get the book list out, give an overview of the topics that would be covered during the semester, get the feel for how much information each particular group could handle in one session, and begin to learn the students' names. Some professors dispensed with the last in the lecture classes, but Blair Sandburg had always felt it essential that his students were aware that he wanted to know whom he was talking to. But it took a lot of time to get to know everyone in the lecture classes, which were usually seventy students and up.
And none of that mania was even the difficult part. Dealing with the department's politics was what always drove Rainier University's youngest and newest Anthropology professor crazy. Blair didn't understand why it had to be so hard. They were all here for the same thing ? to teach. As a rule, he got along with everyone, but sometimes he left here convinced that dodging poisoned arrows in the Amazon jungle was easier than dealing with some of his coworkers. He didn't have any trouble with anyone personally, but listening to the endless complaints from both sides could be a real downer.
They hadn't even started class yet and already Professor Wilson was bitching about the more-tenured Buckner not carrying his share of the introductory class-load. Everybody wanted to teach the juicy Anthro 3 & 4 courses that were aimed at students majoring in Anthropology, but very few professors wanted the prerequisite introductory courses: Anthro 1 & 2.
Personally, Blair had always enjoyed teaching the introductory courses, which was fortunate, for, as low man on the seniority totem pole, he'd been handed three of them this term. He hadn't even known about the third intro class until twenty minutes ago when the dean had asked him to teach it as a personal favor ? the request made mostly to shut Wilson up, Blair thought.
So, here he was, twenty minutes before class was scheduled to start, with nothing but a room number in hand. He'd been slated to teach two Anthro 2 courses, one 3 and a 4 this semester. He could have handled another of those with no problem, but he hadn't made any lesson plans up for Anthro 1, never mind a reading list. God, how could he have been so stupid as to agree to take on a fifth class?
Running a hand through his already rumpled curls, Blair stared around his office-cum-storage area, trying to figure out what he was going to say to those eighty-nine freshmen in twenty, no sixteen, minutes.
His gaze lighted on a pile of textbooks which had stood in the corner for a good three years. At the very bottom was an intro book that Blair had been forced to use when he'd proctored Morris' Anthro 1 class in grad school. It was the book that had been posted as the text for this new class. He didn't think he could deal with it again. He was obsessed with anthropology and he found Gardner's Into to Modern Anthropology wordy and boring. He couldn't imagine what it would be like to these kids forced to take the class as a prerequisite. There had to be a book somewhere in this office that would be better.
Once again, he visually scanned the book-strewn room. Like Percival sighting the Holy Grail, he scampered to another untidy pile on the far side of a four-foot tall African fertility mask. He knelt beside the towering stack of dusty tomes and carefully began to unearth the bottom-most book. While he was excavating, he discovered a smaller cache of texts behind the first.
As always happened whenever he stumbled upon it, Sir Richard Burton's monogram on Sentinels stopped him cold. He'd wanted to do his thesis so badly on that topic that his inability to find a test subject had just about killed him. Even now, just looking at the book and the other research material in that pile made his gut ache. That old adage was true. There were no sadder words than 'what might have been'. But Professor Buckner had been right. He couldn't do his thesis on something that no longer existed in the real world, if it ever had. But it had been a sweet idea.
And he'd lost another two minutes getting all nostalgic over it, he realized. Counting seconds, he thrust the Sentinel material aside and pawed through the second pile. To his relief, it contained five real possibilities. Thinking that maybe he could leaf through them and make a decision while the class was taking their seats, he pulled them out, predictably toppling the pile of books in front of it.
Too aware of time, Blair ignored the strata of fallen texts, made a tidy pile of his treasures, and jumped to his feet. The wall clock glared down at him, telling him that he had all of twelve minutes to get to class and choose a text. He only hoped that the bookstore had them all in stock.
Realizing that he couldn't assign a book until he was sure that the kids could get it, he added a stop in the bookstore to his list of things to do in the twelve minutes remaining before class started. Normally, he'd just call his friend Merlin who managed the store to ascertain the availability, but he knew that the phone would never get answered today. There'd be a line out the campus bookstore door until after ten o'clock tonight.
Grabbing his backpack and student list from his desk, he raced for the door. Eleven minutes to go, and he still had to get to the next building where the bookstore was….
All thought ceased with a startled, "Umpf."
Blair knew that he'd been totally distracted and moving way too quickly. Naturally enough, there had been someone else moving with equal or greater speed in the space into which he had just blindly propelled his body when he'd shot out the door. It wasn't exactly a head-on collision as they crashed. Blair recognized that he was totally responsible, for he'd broad-sided the other man as the guy passed by.
His textbooks went flying everywhere, Blair himself almost following after them as his momentum bounced him off the massive form he'd raced right into. It felt like he'd crashed into a wall of solid rock.
The only thing that stopped him from banging to the floor was how quickly the other man reacted. Before Blair had even figured out what had happened, much less been able to stop himself from falling, his elbows were grabbed in an unbreakable hold and he found himself virtually lifted back onto his feet. Instantly apologizing, he started, "Jeez, I'm so sor?"
"Sorry," they both completed in unison.
Grinning at how they'd chorused the word, Blair lifted his gaze from the buttons of the brown plaid shirt with which he was eye-level and searched out his benefactor's face. Up and up his gaze went, passing over a strong jaw, sensuously shaped, thinnish mouth, a classic, chiseled nose, halting at the bluest pair of eyes he'd ever seen. They were a truly startling color, the bright, brilliant blue of an alpine lake, totally crystalline, completely captivating.
Blair gulped, his stomach doing an odd flip-flop as he took in the strong, handsome features.
The guy didn't look like a student. His close-cropped, receding hair had the faintest sprinkle of gray in the stubble near his temples. The stranger was at least forty, maybe older. Although big, the guy wasn't really as massive as the force of their crash had implied. He was all lean, corded muscle, sleek like a cougar. There didn't appear to be an ounce of spare fat anywhere he looked ? and his stunned eyes couldn't stop himself from giving the stranger the once over. Blair had never seen a rack of abs as perfect as those delineated beneath the plaid lumberjack shirt. He could only imagine what the guy looked like in a tee shirt if he looked this good in the concealing button-down shirt and loose tan pants he was presently wearing.
Blair couldn't help but wonder who the stranger was and what he was doing wandering Rainier's halls. With that buzz cut and all those tight muscles, the newcomer looked like he should be outfitted in fatigues and carrying a machine gun in some jungle somewhere. Definite commando type. Or maybe an athlete, a football or baseball player, perhaps.
With the idea of sports, Blair finally figured out who the guy must be. His buddy Ralph over in the Phys Ed building had mentioned that the football team was getting a new coach this year. As the Phys Ed building was hidden behind the Anthropology building, the jocks were always wandering in here looking for the gym on the first few days of classes.
"Are you all right?" the newcomer asked in a soft, pleasant voice.
Actually shivering at the sensual tone, Blair shook himself out of his daze. It wasn't often that he reacted this strongly to another man. Although he swung both ways, he had always tried to walk the straight and narrow for his career's sake, especially while on campus. Standing out in front of the dean's office was not the place to put the make on some sexy stranger, especially when he didn't know if the guy were that way inclined.
Forcing himself to act normally, he found his voice, "Yeah, I'm fine."
Blair silently cursed himself for the uncertain note in his voice. He felt like a shy, gawky teenager under that bright blue gaze. The man had eyes like an eagle, piercing and evaluating.
"Here, let me help you with these books," the stranger offered and knelt to gather the fallen texts.
Good looking and gallant, Blair thought as he bent down to retrieve the books near his own feet. "You're new around here; aren't you?" he commented as they scrabbled to gather everything together in the passing crowd of rushing students.
"Does it show that much?" The man chuckled, but beneath it, he looked nervous, like he was way out of his element here. "This place is like a damn maze. I've been in jungles that were easier to navigate. They really should assign a native guide the first few days."
Blair grinned at the joke as they rose to their feet. "I've been known to play that role a time or two."
Blair swallowed hard as those incredible eyes swept over him, surveying over his red Henley shirt, down his faded blue jeans to his scruffy running shoes and back up, taking the scenic route.
The new coach was into guys?
"Yeah," Blair replied, turning up the voltage of his smile.
The slight widening of the stranger's eyes and lifted brow told him that they were understanding each other perfectly. "And how would one go about securing your services ? as a guide?" The newcomer specified, openly flirting with him now.
Liking the brash confidence and the coach's entire style, Blair played along. "One might take me to coffee to discuss the terms."
Regret flashed across those near-perfect features, the new coach seeming genuinely disappointed. "I've got a class right now. What about an hour from now?"
Blair grimaced. ""Sorry, man. I've got classes straight through until six tonight."
"Tomorrow morning, then?" the man persevered. "Say, ten thirty in front of this building? It's the only one I know I'll be able to find again … without a guide."
Totally enchanted by the bashful charm, Blair nodded, "Sounds like a plan."
The lethally good looking newcomer gave him a smile that would have melted both polar ice caps as he made to hand back his books. "Ah, I see they got you, too."
"Huh?" Blair blinked, entirely too distracted by the other man's physical presence for his own peace of mind. His body was reacting like a hormone-crazed teenager. His response to the stranger was almost chemical. It had never been like this with another man before. Normally, when it came to sex with men, he could take it or leave it. He played it cool and careful. But cool was a thing of the past now. He couldn't even breathe with those eyes on him; he wanted the good-looking stranger so bad. And he didn't even know his name. Flustered, Blair found images of what it would be like between them in bed dancing wild and free through his mind.
"Anthro 101. That's where I'm headed."
Blair felt his smiled falter as he stopped watching that beautiful mouth move long enough to unravel the sense of the words. "You're ? you're not the new football coach?"
The newcomer laughed, seemingly tickled with the idea. "Hell, I wish. I'm a student here, same as you."
A student ? a guy his age? Although it wasn't unknown for adults to return to school to continue their education, they usually did so at night. What was a guy pushing forty doing here in the middle of the day? Blair didn't know anyone the newcomer's age who wasn't bogged down with bills and responsibilities.
Damn, damn, damn … Blair silently swore as he realized what the man had told him. The stranger wasn't just a student in Rainier. If he were headed for Anthro 101 right now, he was a student in Blair's own class, and, therefore, utterly untouchable.
A morose, "Oh," was all the disheartened Blair could manage.
"Can you believe all these stupid prerequisites?" his new student continued. "Anthro 101, Calculus 101, Creative Writing 101. I don't have even a single course in my damn major this term. This Anthro class looks like the worst of the bunch. Primitive Societies to Modern Man."
Blair knew that his features had just blanked of all emotion. "You don't like Anthropology?"
"I can't see sitting in some stuffy lecture hall while some old geezer tries to tell us how significant primitive societies are to modern life."
Blair felt a few more of his fantasies bite the dust. "You don't think that we can learn anything from other cultures?" he challenged, wondering if his dream boat were some kind of bigot. The buzz cut and military air that hung over the guy could mark him as a white supremist or one of those other Nazi nuts, but then, most of the neo-fascists he'd been unfortunate enough to run into over the years didn't generally go around flirting with other men.
"No, I just don't think that they're primitive."
About to jump all over the man for his throw-back attitudes, Blair found himself derailed. That was so not the answer that he was expecting that he wasn't sure how to respond.
"Most of those societies that we call primitive actually have a very complex set of checks and balances. They usually work better than our own, and there's nothing quaint or simple about them, much less primitive."
The heat of the response was akin to his own when he had this exact argument with his colleagues.
"That sounds like the voice of experience speaking. Have you visited many non-technical cultures?" Blair questioned, recalling the other man's initial comment about having been in jungles that were easier to navigate. He'd just thought it an exaggeration, but now he wasn't so sure.
An uneasy shadow crossed the other man's face. "A few," he hedged, before going on with, "That's an interesting term you have for them – 'non-technical societies'. I like it a lot better than primitive. Is that your own, or did you get it from a textbook?"
Getting the distinct impression that his new acquaintance was attempting to take the focus off himself, Blair answered, "My own. Like you said, there's nothing primitive about them."
As the older man opened his mouth to respond, a bell blared through the hall, announcing the beginning of the next period.
So much for his twelve minutes, Blair thought.
The newcomer glanced at his wristwatch before saying, "Look, I'd really love to talk longer, but I don't want to be late on my first day of class."
"Don't worry," Blair grinned. "The geezer who teaches Anthro 101 is usually five or ten minutes late himself."
"Are you heading that way now?" the stranger hopefully questioned.
"I've got a few stops to make first," Blair denied.
"I'll catch up with you in class, then. If I don't see you there, 10:30 tomorrow in front of this building, okay?"
Although touched by how important their getting together seemed to the other man, Blair hesitated. Even though he regularly dined with and had coffee with any number of his students, this was different. He'd been flirting with the guy and they'd both seemed interested in taking it a step further, if he'd read his signals right. Blair had made a lot of mistakes and screwed up big time in his life, but the one thing he'd never been stupid enough to do was date a student. And he wasn't about to start now. Only…
It was just coffee. Blair figured that if he kept things cool and didn't respond to any double entendre, the issue might never arise again. If he played it straight, his companion might think he'd imagined the sexual undertones. So, he smiled and nodded, "Sure, I'll see you there."
"Hey, you never told me your name!" the other man called as Blair began to rush away to the bookstore.
Mischief getting the better of him, he paused to grin back over his shoulder. "It's Blair."
"I'm Jim, Jim Ellison."
The heat behind the brilliant smile made him temporarily forget how to speak. When his brain finally caught up, he called back, "I'll see you in a little while. Good meeting you, Jim."
"Likewise." With a wave and another amazing smile, the handsome newcomer turned to hurry off to Anthro 101.
Fifteen minutes later, a breathless Blair entered the lecture hall. The bookstore had only carried two of his possible texts, so his choices had been narrowed to a choice between the Edwards text and the boring Gardner book originally assigned. He was mentally debating the high points of each when he saw his new acquaintance in an aisle seat at the back as he ran in.
Even though Jim ? Jim was it? ? was properly seated in the chair, his legs were so long that they gave the impression of a sprawl. The mere sight of the man sent a visceral shock through his entire system.
"You were right. The geezer's still not here." Jim grinned up at him. "I saved you a seat."
Not knowing how to confess the truth, Blair gave a nervous smile and softly demurred, "Sorry, I've got one waiting up front. I'll speak to you after class, okay, Jim?"
It was scary how fast the other man could shut down his emotions. Blair watched all expression blank from Jim's face as he nodded, those blue eyes turning to arctic frost, "Sure, whatever."
"Sorry, man, but I'm really late." With that, he rushed up to the podium.
"Hi, people. Sorry to keep you waiting so long," Blair spoke into the mike, his gaze straying to where Jim was sitting. The utter astonishment on the big man's face almost cracked him up completely. Giving Jim an apologetic smile and mischievous wink, he continued with, "As some of you may know, I'm Professor Blair Sandburg. This course is Anthropology 101. Could you please check the course list that the registrar gave you? If ANTHRO101JBN is not listed there, you're in the wrong place."
Amidst a flurry of paper checking, three students got up from their seats and scurried out of the lecture hall.
"Okay, if we're all where we're supposed to be, I'd like to begin our class. This course is going to cover a very broad range of cultures. A very wise man once reminded me that societies we term primitive are often as complex as our own, if not more so. In view of that observation, I'd like to rename our course The Development of Human Society and dump all primitive references.
"If any of you decided to plan ahead and have already purchased Lewis Gardner's Intro to Modern Anthropology, I'm afraid you're going to have to return them. For once, procrastination pays off. We're going to be using Paul Edwards' Human Society Throughout the Ages instead."
A number of groans from the class announced that he did have a few eager students in the group. Always a good thing.
Turning on the charm, Blair proceeded into his normal manic lecture mode. Since it was the first class, he didn't throw too many hard facts at them. Instead, he concentrated on the things which he enjoyed most about Anthropology, getting the class to join in as frequently as possible.
Blair was pleased to see Jim taking an active part in the class. Although Jim didn't raise his hand for every question, the answers he gave were intelligent and well thought out.
By the end of the class, Blair had pretty much disabused the group of the Indiana Jones misconceptions which most new students carried about his profession. But when they walked away, most of them still looked faintly interested in the subject, so he figured that he hadn't done too bad a job for the first day of a class he'd had handed to him less than an hour before starting time.
As the students cleared out, Blair wasn't surprised to see the tall man at the back heading against the flow of traffic.
The moment of truth…
Surprisingly anxious about how his new companion was going to respond to his subterfuge, Blair watched the handsome man approach ? doing his damnedest to keep his gaze front and center, and definitely up. He noted that he'd been right about one thing. Jim moved sleek as any hunting cat, with a grace and poise that belied all those muscles. Jim had a way of walking that drew his gaze directly to his assets, which were quite apparent, despite how loose those tan pants were in front.
"Hi, Jim." Strangely shy, Blair tried a smile, unable to tell from Jim's stern poker face what the man was thinking.
The evaluating quality of that magnetic blue stare made his mouth run dry. His heart pounding a mad tattoo against his chest wall, Blair nervously asked, "So what did you think?"
"Just tell me one thing, Teach, would you?"
Relaxing at the amused 'Teach', he grinned back. "What's that?"
"You don't sell used cars on the side, do you?"
Flustered by the flirtatious expression on the chiseled features, Blair showed the benefits of an advanced schooling with a succinct, "Huh?"
"Because, if you did, I'd be driving a one-wheeled, engine-less Studebaker home tonight."
Blair cracked up completely at Jim's serious tone of delivery. God, but he genuinely liked this man. "I take it you approved, then?"
"Wasn't bad for an old geezer," Jim allowed, then gave a self-conscious, "I guess I put my foot in it before. I didn't realize that you were a professor."
Blair liked that Jim didn't regret his candor, only the discomfort he might have caused with it. Wishing for the first time in two years that he hadn't gotten his sheepskin, that he was just another student, and that they could go and carry on as they wished, he tried to dispel his companion's uneasiness by pointing out, "I made the same mistake. I thought you were the new coach. It's no big deal."
"It does sort of change things, though, doesn't it?" Jim questioned, his gaze serious and a little sad.
"Yeah, I'm afraid it does," Blair leveled.
"About tomorrow morning ? I'd understand if you wanted to change your mind. Though, I hope you won't."
Impressed with Jim's up-front attitude, Blair decided to forego his 'nothing was implied before' approach for a bit of honesty himself. "No, coffee's fine ? if it's just coffee. I, ah," he took a quick glance around to ensure that the mike was off and that they were alone, "I don't date my students."
Blair knew that he was taking a chance laying it on the line like that. If he'd misinterpreted things, or even if Jim just wanted to save face, the guy could get all macho and indignant after that open a statement.
To his credit, Jim didn't even bat an eyelash. The older man didn't even try to pretend that they'd been doing anything other than flirting before. "That's a very sound policy."
"Yeah?" Blair tested, sensing that if this man put his mind to it, Jim could make his life a living hell.
"Don't worry, Teach. When I get that A, I want it to be because I earned it other than flat on my back. I'll see you out front tomorrow at 10:30 a.m. Okay?"
"I'll be there," Blair promised, confused by the serious tone of Jim's 'flat on my back' comment. Before he could further question the man, Jim gave him a ridiculous wink and sauntered up to the door.
Two hours later Blair took a few minutes out of his schedule to grab a quick cup of coffee in the Anthropology Department's lounge. The room was a puzzling montage of cast-off couches from professors' homes and institution issue tables and chairs. Knowing that he'd fall asleep if he dared one of the donated sofas, he settled on a bright orange plastic monstrosity that had been liberated from the students' cafeteria. The only food in sight was some bakery cookies that were so laden with preservatives and food dyes that it was probably a health risk to sit even this close to the box. Though he was starving, Blair valiantly ignored them and just vegged out for a few minutes.
Anthro 2 hadn't gone badly. He had to teach a 4 next, then another 2, and then … why, then, he'd get to go home to make up his lesson plan for Anthro 1 and start the whole ride over again tomorrow.
Blair knew that he had a million professional details that he should be concentrating on, but all he could think of was a pair of blue eyes smiling down at him and how that gaze made his heart race.
Damn, but this wasn't good. Jim was a student. Blair knew he had no right thinking of him this way, but he couldn't seem to help himself.
Well, he'd damn sure better help himself, his conscience admonished. Temptation was one thing, but if he kept fixating on Jim like this, it wasn't just going to remain a tempting fantasy. He knew himself well enough to recognize the danger signs. He had to get his lascivious thoughts off Student James Ellison right now.
But telling himself not to think about sex had never worked for him. He was just too vulnerable to pleasures of the flesh for his own good. What he needed was a distraction … a big distraction ? preferably with laughing blue eyes, perfect abs, and a military buzz cut….
So much for distractions.
Blair cut the image off with a mental curse.
He heard the door open behind him, but didn't turn around to find out who'd entered the lounge. With the way his day had been going, it was probably Wilson wanting to gripe about Buckner again.
"So this is where you're hiding out!" a familiar male tenor exclaimed from behind him. "I've been looking all over for you, Blair."
Smiling at the petulant whine, he turned with a bright smile. "Barry, it's good to see you, man. How's it going?"
"Horrible. It's only the first day and I already had one budding Michaelangelo almost take off his finger with a chisel," the sculptor complained. Barry Keegan cut quite a dramatic figure with his hip length black hair, cowboy boots, tight black jeans, and the flowing white shirt, whose yards of excess material hid his lean physique.
"He wasn't looking at you when it happened by any chance, was he?" Blair had to smile at the blank look that earned him.
"You look like a pirate in that outfit or maybe a rock star. Couldn't you at least wait until the second day of class to make them all fall for you?"
The artist's hearty laughter boomed through the empty lounge. Those dark eyes casting a coy glance in his direction, Keegan helped himself to a cup of coffee and replied, "Flattery will get you anything you want, dear boy."
Blair felt his grin broaden. Barry was such a tease. "Does that include a second cup of coffee?" He turned his own puppy-dog look on his friend.
After a moment, the taller man chuckled. "You're incorrigible. You know that, don't you?"
Since the look did get the coffeepot, milk, and sugar brought to him, Blair could hardly argue the point.
Barry commandeered the empty orange plastic chair next to his. The lanky stretch of those long legs seemed to take up the entire room. "So what's wrong, Blair? You don't seem your normally exuberant self."
"The dean asked me this morning if I'd do him a personal favor and take on an additional Intro 1 course."
Barry gave a knowing grimace. "And as the only untenured professor in the department, you were absolutely thrilled to help him out, no doubt."
Blair nodded at the droll assessment and gave a shrug. "Ah, it's really not that big a deal. I actually enjoy the Intro 1 course."
"You enjoy everything," Keegan said, "Even your last root canal."
The accusation wasn't unfounded, but, still, Blair couldn't let it pass unremarked upon. "Hey, she was incredible. Anybody would have enjoyed having that dentist bend over them like that."
Predictably enough, Barry's long nose wrinkled in distaste at the pronoun. "Speak for yourself, Young Lochinvar."
"I was speaking for myself," Blair argued, then added, "And I was not the reason she broke her engagement off, contrary to rumor."
"Let's not go there again," Barry pleaded. "Getting back to our original topic, so why the long face if not the extra workload?" His elegant finger nudged open the cookie box on the table in front of them. "Hey, are these for anyone?"
"Help yourself." Blair waved at the artificially colored sweets.
"So what's up?" his friend asked through rainbow sprinkled lips as Keegan munched on a jelly-filled cookie.
"Do you remember last year when I was giving you all that flak over encouraging that student that was chasing after you?"
"Vividly," Barry mumbled around a mouthful of almond cookie. "Why … oh."
"Yeah. Oh," Blair glumly confirmed.
"Don't tell me. She's a nineteen-year old Sharon Stone who wants to have your love child?" Barry guessed.
"Not quite. Try a forty-something ex-marine who's making me want to have his. It's crazy, Barr. I just met the guy today. We spoke for a total of ten minutes, tops, and he is all that I can think about."
"Is he a grad student?" Keegan hopefully asked, morality sometimes being lost in the nebulous world of TAs.
"Try Anthro 101. He's a god damned freshman," Blair confided.
"That's not good."
"Tell me about it," he grumped.
"How bad was it? I mean, did you actually ask him for a date?" Barry checked.
Blair shook his head. "No. I thought he was the new football coach, so I was playing it careful. I just agreed to show him around, have a cup of coffee. There was a lot of innuendo, but I never actually propositioned him."
"Thank God. Do you think he'll cause you any trouble?"
"No, he seems like a great guy. When we were talking after class, I told him that I don't date my students and he seemed cool with it."
"But you wish you hadn't let him know about you?" Barry asked.
Cascade was a beautiful town, but it was a little backwards in some respects. Both young professors were aware of how adversely an accusation of propositioning a male student could affect their careers in these conservative halls. They could kiss their chances of tenure goodbye if they were ever caught up in such a scandal.
Once again, Blair gave a negative shake of his head. "No, it wasn't like that. He seemed like an all right kind of guy. In fact, he seemed like Mr. Right, if you get my drift. I'm not afraid that he's gonna screw up my career; I'm worried that I am. I just can't get him out of my head, Barr. I feel possessed or haunted or something. It's driving me crazy. And this is only day one."
"Well, you came to the right man. I know just the thing to exorcise your demons," Barry promised.
"I am not posing naked for your class again," Blair firmly insisted.
"Well, it did take your mind off your troubles that last time, didn't it?" Barry grinned.
"Yeah, but I'm still not doing it."
"That's okay, 'cause that wasn't my idea."
"No?" Blair suspiciously questioned.
"Your idea doesn't involve chisels and large blocks of granite, does it?" he pressed, in no way reassured by the glee in those dark eyes. Over the years, that very same expression had gotten him into all manner of trouble.
"Not unless you want it to."
"Okay, give, already," Blair conceded.
"I think you should let me take you out to Whispers tonight. There's nothing like a bird in hand to take your mind off the two that you lost in the bush," Barry insisted, mangling his metaphors.
"There aren't any birds at Whispers. Least ways, none that would be interested in me," Blair purposefully misinterpreted the mangled adage.
"Maybe not, but I promise you that there will be something there to cure what ails you."
Blair felt himself waiver. The very thought of Whispers stirred him, with images of its dark, smoky heat, and entwined male figures. With difficulty, he reminded them both why he didn't do that scene anymore. "You know I'm not into one-night stands with guys anymore. It's too dangerous, professionally and personally. All it takes is one wrong choice, a broken condom and you're history."
"Who said anything about one-night stands? You go, you flirt a little, you have some fun. If you meet someone, you meet someone. If you don't, we'll just dance the night away together."
"I don't know, Barr…."
"Batterbee's playing." Keegan threw Blair's favorite local band into the mix to lure him out.
"They are?" He glanced up from the coffee cup he'd been staring at to avoid the persuasive dark eyes, interested in spite of himself.
"Yeah. That's why I was looking for you in the first place. Come on, it's been forever since we went dancing together."
Blair made the mistake of looking into those pleading eyes.
Whispers was where Barry and he had originally met four years ago. It was one of Cascade's few gay bars, a cabaret club that drew some of the hottest acts in town. Generally, Blair's tastes ran to shapely females, but every now and then, he liked to take a walk on the wild side. The night he'd met Barry had been both their first visit to Whispers. They'd recognized each other from the University and begun to talk. Although neither of them had been sexually attracted to each other, they'd hit it off immediately and been fast friends ever since.
"I really should do that lesson plan for Anthro 101," Blair said.
"You can do it before I pick you up. I'll be by about nine. What do you say?" Barry's full lips pursed in an adorable pout that must have been murder on his lovers.
"That you're wasting that pout on me and that you'd better not be late again." Blair smiled at his friend's surprised expression.
"Great. I'll be there at nine. Promise. Good God, is that really the time?" Keegan's glance at the wall clock had him leaping to his feet. "Catch you later."
Blair shook his head as his friend raced out the door. A proper understanding of the workings of the normal space time continuum was something they both lacked. If Barry was racing to make the fifth class, it had started eight minutes ago. Still smiling, he dug out his laptop to begin tomorrow's lesson plan.
At 9:42, exactly, Barry's beat up green '73 Riviera pulled to a stop in front of Blair's loft on Prospect. For Barry, this was on time. As Blair had figured it would be at least 10:15 before his artistic friend would remember their assignation and pry himself away from his latest creation, he considered Barry early. Fortunately, Blair himself had been ready at 9:27, so Keegan's showing up early ? for him ? was no big deal.
"Mmmm, nice," Barry commented as Blair climbed into the passenger side of the big old car.
Blair looked down at himself, flushing a little. He never knew how to dress for this place, so he'd stuck to the basics ? black jeans, black leather jacket and a white button down shirt. The only color came from his vest, which was a riot of bright reds, whites, blacks, and blues stitched in a Peruvian print.
Barry hadn't changed at all. He'd simply freed his hair from its ponytail, which altered his entire look. Gone were this morning's pirate and rock star. In their place was a savagely beautiful Native American ? via Irish origins. Blair didn't know how his friend pulled it off. Barry was no more Native American than he, but in the low light even Keegan's skin seemed darker, his black eyes and sleek hair giving him an authenticity that many tribal Amerinds lacked.
"Sorry I didn't have time to change," Keegan apologized. "It was 9:30 before I even looked at a clock."
Blair shrugged off the apology. "No big deal. I was able to get that lesson plan finished, so it worked out fine."
They were lucky tonight and found a parking spot down the block from the club.
Always a bit nervous when he came here, Blair stuck close to his more experienced buddy as they entered the place. After spending God knew how many weeks or months in conservative Cascade's tame watering holes, the freedom of Whispers could be a little unnerving at first. It wasn't the same as going into a strip joint or anything sleazy like that, just ... different. There was a current of raw, male sexuality that suffused the place. It played over Blair's skin like static electricity, raising the hairs on the back of his neck and his respiration level. Beneath the tobacco and hint of marijuana smoke, he could almost smell the pheromones permeating the air, that reek of after-shave, sweat, and musk that delineated all male mating grounds.
The visual was no less compelling.
The first thing everyone saw when they walked in was usually a group of male couples slowly swaying in each other's arms, exchanging lazy kisses meant to excite their audience as much as their partners. Or, if one walked in during one of the frequent faster numbers, the bump and grind that went on out there on the Whispers' floor would make the Chippendale boys look dowdy.
Whispers didn't go in for the sensory jarring lasers and lights that were so popular in many of the trendier dives. The lighting was subdued, atmospheric, rather than intrusive. Intimate round tables for two lined the walls, most of the illumination in that area coming from the candles on the tables.
There was always a crowd of men congregating in the dark shadows behind the tables. No matter where you went in the club or what you were doing, you could always feel those eyes upon you out of the darkness: sometimes hungry, sometimes just watching, but always there.
The watchers were usually dressed to kill, showing off their stuff as they stood as silent witnesses to the parade in front of them. Some were there to simply observe the dancers, maybe building up their nerve to make their move on someone, maybe not, while others were paid talent attempting to attract customers. Blair never could tell one from the other, so he usually avoided the area completely.
It wasn't that hard to do. The music was good here, always live at night. The dance floor in front of the small stage was the best in town, a spontaneous celebration of male sexuality.
Even if Blair didn't go home with anybody, he loved to get out on the dance floor and cut loose as he never seemed able to do in straight clubs, where it wasn't considered cool for guys to dance at all, let alone with each other.
From an anthropological viewpoint, the place was a fascinating mix of alternative subcultures. A student of human nature could manage a thousand thesis topics with what went on here in a single night. But Blair generally checked his credentials at the door. He wasn't here to study human behavior. He was here to partake of it. And when he came with Barry, he usually had the best looking, best dancer in the place for company.
"Let's dump our coats," Barry suggested. "There's a table over there."
They commandeered the table that a couple was just vacating towards the front of the dance floor. As a Hispanic waiter with doleful eyes and a fantastic butt cleared off the previous occupant's glasses and plates, Blair handed the man a ten and asked, "Could you bring us a pitcher of Coors and a couple of mugs when you get the chance?"
"Si, señor," the waiter replied and hurried towards the kitchen with his heavy tray.
Then Barry was leading him out onto the dance floor and that was the last thing of which Blair was conscious other than music and movement for some time.
Batterbee was in rare form tonight. Their first song was fast with a Europop synthesized beat to it that kept one's feet moving and hips swaying without conscious thought. Because they weren't lovers, Barry and he seemed to play to each other for all they were worth, bumping and grinding until they were giggling like school boys. Then a slower number came up and Blair rested his cheek against his taller friend's shoulder and slumped against Barry. When Barry embraced him tight, he just closed his eyes and pretended that the strong arms around him belonged to someone he was really in love with. That a certain older student's handsome face kept filling his mind vexed him no end. He'd come here to forget Jim, not fantasize about him.
They were out there strutting their stuff for over an hour before exhaustion got the better of them. Winded and sweating, they headed back to their table as the band finished its first set of the night.
Blair was laughing and feeling great, his body throbbing with excitement. He loved this place, loved the dancing, loved being with Barry, who never asked for more than an accommodating dance partner. They were damned lucky to have found each other all those years ago.
"Man, you are way too good out there," Blair complimented his friend as they sat down.
"Ditto. I thought I was gonna have to fight that gorilla for your honor," Barry joked, referring to a leather type who hadn't been too quick to take Blair's 'no, thanks' at face value.
"Nah, he was cool. Just had one too many brews in him," Blair excused. He was having too much fun to let any jerk bring him down.
"I swear," Barry commented, holding out their mugs while Blair poured them some beer from the frothy pitcher on their table, "you could forgive Hitler."
Blair sobered a little, "No, some things you don't forgive."
"I'm glad to hear you say that. I was beginning to think you were a saint."
"Who me?" Blair blinked, surprised by his friend's serious tone.
"Yeah. St. Blair ? patron saint of womanizers and flunking undergrads."
"That'll be the day," Blair laughed. "Hey, did you hear about Ralph's new fiancée?"
"No. How weird is this one? I don't think that last girl had ever sat on a chair, much less seen a bathtub before she came to Rainier."
"This one was a snake dancer," Blair said. "She had to give it up when one of her charges took a bite out of her in a very sensitive area. Now she's got this phobia about, shall we say, sinuous appendages trying to get too friendly with her…."
"You're making this up," Barry interrupted.
"I swear to God, it's true," Blair declared, giving Barry a wounded look.
"How do you know?"
"Ralph was in today asking me how he could…" Blair's words trailed off as his straying gaze began to follow someone cutting across the vacant dance floor. Where had he seen those wide, sturdy shoulders before? Their size and shape were familiar, as was the close shorn head. But the clothes were off. Whoever this was, Blair didn't think he'd been wearing skin-tight black jeans and a black motorcycle jacket the last time he'd seen him. No, if memory served him, it had been a staid plaid shirt and tan pants … JIM….
His jaw sagging open, Blair watched as the man he suspected of being his new student crossed to an empty stretch of wall behind the tables on the other side of the now-empty dance floor. Once there, the guy turned around and casually leaned his weight against the bright white surface.
Although Blair wasn't wearing his glasses and there had to be a good thirty feet between them, he had no trouble confirming his guess. It was Jim, looking like a walking wet dream. Those old jeans were so tight that they looked like they'd been spray painted on him. They hugged every inch of the sleek legs, and Blair just had to close his eyes to remember how they'd showcased that flat, muscular ass. Although they weren't quite as dramatic as some of the other patron's jeans, in that they didn't have any rips or tears in convenient places, there was a pale worn spot over the zipper area that led to speculation.
Beneath the open black motorcycle jacket, Jim wore a simple white tee shirt. Its color was very stark in the poor lighting. Every curb of abdominal and pectoral muscle was finely detailed by the clinging garment.
Finally, Blair's gaze lifted to the man's face. If any doubt remained in his mind, that view cinched it. It was his Jim. There couldn't be two men in the same city with that distinctive, rough-hewn handsomeness, not unless Jim had an identical twin.
His mind swirling with the possibilities unleashed by Jim's presence here, Blair almost lost it as Jim got comfortable against the wall. The big man's right knee came up as his foot propped against the surface for support. The sleek hips canted forward in an implicit invitation, as a smug, arrogant come-hither expression settled on those lethally good looking features. Jim's entire body posture was a dare, the look on his face an open challenge.
Blair swallowed hard and tried to remember how to breathe. God in heaven, Jim looked like a streetwalker standing there like that. If Jim weren't careful, one of these leather boys was going to get the wrong idea and put the make on him. Or, worse yet, one of the prostitute's customers was going to ask his price.
"Earth calling Blair … Earth calling Blair … are you with us, buddy or still lost in the Sandburg Zone?"
Blair jumped as Barry's fingers snapped directly in front of his eyes, breaking his stare.
"Are you all right? What the devil's got into you, Blair?" Barry asked, his dark gaze trailing his. "Oh, now I understand. Sorry, buddy, but James is out of your league. Even a full professor can't afford him, not if you want to eat for the rest of the month."
Forcing his mouth to work, Blair continued to watch the erotic vision across the room. True, he was distracted, but what Barry had just said didn't seem to make a bit of sense. "What do you mean, I can't afford him?"
"He's a hooker, more's the pity."
"A … hooker?" Blair echoed, feeling something fragile shatter inside him. That witty, charming man he'd met in the hall this afternoon was a whore?
"Yeah. Top of the line. For five hundred dollars a night, he'll let you do anything you want to him, so long as you wear a condom." Barry whispered.
"How do you know?" Blair hoped against hope that his friend was wrong … or misinformed.
"He told me himself."
"What?" Blair gaped.
"Look at him. He's exquisite. The first time he walked in here, I couldn't take my eyes off him. I never saw anyone with such a perfect rack of abs. At first, I didn't know what he was. I went over, 'cause I wanted him to model for me. He said he would, but I had to pay like the others. Five hundred a night. He gave me that look that he's wearing now and said 'I'm worth it', and God help me, if I'd been able to come up with the dough, I'd've paid him. You know, someday, if I ever get that kind of money together, I just might," Barry wistfully confessed.
"People actually pay him that?" Although Blair was fully as enmeshed in Jim's charms as any would-be john, he just couldn't see the guys that came into Whispers as having that kind of bread on them.
"Yeah. Like I said, he'll do anything for half a grand … and there's some people with special interests that are willing to pay that much."
Blair couldn't quite suppress his shudder. He didn't have to ask what Barry was talking about. He'd seen the sickos that hung out on the periphery of the normal gay scene, those predators who were into real pain, not the feigned stuff captured on celluloid. That was one sub-culture that Blair had steered far clear of. Thinking about the man he'd spent the entire day fantasizing about being involved in that kind of gross scene made him want to gag.
Jeez, but did he know how to choose them, or what?
Still, Jim had seemed so nice this morning that Blair simply couldn't accept that he was some cheap, or not so cheap, whore. If what Barry was saying were true, there had to be one damn good reason why a man of Jim's obvious character would be selling himself this way.
Unable to remove his eyes from Jim's clean profile, he watched Jim's face. The classically cut nose twitched, Jim's head turning slightly back and forth as if he'd caught a familiar scent of something and were tracking it. A puzzled expression crossed Jim's face, the look of someone confronted with something totally out of place ? probably the same look Blair had worn himself a few moments ago when he'd seen his student walk in, he realized. Jim's strong chest expanded as the muscular man took a deep breath of air. Then, the confusion seemed to leave Jim's features. Still sniffing the air, Jim turned fully towards him.
With unerring accuracy, those bright blue eyes moved directly to him. There was no hesitation to the movement. It was almost as if Jim had smelled him and followed the trail back to him, Blair thought.
Which was absurd, of course. With all the smoke, after-shaves, colognes, and antiperspirants filling the air, not to mention the food and booze aromas, there was no way Jim would be able to smell even himself in this packed room, let alone a man thirty feet away. But, still, Blair wasn't able to shake the impression that Jim had done just that.
His stomach knotting, Blair saw all emotion blank from Jim as the older man's face turned into a hard, uncaring mask. God, but it was a scary look, one that a serial killer might use as he carved his victims to pieces.
His mouth ran dry under that stare as Blair tried to master his racing heart.
Well, now that he'd been caught gaping he could hardly act as though he hadn't seen the man, Blair realized. Gathering his failing courage, he forced his legs underneath him.
"Hey, where you going, Blair?" Barry asked.
"I'll be right back," he murmured, not taking his eyes off those killer blues for a second. As if in a dream, he crossed the empty floor.
Jim hadn't altered his position. He was still leaning against the wall with one knee up, his pelvis canted forward in an open invitation to sex.
The closer Blair got to the other man, the harder his heart pounded. Every self-preservation instinct he owned was screaming that this was a major mistake.
Finally, he was there in front of his student. Blair had forgotten how much taller the older man actually was. It seemed he had to crane his neck back almost all the way just to meet that supremely unimpressed stare. But, then, of course, Blair was feeling so intimidated by that time that their difference in heights probably wasn't as pronounced as it felt. The way Jim was looking at him made him feel like an insignificant bug. Blair would almost swear that it was a complete stranger staring at him, but there was no mistaking the look of recognition they'd shared when their gazes had touched across the room.
This was Jim all right. Jim just wasn't happy to see him.
Not that Blair could blame him. Had their positions been reversed, he knew he'd be mortified.
"Hi, ya, Jim," he tried to sound as natural as possible.
All he got in return was a nod of acknowledgment.
"I, ah, was kinda surprised to see you here," Blair blathered. "Do you come here – "
"Your boyfriend already gave you the low down on me, so let's skip the bullshit, okay?" Jim demanded in a no-nonsense tone.
"What-what are you talking about?" Blair stammered. He supposed that it was a natural enough assumption to make after seeing Barry and him together, but there didn't seem to be any doubt at all in Jim's disapproving features. The guy looked as if he'd been standing behind them and heard every bit of their whispered exchange ? which was blatantly impossible. Jim had been thirty feet away; Blair hadn't taken his eyes off him the entire time he'd been talking to Barry.
That chiseled jaw began to twitch. Blair had no idea what it signified, but he didn't like it, or the glare that accompanied it.
"Was there something you wanted?" Jim looked away from him, visibly forcing control over his features.
"I – " His incoherent stammer was cut off by an animated, "James, have you been waiting long?"
They both turned to see a fiftyish businessman in an expensive designer jacket approaching them from behind. The stranger's wardrobe and discreet jewelry all screamed money. He was handsome in a dignified way, Blair supposed, if you were into much older guys. At first glance, he looked all right, but there was something hard in those sharp brown eyes that set Blair's teeth on edge.
"You haven't given up on me so soon, have you, my boy?" The tone of those last two words was … disturbing, like an angry parent trying to control his temper in public, with the threat of violent retribution hidden just behind the outer veneer of politeness.
Blair didn't know why, but his blood seemed to run cold at the words. All he was sure of was that he didn't want to be anywhere near this guy. And he didn't want the gray-haired stranger anywhere near Jim, either. But he didn't have the right to make such a decision for Jim.
A completely alien expression of diffidence settled over Jim's normally commanding features. "No, sir. I was waiting as told, sir."
"Somehow, I don't believe you, but we'll discuss that later," the stranger purred.
"Yes, sir," Jim answered, while Blair did his best not to toss his cookies.
"You haven't brought along another playmate; have you, dear boy?" Those eager brown eyes hungrily appraised Blair's form.
The first sign of strain showed through Jim's mask of submissiveness. Almost seeming to move without thinking, Jim placed his larger body between Blair and the businessman. "No, sir. He was just asking if I knew what time it was."
"I've told you before that I won't tolerate lies, young man," the stranger snapped.
To Blair's horror, Jim paled and stiffened as if struck with the whiplash he'd no doubt experience later.
"He's not lying." Playing it as cool and easy as he could, Blair stepped around his student to confront the sick bastard. "I don't have a watch and I'm supposed to meet someone at eleven. See." Giving the most innocent, butter-wouldn't-melt-in-my-mouth smile, he shoved up his sleeves one at a time to reveal his lack of a timepiece. "I didn't mean to horn in on your action, man. But I really do need to know the time."
Giving him a suspicious glance, the businessman consulted the Rolex on his left wrist. "It's 10:48."
Not wanting to get Jim into any more trouble than he'd already inadvertently caused, Blair brightened his smile, even though he felt like puking. With a breezy, "Thanks, man. See you around," Blair turned his back on the pair and wandered back to his table.
"What the hell was that all about?" Barry demanded as soon as he sat back down.
The band was back on stage again. As the dancers crowded the floor, Blair lost sight of Jim and his … trick in the crowd.
Someone had told Blair long ago that knowledge brings its own price. And, once more it was honed into him that enlightenment was not necessarily a pleasant experience. His dreams had shattered around him a hundred times in the past, but not a one of them had ever left the bitter taste in his mouth that tonight's discovery had. He … hurt inside. There was an aching emptiness filling his soul. He felt battered and bruised by this new facet of information.
On some level, Blair knew that he should be … disgusted. Any normal guy would have been infuriated to find out that the person who'd come on to him was … was a whore, but he just didn't have it inside him to be angry at Jim. Instead, he was sad, and more than a little concerned. He knew it wasn't his place to judge another's path in life, but a man like Jim just didn't belong turning tricks. He'd only known the guy a few hours, but Jim was the stuff that heroes were made out of, not hookers.
Blair didn't know how Jim had come to this strait, but he knew there had to be a damn good reason. Only desperation could lead a man that proud to peddle his flesh like that.
Blair didn't have a clue as to how he was going to do it, but he resolved at that minute to somehow help Jim.
Right, his rational side jeered as he recalled Jim's stony visage. His meddling would go over like a lead balloon with the distant stranger who'd stared so coldly at him tonight. But … the man who'd joked and charmed him in the hall today was worth the effort. For his own peace of mind, Blair knew he had to try.
The naked fear in the familiar voice drew him out of his mental ramblings. Realizing that this was the fifth time Barry had called his name, he finally focused on his friend. "Yeah, Barr?"
"Are you all right? What were you doing with that guy? You don't know him, do you?"
About to answer with the truth, Blair closed his mouth. It wasn't his place to go revealing Jim's secrets. He knew if he were hiding something like this, he certainly wouldn't want it spread around campus. Although Barry wasn't the kind to go maliciously gossiping about people, all it would take would be one careless word and Jim's life on campus would become a living hell. An odd protectiveness welling up inside him, Blair gave a negative shake of his head. "He was just beautiful, you know?"
The smile Barry gave him was sad and understanding. "Yeah, I know. You want to dance?"
Suddenly, Blair couldn't bear the thought of spending another minute in this place. "I ? my head's starting to pound, Barr. Would you be real pissed with me if I asked you to take me home?"
"No, man, I'm not mad. You don't look so good all of a sudden. You're pale as a sheet."
"Yeah. Guess the first day's finally caught up with me," Blair said.
"Come on, let's get you home." All bear-like protectiveness and concern, Barry practically bundled him into his jacket.
Feeling guilty about the lie he'd told, Blair looked up at Barry as the other man took his arm to lead him out of the crowded club. "You're a good friend, Barry."
"It takes one to know one. Come on, let's get you home." His heart heavier than it had been in months, Blair allowed himself to be led to the old Rivera.
Predictably enough, there was little sleep to be had that night. Blair's common sense kept insisting that he should put Jim entirely out of his mind. Granted, the man was his student, and he was genuinely concerned about the welfare of all his students. It was right that he should be troubled by last night's discovery, but it wasn't as if Jim were some victimized kid. The man was a good fifteen years older than him. How the guy made his living was none of his business. Blair knew that he should forget about Jim as anything but a student and just delete what he'd learned at Whispers from his memory bank. For his own good, he should keep things on a strictly professional level. That would be the sensible, healthy thing to do, only…
Only, in the short time they'd spent together, something had clicked. Blair couldn't remember ever being as strongly attracted to anyone as he'd been to Jim. And not simply on a sexual level. He'd liked Jim's wit and brash charm, the air of confidence and competency that had clung to the older man like an exotic perfume.
No matter how hard Blair tried as he tossed and turned the night away, he couldn't consign his first impressions of Jim with that pain freak's paid boy toy. The two images were so alien to each other that he couldn't fit them together in his mind and make sense of it.
Not that everything had to make sense, he reminded himself. There were millions of things that happened or existed that had no sensible reason for doing so. Blair knew that he should simply add the enigma that was Jim Ellison to their list and get on with life.
And, even admitting that, he still dragged his carcass out of bed an hour early the next morning to keep his coffee date with Jim.
As he stepped out the loft's front door to walk to his Corvair out front, he found that the morning's weather was a perfect match for his mood: gray, wet, and depressing. Cascade was like that far too often. One September day here, the sky would be as crystal-clear as Jim's blue eyes, with temperatures in the mid-eighties. The next, it would be as cold and wet as March. Why he remained here year after soggy year was a mystery to his heat-loving spirit. His mother Naomi was always urging him to relocate to Big Sur with her, but he never did. There was something that kept him here. Just another of those things that didn't make any sense, Blair supposed.
Once at the university, the short dash from the parking lot to the Anthropology building left him soaked to the skin. With his flattened curls dripping coldly down the back of his neck, his wet jeans and blue sweater clinging to him like icy seaweed, he felt like a drowned rat. Pulling his totally inadequate black duster tighter around him, Blair huddled in the recessed doorway of the Anthropology Building's main exit. From this vantage point, he could see everything; the parking lot, the quad, and the clock tower. The big old clock said that he was still a few minutes early ? unheard of for a Sandburg.
While he waited for Jim to show, he watched the pouring rain gush down the stately steps like a series of waterfalls he'd seen in the Amazon basin. Just like these stairs, there had been seven of the falls, a breathtaking terrace of silver gray water hidden in the center of the lush rain forest.
God, how he missed that jungle on days like this. It rained even more in the Amazon, of course, but it had never seemed to bother him like it did here. Down there, the raindrops didn't pelt your skin like angry hail. They cooled you off and swamped you with exciting perfumes. He remembered this one storm in a village he'd stayed at. There'd been this girl there with hair as black as a panther's fur. When he'd buried his nose in its cascading locks, it had smelt of jungle flowers….
Lost in his memories of Brazil, Blair waited and waited … and waited. Finally, at five after eleven, it sank into his waterlogged mind that he'd been stood up. Damn.
Blair knew that he shouldn't be surprised, not after last night's revelations. But somehow, he still was. More than that, he was hurt. He'd hoped that Jim was made of stronger stuff. Just like he'd thought Melissa, Christine, Ann, and Charlie were different than they really were, he reminded himself. Blair knew he had a horrible habit of romanticizing the people he was interested in. Jim was just the last in a long line of friends and lovers who'd failed to live up to his sophomoric illusions. God, was he never going to grow up? He was so twisted inside that he'd managed to elevate a hustler into some tragic fallen hero. Maybe he should go back into counseling.
Cursing himself for the fool that he was, still bitterly disappointed, Blair made his way to the department lounge. He was in severe need of some hot coffee. A hair and clothes dryer wouldn't have hurt any, either. But since neither were available, he'd have to settle for drying out in the warm lounge. The skin on the back of his hands was actually bright red from its exposure to the cold rain.
He was just warming his pink hands around his mug, anticipating his first sip of the fragrant brew, when the lounge doors opened. He glanced up, the sloppy sentimental part of his heart praying that it was Jim looking for him, but it was only Dean Evans.
Though pushing seventy, the spry department head was more alert than men half his age. He could also outrun ninety-nine percent of the student body. Blair, who'd eaten his boss' dust at many a charity marathon, was privately in awe of the brilliant scholar. Even if Evans weren't the dean, Blair probably would have accepted that fifth class yesterday simply because Mack had asked it of him.
"Good morning, Blair. You're just the man I wanted to see."
He managed a reasonable facsimile of his usual smile, though inside he still felt like a heartbroken high school kid. "Hiya, Mack. Please don't tell me that you've got another 101 that needs a teacher," he begged.
A flash of white teeth, all real, brightened the dean's affable brown face, before Evans sobered and said, "No, thank God. But it is about your 101 course. One of your students was in to see me a minute ago. A Jim Ellison."
Blair felt his blood turn to ice. Had Jim outted him to his boss?
Though Blair would never have thought it of Jim, that would be one way for the hustler to deal with his problem. Once Jim's professor was disgraced, very little that Blair might have to say about his accuser would be taken seriously. Not that he would ever rat anyone out like that, but Jim hardly knew him well enough to know that. Maybe Jim had just made a pre-emptive strike.
Yet, if Jim had told the dean about his teacher's alternate lifestyle, why would Mack still be so calm? Evans appeared serious, but in no way perturbed with Blair himself.
Doing his best to still his pounding heart and act relaxed, Blair asked as casually as he could manage, "Oh? What did he want?"
"Actually, he wanted to transfer out. Since I usually don't get this kind of request so early in the semester, I thought I'd speak to you about it," Evans said.
Blair almost collapsed with relief. A little sad, he realized that a transfer was probably the wisest way of dealing with the problem. Feeling much more himself, he continued, "He wants to drop the class?"
"Yes. Originally, Mr. Ellison asked me if he could join Willis' class, which meets later in the day, but…"
"But Willis' class is already closed out," Blair completed. "I accepted five over-tallies yesterday from him. Kids that Willis wouldn't fit in."
"That's what I told Mr. Ellison. He wanted to drop the class entirely then, but when he found out that he'd lose half of the course fee by doing so, he decided to stay."
"I see." Blair didn't know what else to say. From Mack's expression, he could tell that his boss was expecting some additional input from him. Normally, this was the point where he'd volunteer some information as to why a student wanted out, but he couldn't do that in Jim's case without bringing about the very events Jim had been trying to circumvent. He felt sorry for him. The poor guy was caught between a rock and a hard place. But he had to give the dean some kind of response. Knowing what his next question would be were he legitimately ignorant of the situation, he mentally crossed his fingers and asked in as curious a tone as he could manage under the circumstances, "Did he say why he wanted a transfer?"
"That's what I wanted to talk to you about," Evans said a little awkwardly.
"Yes?" Blair braced himself for the worst, certain of what must be coming. He couldn't count the number of times some jock or older student had gone to the dean to complain about his somewhat bohemian appearance and approach to teaching. Although the idea of surrendering to the pressure irked him no end, there were times when he was tempted to cut all his hair off just to get rid of the hippie-freak comments.
"Mr. Ellison said that he felt that the class was a little young for him. I explained that the majority of the students in any day course would be under twenty-three, so there was little point in his transferring to another class. I know how you try to interest your students by … umm … incorporating current popular trends and language into your lectures, so I was wondering if you could make an extra effort to accommodate Mr. Ellison the same way? Perhaps some references to the music and popular culture of the 60's and 70's might help him feel more a part of the group."
Blair stared at his boss, almost stupefied by the request. Jim had simply asked for an out ? he hadn't bad-mouthed either his teacher's unusual appearance or approach? Overwhelmed by the feeling of being let off the hook, Blair dared ask an additional question, "Did he have any complaints about the way I taught the class? Anything I should do differently?"
"Hardly." Dean Evans' smile was blinding. "In fact, Mr. Ellison went out of his way to assure me that his request had nothing to do with the course's instructor. He said that he simply felt as if he were sitting in a class full of kindergarten children."
"He did?" Blair echoed, ridiculously pleased by the information. He could feel that his cheeks were warming.
"Yes. So I was just wondering if you could make an extra effort to include references to his age group in your lecture?"
"Of course, Mack. I'll see what I can do about it," he promised.
"Thank you, Blair. I'll see you at the department meeting next Monday." The dean seemed almost as relieved as Blair felt.
Once the department head had cleared out, Blair sank down onto one of the uncomfortable orange plastic chairs, shaken by the close call. For a minute there, he'd seen his whole career going down the tubes.
In retrospect, Blair didn't know how he should feel about any of this. On the one hand, it could have been far worse. If Jim had wanted to, he could have had him fired. So, he figured he should be happy. He just wished that Jim had come to him personally with this, although he supposed he understood why Jim had felt he couldn't.
Depressed by how the morning had gone, Blair sipped his coffee, feeling more blue by the second. This entire situation sucked big time. He wished with all his heart that he'd never set foot in Whispers last night.
But … what was done, was done. There was no changing the past, Blair knew. He was just going to deal with this. And there was no time like the present.
A glance at the wall clock showed that he had nearly a half-hour before Anthro 1 was scheduled to start. If Jim had been in to see Dean Evans, chances were he was still in the building somewhere or maybe over in the cafeteria. Jim mightn't want to see him at all, but Blair really felt the need to clear the air between them before things became any more complicated. These kinds of awkward situations had a way of spiraling out of control if they weren't sorted out fast.
Blair drained the last of his coffee, picked up his backpack and drenched duster, then went in search of the man who'd stood him up.
His first thought was to check the cafeteria for Jim, but that was halfway across campus. Although Jim had struck him as the hardy type, Blair didn't see anyone braving that monsoon again until absolutely forced to. But where else would a new student with an hour or so to kill go?
Struck with sudden inspiration, Blair headed for the lecture hall. There weren't any classes scheduled for that room during this period. Blair remembered how he used to show up early himself to empty rooms just to get a quiet place to work.
Sure enough, he found Jim in the otherwise deserted hall. Jim was seated much further back from the podium today than yesterday, his head bent over his textbook. Instead of an aisle seat, the muscular man had chosen one dead center.
To preclude any chance of accidental contact with his teacher, Blair glumly recognized, more than slightly miffed. Well, Mr. Ellison was plum out of luck with such tactics.
Simply staring at his errant student, Blair stepped into the lecture hall and eased the door closed behind him, soundless as a passing breeze. He paused with his back pressed to the cold metal handle to take several, deep, calming breaths. All he could see from here was the back of Jim's close shorn head and the wide breadth of his impressive shoulders. He knew that he had it bad when even that innocent view sent butterflies cart wheeling through his belly.
Startled, Blair saw Jim give a sudden start and tense up. He didn't know how Jim even knew he was here, let alone recognized him without turning around. But he was dead certain that Jim was aware he'd just entered the hall. The reaction was almost like last night when it had seemed that Jim had smelt him in the crowd.
Dismissing the ridiculous concept, Blair thrust everything from his mind but their current conflict. He had no idea how Jim would react to him now. For that matter, he wasn't sure how he felt about things himself. Part of him was still hurt about being stood up, even though his rational side understood the reasons behind it.
With a resolute stride which belied his inner confusion, Blair walked down the stairs to Jim's aisle. The eyes and face that turned his way were hard and ungiving.
"Hello, Jim," Blair greeted in a subdued tone, not even trying for a smile. He was standing here a stood-up, soggy mess in damp jeans, squishy running shoes, and smelly wool sweater while Jim looked like an ad for GQ in his rust colored chenille turtleneck and bone dry black cords. The rusty hue complimented Jim's healthy tan and hair-color perfectly, while seeming to make his eyes that much bluer.
Belatedly, Blair realized that Jim must have seen him standing out there on the front steps and entered through a side door to avoid him; although, from Blair's vantage point, he should have seen the man coming from the parking lot. The discovery made him feel like an even bigger jerk.
The cool nod that the handsome man gave in response to his salutation did nothing to allay his embarrassment. Jim was looking at him as if he were the fool he felt.
Trying to ignore the cold front, Blair attempted to turn the tables with a little guilt by reminding, "I thought that we had an appointment this morning. I waited for over forty minutes in the rain for you and you never showed."
Damn the man! There was no reaction at all in the arrogant set of Jim's face. The guy didn't look regretful or even surprised that Blair had kept their assignation.
With an infuriating air of superiority Jim asked, "And this surprised you?" in the tone one might have expected if it were Blair who'd been caught peddling his ass in Whispers last night.
Although Blair really wanted to tell the son of a bitch to go to hell at this point, he controlled himself with an effort. He stayed quiet for a long moment, until some of the confidence seemed to leave those incredible watching eyes.
Recognizing that Jim was trying to give him the brush-off before he could do it to him, Blair softly offered the truth. "Actually, it did surprise me. I thought better of you than that."
That scored a definite hit. Although the stony expression didn't falter a bit, Jim sat up straighter in his chair. "Guess you thought wrong, then."
Staring into those guarded, bright blue eyes, Blair gently denied, "I don't think so."
Another man might have missed Jim's reaction; it was such a fleeting, subtle affair. As if ashamed, Jim's gaze flickered momentarily away before he seemed to steel himself and force his eyes to meet Blair's again.
Viewing the response as a victory of sorts, Blair asked in the same low, unthreatening tone, "May I sit down and talk to you for a moment?"
The broad shoulders shrugged. "Suit yourself. It's your classroom."
Though not exactly an invitation, it wasn't precisely a denial, either. "Thanks," Blair murmured, moving into the aisle until only a single seat separated them. Although he didn't want to speak any louder than was absolutely necessary, he didn't want to crowd the guy either. Even with the space of the seat between them, Jim seemed very aware of him on a physical level. Although he was still pretty waterlogged, Blair knew that the only thing that really had an odor to it was his wet wool sweater. Yet, Jim's nostrils were twitching like he was being inundated by strong scents. Trying to ignore the rabbit-like nose-twitching, he opened the discussion with, "The dean told me that you asked to be removed from my class today."
His mantle of invulnerability not nearly as intact as before, Jim asked with the first trace of emotion, "Wouldn't you? If you were in my shoes, would you want a thing like that circulating around campus?"
"I'm sorry you think so poorly of me." Blair tried to hide his hurt, but he'd never been good at it. Still stinging from how little this man he'd liked so much thought of him, he continued, "If it gets around, it won't be from me."
"If not from you, then from your boyfriend. I thought that art line of his was a scam, but I saw him going into the visual arts building on the other side of the quad before. I didn't realize Whispers was such a popular watering hole with Rainier's staff." Quite abruptly, all the bluster seemed to deflate from the man. Rubbing a hand over suddenly weary features, Jim sighed. "I should have known better. This whole thing was a mistake from the start."
Sensing how desperate the man was behind his iron barricades, Blair quickly denied, "He's not my boyfriend and he doesn't know you go to this school."
"Seriously. I didn't tell him you were in my class. Unless you walk up to him on campus and introduce yourself, Barry will never even know you're around. He lives in a world all his own."
"You didn't tell him?" Jim repeated, as if incapable of believing what he was hearing.
"No, I didn't. I give you my word on that," Blair quietly assured, wanting to take the strain out of those strong, controlled features. Jim looked like he was stretched to the end of his rope, like he thought his whole world was going to collapse around him … all because Blair had seen him in that club last night.
"Why didn't you?" Jim questioned, as if simple human kindness and decency were entirely outside of his experience.
Recalling what he'd found out about Jim last night, he realized that it was possible that it had been some time since Jim had encountered either. "Because it wasn't any of Barry's business. Mine, either. I'm sorry I put you on the spot like that last night. I wasn't thinking."
"This is the real world, Teach. You don't expect me to believe that what you saw last night makes no difference to you, do you? No one's that noble."
Blair stared into those guarded eyes, almost feeling how tightly Jim was armored against him. "I try not to make those kinds of judgments, Jim."
"Yeah, right," the other man scoffed and looked away.
"Look, it's your life, okay? How you chose to conduct it is your business. We all have our reasons for – " Blair tried to smooth things over.
"Don't you dare patronize me." A lesser man might have shouted it. The quietness of the order made it all the more threatening.
"I'm not patronizing you, god damn it!" Blair snapped.
"Of course you're not." The condescension behind the words was infuriating.
"Look, we're in the same boat here, okay? So let's drop the hostilities, all right?" Blair tried to reason.
"What are you talking about?" Jim blinked, appearing genuinely confused.
"I saw you at a gay bar last night. You saw me in the same place. That saying about people living in glass houses not throwing stones might be a little out-dated, but it's still true. I give up your secret, man, I give my own up as well. We were in the same place."
"But only one of us was selling his ass there," Jim coldly reminded. "It isn't the same boat, Teach. Take my word for it."
"I am just as vulnerable here as you are," Blair quietly pointed out. The tense energy radiating off the tightly controlled man was almost palpable.
Tired of the sneer, Blair looked down at his hands. They were clutching his backpack to his stomach like a shield against all that pent-up aggression. His better sense was screaming that he should just get up and walk away now, leave it at this. But he couldn't stand the expression in Jim's eyes, like Jim was just waiting for him to destroy him simply because he had the power to do so. Blair knew if he split now and left it like this between them, it would only be a matter of time before Jim quit coming to his class, and then probably college completely. He'd seen it happen to too many students for stupider reasons than the one Jim had.
So, instead of playing it safe and walking, Blair took a deep breath and laid his whole future on the line. "That's right. When Dean Evans came to see me this morning, I was sure you'd outted me. I thought I was out of a job."
"This is the nineties, Sandburg. They can't fire you for walking into a gay night club."
"No, but they wouldn't tenure me if you told them, and that amounts to the same thing," Blair explained.
"Why are you telling me this?" Those hawk fierce eyes seemed to be searching him for some deception.
"Because I don't want you blowing your education over something like this. You feel I have something over you, now you've got something over me. I tell on you; you tell on me. If both of us keep our mouths shut, everything works out fine."
"And what's to stop me from walking out of here right now and into the dean's office?" Jim challenged.
His mouth running dry as the air turned to ice in his lungs, Blair whispered, "Nothing, nothing at all, man."
If he didn't know better, Blair would almost swear that his companion was silently evaluating his unseen responses, so close was the observation. God knew, Jim could probably hear the frightened pound of his heart from where he sat.
After what seemed an eternity, Jim appeared to grow uneasy. His jaw twitching as it had the previous night, the muscular man looked out across the sea of empty wooden seats in front of them. "I … I owe you an apology. It's no excuse, but … when you've been behind the eight ball long enough, you automatically expect to get screwed. I'm not gonna tell you any sob stories, but … I am trying to turn my life around here. I … appreciate your not taking that chance away from me."
Blair fought the stinging in his eyes. He could tell how hard that confession had been. "You don't have to thank me for anything, Jim."
He couldn't take his eyes off the clean cut of Jim's profile. The man looked like a hero in some action show, not a hustler. Catching himself romanticizing reality again, Blair ripped his gaze away.
"It really doesn't matter to you ? does it?" Jim murmured after a moment, seeming astonished.
Blair shrugged. "Not the way you think it should. I meant what I said before about trying not to make those kinds of judgments. I've been on the other side of it too often myself, man, to do it to someone else."
"What do you mean?"
Blair grinned at the genuine bewilderment. "People see my hair and the scruffy jeans, and they automatically think 'druggie'. Guys your size look down at me and see a wimp. I'm not either of those things, but there's nothing I can say or do that will keep people who've already made up their minds about me from viewing me that way."
Blair couldn't believe he was telling Jim this stuff. Barry was his closest friend; he'd known the artist for over four years now, and he'd never talked to him about these things.
But Jim just nodded, his alert eyes seeming to take it all in without prejudice. "Yeah, I could see how that would happen. They'd be wrong, though."
Blair didn't know how Jim could sound so sure about the first thing, but he didn't call him on it. He was just glad that they seemed to be communicating. "There ? you see?"
Those piercing eyes seemed to pin him to his seat as Jim reminded, "But they wouldn't be wrong in my case. It would be true."
As Jim spoke the words, Blair was hit with the sudden realization that the other man abhorred what he did to make a living with far more vehemence than those who might judge him for it. Looking into those troubled eyes, Blair knew that Jim had already judged and damned himself. Yet, the guy was here in school, trying to turn his life around, trying to make a change.
Although Blair was consumed with curiosity, he didn't voice a single one of the thousand questions, the hows and whys of Jim's life choices, that enflamed his mind. He had no right to go sightseeing through another man's tragedy.
So, instead of dredging through Jim's pain, Blair responded with simple honesty. "It'd be true only on a superficial level. It's what you're doing to stay alive, not who you are."
Blair heard Jim's gulp from where he sat. After a few seemingly painful swallows, during which Jim's features remained preternaturally still, Jim hoarsely whispered, "You sound pretty sure of that. You don't know me from Adam."
His own throat tight with emotion, Blair forced a smile. "Let's just say I'm a good judge of character."
To his consternation, Jim seemed even more upset by his words. The older man tensed and looked away again. "You'd be wrong, Teach. Dead wrong."
Stunned, Blair watched Jim rise to his feet, turn and stalk out the other side of the aisle. The lecture hall doors banged closed behind his retreating figure with a resounding slam.
Unable to comprehend what he'd said wrong, he looked at Jim's seat. Jim had left his raincoat, umbrella and books behind, so obviously, he planned to return.
Confused, Blair sat there in numbed silence for what felt a very long time. After a while, he heard the lecture hall doors open again. Absurdly hopeful, he looked up, but it was only a mob of freshmen arriving for class. A moment or two later, the period bell blared out and the body of the class began to swarm in.
Retrieving his wet duster from the chair beside him, Blair reluctantly made his way to the podium up front. He was ten minutes into his lecture when the doors at the back of the hall quietly parted again and Jim's sleek form glided into the room. Jim took the seat he'd abandoned, opened up a notebook and studiously took notes throughout the class. Although, Jim was incontestably paying attention to the lecture, Blair was disappointed by Jim's lack of input. Yesterday, Jim had been one of the most active, eloquent participants in the class, but today he barely looked up at all, almost as though he was afraid to make eye contact with his professor.
Hoping to get an opportunity to talk to Jim afterward, Blair wound the class down a few minutes earlier. But by the time Blair had worked his way through the mob of kids that always surrounded him with questions after the class, Jim Ellison was long gone.
Fiercely disappointed, Blair gathered his things together and headed to his next class.
As always happened whenever school was in session, the hand that held the cosmic remote control pushed the fast forward button and time flew by at the speed of light. The passing days became weeks, the weeks months, rushing by in a frenetic whirl of lectures, papers, and quizzes.
It took some work, but Blair forced himself to put Jim from his mind and regard him as just another student. The effort was Herculean; ignoring Jim Ellison on a personal level was quite possibly the most difficult goal that Blair had ever set for himself.
But Jim really made it easy for him. Although Jim showed up for every single class, he didn't participate like he had that first day. Jim turned in his assignments, passed his quizzes and tests with flying colors, but he never opened his mouth in class. He simply sat there with his head bent over his notebook, studiously transcribing every single word Blair said. He felt a little sad for the change in Jim's behavior, but as long as the guy continued to pull 90's and A's on his tests and reports, he wasn't prepared to make an issue of it.
Blair tried his best to look at Jim as nothing but another student, but every time he would walk into that lecture hall and see Jim bent over his books up in the back, he'd be hit with such deep regrets and wistful longings that it would undo his efforts at professionalism. He'd never felt an attraction like this before, at least towards someone he hadn't actually had sex with. Ignoring Jim was almost like being in a twelve-step program. Every day was a struggle unto itself.
To get through the days without giving into temptation, Blair threw himself wholeheartedly into his work. It wasn't a problem. He loved teaching more than anything in the world.
In his younger, foolish days, Blair had assumed that the roller coaster that was college would slow down once he became a full professor and was at the other end of the academic twister. If anything, it was worse from this side of the street. But despite the long, frantic hours, he thrived in this environment. Every waking hour was devoted to teaching. He was either preparing a lesson plan, grading papers, counseling students, or volunteering for some function or the other. Once in a blue moon, he would cram in a date ? always with a woman; his close brush with disaster in September had scared him off guys for a while – but on the whole, he lived for his work.
Which made his failures all the more difficult to accept. Nothing disturbed him more than having to fail a student who was fully capable of doing the work, but simply couldn't be bothered. They hadn't even reached midterms yet, but Blair was almost psychic when it came to these things. Out of his five classes, he had perhaps eight students who were legitimately struggling to stay afloat. Most of them were showing up at his office on a regular basis for tutoring, so Blair was fairly certain that he'd be able to pass them with a clear conscience.
His real problem was the three football jocks in his four o'clock Anthro 2 class. The three had all but thumbed their noses at him when Blair had warned them that they were on rocky ground. If the three didn't get a ninety or better on their midterms, they'd be off the team. Considering the way they were going, Blair would have to elevate their grades right now just to give them an F.
Even now, when Blair was reviewing the material that the midterm would cover, the three football players were in the back joking away. Not loud enough to disrupt the class, just annoying enough to be a constant irritant to the man up front trying to teach.
Losing patience with the group, Blair cleared his throat and turned from the study outline on the blackboard to call, "Excuse me, Misters Kramer, Dillon, and Wallace?"
Bill Dillon, the obnoxious blond who was the ringleader of the three, grinned up at him, his wide, arrogant features a study in feigned innocence. "I'm sorry. Were we bothering you?"
Dillon's two sidekicks and several of the less mature students laughed at the false sweetness of the apology.
Trying very hard to hang onto his temper, Blair shot back with an equally sweet, "No, I know the work. You're not bothering me at all, guys. But I think we need to have a private word outside, Mr. Dillon."
"Are you calling me out?" the linebacker joked, his expression making it clear how absurd he thought the concept.
Blair did his best not to react. He wasn't going to gain anything by shouting this early into the game. Putting his own most obnoxious smile on, Blair replied, "No, I just thought you might appreciate not having everyone in the class privy to your private business. But if you'd prefer to discuss your test grades from across the lecture hall, I'm more than willing to accommodate you."
"What are you talking about?" Dillon demanded, as though Blair hadn't been warning all three for the entire semester about the danger of their dropping grades.
"Let's take it outside, guys, okay?" Blair requested before turning to the rest of the class to excuse himself.
With the truculent machismo that only college football stars could manage, Dillon, Wallace, and Kramer stood and strutted out the back doors of the hall.
Venting a weary sigh, Blair followed the three. He had a midterm review to get through. He seriously didn't have time for this nonsense.
The three were waiting impatiently outside the doors for Blair, looking like a bunch of street corner gang-bangers in their matching team jackets and blue jeans.
Not for the first time, Blair wished that genetics had graced him with the height and the muscle to be at least a little intimidating while just standing in a doorway. He felt seriously out-bulked and outnumbered here. Experience had taught him how fatal a tactical error it was to approach this type of confrontation from a defensive stance, but it was hard not to do so with those three behemoths eyeing him as though they were planning on hitting him up for his lunch money.
Dillon took the need of opening the discussion out of Blair's hands by sneering, "You wanted to talk to us, Pro?"
"Yeah." Blair played it cool, staring up at Dillon as though he himself were Clint Eastwood and the three were unfortunate punks in the latest shoot 'em up who'd chosen to make the detective's day. "Your antics weren't bothering me before. Like I said, I know the work. I just thought that you might be interested in staying on the football team, but I guess that I was wrong about that. Please, carry on joking. The rest of the class will go on reviewing for the midterm. And, then, come Monday morning, you can share the joke with your coach when you're explaining why he doesn't have a starting line up this season."
They hadn't expected that. Blair could see that his sarcasm had taken them all aback. Dillon's two buddies, a freckle-faced redhead and hefty Afro-American, both paled a little at Blair's words. They, at least, were smart enough to recognize when they'd pushed the envelope too far.
Dillon, however, had no such compunctions. His handsome features hardening to stone, the quarterback arrogantly questioned, "What do you mean?"
"I mean that the three of you need a ninety or better on Friday's test to maintain the grade average necessary to stay on the team. Now, I'm no clairvoyant here, but in view of your previous test scores, I just don't see that happening." Blair repeated the tired song that he'd been singing to his deaf audience of three since the first week of class. Normally, he wouldn't speak to a student this way, but the three had forced his hand with their smartass attitude. If he was going to maintain discipline and respect here, there was no way he could let them walk all over him. He'd tried Mr. Nice-guy and gotten no results. Now it was time to play hardball.
An icy tone of threat entered the muscular blond's voice, "Maybe you need to put your glasses on and look at those scores a little closer."
His temper rising with each second, Blair was careful to keep his reply even and as light as he could make it. "And maybe you need to hit the books and do the work you're capable of doing. I told you from the beginning that there aren't any free rides in this class. You're all smart enough to turn this around. Do yourselves a favor. Study for the test."
"Why don't you do yourself a favor and drop the attitude, man. You don't want the trouble that you're buying into here," Dillon sneered with all the arrogance of one of the untouchable glory boys.
Blair had been battling this sort of star syndrome for years. "Are you threatening me, Mr. Dillon?" he asked, deadly calm. The empty corridor was so completely silent that Blair could hear the squeak of Dillon's leather jacket as the football star straightened up from his arrogant slouch against the door, his handsome face gone ugly.
"I never make idle threats, Professor Sandburg," the blond replied. The unspoken message that there was nothing idle about the unspoken threat of violent retribution rang clear and loud.
Blair had been at the wrong end of this scene since grammar school. When he'd been little and alone in a new neighborhood, these blustering bullies had terrified him into panic attacks. But somewhere along the line, being scared of these brainless morons had gotten real old, real fast. Nowadays, Blair Sandburg, former science nerd, didn't get scared; he got mad. Way mad.
Straightening to his full height, Blair glared up at Dillon, including the other two with his searing gaze. "Neither do I, Mr. Dillon. My advice to you is to hit the books. Ninety or better on the midterm, or you're off the team. That's the bottom line here, guys."
"Definite mistake, man," the golden boy said, shaking his leonine head in mock pity.
Blair had had enough of the kid's brainless posturing. "No, you made the mistake when you decided to blow off your prerequisites. Do us both a favor, pass the damn test." Even the air in the corridor seemed nervous, almost brittle with tension.
His blue eyes hard as diamonds, Dillon sneered, "I'm gonna pass. That's a given."
"Not in this class it isn't. You do the work like every other student or you're history. I'm dead serious here, guys."
"You're right about the dead part," Dillon said, stepping straight up into Blair's personal space.
Blair's eyes were somewhere at nipple height on Dillon, but he didn't back down. He just lifted his glare back up to Dillon's face and stood his ground, his body language just daring the linebacker to follow through with the implied threat. God knew, it would be easy enough for Dillon to do so. With his muscles upon brawny muscles, the football jock looked like one of those steroid monsters on those Monday night wrestling shows on cable. The guy's thighs and calves were practically bursting out of his blue jeans.
But strangely enough, Dillon didn't go that final step. With the puzzled air of a cat who'd just been cowed by a mouse, the blond shouldered past Blair, calling to his buddies, "Come on, let's blow this pop stand."
With far less confidence, Kramer and Wallace followed their friend to the stairs at the end of the hall.
Blair sighed as the three disappeared down the stairwell. Sometimes he didn't even know why he bothered to reason with the golden boys, but he had to try.
Abruptly aware that there were seventy people waiting on him on the other side of the closed doors, Blair hustled back into the lecture hall. He was aware of every one of the hundred and forty eyes that settled on him, seeming to check him out for damage.
Touched by his class' open concern, Blair forced a smile and said, "Well, now that we've settled that, let's get back to the similarities in marriage and funeral rituals among North American indigenous peoples…." Forcibly thrusting the unpleasant incident from his mind, Blair threw himself back into the review.
The remainder of the class passed without a hitch. On the whole, they were a bright group. Blair was confident that they'd do well on the midterm.
Blair was packing up his stuff afterwards when a soft voice called, "Professor Sandburg?"
Blair glanced up and grinned upon seeing one of his most promising students. The dark-haired, bespectacled youth had a passion for anthropology that Blair was hoping to nurture into something more than a passing interest. "Hiya, Mark. What's up? Wanna go another round debating Lakota versus Cheyenne ceremonies?"
"No, Professor Sandburg, I, ahhh…."
"Yes?" Blair encouraged the shy kid. The only time Mark ever opened up was when he was debating in class. One on one, the freshman seemed almost terrified of speaking.
"Well, I just wanted to warn you. I, ahh, went to high school with Bill Dillon."
Blair didn't have to ask what sort of relationship the two had shared. The skinny bookworm had victim written all over him. Just like another brainy pip-squeak ten or twelve years ago, Blair thought. "Warn me?" he repeated.
"Dillon's not just arrogant. He's mean. And he's got a black belt, Professor Sandburg."
Blair took a deep breath, angry with Dillon all over again for the fear in Burnett's brown eyes. "Then Mr. Dillon should be disciplined enough to turn this around."
"Just … be careful. Please."
Appreciating the sincere worry, Blair shouldered his backpack and patted his student's arm. "Don't worry, Mark. Dillon's not going to do anything that stupid. Come on, tell me what you thought about that film we watched the other day…"
Distracting the kid from the troubling scene, Blair led them out of the hall.
In retrospect, Blair was forced to admit that he had once again grossly underestimated the human capacity for stupidity.
Sunday night he had sat staring at those three football players' test papers for over an hour. Not one of the three had taken the option of the extra credit essay, not that it would have helped that much. Kramer had pulled a 59, Dillon a 53, and Wallace a whopping 42.
Blair had salvaged every point he could in good conscience, but there was nothing he could do when the trio bombed out on the multiple-choice questions. No matter how hard he tried, New Guinea was never going to be off the African coast, and even if he could overlook Dillon's misplaced continent, the Incas hadn't lived there ? ever.
So, Blair turned in the failing grades first thing Monday morning ? and spent the remainder of the afternoon in Dean Evans' office defending his decision to the irate football coach and Rainier's president. Thank God Mack had backed him, Blair thought as he finally locked up his office that night. The minute Evans had heard of the implied threat, the dean had dug his heels in and refused to budge. The grades stuck. The three laughing boys were off the team, and Blair was finally free of all the shouting.
Strangely enough, even though Blair had stuck to his guns and won, he didn't feel vindicated. No matter how justified a failing grade was, he never felt happy handing one out. He just had too much of Naomi in him. He knew grades weren't the really important thing; learning was. If those three jocks had even pretended to be trying to do the work, Blair would have bent over backwards to help them pass. But they'd been too caught up in their own egos to pay even lip service to their school work, so now they were paying ? big time. Though he'd been a Class A prick, Dillon had had pro league potential. The kid had just flushed a multimillion dollar career down the toilet because he was too stubborn to open a book. If the three were able to elevate their grades by the end of this year, they might be permitted back on the team next fall, but this season was a complete write-off.
Shaking his head at the waste of talent, both on and off the football field, Blair tried to put the unpleasant incident out of his mind. He only had one more mid-term to proctor this week, Anthro 1 on Wednesday, then they could get back to the fun stuff. But right now, he knew he needed some serious down time. He was going to go home, order delivery from The Empire of India down the block and veg out in front of the TV with a good movie tonight. He was not going to think of stupid jocks, screaming coaches, or even mid-terms for the next fifteen hours.
After locking up his office, Blair checked his watch. Only 6:15, but from the empty halls, it felt more like 3 a.m. This was a weird time on campus. The day students and most of the staff had already gone home, while it was a little too early for the night classes to start arriving yet. The building was almost deserted, the halls having a hollow, eerie feel to them. Blair was glad to put his back to them as he stepped out the front door.
He still couldn't get used to how dark it was when he got out these days. As recently as a month ago, it had still been broad daylight when he'd walk to his car, but now it was black as midnight outside. And cold. The temperature had plummeted during the day. The leather jacket that had been more than enough this morning, felt like nothing against the howling wind. Blair shivered as he watched the shrieking gale chase a battalion of gold and russet maple leaves across the street-lamp illuminated quad ? God, how he hated winter, and it wasn't even November yet.
Sticking his freezing hands deep into his pockets, Blair sprinted down the seven steps out front and headed for the parking lot. The most direct route to the lot still looked like a war zone. The gas company had been digging up pipes for the last two weeks and half the quad was still ribboned with six foot trenches behind barricades. Normally, Blair didn't mind the detour, but tonight he was cold and cranky and inclined to be cross.
Cursing the freezing wind, he took the next quickest route between the science building and clock tower. If it had been dark in the quad, it was positively Stygian in the narrow, tree-lined walk. The trees here were oak. They hadn't dropped their leaves yet, so the starlight couldn't even penetrate. There were two street lamps, one at each end of the concourse, but the old oaks' canopies pretty much blocked out all light.
Blair had been using this route for the past two weeks to get to his car, so he was almost accustomed to the spooky, no-man's land. He supposed that he shouldn't have been surprised when the three bulky figures stepped out from behind the trees midway through, but, somehow, Blair was.
Abruptly aware of just how deserted the area was, Blair froze on the spot. For a nanosecond he contemplated talking his way out of the situation, but past experience told him how useless reason was when the bullies had pumped themselves up to make their play. At such times, the victim's choices were limited to those of all prey ? fight or flight. At 3 to 1 odds, it didn't take Blair long to make his choice. He was on his toes, racing back the way he'd come before he'd even fully identified Dillon, Wallace, and Kramer's features.
Any other time, Blair probably would have made it clear of the threat. His legs might be shorter than most, but man, could they run. However, this time he wasn't just running from the school bullies. He was running from trained athletes who were used to making split second decisions while racing at break-neck speeds with five or ten behemoths dogging their footsteps. Blair had barely cleared three yards when Kramer and Wallace plucked him out of the air mid-stride. Neither the muscle-bound redhead nor the black-skinned youth appeared even winded.
His heart racing in a panicked tattoo against his chest, Blair forced his features into his sternest, hardest expression as Kramer and Wallace held him anchored in place while Dillon sauntered casually over.
"This is a bad idea, guys," Blair bluffed, trying to sound mad. Whatever he did, he knew he couldn't let them see how scared he was.
"I don't think so," Wallace said, his wide, dark face distorted with fury. "You should have listened to Dillon and passed us, man."
"Now you've ruined everything. The coach kicked us off the team." The freckle-faced Kramer sounded like he might start bawling any minute.
Somehow, Blair kept his wits about him. His voice deep and controlled, he said, "Look, I'm sorry, but I warned you from the start that there's no free ride in my class."
"And I warned you last Friday what would happen if you didn't play it smart, you little shit," Dillon entered the conversation. The brawny blond stepped so close to the captured professor that their jackets crushed nosily together.
Doing his best not to be intimidated by the discrepancy in their heights, Blair craned his neck back to maintain eye contact. "Think this through, guys. You walk away from this now, and I'll forget it ever happened. You lay hands on me and it becomes a felony. You're not gonna just be kicked off the team, you'll end up in jail. Come on, guys, is it worth jail time?"
"I don't think you're gonna be in a state to prosecute anybody, Professor Sandworm," Dillon sneered, his knee coming up at Blair's groin.
Blair wasn't able to get loose from his muscular captors, but he was able to turn his hips a bit ? just enough to take the shot on his left thigh instead of the family jewels. Even so, that bony knee hurt like hell.
Blair had barely registered that pain when a fist that felt like a block of cement bashed into his stomach. The cry that escaped his lips at that point was pure instinct, a loud moan-shout.
It was cut off by another punch. This one was coming right at his face. Blair tried to duck, but the captor on his right – Kramer was it? – grabbed his hair to hold his head in place. The blow missed his nose, but landed straight on his left eye. The world exploded into a zillion silver stars as Blair's head jerked backwards. He knew he was too dazed to fight back. Between the blood and swirling stars, he could barely focus. But maybe he could still escape….
Suddenly the support on both sides was gone. Finding himself free, Blair tried to run, but someone kicked him in the shin and he toppled over sideways onto the black cement. He came down hard on his right elbow, but that was the least of his worries at the moment. Instead of one attacker actively beating on him, Blair now had three.
His universe shrank down to only one element – pain. A merciless shower of punches and kicks rained down on him. Tasting blood, Blair curled himself into a tight ball to protect his head and vital organs, but it seemed useless. His back and buttocks were pummeled with blows. It would only be a matter of time before one of the bozos got lucky and cracked his spine or ruptured a kidney.
Blair was having so much trouble just breathing now that he couldn't get enough air to call out for help. Not that anyone would even hear him in this dark walkway.
The worst of it, maybe even worse than the pain, was the way the three were laughing and making fun of his efforts to protect his vitals. Horrified, Blair realized that it was very possible that he was going to die out here tonight.
That made him madder than hell. Barely able to see, totally beleaguered, he opened his eyes and forced himself to focus. Kramer's Adidas shod foot was coming straight at his face again. This time, Blair didn't allow himself to panic or falter. Knowing it was a life or death situation seemed to give him a competence he'd never had before.
Without thinking, Blair reached out and grabbed Kramer's approaching foot. A quick, hard tug sent the redhead sprawling on his ass. The loser went down with the kind of shocked scream Blair should have been making, but couldn't draw enough breath to loose.
"You son of a bitch!" Dillon shouted down at him, looking enraged that their victim would dare to try to defend himself. "You're gonna pay for that, you sniveling little motherfucker!"
Catching a blur that could only be Dillon's booted foot coming at his head, Blair ducked as fast as he could and balled up tighter.
God, I'm gonna die out here. They're really going to kill me…
Curled up tight as a pill bug, Blair was braced for another agonizing kick. For some reason, it was a long time in coming. Through the blood roaring in his ears, Blair thought he heard the unmistakable sounds of a continuing scuffle; the fleshy bangs of blows falling on vulnerable human tissue, pain-filled grunts…
For a horrible moment there, Blair wondered if they'd broken his spine and he just wasn't capable of feeling his attacker's blows anymore. But … no, his leg was throbbing like it had broken in a dozen places. In fact, there wasn't a single inch of his body that didn't hurt. There just weren't any new assaults being delivered. Yet, he could clearly hear the sounds of a vicious physical altercation continuing.
Confused, Blair wondered if the three had taken to fighting amongst themselves. Dillon was certifiable, but Wallace and Kramer were mostly followers. Before tonight, Blair wouldn't have thought either boy capable of even this kind of assault, much less murder. Maybe one of them had drawn the line at killing their victim.
Still dazed from the attack, Blair tried to clear his mind enough to lift his head to determine what was going on. But his body was operating on auto-pilot defense now and refused to cooperate with anything that might further endanger it.
"Professor Sandburg, are you all right? Professor?" a soft, strangely unthreatening voice called.
Blair's beaten senses felt someone hulking over him again and curled up tighter.
"Blair!" The voice was vaguely familiar, though he was pretty sure he'd never heard such fear in it before. His whole body flinched as something made contact with his shoulder.
But it wasn't the anticipated punch or kick. It was a hand, tentatively gripping his shoulder as if afraid mere touch would hurt.
"Blair? It's all right now. You're safe. Come on, slugger, open those pretty blue eyes of yours. Everything's okay…." The hand on his shoulder exerted the slightest bit of pressure, silently urging Blair to uncurl.
His body didn't want to take the chance, but Blair forced himself to respond to the gentle entreaty. Drawing a shuddery breath, he slowly lowered his arms from where they were curled to protect his head, raised up a little, and opened his eyes.
His body tensed and jerked when he saw a big, shadowy form hunkered down over him, but it wasn't any of his attackers. It took his jittery brain forever to make the connection between face and name.
"J-Jim?" Blair croaked, finally recognizing Jim Ellison's clean-cut features in this terrifying setting. Jim's presence here, now, was a complete non-sequitur to his shaken-up teacher.
Jim had on a wheat-colored Aran Island turtleneck sweater and a navy pea jacket that gave him the incongruous look of a fisherman.
"Yeah." The worried set of Jim's handsome face didn't alter. His left hand still gripping Blair's shoulder, the right reached slowly for his bloody face. "How are you feeling?"
Blair ripped his gaze from Jim's approaching knuckles, which were an angry red, and swelling even as they spoke. He tried to take stock of the damage. "I … hurt."
"I'll bet. What hurts worst?"
Blair thought about it. Basically, everything throbbed: his face, his back, his stomach his sides, but worst of all seemed to be his right foot. "My foot."
"Your foot?" Jim actually blinked in surprise. Some of the hardness seemed to leave his features as he softly suggested, "Let's have a look at it, okay?"
Blair tried ? and failed ? to suppress a moan as Jim helped him sit up. He was cold and bruised all over.
Without asking which foot, Jim reached for Blair's injured right leg. Blair bit his lower lip as his student undid his running shoe and pulled it off.
"Can you move your toes, slugger?" Jim asked, lightly running his fingertips over Blair's sweaty sock.
Not really certain if he could, Blair squiggled his toes. He saw them all respond, although seeing wasn't exactly easy. His left eye and cheek were swollen so bad that he could barely see over the puffed-up flesh. And there was still a cut dripping blood somewhere up there.
"Good," Jim approved. "How 'bout the ankle?"
"Aoooow…" Blair gasped when he attempted to move the foot from side to side.
Jim's fingertips carefully surveyed the area. "It's just sprained, not broken. You must have turned it when you fell."
"How can you tell?" Blair questioned the calm certainty. Though reassuring, it was confusing.
"I was a medic."
"Huh?" Blair blinked, recalling Jim's present profession.
"I was – "
"You Mother Fucking Asshole!"
An enraged roar interrupted Jim's answer.
Blair flinched when he saw Dillon approaching from behind Jim. Until this very moment, Blair hadn't thought to question what had stopped the assault. From the football player's bloodied appearance, it looked like a ten-ton truck had stopped him. The blond's battered face almost mirrored Blair's, only Dillon's bruising was on the right side instead of the left.
Blair watched Jim's features close down again as the angry shout sounded behind him. A frightening coldness hardening his handsome face, Jim stated softly, "Excuse me a moment, would you?" Whatever Jim read in Blair's expression made the older man pause to assure. "Don't worry. He's never gonna hurt you again."
Then Jim made certain Blair was comfortably seated and rose swiftly to his feet.
Blair watched as Jim took up a protective stance between him and his attacker, Jim inserting his own body between his injured professor and danger. He'd never seen anything like the utter lack of fear with which Jim met the oncoming threat.
For the first time since he'd uncurled, Blair thought to question what had happened to Dillon's accomplices. A dark, unmoving lump over by the trees to the right of Jim proved to be Wallace. Kramer wasn't hard to find. All Blair had to do was follow that moaning he'd heard earlier. The redhead was kneeling over to the left, both hands cradling the front of his jeans as he rocked back and forth crying like a baby.
Blair felt his eyes bulge open in horror as he saw the blood staining the front of Kramer's pants.
Belatedly, Blair realized that whatever had happened to the football players, Jim had been responsible. Jim was the ten-ton truck that had stopped the three from murdering him.
Blair's incredulous gaze returned to his rescuer. His legs slightly bent in a sturdy stance, Jim stood strong and tall as he waited for Dillon to come for him. Blair had never seen anything so … impressive in his entire life. There wasn't a trace of fear or hesitation about Jim. Jim looked … well, he looked like a superhero standing there.
Blair knew it was a stupid thing to think, but he'd never seen a more suitable candidate for his own action series.
"You fuckin' asshole!" Dillon shouted at Jim as the blond made his move forward. "Why couldn't you mind your fuckin' business?"
"You should have done yourself a favor and stayed down," Jim replied in a low tone that for some reason scared Blair more than his former assailant's foul-mouthed, shouted threats.
There was a quiet air of menace about Jim that Blair had only encountered once before ? in the Brazilian rainforest when a black panther had attacked his group on a jungle trail. One moment the big cat had just been standing there with that same sense of quiet waiting Blair could feel in Jim's body right now, the next the panther had had its jaws around one of their guides' throat.
"And you should have stayed the fuck out of this!" the football player growled as he came at Jim. Dillon's attack was a confusing blur of punches, shuto chops, and kicks delivered at breathtaking speed.
Blair didn't know how Jim could even see each blow, they came so quickly one after the other. But not only did Jim see them, he deflected each and every one of them without even seeming to work at it. Jim had a lazy look to his face as the combatants circled each other and the older man blocked the young blond's attacks. Jim seemed almost bored, until Blair looked at his eyes. There was an intensity to them that was utterly unnerving. They were incandescent with hatred and rage, almost insane for all Jim's outer inhuman control.
"Not bad," Jim acknowledged when the panting blond whirlwind slowed down. "But, unfortunately for you, not good enough. You like pain, little boy? You should have a taste of it yourself."
And then Jim attacked. Like that Brazilian panther, the move was lightening fast and totally without mercy. Almost in an exact re-enactment of Dillon's attack on Blair, Jim's knee banged up into Dillon's groin. As the football player doubled over, Jim's right elbow caught the retching blond dead in the face. Blair didn't even see the foot move that sent the football player toppling to the ground.
At this point, Blair didn't think he could feel sorry for his attacker, not after how viciously Dillon and his buddies had beaten him up. But his soft heart sook in horror when Jim didn't stop there.
Like Kramer, Dillon was down, tossing about, holding his crotch, retching and moaning, only the blond wasn't bleeding through his pants like this freckle-faced cohort.
Jim watched his opponent's contortions for a moment with frightening dispassion before asking in a chillingly soft voice, "It doesn't feel so good when you're on the other end of that, does it, hot shot? You like how it feels when someone kicks you when you're down?"
With that, Jim hauled off and gave Dillon's butt a resounding kick.
Blair winced at the sound of the impact.
"Or maybe you need a better lesson? I know all about pain, kid. I could teach you levels of agony that would make those blue balls of yours feel like a paper cut in comparison," Jim said in that same terrifyingly controlled voice before he gave Dillon's side another kick.
"You're blaming the professor here because you didn't have what it takes to make the grade? Football isn't your whole life. You ever think what life would be like if you couldn't walk? Say if you lost a kneecap?" Jim's sturdy hiking boot aimed at Dillon's left knee.
Seeing Jim's intent, the football player screamed, rolling a little, taking the blow on his thigh.
Horrified, Blair realized that Jim was toying with his opponent like a cat with a mouse, taking his time before he moved in for the kill. And there was no doubt in Blair's mind that there would be a kill here tonight. It was almost as if the Jim Ellison with whom Blair was familiar had disappeared. In his place was a stone cold killer who had no compunctions about giving Dillon the grisly death that the football player had been planning for his victim. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, it was a justice older than time. Jungle justice.
Blair was terrified and mesmerized at the same time by the savagery. Everyone was capable of killing under the proper circumstances, he knew. He had no doubt that if he'd had a gun on him when the three had jumped him, he wouldn't have had any trouble defending himself by shooting them dead. But he knew he could never kill like this with such slow cruelty.
Watching Jim, it was almost as if the older man were taking out all his rage and frustrations over every horrible thing that had ever befallen him on this jerk of a kid. Remembering the pain freak Blair had seen Jim walk away with in September in Whispers, he knew that Jim probably had more than his share of bad experiences to purge from his memory.
But Blair couldn't let Jim do it, not this way. If Jim killed the waste of space like this, it was Jim who would pay ? for a very long time. This wouldn't be manslaughter. It'd be first degree murder.
Jim hunkered down behind the cowering blond. Grabbing a handful of the thick, wavy hair, Jim pulled Dillon's head back towards him ? incidentally stretching the young man's spine in a tight, obviously painful, arc.
"You need to learn about patience and mercy, boy. There's nothing like a snapped spine to give you a crash course in both. You ever think about what it would be like to be paralyzed, to be lying there in your own filth, totally helpless. You'll learn patience as you lie there waiting for some bored nurse to take mercy and clean you up…."
Dillon's pathetic whimper mobilized Blair's stunned body. He couldn't stand on his foot yet, but he dragged his pain-wracked, shivering body on all fours over to where Jim was menacing his attacker.
Jim still had that killer intensity to his eyes and set features as he threatened Dillon. The lights were definitely on, but the real Jim wasn't there, Blair realized. This Jim was so goddamned scary that he wasn't sure he wanted to draw this Jim's attention to himself. But he didn't really have any choice in the matter. If he waited much longer, they'd have a corpse on their hands.
"Jim…" Blair forced his swollen mouth to move. "Come on, man, lighten up. You're gonna kill him."
Not surprisingly, there was no reaction.
Dillon's bulging, terrified gaze focused on Blair. "Please … p-please help me…."
Struck by the irony of the situation, Blair cautiously laid his left palm on Jim's shoulder. He was half-afraid that that icy cold predator would turn his attentions on him when Dillon was dispensed with; Jim was that far gone.
"Come on, Jim. Think this through. Is this piece of garbage worth your life? Please, Jim … you gotta let go. Come on, Jim…."
At his pleading litany, Jim had frozen. Although Jim didn't release his victim, he didn't complete the lethal twist to snap the football player's spine either. He just crouched there, his mind seeming lost in some no man's land of bloody retribution.
"That's good, Jim," Blair approved, shaken by Jim's seeming non-presence. He'd only minored in psych, but this was as close to a psychotic break as he ever wanted to get. Sensing that his voice was having some effect on Jim, he continued with, "Very good." Reaching out, Blair cautiously laid his scraped up right palm on the hand that Jim still had tangled in Dillon's hair. "Do you think you could let go now, Jim? The bastard deserves it, but it's not a good idea to kill him like this. Come on, please, loosen your fingers, big guy."
Knowing exactly how Daniel had felt when he pulled the thorn out of the lion's paw, Blair gently pried on Jim's fist, trying to get him to let the blond's hair go. "Please let go, Jim. It's important, man…."
Blair gulped as Jim turned his way. Would that murderous rage now descend on him, he wondered.
At first, it was clear that Jim was still out to lunch. His eyes had that chilling intensity, his face set like stone, totally unmoved by the pain he was inflicting. Then those eyelids, with their incredibly thick, long lashes, swept down, and in that instant, a startling transformation took place. The cold-blooded predator blinked out, awareness flooding the stony featured face.
"B-Blair?" Jim stared at him like he'd never seen him before.
"Yeah. Welcome back, man." Shivering uncontrollably, Blair forced his banged up mouth into a smile. "Would you let him go now, Jim?"
"What…?" Jim followed Blair's stare to where he held Dillon bent over backwards in that spine-threatening hold. Jim's eyes widened in horror, his hands falling instantly free.
The football player banged forward onto his face once he was released, Dillon laying there bawling like a baby afterwards.
"Oh, God…." Jim's breathy exclamation sounded like a sob as he sank back to sit on the freezing concrete. His bruised hands dangling between his upraised knees, Blair's rescuer lowered his head, looking as shell-shocked as Blair felt.
"What's going on here?" An authoritative female voice broke through the scene, a flashlight moving from form to form.
Squinting into the light, Blair was able to make out the badge and navy blue uniform of Campus Security. "Can you get us some help here?" he called.
"Professor Sandburg?" The flashlight lowered enough for Blair to make out the guard's attractive Asian features. Relieved, Blair recognized her face. The new head of security sometimes stopped into his office for a cup of coffee on her rounds.
"Suzanne?" Blair questioned. He watched while the competent guard called in for a police unit and a couple of ambulances.
"What happened?" Suzanne Tamaki asked as she rushed to the kneeling Blair's side after she'd requested help.
"These three boys tried to beat the crap out of me for failing them," Blair explained.
"And him?" Suzanne gestured at the only uninjured person in the group.
Jim appeared almost catatonic sitting there with his head bent between his knees, obviously overcome by what he'd done.
"Jim saved me," Blair explained, for what would no doubt be the first of many times that night.
"Jim Ellison. He's a student of mine."
"He did this ? by himself?" Her dark gaze roved over the two weeping football players and their unconscious companion before she moved to check their conditions.
"Yeah." Blair sidled closer to his distracted good Samaritan. "Hey Jim, man, you with us here?"
The lowered head slowly raised. Blair's stomach twisted at the tortured expression in those stunning eyes. Even by flashlight, they were an amazing color, almost crystal bright. Jim gave a tight nod, as if speech were beyond him.
Blair was very aware of the fact that, although Jim looked towards his face, the other man did not meet his gaze.
"Are you all right, Jim?" Blair asked through chattering teeth. He hadn't seen the entire fight. It was possible that Jim might have been hurt while dispensing with Kramer and Wallace.
"I - I really lost it. Totally."
Not pretending to misunderstand, Blair reached out to grip a sturdy shoulder. "You saved my life, Jim. It was three to one. You did what you had to do."
"It didn't stop there," Jim protested, still not meeting his eyes.
Vaguely aware of Suzanne in the background moving from one of his assailants to the next, Blair took a chance and reached out his banged up hand to lift Jim's chin. The eyes that turned on him were tormented, filled with self-disgust. "Listen to me, man. They were gonna kill me and you put them down. That's the bottom line here."
For a man of so few words, Jim Ellison's eyes spoke volumes. Blair had never seen such heart-wrenching despair. "But I…."
Shaking so badly from the cold ? and shock ? that he could barely form words, bloodied and bruised, Blair insisted, "It was an extreme situation and you dealt with it with extreme measures. Everything got out of hand. But you didn't kill him, man, and you wanted to. You didn't cross that line."
"Because you stopped me," Jim said, turning away again.
Blair, who still hadn't removed his hand from Jim's warm chin, simply guided Jim's face back to him. "I wouldn't have been able to stop you if you didn't want me to, Jim."
Jim seemed to consider that for a long moment. Finally, he said in the tone of someone bowled over with amazement, "I – I heard you."
"Heard me what?"
"You. Your voice. You called me back from that dark place."
"You make it sound like some kind of m-miracle." Blair tried to lighten the heavy mood.
But Jim took the words at face value. "It was. You … don't know."
Something in Jim's attitude made Blair wonder if he really wanted to understand. There was no getting around the fact that James Ellison was one scary dude. In all his years of traveling throughout the world, Blair had never met anyone capable of such lethal violence. Jim had handled these brawny thugs like they were toddlers. And that inner darkness Jim had unleashed in the fight … that was something Blair knew he never wanted to have turned on him. Every self-preservation instinct he owned was screaming that Jim was bad news, more trouble than he could ever possibly hope to handle. And yet … though he could never explain his certainty, he knew that Jim would never consciously hurt him.
Seeing how badly Jim was still rattled by his lapse of control, Blair stared deep into those uncertain eyes and said, "All I know is that you saved my life. That's all that matters."
"You could live with that?" Jim's chin gestured to where Suzanne was trying to comfort the weeping Kramer. It was a horrible sight, but Blair knew that he wouldn't be seeing it at all were it not for Jim.
Blair swallowed hard. His mouth tasted foul from the blood. "I'm livin' because of that. If you hadn't come along when you did…." He was shaking too much to even finish the thought. "God, it's cold out here."
Jim's bruised right hand touched Blair's shoulder, the movement tentative, as though he expected to be violently rejected. "You're going into shock. Here, put this over you."
Before Blair could begin to protest Jim had shrugged out of his coat and laid it over his shoulders. The warm weight enveloped him like a hug. Even so, Blair felt guilty. Jim was going to freeze without his jacket. "It's cold out h-here, man. You're gonna need…."
"I'm fine," Jim insisted. He then walked back to where he'd removed Blair's shoe and retrieved it. Squatting down beside Blair again, he stated, "Here, we should get this back on you, too. Your foot's going to get cold." With more tenderness than Prince Charming used to slip the glass slipper onto Cinderella's foot, Jim managed to get the sneaker back on to Blair's foot without aggravating the pain too severely.
"I'm going to leave the laces loosened to give you more room, but at least your foot is covered now. How's that feel?"
"It's okay, thanks."
"How's that eye doing?"
Blair thought about it. "I can see out of the eye itself, but it's hard to see around the puffy face."
The upward twist of Jim's mouth might have been a wince or a grin. "If it's any consolation, it looks as bad as it feels."
Blair tried to crack a smile at that. "Oooow." His fingers darted to his lips as they started to bleed again.
Jim was reaching for his face when a commotion behind them made them both turn.
The city cops had arrived, along with a team of paramedics. The two black policemen paused to consult with the campus security guard. One of the paramedics, a large, middle aged woman with graying curly brown hair, lifted her walkie talkie, doubtless to call for several more ambulances, while her slender male partner rushed from football player to football player to check their condition.
Once the Latino paramedic was done with his quick perusal of the three assailants, he hurried over to where Blair and Jim were sitting on the pavement. "Excuse me, sir. Are you in need of medical attention?" From the concerned expression in the handsome face, it was plain that the question was a mere formality. The paramedic was already reaching for Blair's wrist.
Blair pulled his hand quickly away. "No. I'm fine. I just got banged up a bit. You don't have to – "
"Blair, let him do his job," Jim interrupted in a crisp, commanding tone Blair had never heard before.
Blair was so distracted by the change in his student that before he knew what was happening, the paramedic was checking his vital signs.
After his blood pressure was taken, the paramedic declared, "You've got a slight case of shock, sir, in addition to the wide spread abrasions and contusions indicative of a physical altercation."
Amused by the almost textbook recital of his condition, in spite of his pain, Blair gave a somewhat sarcastic, "No kidding."
"Are you injured anywhere else, sir?" the young man persevered.
"His ankle," Jim interjected in that efficient, no-nonsense tone. "The right one."
Blair sat as still as he could as the dark-haired paramedic took hold of his right foot to examine his ankle. He was fine until the guy gave the joint an experimental move. "Ooow!"
"Sorry. The ankle's swollen, sir. But I don't think it's broken."
"That's what Jim said," Blair offered, breathing a sigh of relief. "Great. That means I can go home," Blair enthused.
"I think you should have a doctor verify your condition, sir. I'm just a paramedic," the medic denied.
"No. Thanks anyway. I'll be way better at home," Blair insisted.
"Look, both you and Jim said the same thing. I'll be fine."
"Jim?" the paramedic repeated.
"Me," Jim explained.
"If you're Jim Ellison, then it would be you we need to talk to," a deep voice said from behind them.
Blair turned to see both uniformed cops standing behind them. Blair glanced back at the paramedic. "Thanks for your help, man. But I'll be fine." Then he turned his full attention on the approaching cops.
Neither of their dark, capable-looking faces seemed especially happy at the moment. The burlier of the pair, the one who'd spoken before, continued with, "Ms. Tamaki in security says that you're responsible for this mayhem."
Both cops had their hands close to their weapons and were eyeing Jim as though he were a crazed serial killer. As if sensing their reactions, Jim rose to meet the threat.
His protective instincts stirred by the cops' barely concealed aggression, and 28 years worth of Naomi's prejudice against cops rising inside him, Blair hotly protested, "Hey, they're the ones responsible for this." Blair pointed to his fallen attackers; two more teams of medics had arrived to deal with the casualties. "Jim just saved me."
"And you are?" the smaller cop with the rounder, more affable features inquired.
"Blair Sandburg. I'm an Anthropology professor."
As Blair struggled to get to his feet, a helping hand on his elbow all but lifted him up. Once upright, however, Blair was quickly reminded of his injured ankle when a searing jolt coursed through his leg as his foot touched the pavement.
"Easy," Jim admonished, reaching out to steady him. Jim inched closer, taking Blair's hand and placing it on his forearm to give him something to balance against.
Blair smiled gratefully, able to shift most of his weight over to his left leg now with Jim's sturdy form to keep his right side anchored. Keeping his hand on Jim's arm, he briefly detailed for the cops the events that had led to the attack.
"And Mr. Ellison here just happened to be passing by when these three attacked you?" the larger cop skeptically questioned.
"No. I was waiting for the bus when I heard the sounds of the fight," Jim supplied.
"What bus?" the doubting cop probed.
"The Four," Jim answered.
"That runs on Willis Avenue, clear on the other side of the university," the burly officer remarked, no longer concealing his disbelief. "Are you trying to tell me that you heard a fight from almost three quarters of a mile away?"
Something like fear flashed briefly across Jim's strong features at the question.
Blair realized that it was impossible for anyone to have heard the fight from Willis Avenue. There were four buildings and a track field between here and there. But why the hell would Jim lie about something that simple? Abruptly recalling how Jim made his money, Blair seized upon a possible explanation. This walk was dark and deserted, the perfect site for an illicit assignation. Maybe Jim had been coming here with a trick when he'd come upon the fight. Jim could hardly tell the cops that, could he?
Talking fast, Blair interjected, "Look, I was screaming so loud, they probably heard me clear up to Canada."
Blair felt Jim give a start at his lie and straighten up, his eyes narrowing as they studied him.
"And you're telling me this guy just happened along at the right moment and single-handedly subdued all three of your attackers?" the cop questioned.
"I was on the ground being kicked to death. Jim stopped them," Blair insisted.
"Alone? One against three?" the cop probed.
Jim gusted a breath through his flaring nostrils. Blair didn't like the way Jim's jaw was twitching again. He didn't know what the tic meant, only that there was a truckload of stuff being suppressed behind Jim's stony exterior.
"I was in the military for almost twelve years," Jim offered. "Captain in the Army Rangers. They trained us to handle multiple attackers. These guys were rank amateurs compared to some of the shit Uncle Sam used to throw at us."
"An Army Ranger?" the larger cop repeated.
"Yeah. Anti-Insurgency Unit," Jim supplied.
Blair did his best to hide the shock at this revelation into a piece of Jim's past. A hundred questions raced through his mind, but he quieted them, cataloguing the information for another time.
"You got some ID on you?" the policeman asked, his attitude altering slightly as he obviously re-filed Jim from the psycho-killer category in his mind to the 'one of us' cubbyhole.
"Driver's license. I think my discharge card's in there too," Jim said as he extracted his wallet from the back pocket of his jeans and hunted through it without once moving the arm upon which Blair was leaning. "Yeah. Here's the card."
Relieved, Blair watched the muscular cop accept the documents, taking down license and discharge numbers on his pad. "Will you please wait here while I run these through the computer, sir?"
Noting with relief the formal 'please' and 'sir', Blair relaxed infinitesimally. He still hurt like hell all over. Now that it didn't seem like Jim was going to get in trouble for his rescue, every one of his injuries was making itself known.
"Are you going to be pressing charges, Professor Sandburg?" the friendlier-appearing cop asked as his bigger partner disappeared into the shadows that led to the campus parking lot, where they'd probably left their squad car. Behind them, the paramedics were loading Dillon and company onto stretchers.
"You bet. Those jokers tried to kill me." Blair felt himself getting angry all over again. Strangely enough, the fury started him shaking all over. Way too much adrenaline flooding his system, he recognized.
"You okay, Teach?" Jim's asked quietly, his free hand coming over to light on his elbow.
"Yeah, just … tired. I've got the shakes again," he confessed.
"That's just the shock setting in," Jim counseled, his hand supportively patting Blair's elbow. It stayed there even as the burly cop returned.
"Everything checked out fine, Mr. Ellison," the cop reported, handing back Jim's ID.
"Thanks, Officer…?" Jim said.
"Waters. This is my partner, Farley," the formerly unfriendly cop introduced.
Jim and Blair both nodded to the younger officer.
"If you'll just step over here with me, Mr. Ellison, I'll take your statement while Farley takes Professor Sandburg's."
His left side growing tired from bearing the brunt of his weight, Blair began to sway, a flicker of panic coursing through him as he wondered how he wasn't going to stand here without Jim's assistance.
But Jim was already a step ahead of him. "Come on, why don't you sit over here," Jim instructed, leading the limping Blair over to a bench that was all but invisible in the deep shadows under the oak trees. "Officer Farley, you can take his statement over here, can't you? He shouldn't be standing on that ankle."
"No problem," Farley agreed, his handsome, dark face erupting into a smile.
The next thirty minutes or so passed in a blur of questions and constant repeating of his version of the events. As he answered Officer Farley's probing inquiries, Blair could see Jim going through the same routine with Waters about thirty feet away. Every now and then during the interview, he would look over and catch Jim's concerned gaze staring straight at him.
A comforting warmth would spread through him every time their gazes touched. Although Blair didn't have his glasses on and could barely see past the swollen, discolored tissue of his left eye, it seemed to him that Jim's indistinct face would crinkle up in an almost smile at those moments.
What felt like centuries later, the interviews concluded. Leaving Blair and Jim with the request that they stop into the station the following afternoon to sign their statements, Officers Farley and Waters returned to their squad car.
Still more than a little dazed, Blair sat shivering in the freezing shadows of the bench, staring around the abruptly deserted area. The cops were gone, as were the paramedics and their patients. All that remained in the crime scene were Blair's fallen backpack and Blair himself.
Well, he'd insisted he was fine, he reminded himself. He tried not to feel too depressed, but he seriously wasn't certain that he'd be able to make it home on his own. Hell, with the way his right ankle was throbbing, he wasn't even sure that he'd be able to get to his car. Maybe he could hobble over to the science building, find a phone, and see if maybe Barry could come….
"Hey, you planning on spending the night here or what, Teach?" The familiar, cheerful voice coming out of the darkness behind him nearly gave Blair heart failure.
"Jim!" Blair turned in shocked surprise. "I thought everyone was gone."
Embarrassed by his near-frantic tone, Blair slammed his mouth shut. He didn't want Jim to think him a total dweeb.
The smile on the handsome face faltered. "I just went to get my books where I dropped them." In the thick shadows, Blair could only see the whites of Jim's eyes as the bigger man scanned the area. "Jeez, they really cleared out of here quick, didn't they?"
"Yeah," Blair agreed in a subdued tone. Belatedly realizing that he was still wearing Jim's pea jacket, Blair offered, "I guess you came back for your coat."
Blair shivered even harder as his rescuer came to hunch down in front of him so that their eyes were level. "Actually, I came back for you, Teach."
"You did?" For some absurd reason, the statement made Blair almost burst into tears. He just managed to hold back the flow. He'd never hurt this bad. Everything from his head to his feet ached. But more than the physical pain, was the emotional anguish. He still couldn't believe that people he knew had purposefully done this to him. His emotions were too close to the surface right now. And Jim was … well, Jim was just being way too considerate. Although he normally prided himself on this independence, he'd never needed anyone as badly as he needed someone to be kind to him right now.
"Yeah," Jim said, all quiet and serious.
Blair stared at the handsome man hunkered down before him. In his jeans and wheat colored Aran Island sweater, Jim was obviously casually attired. Even so, Blair had never seen a more suitable candidate for superhero. In his admittedly prejudiced opinion, all Jim was missing was the cape. And with that kind of body, who needed the cape?
"Thanks," Blair mumbled, feeling unaccountably shy. It was a stupid thing to be thinking ? probably a result of being hit on the head, he realized ? but with all these bruises and cuts, he felt ugly being so close to Jim's sleek perfection. He'd never felt so unattractive in his life. Why that should matter right now was something he didn't want to examine too closely, not after having spent the last six weeks programming himself to think of Jim as a student only.
"No need." Blair could feel those silverish eyes probing his features as Jim spoke. "Are you sure you don't want to have a doctor check you out?"
"Nah, like you said, it's all bruises and sprains."
"I'm not infallible, you know," Jim said, appearing self-conscious.
Blair forced a smile, even though it hurt like hell. "Could've fooled me."
Jim gave a breathy snort before asking, "So, you about ready to call it a night, slugger?"
Liking the affectionate tone of the nicknames Jim kept giving him, Blair nodded. "Yeah, providing I can make it to my car."
"It's up in the lot?" Jim questioned.
"Come on, I'll give you a hand." After that casual offer, Jim leaned forward and just about lifted him to his feet.
"My backpack…" Blair fretted, recalling his abandoned bag.
"Okay. You hold onto this tree. I'll get it."
Blair had to smile as the taller man practically velcroed his hands to the nearby oak tree to assure that he remained standing. At the agony that swept through his sprained ankle, he realized that Jim's concerns hadn't been unfounded. If it weren't for the tree's stable presence, he would have fallen for sure.
Within seconds, Jim was back, both of their knapsacks hung from the wide shoulders, one on each side.
"Thanks, here, I'll – "
"You'll hang on to me and stop worrying about it," Jim ordered in a no-nonsense tone as he slipped an arm around Blair's waist and took most of the smaller man's weight onto himself. Because of their discrepancy in heights, Jim wasn't able to slip Blair's arm over his shoulders to hold him up as he might have done with a taller man.
Blair was left with no choice but to slip his arm around Jim's waist in return. The hold was so close to a hug or embrace that Blair was temporarily short-circuited by the pleasant intimacy. God, but that powerful body felt incredible pressed so close to him. Jim was so big, so strong. And the heat of the man! He was still wearing Jim's jacket on top of his own, but the body heat flowing from that tall figure still felt hotter than a furnace. Lightheaded, the ever-chilly Blair recognized that he'd never be cold again if he had something like Jim waiting for him at home.
The pleasant fantasy was cut short by their first step. The white-hot agony that flooded through his entire bruised body jolted all thought from his mind. Try as he would, he couldn't hold in the moan that ripped through him.
Jim froze immediately. "How bad?"
"Aaahmm o-kay," Blair gasped.
"Yeah, of course you are. You've only been beaten to within an inch of your life," Jim shot back, sounding angry.
"I-I'm s-sor-ry," Blair muttered, holding in the cry at his next step.
Jim halted as if he'd heard it anyway. "About what?"
"Huh?" Blair tried to think, but all there was was the throbbing pain, all over.
"You said you were sorry," Jim reminded.
"You – you sounded mad. I kn-know I'm p-putting you out…" Blair stammered, through chattering teeth.
Blair jerked as Jim's free hand reached over to gently turn his face his way. "You're not putting me out. And I wasn't angry at you, Teach, but at the animals that did this to you."
Those eyes were so unbelievably tender that Blair was momentarily stunned by them. "Oh," was all he could manage.
They were standing so close together, with Jim bending down to look into his face, their heads positioned perfectly for a kiss, that Blair could hardly breathe in the closeness, let alone think.
"This isn't working," Jim announced after a moment, his eyes darting to the set of concrete stairs they'd have to climb to get to the parking lot.
"It'll be midnight before we reach the stairs at this rate, let alone your car."
"S-sorry." It seemed to be Blair's battered mind could come up with.
"Look, I'm going to try to lift you up. If it hurts more than walking does, just say so and I'll put you right down again. All right?" Jim suggested.
"Jim, you don't have to…" Blair automatically protested.
"All right?" Jim insisted.
His cheeks blazing, Blair made another try for independence. "Look, I know I'm small, but I don't want to be treated like a child, okay? I can manage…"
"Who said anything about you being small or treating you like a child?" Jim asked calmly, his arrogant, lethally handsome features seeming to dare him to accuse him of patronizing him.
Irritated by the amusement he sensed lurking behind that controlled outer facade, Blair shot back as sarcastically as he could manage in his current battered condition, "I suppose you offer to carry everyone you meet around?"
"Not everyone. But I once carried a 230 pound private 14 miles through hostile territory. He was injured only a little worse than you are, Teach. It's no insult to your masculinity to accept help when you really need it. In fact, in my book, it's pretty damn stupid to exacerbate an injury if you can avoid doing so. But it's your choice. You want to hop all the way up to your car, I'm game." Jim did not grin at him, but the smile was there in his bright eyes.
"You don't understand…" Blair muttered, looking away. He had no clue how he could even begin to explain what life was like for a 140 pound, 5'9" academic to this perfect physical specimen.
"I understand about pride, Blair," Jim said quietly.
The use of his first name brought Blair's gaze back to the other man's face. The strangely solemn set focused his attention as Jim continued, "Sometimes it's all you've got left and you feel you should die before you let someone take it away from you. But letting me help you up the stairs isn't going to take your pride away. I wouldn't do that to another human being."
By no way did Jim's facial expression reveal the personal experiences that had motivated that declaration. It was Jim's eyes that said it all. Cloaked in shadows that had little to do with the lack of lighting, every inequity and humiliation the man had suffered was clearly revealed there. Jim knew what he was talking about. From Captain in the Army Rangers to male prostitute, a fall like that had to be some blow to a guy's pride.
Swallowing hard, Blair said, "I know you wouldn't, Jim. I didn't mean to be such a pain. It's just…."
"Hard, I know. But this is strictly between us, okay?"
And because Jim was asking, giving him the choice of refusing this necessity and making do like an idiot, Blair found himself nodding his agreement. "Okay."
Jim didn't say anything, but the softening of his expression spoke volumes. Not making a big production out of it, Jim bent over and scooped him into his arms.
Blair gasped at the sudden change of position. Jim's right arm was supporting his knees, his left holding his torso close to the broad chest. It was hard not to be embarrassed when you were being held like a six-year old, but Blair did his best not to feel self-conscious.
"You okay with this? Jim checked.
"It doesn't hurt more?"
Blair thought about it. His stomach hurt more this way, but overall, it was better than standing. And there was positively no comparison to the agony of walking. "No. You were right. It's better this way."
The small smile Jim gave him seemed to say that he'd understood how hard that was for Blair to admit that.
As Jim started to walk to the parking lot stairs, Blair hesitantly settled his arms around the wide, powerful neck. Even though he hurt over every inch of his body, it was difficult for him to ignore how magnificent a physical specimen Jim truly was, especially when he was cradled so close to it. Every breath brought with it Jim's fresh, clean scent and the subtle traces of his pine forest aftershave. The arms supporting him were so strong around him, so inherently protective, that for long moments, Blair simply clung there, drinking in those safe vibes.
But eventually he figured he should say something. Floundering, Blair voiced the first stupid thing that came to mind. "You're pretty strong, huh? You're not even winded carrying me like this."
Jim gave a soft chuckle. "That's a no-win statement, there, Teach."
"No matter what I say, I'm gonna offend you. So I'm just gonna take the fifth on it, okay?"
Liking his companion's sense of humor, Blair smiled in return. "Okay."
Jim carried him up the dark stairs to the deserted parking lot like he weighed nothing.
"Which car are we looking for here?" Jim questioned as he paused to survey the near-empty lot. There were only a couple of dozen cars remaining.
"The greenish gray Corvair over there." Blair pointed his pride and joy out.
"Great ride," Jim approved as they approached the classic car. When they reached the driver's door, Jim placed Blair gently back on his feet.
Looking up into the heroic profile of the man who'd saved his life, Blair gulped and offered, "Thank you ? for everything you did for me tonight."
"You're very welcome, but don't be so fast here," Jim warned.
"Are you going to be able to drive with that ankle? Jim asked.
Blair thought about it. He experimented by putting a little weight on his right foot, not nearly the degree of pressure needed to depress the brakes or accelerator, and nearly blacked out from the resulting pain.
Jim grabbed his arm as he stumbled, anchoring him up.
"Probably not," Blair was forced to admit.
"Keys?" the taller man asked, holding out an expectant hand.
"Jim, I can't ask you to drive me home…"
"You didn't ask. I offered," Jim corrected.
"I can't accept."
"Because it's getting really late. You've probably got places you need to go…" Blair faltered under that open gaze, blushing furiously.
Nevertheless, Jim appeared to absorb the gist of his protest. His features going very soft, Jim said, "Tonight's Monday. The club's closed. It's my night off. I don't have to be anywhere."
"Even so, I can't monopolize your time like this…."
"You're not monopolizing. If you're saying this to be polite, you don't have to. I don't make offers I don't mean. But if there's another reason," Jim hesitated for a moment, "If you want me gone, I'll disappear."
This being the farthest thing from his mind, Blair reached out to grab hold of the front of Jim's cable knit sweater. "I don't want you gone. I just don't want you to feel you have to…."
His words trailed off, stilled by the emotion in those beautiful silver blue eyes.
After a quiet moment, Jim offered almost shyly, "It's been a while since I felt good about anything I've done. Let me do this for you, okay?"
Choked up, his throat hurting almost more than his injuries, Blair gulped and nodded. "Okay, ah … thanks."
Jim's smile was worth the awkwardness, maybe even the beating itself. Blair had never made anyone so happy with so little effort.
"Great. Here, let's get you settled," Jim said, quickly moving to unlock the passenger door. Blair got the feeling his rescuer was trying to escape the heavy emotions throbbing between them.
The chemistry operating here was so powerful it scared the hell out of him. He knew only the vaguest particulars about this man's life, and what Blair did know about Jim wasn't either edifying or reassuring, but on some level, he felt like he'd know him forever.
Puzzling over the odd connection he felt to this almost stranger, Blair allowed Jim to settle him into the passenger seat. Now that he was sitting still, every ache seemed to make itself felt. Even the padded leather behind him hurt his bruised back. But he knew he'd gotten off lucky. If Jim hadn't come along when he did, he knew he wouldn't even be around to hurt right now.
Blair watched as Jim took his seat behind the wheel. The brutal fight didn't appear to have fazed Jim at all. If anything had unsettled Jim, it seemed to have been that scene in the parking lot.
Aside from voicing the required directions, the ride home was fairly quiet. Blair's aches were worsening. He was beginning to feel a little unfocused, so he tried to stay awake by watching the play of streetlights across Jim's strong profile.
They were about halfway to the loft when Jim cleared his throat and quietly asked, "Are you flaking out or have I got something on my face?"
"Huh?" Blair started.
"You're staring at me."
"Is there a reason or are you just drifting?" Jim questioned.
"A little of both, I guess." Blair gave a smile.
Jim's eyes momentarily left the road to check his features out.
Maybe it was the pain, but Blair found himself answering without taking the time to consider his words. "All the times that I pictured us doing something together, I never imagined it being quite like this." Blair gave a soft chuckle and gestured at his banged up face.
"You thought about us doing something together?" Jim sounded genuinely surprised.
Realizing how he'd just blown almost two months worth of self-discipline, Blair sighed. "Sorry. I knew it wasn't very professional, but … hell, I should just shut up now."
"Why?" Jim seemed mystified.
"Because we already had this conversation on the first day of class," Blair reminded.
There was a pause, then Jim cautiously asked, "You mean the 'I don't date my students' talk?
After a quiet moment, Jim hesitantly continued with, "Were you … unprofessional, even after you saw me at Whispers?"
Jim's tense profile told Blair little besides the fact that his companion was upset over this subject. Unsure how he should answer, Blair asked, "The truth?"
"Yeah, the truth." Jim seemed braced for a blow.
Blair was confused until he realized that any normal person would have stopped having those kind of fantasies when they learned that the object of their affections was a prostitute. That was the reaction Jim was prepared for. Nervous about how wise he was being, Blair admitted, "Even after."
From across the car, Blair heard the loud swallow Jim gave. Wishing that he was more focused, so that he could think this through clearly, Blair attempted to explain, "It wasn't … cheap or tawdry, at least it wasn't all … I'm sorry."
"For?" Jim's quick glance carried no reproach, only open confusion.
Blair forced his hurting mouth to work right. "It was inappropriate for me as your teacher to…."
"Think me worthy of your interest?" Jim guessed, before adding, "You kept your thoughts to yourself. You didn't behave inappropriately."
"But I just…."
"I asked you a direct question," Jim said.
"After I was stupid and revealed..."
"Can we skip the self-flagellation, Teach? You look too sore to take much more punishment tonight."
Blair actually chuckled at the solemn tone. "This is serious," he insisted, trying to stifle the smile Jim's comment had left on his face. If nothing else, it hurt to keep twisting his cut and swollen mouth that way.
"Because now..." Blair faltered as his fuzzy mind tried to muster his arguments.
"I'm not going to take advantage of you ? academically or personally." Jim promised.
"I know that." Blair was almost angered by the suggestion.
"Then what's the big deal?"
"Shouldn't have ? what? Admitted that you like the way I look?"
"No!" Blair protested.
"You don't like the way I look?" The quick glance Jim shot him told Blair that his companion was joking. The lethally good-looking man appeared nearly crestfallen, playing up the pathos for all he was worth.
"I didn't say that."
"Than what are you saying?" Jim questioned, sounding the voice of reason.
Blair was accustomed to taking that tone himself, not having it leveled against him. "I've screwed everything up now," he explained what he thought to be blatantly obvious.
"I..." Blair snapped his mouth shut. He was not going to compound his mistake by telling Jim how much he liked him again.
"Nothing's changed, Teach," Jim assured.
"What do you mean 'nothing's changed'? I've spent the last two months trying to be professional about this and now I've just…"
"What you said doesn't change anything. Look, even if you hadn't given me that 'I don't date my students' spiel, you wouldn't have had anything to worry about, okay?"
Blair couldn't believe how much those words hurt. He felt like someone had just refused his marriage proposal ? which he knew was completely absurd. He should be happy Jim was being sensible about this, only ... only he felt devastated by what was basically a declaration of disinterest.
In too much physical discomfort to monitor his thoughts, Blair heard himself ask, "But that first day of class ? we were flirting ... weren't we?" Once the words were out, he felt like a complete jerk.
But Jim didn't shoot him down or laugh in his face. Instead, that granite profile seemed to soften around the edges. Jim's voice was very gentle as he glanced over to confirm, "Yeah, we were flirting that first day."
Blair considered for a moment. He knew he should drop the subject right now, but he was too confused to let it go. Figuring that he might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, he offered, "I kinda got the feeling that the attraction was mutual."
For someone who was attempting to maintain a professional attitude with his student, he was failing miserably, Blair realized.
Once again Jim's gaze briefly shifted from the road to reassure, "It was." Jim returned his attention to his driving and continued with, "But it wouldn't have gone any further than harmless flirtation, Teach."
Intrigued by the certainty, when Blair himself was even now wondering how they were ever going to get back to a professional footing, he asked, "How's that?"
For a long moment, it seemed Jim wasn't going to answer him. After what felt like a million years, Jim self-consciously replied, "Because I don't have 'relationships' anymore."
"What?" Blair couldn't have kept the rude question in if there had been a gun at his head. "But ? why?"
"You know what I do for a living," Jim replied with the slightest shade of recrimination in his tone.
"Yeah, so? That doesn't mean –"
"Would you want to be 'involved' with someone in that line of work, outside of his professional capacity?" Jim stiffly demanded, as though he suspected he were being teased.
Blair tried to figure out a way to answer without betraying himself. Finding no means other than a direct lie, which he was oddly unwilling to give to this man who'd just saved his life, he said, "I am involved with someone in that line of work outside of his professional capacity."
There was a moment of stunned silence before Jim protested, "But we're not in a relationship."
"You're my student," Blair reiterated.
"And if I weren't ? that would make a difference?" Jim demanded.
"Of course, it would."
"You expect me to believe that someone like you would allow himself to become involved with a common hustler?" Jim's skepticism was barely the polite side of scornful disdain.
Blair sighed and shifted a little to try and relieve the pressure on his bruised butt. There was no way to answer that question without totally abandoning his pretense of professionalism. His best bet was to remain silent, but he hated hearing Jim talk about himself in those terms. Jim wasn't even attempting to conceal his self-loathing.
Deciding to lay all his cards on the table, Blair hotly denied, "I don't know what you are, Jim Ellison, but you're no common hustler. In fact, there's nothing common about you at all, and even if there was ... I told you before, I try not to make those kind of judgment calls."
"So you're saying that if I asked you out on a date, you'd agree to go?" Jim probed, as if intent on setting himself up for a fall.
"You're still my student," Blair reminded.
"And that's a cop out," Jim shot back, looking vindicated.
Very aware that he was about to kiss his career goodbye here, Blair said the only thing his conscience would allow, "Are you asking me out?"
"And if I were, what would you say?"
"That I'm a little too sore for anything tonight, but I'm free tomorrow night ? and the rest of the month, for that matter," he added to preclude Jim's wriggling out.
"You'd do it, too, wouldn't you?" Jim sounded shocked. "You're such an idealist that you'd go out with me just to prove your point."
Blair didn't think that he could hurt any worse than the aching state which the beating had left him in, but Jim's quiet observation damn near broke his heart. Jim really sounded as if he believed that was the only reason he would consider going out with him now, was so that he wouldn't be a hypocrite. Taking a deep breath, he tried to talk around the lump clogging his throat, but his voice came out even huskier than the hoarse imitation he'd been using all night. "No, I'd go out with you because I really like you ... like you enough to risk my whole fucking career. I just flushed my professional integrity down the toilet here, but don't insult my personal integrity that way. There isn't anything in the world that would make me date someone I didn't care about or have a genuine interest in."
The silence that followed his admonition was thick enough to cut with a butter knife. For some reason, the car seemed strangely dark at this moment, with only the dashboard lights illuminating the interior. Blair sat there shivering, watching Jim's green-lit features. That tic in Jim's jaw was going a mile a minute again.
"I'm sorry," Jim said at last, the hesitation in his normally controlled voice seemed to hint at how rarely he used those words. "I was outta line before. You've been nothing but kind to me. I guess ... I'm not used to that anymore."
Blair swallowed hard, all twisted up inside from Jim's honesty. This guy was gonna kill him with lines like that. When he thought he could speak in something other than an embarrassing squeak, Blair said, "You don't haveta apologize. I came on a little strong myself. I'm sorry, too. Guess we're both still a little wired after what happened before."
"So," Blair said into the quiet that had descended between them, "are we gonna go out or what?"
"You don't date your students," Jim replied in a soft tone that was lost somewhere between relief and regret. The emotion in the quick glance that accompanied it sent butterflies careening through Blair's stomach.
Understanding that Jim was attempting to defuse the tension between them, he gave a small, sad smile and answered, "And you don't have relationships anymore."
Blair was about to add more when Jim asked as they turned onto Prospect, "This it?"
"Yeah, this is it."
Jim smoothly maneuvered the Corvair into an open space and said, "Hang on. I'll get the door."
"Jim, you don't have to –"
"It'll take you an hour to hop to the entrance. Let me get you inside and settled, okay?"
Reading the genuine concern and the desire to do for him in those strong features, Blair found himself nodding agreement. Damn, but he really liked this man. Jim's career choice and his own professional ethics aside, he wanted nothing more than to curl up in the safe harbor of those powerful arms and let the world pass them by until he stopped hurting.
The air that came into the car when Jim stepped out was cold as an arctic blast. The immediate chill shocked him out of his pleasant reverie, tensing his bruised body up all over again. The cold was even worse when Jim opened the passenger door. His teeth chattering uncontrollably, Blair attempted to muffle a moan as Jim reached in to help him to his feet.
Attaining the vertical, Blair stood there swaying for a second as the storefronts and car lights on Prospect swam alarmingly around him. Dizzy, he clung to Jim's tree-sturdy form, lifting his right leg off the ground to take the pressure off his injured ankle.
"You okay, Blair?"
Blair, not Teach. He liked how Jim said his name. Though there was nothing exotic or strange about Jim's pronunciation of the single syllable, it shivered along his nervous system like an aural caress.
"Yeah," he lied. There was every possibility he'd freeze into an Eskimo pop just standing here.
"Alley-oop, Teach," Jim warned before bending to scoop him up into his arms.
And, as easy as that, Blair wasn't cold anymore. Those arms were just as sheltering and warm as he remembered. He wound his hands behind Jim's wide, muscular neck, doing his utmost not to feel like a kid.
Blair wanted to rest his head on that broad, inviting shoulder, but that was too much of a liberty to take, especially after the conversation they'd just had. Jim had made it pretty plain that he didn't want any involvement, but as far as he could see, Jim had left it too late. Against both their better judgment, the feelings were already there. He knew that he'd do his best to act in a professional capacity once back on campus, but right now he just didn't have the strength for such deceptions.
"You sure you don't mind doing this?" Blair checked.
Jim seemed to sense how badly Blair needed the verbal reassurance while in this demeaning position. The hands supporting him tightened slightly as Jim assured, "I'm sure. You comfortable?"
"Ah-hah," Blair nodded.
An especially gusty blast of wind howled down the street as they neared the building. As its icy fingers ripped into him, Blair felt Jim's left hand slide up his back to the nape of his neck. Exerting the lightest of pressure, Jim guided his cheek down onto the shoulder that had so tempted him before, urging his face out of the wind, Blair realized. Jim seemed to be unconsciously shielding him with his larger body.
Blair couldn't recall anyone taking this type of care with him since he was a little kid.
"Christ, it's cold," Jim muttered.
"Sorry. I'm still wearing your coat," Blair said into the nearby ear. He couldn't help but notice the large freckle on its inner shell. Maybe it was because that freckle was probably something only a lover would know about, but, for some weird reason, its presence there made him go all soft inside ? like he wasn't mush already. He suspected that he'd jump through burning hoops at this man's bidding ... and they hadn't even kissed yet.
The warmth of Jim's left hand pulled back from his neck as they reached the outer security door. Blair grunted in pain as he was jostled around a little. It took a second for his battered mind to surmise the reason for the delay and discomfort. The metal jangling from down near their waists was a dead give away to the problem. Jim was trying to figure out which of the twenty keys on Blair's overburdened key ring opened the front door. And Jim was attempting to find it one-handed.
"Here, I'll get it." Blair suppressed a groan as he reached for the heavy ring.
A second or two later, Blair was holding up the brassy key. "This is it. The roundish one next to it opens the apartment door."
"Are you sure you don't want me to walk?" Blair checked.
"Totally sure." Jim's grin was sweet and indulgent, like it was no big deal for him to tote a full-grown man around like this.
"If you're sure, the elevator's over to the left," Blair instructed once they were inside. After the frigid night and the howling winds, the warmth hit him like a sexual release, intense and enveloping. "Damn, the heat feels good."
"Yeah," Jim agreed in a soft tone.
There was something very endearing about the big man's unpretentious attitude. Another guy would have been cracking jokes and making Blair feel very self-conscious about needing this type of help, but it almost seemed to be Jim who was ill at ease. Jim was like a gawky schoolboy, he thought, hiding this sweet shyness behind the arrogant front he put on for the world. As they crossed to the elevator, it almost seemed as though Jim were the one expecting to be teased.
For showing gentleness and compassion? Blair wondered.
Thankfully, none of his neighbors were in the hall, so he was spared the embarrassment of an explanation. Within moments, they were outside the loft door. This time the jostling was much less frantic as Jim opened the door one-handed.
Blair always loved the spaciousness of the huge loft, but when you first walked in when it was dark like this, it was rather like stepping into a pitch-black cavern.
"This is nice," Jim admired before the lights were even on.
Blair wondered what the hell the other man could see. Aside from the rectangular splash of hall light that fell only a half-dozen feet or so inside, the rest of the place was dark as a tomb. Even knowing the floor plan and furniture layout inside the place, it was all stygian shadows inside to Blair.
Stunned, Blair heard his companion ask, "Do you want me to put you down on the couch or in the bed upstairs?"
"The couch, please. Upstairs is the guest room."
Blair stared at Jim's back-lit features as the other man turned to their right to snap on the overhead lights. Even before the lights were on, Jim seemed to be checking out the decor.
As they crossed to the comfy blue coach on the far side of the living room, over by the terrace windows and door, Blair couldn't help but ask, "How'd you know there was a bedroom upstairs, Jim?"
"It was pitch black in here. How'd you know?"
Blair was watching Jim's face closely, so he caught the puzzling flash of almost-fear that crossed those set features. "I, ah, saw the hall lights reflect across the headboard."
"From the hall outside the apartment door? That's got to be a hundred feet away."
"I've always had good eyesight. I eat a lot of carrots," Jim joked, but it was a hollow attempt.
Blair didn't know what the hell was going on here, but he'd swear that Jim was suddenly terrified and doing everything he could to hide it. But of what? It didn't make any sense.
Not wanting to make his rescuer feel more uneasy, Blair decided to drop the subject. What the hell did it matter if Jim had seen the bed from the loft door, a feat that only one in a million people probably could have managed. He reminded himself that Jim had been in the Army Rangers. Those soldiers were trained to notice their surroundings.
Even as Blair tried to dismiss the thought, he could feel something stirring in the back of his mind. He was aching pretty bad right now, so it was hard to think too straight. However, he still had the horrible feeling that he was missing something important here.
When he didn't press the point, Jim's entire body seemed to relax. Pressed as close as he was, Blair could hardly miss how the tight form supporting him relaxed. He couldn't begin to imagine what the hell Jim was so afraid of ? for it was fear, Blair was certain of that much.
Jim brought him to the couch, placing him down onto the cushions as though he were made of delicate bone china. Without being asked, Jim pulled the book-laden coffee table closer to the sofa and cleared a space for Blair's leg.
Blair couldn't quite hold in the groan as Jim lifted his leg up. Now that he was sitting totally still, every kick, punch and scrape he'd suffered was making itself painfully known.
"You'll probably feel better with the shoe off," Jim commented.
"It's gonna hurt," the bigger man warned.
Gritting his teeth together, Blair nodded his permission. He didn't exactly cry out when Jim carefully eased his running shoe off, but the sound was something more than a moan.
"Sorry, Teach." Jim winced, as if he'd felt the pain himself.
"It – it's not your fault," he gasped. While Blair was recouping his strength, Jim knelt down to remove the other shoe from his uninjured foot.
"Here, let's get you out of those jackets and under this," Jim suggested as he pulled over the colorful rainbow striped afghan that was balled on the end of the couch.
"You don't have to do all this, Jim," Blair protested, though he had no clue as to how he'd manage without Jim's help right now.
"It's not a problem," Jim answered. All his attention seemed focused on not jostling him too severely as he eased off the over-sized pea coat and Blair's own black leather jacket beneath it. Before he could so much as shiver, the heavy afghan was snuggled around him.
"Have you got a heating pad, Teach?" Jim asked.
"For your ankle."
"I thought you were supposed to put ice on a sprain," Blair said.
"Heat, then ice. Put the ice pack on it tomorrow. The pad?"
Feeling fuzzy around the edges again now that he was all warm and toasty, while snuggled safe on his own couch, Blair struggled to think. "In the cabinet under the bathroom sink, I think."
"I'll be back in a sec. Sit tight."
The next ten minutes or so were occupied with Jim retrieving the heating pad, starting a fire in the cast iron hearth, and putting water on to boil.
In a bit of a daze, Blair followed the other man's quick, decisive motions. No energy was wasted at all. Jim flowed from one task to the next as fluidly as a stalking cat.
As Jim knelt to kindle the hearth fire, Blair's dazed mind couldn't help but admire him. The man's physical beauty was incredibly striking. He didn't think that he'd ever seen anything as sensual as the glow of the firelight playing over Jim's face when the wood caught.
His task accomplished, Jim rose back up to his feet, seeming temporarily at loose ends. While the kettle was heating, Jim came to stand in the living room near the couch, his stunning silver-blue eyes roaming over the decor.
Blair looked around, wondering how the place appeared to a stranger. He'd inherited the loft and most of its furnishings from an honorary uncle, an old guy who'd rescued Naomi and him from their snow-locked car on the interstate during a blizzard when Blair was six. Old Ralph had been the single constant in Blair's turbulent childhood. One of the few men in their lives who hadn't been Naomi's lover, Ralph was a friend they'd returned to again and again. He was the person Naomi always left Blair with when she set out on adventures that wouldn't admit children and the guy who'd come through for Blair when those damn drug dealers had blown up his apartment when he was just starting grad school.
Although he'd been dead over five years now, Ralph's influences could still be seen in the bulky, overstuffed couches, wing-backed red velvet armchairs, and lustrous mahogany end tables and coffee table. The tables and armchairs were older than Blair himself. The more modern additions to the room, the television, stereo system, and computer were all Blair's, as were all the decorations adorning the bright white walls.
Blair had lived here so long that he hardly noticed the clash in styles anymore, but the Pre-Columbian ceremonial masks, South American native weaponry, Zulu spears and alternative rock posters must seem rather schizoid alongside Ralph's colonial furniture. Hell, there were even a few of Ralph's wife's delicate Hummel figurines lurking behind a Lakota drum on the bookshelf in the corner, and she'd been dead for over forty years. When one added the bewildering touches of a generous number of Barry's oil paintings, stone sculptures, huge metal objets d'art and objets trouves' to the mix, the effect was quite stupefying to the unprepared.
Like anyone could be prepared for this place, Blair thought to himself, amused by Jim's reaction. His guest was standing there in the center of the living room, staring around the place with the shell-shocked visage of someone who'd been lost in a museum for too long.
"It's a little over-kill, I guess," Blair commented when a strange blank look started to turn Jim's features a little slack and empty. Jim was just staring into one of Barry's modern pieces, an acrylic psychedelic painting that was a dizzying pink and blue swirl of color and movement.
Jim jumped as though Blair had shrieked the words into his ear, staring wildly about the place for several moments as if he had no idea where he was or how he'd come to be there.
"Jim, are you all right, man?"
Blinking as though awoken from a deep sleep, Jim focused on him. Jim gulped so loud that Blair could hear him from ten feet away.
"Ah, yeah. How long..." Jim's gaze jumped to the cable box on top of the television, then he abruptly shut his mouth. "Oh," the big guy said, seemingly to himself.
The kettle's shriek interrupted Blair's question.
"I'll get that tea for you. Chamomile, right?" Waiting only long enough for Blair's nod, Jim practically bolted from the room.
Something had just happened here, but for the life of him, Blair had no clue as to what. For a moment there, as Jim had stared at Barry's disturbing painting, it almost seemed as though Jim's mind had clicked off, literally, not just figuratively. Jim had even had to check the time when he'd come back to himself, as though he'd had no idea how long he'd been standing there staring at that painting. But that didn't make any sense.
Blair figured he'd just wait to ask his questions for the minute or two it was going to take Jim to realize that he'd forgotten to ask him where he kept the herbal tea. It wasn't exactly visible. He kept the chamomile in an unmarked tin in the back of the cabinet over the sink.
Blair watched the cable box tick off time, one minute, two ... no Jim. When nearly four had passed, Jim returned with a tray laden with a box of chocolate chip cookies Blair kept stashed here for Barry and two steaming mugs from which the unmistakable scent of chamomile was rising.
The mugs were the ones Blair had left in the sink this morning. Jim had merely rinsed them out. But the presence of the tea was a mystery.
Blair didn't know how Jim had found the stuff. Blair knew that he'd closed all the cupboard doors before he'd left the house today. He'd been listening closely in here while Jim was out in the kitchen. There hadn't been any noises of searching. All he'd heard was a single cabinet door opening and closing, as though Jim had known precisely where the tea was kept. Which was blatantly impossible, unless the guy had sniffed the stuff out like a bloodhound on a trail.
Chuckling at the absurd notion, Blair decided he must have just phased out again and missed the sound of the search. He was starting to get sleepy. The heat from that electric pad was doing wonders for his whole body. He'd finally stopped shaking.
"Here we go, Teach." Jim had this almost braced look about him, like he was waiting for some kind of inquisition.
It was that skittish expression that made Blair squelch his curiosity. Jim had saved his life tonight. What was he going to do, grill the poor guy because he flaked out looking at one of Barry's bizarre paintings? Jim had been in an intense physical altercation himself tonight. Doubtless, his rescuer was still a little out of it.
As for the tea? Blair figured that maybe he'd left the cabinet open, after all. A large tin was the natural place to look for tea.
"My pleasure." With an expression of nearly indecent relief at being let off the hook, Jim settled down on the couch beside him. Anticipating Blair's need, Jim eased one of the mugs into Blair's hands.
Blair was touched by the man's thoughtfulness, the quiet concern that marked each of his actions. No matter what Jim did for a living, this was one really special human being. Even if they never became lovers, he wanted this guy for a friend. And he wanted to help Jim, if he could.
It was obvious Jim wasn't happy in his line of work. But that was something that was going to require delicate handling. Anyone could see that this was a proud man who would not easily accept unsolicited help. The heat of the tea felt wonderful going down. As its warmth spread through his chilled, aching flesh, Blair simply sat there, watching the other man sip his drink.
"Do you have someone who can come over and stay with you tomorrow?" Jim asked after a while. "I don't think you're going to be up to classes tomorrow."
Wondering who the hell he could call, Blair automatically nodded, "Yeah, I got it covered."
"The truth, Teach." Jim's gaze had turned hard as steel.
"What are you, man, some kind of organic truth detector machine?" Blair groused, but he was smiling.
"No, you're just a lousy liar."
"Who's lying now? I'm a natural born con artist, and you know it," Blair challenged. Intrigued by this puzzling individual, he went on with, "That's quite a gift you've got there, Jim."
Not taking the bait, Jim stuck to his original topic, "Do you have someone to stay with you?"
"Yeah, I can call Barry."
"The guy that was with you at the club that night?" Jim asked, far too casually.
Sensing the questions Jim wasn't allowing himself to voice, lest Jim incriminate himself by revealing his interest and possible jealousy, Blair nodded, "Yeah, that's him. He's my best friend. Purely platonic."
"That's none of my business, Teach," Jim instantly denied.
Blair met and held those eyes. "Maybe. I just prefer to avoid miscommunication problems whenever possible."
"He do all these?" Jim gestured at the hodgepodge of artistic styles and mediums decorating the room.
"He's pretty good."
Blair grinned, as proud as if he'd created the pieces himself. "He's brilliant, but I'm pretty prejudiced on this topic."
"Nothing wrong with loyalty, Teach."
"That's true." Blair sipped his tea. Feeling all sleepy and warm, he watched the handsome, older man drink for a minute before softly offering, "I, ah, want to thank you again for everything you did for me tonight, Jim. I wouldn't even be alive if you hadn't come by when you did."
"You don't have to thank me for that," Jim denied with that same endearing self-consciousness.
"So you said. I just want you to know that I am grateful for all your help."
"I don't want your gratitude." Jim looked nervous, almost cornered.
"I know. I just needed to say it, okay?" Blair explained, feeling like he was calming a spooked animal.
Jim gave a tight nod of his head.
"You sure your friend will come?" Jim asked after a few silent moments.
"Barry will come. I'll call him first thing in the morning." Blair took another mouthful of tea. Maybe it was the soothing effects of the chamomile herb or the shock he'd suffered, but his eyelids kept slipping closed. Realizing that there was one more detail he needed to sort out before he could give way to his exhaustion, Blair asked, "How are you gonna get home?"
Jim had told the police that he was waiting for the bus when he heard the fight.
"I can catch the 6 out front," Jim dismissed.
"But didn't you say that you were waiting for the 4 before? The 6 goes to the other side of town," Blair said.
"There's a transfer point at Willis."
Remembering the horrors he'd suffered waiting for the bus in his own days of being a victim of public transport, Blair protested, "Man, Cascade Rapid Transit makes Waiting for Godot look easy."
"Waiting for Godot, huh? That was a good one, Teach," Jim grinned. That smile looked damn good on his normally solemn features.
"Seriously, Jim, I used to take the bus for years. At this time of night, it's gonna take you hours to get across town that way."
"Don't sweat it, Teach. I'm used to it," Jim shrugged. Blair knew there was no way he could drive Jim home; that was why Jim was here in the first place. They could always call a taxi, of course, but Blair was fairly certain that the proud man wouldn't accept money for cab fare. Temporarily at a loss, it took him a few minutes to come up with the obvious solution.
"God, I'm an idiot sometimes," Blair announced, wincing as the hand he'd tried to push his curls back with banged into his radically enlarged left cheek.
"Easy there, slugger," Jim urged, then leaned forward to cautiously brush the hair that was irritating him out of his face.
Despite the bruises and exhaustion, Blair found his heart rate accelerating at the increased proximity. Bending down over him as Jim was, they were positioned perfectly for a kiss.
Blair found himself just staring at that tight-held mouth that was hovering so close. It was so beautifully shaped. The lower lip was a little on the thin side, but sensuous all the same.
Blair gulped, almost shaking with anticipation.
Jim pulled quickly away, his expression making it plain that he'd either picked up on Blair's reaction or was experiencing a similar one himself.
"Sorry," Blair mumbled, looking down into the tea mug he held clasped between his banged up hands. It was a wonder he hadn't spilled it all over himself when Jim had moved in on him like that.
"No, it ? I..." Jim sighed, then seemed to give up on explanations or excuses. "You were saying?"
"I want you to keep the keys to the Corvair for a while."
"What?" Jim sat up straighter, appearing almost physically startled by the suggestion.
"It's obvious that I'm not going anywhere for a few days. You could keep it 'til Thursday or Friday, if you wanted. I could pick it up at the University when I get back."
"You barely know me. You're gonna trust me with your car?" Jim seemed completely flummoxed by the concept.
"You saved my life tonight, man. I know all I need to know about you."
Jim swallowed hard. Blair watched those emotion-bright eyes blink a couple of times before Jim looked away. "I don't know what to say here, Teach."
"That you'll see me Thursday or Friday would be pretty reassuring," Blair joked.
Jim's gaze darted quickly to his face, then the larger man erupted into laughter.
Although it hurt like hell, Blair found himself joining in.
"I can't remember the last time I laughed like that," Jim said, surreptitiously wiping the moisture from the corners of his eyes when they finally calmed a long time later. "Thanks, Teach."
"Anytime," he mumbled. Mentally and physically exhausted, it was all Blair could do to return Jim's smile. Even that small gesture hurt.
"You sure about this?" Jim checked, seeming to want to give Blair every opportunity to change his mind.
"Okay, then. If you're certain..."
"`m sure..." That sleepy mumble was the last thing Blair remembered of their conversation.
They sat there, side by side on the couch, watching the dancing flames in the fireplace.
The hearth was one of Blair's favorite things in the world. It always made him feel safe. Tonight it was like a soporific. The roaring fire, the heating pad on his foot, the heavy blanket around him and hot tea inside him, all worked their magic on his battered body.
The warm lassitude he'd kept at bay finally slipped over him. One minute he was fully focused, watching the fire dance, watching out of the corner of his eye as the golden, flickering light dappled Jim's profile in burnished gold. The next, he was making an intense survey of the inside of his eyelids. He was still aware of the room around him, but everything felt distanced. Especially the pain.
After a while, Blair had the vague awareness of the tea mug being carefully pried out of his hands.
Then, for a long time, there was nothing. No thoughts, no fears, no hurting ... he was just drifting in warmth. Much later, his rest was disturbed by a series of fitful, sometimes frightening dreams, wherein he relived the vicious attack over and over again. He was so exhausted that he never roused fully, though at times he was downright terrified. He couldn't be sure, but he thought that he might have cried out loud several times.
But every instance when he was startled near wakefulness, a gentle hand would stroke his brow, calming him as soft murmurs of reassurance lulled him back to sleep. He never really roused enough to know who was comforting him at those terrifying, confusing moments. All he heard over and over again was that he was safe now, that nothing would hurt him ever again. And, somehow, that was all that mattered.
When Blair finally opened his eyes, his bewilderment only deepened. It felt like he'd dozed for just a few moments, but there was bright sunlight streaming in through his window ? his bedroom window.
The last thing he recalled was sitting on the couch, sipping tea and talking to Jim. Now he was snug in bed ... wearing only yesterday's undershirt and briefs.
Having no recollection of going to bed the previous night, he tried to sit up. His entire body exploded with pain at the reckless motion, his resulting groan filling the room.
Hearing the quick tread of footsteps outside his door, Blair looked hopefully over. "Jim?"
The form that filled his doorway was handsome, but it wasn't Jim's.
"Barry?" he asked, wondering if he was still asleep. He'd never seen such a serious, upset expression on his fun-loving friend's face. Blair hadn't thought that the artist was even capable of such solemnity. Although casually dressed in old, faded blue jeans and a gray sweater with smears of bright oil paints all over it, Barry's expression made him look like he was attending a funeral.
"Hey, there, buddy," Barry greeted, his voice deep with worry. "How you doin'?"
"Hurts," Blair croaked.
"I'll bet." Barry approached the bed, coming to perch on its side. "How bad?"
Trying to focus his vision around the obscuring pink mountain that could only be his swollen left cheek, Blair complained, "Even my eyelashes ache."
That at least roused a ghost of Barry's usual good humor. The smile was forced, but it was good to see. "You are a sight for sore eyes. My pallet doesn't even have half the colors in your face."
"I'm surprised you don't want to paint it," Blair grumbled, knowing his friend.
Barry gave a stricken expression, before shrugging with a sheepish smile. "Figured I better wait till you were mobile before I made that suggestion. You look awful, babe."
"If it's any comfort, I feel worse."
"It isn't. I can't believe students did this to you. I hope the bastards rot in hell for this."
Blair had never heard such anger in his friend. "No argument from me."
"It was those stupid football jocks you've been agonizing over failing?" Barry questioned.
"Yeah. They jumped me out in back of the science building when I was walking to my car last night. They were really gonna kill me, Barr." Blair looked down at his bright blue comforter, still not totally able to believe what had happened.
"Jesus, what psychopaths. When Stella called here to check up on you before, she wasn't too sure of the details. How the hell did you get out of it?" Barry asked, reaching out to help him up into a sitting position, then propping him up with pillows.
Stella was Dean Evans' secretary. Normally, she was the only person in the entire Anthropology Department who had any idea of what was really going on, scholastically or socially.
Briefly, Blair filled his friend in on the details of his attack and subsequent rescue.
"One of your students put those three Neanderthals down all by himself?" Barry exclaimed.
"Yeah. He's a little older than us. He used to be an Army Ranger or something."
"Wow." Barry shook his head.
Though it hurt worse today than the previous night, Blair smiled at Barry's obvious awe. He loved his buddy's openness and enthusiasm. Life was rarely dull around Barry.
It was only when Barry's questions wound down that Blair realized that he still had no clue as to how and when his friend had gotten here. Giving into his natural inquisitiveness, Blair asked, "Just out of curiosity, what are you doing here?"
"I got a call last night, or actually early this morning, when I listened to my answering machine."
"Some guy I didn't know left your number and said it was an emergency."
At first Blair was confused as to how Jim had known Barry's number, thinking that it was more of the spooky prescience that seemed to go on with Jim. But then he remembered that Barry was the first number programmed into his phone. The sticker was right there beside the receiver.
"That must've been Jim," Blair mumbled more to himself than his companion.
But Barry never missed a thing. His dark eyes sparking with interest, he asked, "Jim?"
"The student who rescued me. He drove me home and stayed with me. Didn't you meet him when you came by last night?" Blair tried to be casual. The Barry he knew would have been filled with questions about the hustler's presence here. Since Barry hadn't said word one about Jim, Blair was cautious about giving too much away. He'd promised Jim his silence back in September.
"No. I didn't get here 'til a few hours ago. This was taped to your tea kettle," Barry said after he dug a crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket.
Blair recognized Jim's precise handwriting from his schoolwork. The note read:
Call me if your friend can't stay with you. My number's 555-2354.
A strange warmth stole through Blair's whole body as he read the laconic missive. So those tender touches and soft reassurances during the night had been from Jim, he recognized. It also probably meant that Jim had undressed him and put him to bed last night. Wishing that he'd been conscious for that, he checked, "You, ah, didn't put me to bed, then?"
The blank stare that earned him was answer enough. After a moment, Barry's face cracked into a grin and a million laugh lines as he slowly shook his head. "Nope. When I got here, you were sleeping like a baby, all wrapped up in your comforter. Did you know that you're blushing?"
Blair smiled and looked quickly away.
"Jim, huh?" Barry commented. "He didn't give his name when he called."
"What time was that?"
"The machine said he called about eleven. I didn't get in 'til four, I'm afraid, or I'd've been here sooner."
"What did he say?" Blair hated asking. Already he could see Barry's evil mind calculating the nature of his relationship with Jim. The fact that his old friend was totally right about his less than honorable intentions only irked him more.
"Your mystery guy isn't a man of many words. Basically, he said that he was at your place, that you'd been hurt, and that you needed someone to stay with you."
"And he was gone when you arrived?" Blair tried not to sound too abandoned, but he could tell that Barry saw right through him.
"Well, he wasn't here in the apartment, but I think he might have cut out just as I got here. I, ah, thought I saw your Corvair pull around the corner as I was entering the building. I guess I should've called the police to report it missing, but I was too worried about you to pay too much attention."
"Thank God you didn't. All we would have needed last night was another police report," Blair said, pleased that Jim had hung around until he was certain he had company. Instinctively, Blair knew that Jim had been with him until almost the very instant Barry had gotten here. At this point, he wasn't even questioning how Jim had known to bug out the exact moment that Barry had arrived. It was just another facet to the puzzle that was James Ellison.
"So you loaned him your car?"
"This the same student you were lusting after in September?" Barry's tone made it plain that he already knew the answer.
Blair nodded anyway. He couldn't help but remember the hard time that he himself had given Barry when the artist had been similarly infatuated with one of his students last spring. Blair waited, a little nervous as to what his friend was going to say about him violating his own principles like this. To his intense relief and mystification, Barry didn't read him the riot act.
Hurting way too much to handle the guilt that kindness caused, Blair quietly asked, "Aren't you gonna read me the riot act, Barr? I sorta have it coming after last April."
Barry pushed his long, straight dark hair back from his face. His big brown eyes puppy-dog solemn, he shook his head. "You were right last April. And even if you weren't... I'm just happy you're alive. Look at you! How could I yell at you? You want to have sex with a nineteen-year-old freshman in the middle of the quad to celebrate, go for it. Just don't get caught."
"Thanks, man," Blair mumbled, telling himself that it was only his injury that was making his eyes mist up.
"No, thank you," Barry insisted.
"Huh? What for?"
"For not gettin' murdered last night. This world would be a really bleak place without Blair Sandburg in it."
The grin Barry's words caused hurt so bad Blair thought his face might fall off, but he couldn't stop smiling.
Seeming to need to change the heavy mood, Barry announced, "Enough of this maudlin stuff. You gonna lay in bed all day or are you gonna get up?"
"I'm thinkin' about it," Blair answered.
"Let me know what you decide," Barry instructed, a mischievous glint in his eye as he made to turn away and walk back into the living room.
"Hey, I've got to pee." Blair protested. "Don't leave me here!"
"So you are gonna get your lazy bones up," Barry joked, moving instantly over to give him a hand.
The process of getting up was even more agonizing than it had been last night. Everything seemed to have stiffened up while he slept, but, between them, they managed to get him vertical.
Barry didn't carry him like Jim had last night. Instead, he slipped Blair's right arm over his shoulder and propped him up on his feet. The support wasn't quite as intimate as Jim's; Blair didn't feel nearly as cherished or safe this way, but the human crutch Barry was making of himself was far more in keeping with the parameters of their relationship. It was comfortable and welcome.
Thanking the creative force for the wonderful friends that had been sent his way, Blair staggered to the bathroom, the jokes Barry made along the way nearly killing them both.
It was Friday before Blair felt up to returning to school. Although he felt remarkably improved, the left side of his face was still swollen with an amazing spectrum of discoloration. Barry said he looked like a Sausalito sunset, with all the magentas, purples, and blues that were streaking his eye and cheek. But his ankle was feeling better. At least he could walk unassisted now. And most of the other injuries were coming along nicely. There were still bruises all over his body, but they only hurt now when he put direct pressure upon them or moved too fast.
Barry had stayed with him until Wednesday, shadowing his every move, anticipating his needs, making his life easier with his steady stream of jokes and good humor. Blair had sent his old friend home the day before yesterday, mostly because he'd felt so guilty over Barry losing so much of his sick time helping him. Not that Barry had made a single complaint. As threatened, his clownish friend had actually painted him. That masterpiece was currently drying in Blair's bedroom.
Aside from the inevitable pain, it hadn't been a bad time off. Blair had rested up, healed, hung out with Barry, and graded midterms. But in the end, he came back to school out of self-defense, more than boredom. He was getting tired of answering the door and phone. His living room and kitchen were beginning to look like a florist shop. The flower deliveries had started Tuesday afternoon and continued almost unabated for the next two days. He was out of vases and large beer steins, not to mention out of counter and table space. There were so many pieces delivered, he'd begun to stand the flowers on the floor along the wall and on the stairs leading to the upper bedroom. He'd gotten four of those fancy teddy bear deliveries, six baskets of fruit, and a gift certificate for a complete body massage from well wishers. The out-pouring of affection and love was incredibly touching.
But, even with all the expressions of concern he received, Blair found himself longing for communication from one particular individual, namely Jim. He had Jim's number, but somehow he didn't feel comfortable bothering the guy during midterm week. There was a lonely part of him that just wished that Jim would have called or stopped by, not that Jim owed him anything. The man had done more than enough that first night. Blair just wanted to see him again.
So now Blair stood here hesitating outside the closed doors to his Anthropology 1 lecture hall, twenty minutes before class was scheduled to begin. He was aware that Jim made it a habit to come early to review his notes from the previous lesson before class. He'd seen his Corvair out in its regular spot in the faculty parking area, so he knew Jim was probably in there. He was just ... nervous about seeing Jim again. It was utterly ridiculous, but he really wished that his face didn't look like one of Barry's less successful watercolors.
After taking a deep breath to still the excited pounding of his heart, Blair quietly eased the door open. Sure enough, Jim Ellison was sitting in the empty hall. He was in his usual seat, way up to the back, in the middle of the row. Jim's head was studiously bent over his open notebook.
Blair knew that he hadn't made a sound, but somehow Jim seemed to sense the observation. Probably all that army training, he thought as Jim turned to look in his direction.
Blair grinned and waved, then carefully made his way down to Jim's row.
He'd hoped for a more exuberant response than the shy smile Jim gave him. An almost palpable air of restraint seemed to shroud Jim. Blair could feel it from ten feet away. It didn't dissipate at his approach. If anything, Jim seemed to become more and more barriered the closer he came to him. It was nothing overt, just an ineffable sense of closing down that was betrayed by body language so subtle that Blair sensed rather than saw the tension.
"Hi, Teach. How're you doing?" Jim rose to meet him at the aisle seat. Those perceptive blue eyes scoured him from head to foot, running from his tied back hair, over his layers of blue plaid shirt, sapphire Henley, black jeans, stopping only after the scruffy running shoes had been surveyed.
"Much better," Blair replied, doing his own reconnaissance. Jim looked utterly edible in that baggy black turtleneck and those skintight slate gray cords. "Thanks to you. I wanted to thank you again for all that you did for me on Monday night, Jim. You really were a real lifesaver, man."
Appearing predictably uncomfortable, the reserved man shifted a bit, then denied, "It wasn't anything anyone else wouldn't have done."
Remembering the soft voice that had gentled him through his nightmares, Blair shook his head. "That's not true, but I can see I'm making you uncomfortable again. I just wanted you to know that I appreciated your help."
His face oddly serious, Jim nodded. "Any time, Teach."
Staring up at this handsome, enigmatic man, Blair found himself in the unusual position of not knowing what to say. Jim looked so guarded ? against him, he couldn't help but think. It was like Monday night had never happened, like Jim had never saved him or carried him home or comforted him through those nightmares. All the closeness seemed gone. Jim was almost a stranger again.
Except when Blair stared really deep into those magnificent eyes. Only then did he get a glimpse of the real Jim hiding back there. And that Jim looked scared to death.
After a few moments of uncomfortable silence in which they just watched each other, Jim's right hand moved to dig in his pants pocket. "I, ah, have your keys. Thanks for loaning me the car. I gassed her up before coming in this morning."
"Ah ... thanks," Blair said, accepting the keys. When the quiet seemed to thicken unbearably between them again, he forced himself to go through with his plan. He'd been expecting that nurturing guy from Monday night, not this cool, polite stranger. This Jim was so damn intimidating that he barely knew how to talk to him. It was nothing Jim had said; it was all attitude. Those no trespassing signs were damn hard to ignore, especially after having seen how dangerous Jim could be in a fight, but he did his best. Mustering as much confidence and cheer as he could, he brightly suggested, "If you're not doing anything after class, would you care to grab some lunch? My treat."
Jim blinked, visibly surprised. "I don't think that would be a very good idea, Teach."
"Why? It's just lunch, Jim. We can eat in the cafeteria, if you like. I dine with my students all the time. No one's gonna think anything of it."
"I appreciate the offer, but..."
"But?" Blair prodded when Jim fell silent.
"It's just not very smart," Jim finished. He looked quickly away, as if unable to hold Blair's gaze while saying those words.
"I, ah, guess that I imposed on you a little too much the other night. I'm sorry," Blair said. It was the only thing he could think of that would explain Jim's complete withdrawal.
"You didn't impose," Jim assured in that quiet, convincing tone of his.
At least Jim was looking at him again, Blair thought. Those crystal-clear eyes were steady and true, no trace of subterfuge in them. Losing himself in those depths, he tried to make sense of this. He just couldn't figure out why Jim would try to avoid him like this, if he hadn't imposed too much on this very private individual's time and patience. Coming to no conclusions, he saw no other means of finding out besides a direct question. "No? Then what's with the brush off, man? I thought we were friends."
"You ... what?" Jim's disbelief was almost palpable. His eyes thoroughly scoured his face, searching for God only knew what.
Blair certainly didn't have a clue.
"You heard me. Friends don't freeze each other out this way, big guy. If you were any colder to me, I'd have frost bite right now."
A furrow puckered Jim's high brow as he frowned in thought. Finally, he asked, "You think I'm your friend 'cause I broke up that fight the other night?"
From the tone and expression, it was obvious Jim was totally stunned.
Still not knowing why his feelings should come as such a shock to Jim, Blair answered more than a little defensively, "No, any common garden variety superhero could have done that. It was the sticking around part of the night that made me think you were auditioning for the role."
For a fleeting second, Blair swore that he was getting through to the other man. Jim's eyes had a startled look to them. His mouth and jaw seemed to soften unconsciously as he stared at him as if he'd never seen or met anyone like him before. But then Jim appeared to come to his senses. His gaze and features hardened with resolve. Pinning him with a quelling stare, Jim coldly advised. "You need to be more choosy about who you call 'friend', Teach."
The guy was in total retreat mode, Blair recognized. Biting back on his anger ? for he wanted nothing more than to just shake some sense into Jim ? Blair locked his gaze with Jim's and refused to be intimidated. "I'm very choosy about who I give that honor to. I'm not propositioning you here or asking you for a date. All I'm asking for is a chance to get to know Jim Ellison better."
His honesty appeared to momentarily disarm Jim. That surprised, vulnerable air clouded his expression before Jim got himself back under control. "Take my word for it, you wouldn't like him much."
"I think you're wrong about that. In fact, I know so. At any rate, I'd rather find out for myself, if you wouldn't mind." Blair put on a look of what Barry always called his most shameless puppy dog pleading.
A hungry brightness seemed to glint in Jim's eyes, flaring brief and brilliant as a shooting star before it was heartlessly squelched. "Actually, I do mind."
"W-what?" Blair questioned. The puppy dog look never failed, not ever.
"I'm sorry ? truly I am, but this is not a possibility."
"Why not?" Blair demanded, not understanding any of this. "You like me; I know you do. You said you were attracted to me the other night…"
"I said a lot of stupid stuff the other night," Jim shot back. He didn't even look cornered or trapped. He appeared calm, as if they were just discussing the weather.
"You saying that you don't like me?" In the tense silence that followed, Blair waited for the lie.
But it never came. Jim's jaw was twitching again, his eyes bright and hard as sapphires, which were, after all, only blue colored diamonds. "No, I'm not saying that at all. I'm just telling you that we can't go this route, not now, not ever."
"Look, I'm not asking for a lot here –"
Blair's insistent argument was cut off by a deadly quiet, "Just my life."
About to go into hyper-drive persuasion mode, Blair shut his mouth as he absorbed the gist of what Jim had said. Understanding nothing except Jim's absolute seriousness, he toned his passion down and asked, "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Blair, you're something fine, something wonderful ? anybody would jump at the opportunity to get close to you," Jim replied.
Blair wasn't expecting anything like that. The soft words and the tender expression that accompanied them just about knocked the breath out of his lungs. But Jim wasn't offering them as any kind of a beginning or a bridge to closer communication, he reminded himself, stamping down on his response before he got too hurt here. He'd heard that tone too many times in his life. It usually came right before a lover shot his hopes and dreams right out of the water. "But?"
"But you're gonna get me killed if I go down this path with you."
"What?" Blair blinked in confusion, the words making no kind of sense. Was Jim telling him that there was some pimp or something that was going to kill him if he gave it away for free? "You mean someone will hurt you if you're seen hanging around me?"
Jim actually smiled at that. "Not literally."
"Then what are you saying?"
"In the world I inhabit, there's no room for the gentler emotions. They're a liability ? one I can't afford."
Blair finally pieced together what Jim was attempting to tell him here. "You're saying that I'll interfere with your ability to ... do your work."
His jaw clenched tight, Jim nodded. "I can't move between worlds."
"There are other lines of work, you know," Blair carefully offered.
His eyes emptying of all emotion, Jim denied, "Not for me."
"I see." Blair didn't know what else to say. He looked down, hoping to hide his disappointment.
The regret in Jim's tone told him that he hadn't been at all successful. "I am sorry. I mean that. I wish ... I just wish things could be different."
"They can be, if you want it bad enough," Blair whispered.
"You keep thinking that way, Teach. Don't ever let anybody take that from you."
Blair looked up sharply, to see if he were being teased, but Jim's eyes were sad and misted, not scornful.
Jim continued, "I appreciate your offer, Blair, but you need to put me out of your mind. Find yourself someone your own age, someone who deserves you, someone nice like that artist friend of yours. He looks like he still believes in dreams."
"I'm not looking for a dream. I'm looking for something real," Blair corrected.
"Then you're barking up the wrong tree here, Teach. My specialty's fantasy fulfillment. Cold hard cash buys you any dream you want ? for a night. That's not what you're after. You're meant for something better than that."
"Jim…" Blair croaked, feeling a perilous stinging in his eyes. The guy thought so little of himself, and there was so much that was good and noble there inside him. He tried to muster a protest, but his throat was too tight to get any real words out.
"Do us both a favor and forget about me, okay?"
Blair swallowed hard and shook his head, "I'm afraid I can't do that, Jim."
"Then I'm gonna have to go to the Dean and ask for a transfer or drop out entirely, because I can't fucking live like this."
Reading the truth of that in Jim's suddenly open, vehement expression, Blair reached out and grabbed the other man's arm. "No, don't! Please? You win. I promise I won't hassle you any more at school here, just … please, don't drop out."
"I have your word on that?" Jim suspiciously demanded.
Angry at being backed into a corner like this, but too scared that Jim would throw his chance at a new life away if he didn't give in, Blair gave a sharp nod and reluctantly answered, "I promise that I will not bring this up at school ever again."
Jim searched his face before giving a slow nod, "Good. Thank you."
They both jumped a little as the lecture hall doors slammed open and a group of loudly laughing students entered.
"I guess I better finish reviewing this material," Jim said in an obvious attempt to end the conversation.
"Yeah," Blair sighed, feeling a thousand years old and utterly defeated. The bruises that he hadn't felt for a couple of days actually seemed to start throbbing again, he was so depressed by the way their conversation had gone. Unable to leave things the way they were, Blair called as Jim turned to return to his seat, "Jim?"
"Yeah, Professor Sandburg?"
Blair quickly looked around him. The noisy kids were nowhere in earshot. They had a few seconds left of precious privacy. Jim was just using his title to confirm their agreement.
Jim probably didn't mean to rub it in, but that's what it felt like to Blair at that moment. Stamping down on his anger, he reminded himself that it was Jim's desire to protect him that was making him hurt them both this way. His voice low and gruff even to his own ears, he said, "No matter what we've agreed to, I want you to know that I'm still your friend. We don't have to do lunch or even hang together. You don't have to be nice to me or even say hello if you don't want to. But I'll still be your friend, no matter what."
Jim's face blanked for a minute, then a hard, determined glint entered his eyes. "Whatever," Jim quipped with supreme indifference. Then, before Blair could say anything else, Jim turned and stalked to his seat.
Blair would have liked to have continued the discussion, but the steady stream of students rushing into the hall precluded any chance of privacy. It seemed as though every one of the arriving freshmen flocked straight over to him to ask after his health and express their delight at his return. A little overwhelmed by their enthusiasm, he fielded their questions with as much cheer as he could manage, then limped over to the podium to begin class.
As the lecture progressed, Blair found himself almost unconsciously seeking Jim out, hoping that Jim would somehow change his mind. But Jim had his nose buried in his notebook and didn't look up at all ? until Blair's back was turned to the board or his attention seemed to be focused on another student. At those times, Blair could almost feel Jim's gaze burning into him, watching every move he made, almost memorizing him. It was highly distracting.
Realizing that he'd virtually condemned himself to a living hell with that promise he'd made, Blair threw himself into his subject matter and did his best to blank out all awareness of Jim. But it was like trying to ignore a scorpion in your sleeping bag. Once you knew he was there, that awareness was the only thing in your universe.
Blair made up a new mantra to live by that afternoon as he suffered through class: just another student, just another student, just another student…
He figured if he repeated it a couple of zillion times, then maybe, just maybe, it might come true. But he wasn't laying any odds on success.
The next ten days or so were a strange period for Blair. Although the healing process moved fast, his recovery was nowhere near as dramatic as that of those first few days when he'd been living in anticipation of seeing Jim again. The back off request Jim had given him hurt. Blair understood that they couldn't move their relationship onto a sexual level ? beyond the unbelievable complexities that Jim's profession engendered, the man was still his student ? but he'd hoped that they could at least become real friends.
But Jim didn't want that from him. Jim just wanted to be left alone. It wasn't much of a request from someone to whom he owed his life. The guy wanted to live his life in peace, unhampered by emotional ties of any kind.
Blair didn't really blame Jim. If their positions were reversed, he knew he'd never be able to leave a gentle lover's warm bed to endure the kind of degradations and depravities that were part and parcel of Jim's line of work. Sometimes to survive in an inhumane world, you had to cut yourself off from all human kindness.
Blair understood Jim's decision, but he didn't approve of it. To his way of thinking, no one could survive totally on their own, without friendship of any kind. That was just asking for trouble.
But he knew it wasn't his life or his decision. As for his disapproval of Jim's choice ... well, that was one of those judgment calls that he tried so hard not to make.
During the next week and a half, Blair did his damnedest to honor his word. He restricted his communications with Jim to a polite, if hopeful, 'hi, how you doing?' before class, then spent the remainder of the lecture pretending that he didn't feel those incredible eyes surreptitiously studying his every move.
Life might have continued along that frustrating vein indefinitely, if Fate hadn't stepped in.
Fate was something that Blair had a very strong belief in. Of all the spiritual paths and New Age fads his mother had embraced throughout his lifetime, the one certain belief that he'd culled from them all was that some events were simply predestined to happen. If a man was meant to die by drowning, he could spend his entire life on dry land, live in a desert, even, but one day Fate would step in. If he was fated to die by water, then drown he would. No matter how he tried to avoid it, inevitably Fate would catch up to him. The guy might slip in his tub and drown in two inches of bath water or get carried away in a flash flood, but it would happen.
Blair truly believed that Jim was one of those things that was fated to happen to him in life, like being an anthropologist. In spite of that, he'd been determined not to break his word. He wasn't going to inflict himself on someone who didn't want him around, simply because the guy had been kind enough to save his life.
He'd been fully prepared to live up to his word ... until Jim missed his first class a week and a half after he'd thwarted that attack on Blair.
From the minute Blair had walked into the lecture hall and seen that empty seat where Jim customarily sat, he sensed that something was wrong. He'd wanted to call Jim that night, just to make certain that he was all right, but he'd talked himself out of the impulse. Everyone had a right to play hooky at least once a semester. God knew, Jim could afford to miss a class or two; the guy had an A+ average. It wasn't his business to check up on the man – and Jim had made it quite plain that he wouldn't appreciate such interference.
Still, Blair hadn't been able to shake the disturbing certainty all night long that something was really wrong. He kept telling himself that he was overreacting, worrying over nothing. Jim was a full-grown man, for heaven's sake. As Jim had demonstrated the night that Dillon and his flunkies had jumped Blair, the ex-army Ranger was more than capable of taking care of himself.
Blair knew that, but he knew on a completely visceral level that he was also right about Jim being in trouble. He barely got an hour's sleep that night tormenting himself with lurid visions of serial killers and pain freaks run amok.
He almost sagged with relief the next morning when he walked into the Anthro 101 lecture hall and saw the back of that neatly cropped head with its tiny balding spot in Jim's usual seat. Thanking every deity he'd prayed to the previous night, Blair walked up to Jim's row, his customary 'Jim's just another student' facade falling into place.
Unlike all the other mornings, Jim didn't turn before Blair reached his aisle.
Blair's overjoyed, "How you doin', Jim?" was ringing in the crowded hall when Jim looked over at him.
Blair nearly stumbled down the stairs when he got a clear view of the left side of Jim's face. It made his own recent injury look like a paper cut. Jim's eye was ringed with a bruise so reddish/purple and vivid that it actually looked like a badly applied Hollywood wound. And the rest of his poor cheek! The skin was all ripped and abraded – like someone had smashed Jim's head against a sidewalk or cement floor or wall and scraped half the skin off. The wound was bloody and shiny, totally disgusting.
Blair froze at the sight of his rescuer and just gaped at the man. Unable to even make a pretense of professionalism, he rushed into Jim's aisle and stammered, "W-what happened?"
Jim shifted in his seat to meet his gaze. As he did, Blair couldn't help but note the stiff and careful quality to the movement. Having just gotten over such cautions himself, Blair was intimately aware of its cause. Jim had a hell of a lot more damage than was visible.
Blair's blood seemed to turn to liquid magma then, his overactive imagination and protective impulses running neck and neck with his fury. He wanted to throttle someone for this ? perhaps even Jim, for allowing some freak to do this to him.
Jim shrugged and replied with forced lightness, "Occupational hazard, Teach. I ... miscalculated."
Blair wasn't fooled in the least. He'd seen how much pain even that small shrug had caused. "Occu ... my God, Jim."
Blair couldn't stop himself. He reached out to touch Jim's arm, only to have Jim pull back before he could lay a finger on the rust-colored corduroy button down shirt.
His eyes turning hard as steel, Jim said in a soft, deadly tone, "This isn't the time or the place. Besides, you gave me your word. Remember?"
"Vividly," Blair replied in his own version of the Ellison Siberian Front. He was way too aware of the curious eyes turning their way. Jim was right; this wasn't the place for this discussion. But if Jim thought he was off the hook, he had another think coming. Blair might have agreed to butt out of the other man's life on campus, but he'd never agreed to overlook anything like this. This was ... bestial.
"Professor Sandburg," a young girl's eager voice called from behind him, "I brought that Inuit carving I was telling you about."
Blair glanced over his shoulder to see the petite blonde freshman practically sharing his personal space. In her hands she held an exquisite bone carving of a raven. Turning carefully, so as not to knock the sculpture out of her grip, Blair mustered his patience and forced a smile, even though he felt like throwing up from the damage that had been done to his handsome friend's face. "Thanks, Aggie. If you take it up to the podium, I'll be with you in a moment."
"Sure thing, Professor Sandburg," she gushed.
Blair sighed. These schoolgirl infatuations were living hell.
"Professor Sandburg?" A male student called from behind Aggie, in nearly the same tone she'd used.
"You've got a class to teach," Jim pointed out, looking relieved.
"Yeah, but we're not through here," Blair firmly stated.
"Yes, we are," Jim insisted.
"We'll talk later, man." Blair said. Hearing his name being called by yet another freshman, he reluctantly left Jim's row in the back of the hall to move down to the podium in the front. He might as well have left the lecture hall completely, for all the good he was in class after that. Although he did his best to cover his distraction and stick to the lesson plan, he was teaching on autopilot. Throughout the hour and a half class, Blair's gaze kept straying back to Jim, as did a number of the students' sitting nearby.
And who could blame them? They were sitting next to the man with the incredible missing face. Jim would be damn lucky if that didn't scar, Blair fretted. Jim could end up looking like the Phantom of the Opera if he weren't careful.
And if he did, Blair knew that it still wouldn't make a difference to his own feelings. He was that far gone.
On the whole, the class was usually a little in awe of Jim, whose age and glowering demeanor made him an automatic outsider. But today Blair saw a few of Jim's fellow students actually muster up the courage to lean forward to whisper in the older man's ear ? no doubt inquiring about his health and the cause of the wound. Blair couldn't hear what was said, of course, but Jim appeared to put them all off with some smart-ass comment.
For his own part, Blair tried to keep his attention on what he was doing, but it was a hopeless cause. Normally, he spent most of the class pretending that Jim wasn't sitting there, that he didn't feel those silver-blue eyes following his every move, but today he didn't even make a pretense at oblivion. No doubt, Jim was too self-conscious at that point to do his usual surreptitious Blair-watching. It was weird. The observation usually drove him nuts, but today he didn't sense Jim's gaze on him once. As a result, he kept checking that row in the back to make sure Jim hadn't passed out or something.
To his intense relief, Jim remained conscious. More than that, the ex-Ranger seemed to sit there stoic as a statue, with his gaze focused squarely on his notebook as he dutifully recorded every syllable Blair uttered. Blair swore the guy even took down a couple of the stupid jokes he used to liven up the lecture.
Despite his promise, he was determined to corner Jim after class to continue their discussion, but Jim proved to be just as elusive as ever. Five minutes before class was scheduled to end, he saw Jim quietly pack up his backpack and slip from the hall, silent as a ghost. He gave a mental scream as he watched Jim glide up those steps to the exit. Short of interrupting the lecture with a shout for Jim to stop, he was powerless to prevent his leaving.
And even if he did indulge in that theatric action, he knew Jim would be too furious to deal with. No, if he were going to speak to Jim, he was going to have to corner the man privately. The lecture hall wasn't the place to do it, not with all these watching eyes. He would like to have visited Jim at home or invited Jim to his own, but he knew Jim wouldn't go for the deal. And every instinct he owned was telling him that Jim wouldn't be any more responsive to a phone call than he'd been to his earlier questions. What he needed was to get right in the guy's face, where Jim couldn't ignore him or blow him off.
Maybe Jim was right and it wasn't any of his business, but he cared about Jim. What's more, he owed the guy. Jim had stepped in and saved his life at a time when he'd needed it most. The man mightn't welcome his interference, but it was more than obvious that he needed it ... needed someone.
So, ten hours later, Blair found himself determinedly marching into Whispers. It was ten o'clock on a Thursday night and the club was hopping. There was a fairly competent cover band up front playing their hearts out on a Beatles number. The floor was packed with enthusiastic dancers gyrating in time to the beat, while the bar was obscured by a solid wall of men.
Blair wasn't three feet in the door before he received his first proposition. By the time he'd reached the bar, he'd fielded three more and two definite gropes. Bewildered, he couldn't understand it at all. He hadn't dressed up tonight. He still had on his scruffy blue jeans, white button down shirt and his oversized blue plaid lumberjack shirt. He hadn't even let his hair loose from the ponytail he habitually wore while teaching and he had his glasses on to see across the club. Total nerd city in his own mind, but they were flocking around him like bees to honey.
Any other night, he would have been flattered. But tonight he was on a quest. He only hoped that he hadn't arrived too late. There was every chance that Jim might have already left with a customer.
At first it seemed that he was too late. Jim wasn't at the bar, the tables or out on the dance floor. It was only as Blair scanned the far wall that he finally found Jim. That first sight nearly knocked the breath out of his lungs.
Jim was standing in the deep shadows, leaning back seductively against the mock-Tudor white wall. One hip was canted suggestively forward, his right knee up as he posed there. But it wasn't Jim's stance that stole his breath. It was Jim's outfit.
Tonight Jim was spray-painted in tight black leather. The pants left absolutely nothing to the imagination. They were so close fitting that he was certain that he could tell not only on what side Jim carried the family jewels, but also his religion. He wore an open leather jacket, similar to the one he'd been wearing the first time Blair had seen him here. Only, this jacket had imposing silver studs all over the shoulders and arms. The effect was very butch, very kinky.
Between the open folds of the jacket, a sleek black silk tee shirt hugged every curve and bulge of Jim's exquisite chest. The ensemble was completed with a pair of heavy motorcycle boots and an arrogant, challenging sneer that seemed to dare the viewer to approach ? if he were man enough.
In those dark shadows, the bruising on the left side of Jim's face was barely visible. Standing there, dramatically posed as he was, Jim looked like a walking wet dream.
The effect was not lost on Blair. His breath seemed to catch in his chest as he looked at Jim. His guts contracted in a pleasurable squeezing sensation that was almost pain, his heart racing wild in his chest as blood flooded his cock.
Damn, this was just what he needed, he silently cursed to himself. Taking deep, careful breaths, he slowly relaxed his body ... or at least the six inches or so that were trying to poke their way out of the front of his jeans. When he could walk without embarrassing or, more importantly, injuring himself, he started to make his way through the packed dance floor.
It was uncanny, really. Jim had been looking in the opposite direction when Blair first saw him, totally oblivious to his presence. But when he was a good thirty yards away from Jim, and still approaching outside the other man's direct line of sight, he saw Jim raise his head and seem to sniff the air.
Confusion fluttered across Jim's face, temporarily replacing the arrogant come-on. Then Blair saw his student's features harden to stone and a furious silver-blue glare turned to unerringly spear him. There was no surprise in Jim's face upon seeing him. Those eyes hadn't even had to search through the crowd for him. Jim had just suddenly known he was here ? known exactly where he was standing.
Like Jim had smelt him out in this crowd.
Blair had seen Jim do this whenever he walked into the lecture hall. It had to be at least a hundred times. And each and every one of those instances, he'd shrugged it off as a coincidence or good guess. But there was no way he could ignore it tonight. Nobody could have seen him in this thick crowd. He was virtually invisible amid this mass of taller men. And even if someone was good at spotting a familiar face in a mob, Jim had been looking in the opposite direction the entire time. This was no coincidence or chance glance. Jim had turned around furious, with that tic working in his jaw. Somehow, Jim had sensed he was here, he realized.
Processing the weird discovery, trying to figure out what it meant, Blair slowly approached the other man.
"What are you doing here, Sandburg?" Jim glowered down at him. With his face all banged up like that and wearing all that black studded leather, Jim was quite an intimidating sight. He really looked dangerous.
Blair pretended that he wasn't affected by the glare and attitude. "I told you we'd talk later." He tried a grin, to no effect.
"Go home. Now."
"No can do, Jim. Sorry, man."
"Are you deaf or just plain stupid? Or maybe I need to have that talk with the dean, after all," Jim threatened.
Blair advanced the last few feet, until he was standing right up in Jim's personal space. With his back to the wall, the only way Jim was getting out of this chat was by pushing right through him. "You do whatever you have to."
Those stormy blue eyes glared pure fury at him.
For a moment there, Blair thought he was dead meat, that Jim was going to barrel right over him to get away and leave him like road kill squashed on the dance floor. But although Jim's tic went into hyper-drive, the big guy remained planted against the wall.
"So what do you want?" Jim demanded at last, his eyes leaving him to scan the shifting crowd. But nobody came over to interrupt them.
In fact, now that Blair was paying more attention to his surroundings, he realized that the only free space was the three or four feet immediately around Jim. It almost seemed as though everyone was steering clear of the banged up hustler.
"To talk," Blair answered once his silence had called that straying gaze back to him.
"You gonna show me the errors of my wicked ways?" Jim sneered.
"Would it do any good?" Blair asked, genuinely curious. He had come here for precisely that purpose, but now that they were face to face, he hadn't a clue as to what he should say.
"No." Jim was looking away again, but this time it was clearly an evasion tactic.
"That's what I thought."
"So, what are you doing here, then?" Jim questioned, less aggressively.
"I don't know. I had to do something."
"There's nothing you can do, Teach. Go home."
Blair ignored that. After another quiet time, in which he just stood there watching Jim watch the passing traffic, he commented, "I was afraid I might've missed you already. You don't have ... an engagement tonight?"
Jim bit his lower lip. He looked like he was set to tell Blair to fuck off, but whatever was in Blair's eyes seemed to make him reconsider. "No, I'm unexpectedly free. Available for weddings and bar mitzvahs."
"By choice or –"
"Definitely, or." Jim hesitated before continuing, "It's amazing what a little facial reconstruction can do for one's social calendar. The half-price sale was a flop. The 80% off Damaged Goods Special isn't going over real well either. Have you got a spare hundred you want to throw my way, Teach? I promise I'll make it worth your while." The look in those eyes was pure challenge.
Jim was trying to shock him and drive him off, Blair realized. Although his expression was pure dare, Jim's more subtle body language made it plain that he was just goading, that he didn't seriously expect to be taken up on the offer.
But Jim had made a tactical error. Blair had come prepared. Refusing to be intimidated, he steeled himself and answered, "Actually, I do have a spare hundred. Is that the going price to spend tonight with you?"
Visibly taken aback, Jim gave a guarded nod. Blair did his best to ignore the betrayal that flashed through those expressive eyes. Jim blanked it out with lightning speed, but for the slightest second, it had been heartbreakingly vivid.
"You've got a deal," Blair gruffly said, "Come on, let's get out of here."
Every eye in the place seemed to be on them as they walked side by side to the nearest exit, or so Blair imagined. In that black leather, studded outfit, there was no mistaking what Jim was selling or what Blair was buying. His mouth ran dry under several of the open leers that followed them. Christ, he hoped none of his students or any of Rainier's other faculty members were here tonight...
"My car's over there," Blair gestured to the right side of the parking lot once they finally escaped the overheated, crowded club. The night's darkness and winter cold were invigorating after the humid press of bodies.
"We need to set some ground rules first," Jim announced, a firm hand on Blair's arm halting their progress. In all that black leather, Jim seemed to all but blend into the night.
"Ground rules?" he echoed.
"Yeah." His gaze resting somewhere in the center of Blair's forehead, Jim recited what was apparently a time-worn catechism, "Whatever we do, you wear a condom. For five ... I mean, a hundred dollars, you get to do anything you like to me ? so long as you don't leave permanent damage and you wear that condom. Understood?"
His dinner threatening to make a reappearance, Blair swallowed down the bitter bile. He sarcastically asked as he pointed to Jim's busted up face, "Is that included in the non-permanent damage category?"
"Is that what you want?" Jim tensely countered.
The guarded quality to Jim's eyes made it plain that it was a legitimate question and not just Jim trying to bust his chops. Blair couldn't imagine what this man's reality must be like that he would think that someone who knew him, someone whose life he had saved, would want to pay money to hurt him. Trying not to feel so physically sickened by everything Jim was tacitly conveying with the question, he tried to swallow around the lump in his throat, but it was bigger than Gibraltar. When he could manage it, he shook his head and gruffly whispered, "No. That's not my scene, man."
Jim nodded. "Fine. Let's get to it, then. I've got a room down the street…"
"I'm not here for sex," Blair insisted, realizing that if he'd made that plain a moment ago, he wouldn't still be forcing his rebellious food to stay where he'd put it.
"And I'm not here for my health," Jim countered, appearing totally annoyed again. "So, if you'll excuse me, I'll find a paying customer. See you in class tomorrow, Sandburg."
"Wait a minute. You said that you'd spend the night with me for a hundred dollars," Blair reminded.
"You just said –"
"I didn't say anything about not paying," Blair explained. "I just said that we weren't going to have sex."
Suspicion visibly tautening his muscular form, Jim asked, "So what is it that you're paying me for?"
"Your time," Blair answered. "I told you ? I want to talk to you."
Confused, Blair watched anger harden those chiseled features again. "No deal, Teach. Keep your money."
"Look, a hundred dollars buys you my body ? to use as you please. It doesn't buy you free license to my soul. You want to fuck, we'll fuck. But I don't intend to spend the night playing twenty questions with some do-gooder who thinks he can save the world."
The words stung. Blair bit his lip and glanced away. "You can bring up the conversational topics, if you want. Or we could just be quiet. You don't have to talk at all if you don't feel like it," Blair promised.
"What's the catch?" Jim demanded.
"What do you get out of this ? if not sex or my sob story?" Jim wasn't even attempting to downplay his suspicion.
Blair swallowed under the force of that relentless glower. "I get to spend time with you. And I get to know you had a night to rest, maybe heal a little. You can think of it as payback for saving my butt, if you like. Not that I'm trying to put a price on that…."
His nervousness was pathetic. Blair wished he knew what to say, the words that would take away the incredible awkwardness of the situation, but he wasn't even sure they existed.
"You're serious." Jim seemed to go very still, even his breathing stopping.
"Yeah, I'm serious. So what do you say? Have we got a deal or what?" Blair held his breath. If Jim refused now, he had no idea what his next move should be, short of retreating in disgrace.
With a nonchalance that Blair sensed was entirely affected, Jim shrugged, "It's your C note, Teach. You want to throw it away talking about the weather all night, that's up to you."
"Great." Blair felt the resulting grin claim his entire being.
Jim shook his head, an endearing air of mystification settling over him. "So where we gonna have this little chat, Teach? Here in the parking lot?"
"I'm freezing," Blair confessed. "Why don't we go back to my place?"
"You want to take me to your home?" Jim asked. From his stunned tone, he made the idea sound like a novel concept.
"You've been to my home before, Jim," Blair reminded.
"But that was different. It was an emergency."
"My friends are always welcome in my home," Blair said, starting to walk towards the grayish green Corvair.
"I'm not your friend," Jim insisted. "I'm your paid companion for the evening."
Making a conscious effort not to take offense at the purposefully nasty comment, Blair shrugged and said, "Whatever. Did you eat yet?"
"Why? You gonna cook me dinner if I didn't?"
"Actually," Blair said, unlocking the passenger door before moving around to his own side of the car, "I thought we'd stop and pick up some Chinese food on the way home."
"I've already eaten," Jim responded.
But from the tone of his voice, Blair knew it was a lie. Blair doubted if he'd be able to eat if he were going to spend the night doing some of the things Jim's customers required of him. "In that case, you won't mind if I get some for myself, will you?"
"Suit yourself, Teach. It's your dime."
Sliding behind the wheel, Blair turned on the ignition before doing up his seat belt. The interior of the car was uncomfortably silent as he pulled out of Whispers and onto the road. That quiet playing along his nerves, Blair asked the first thing that came into his mind. "So how are you liking the class?"
"I like the class fine, Teach. It's the extracurricular activities that are getting on my nerves," Jim shot back, but there was something of a grin in his voice, even if his face remained stony and unmoved.
"Wait 'til I take you to pow wow next month, then you'll really have something to complain about."
"Pow wow?" Jim questioned, almost in spite of himself.
"Yeah, one comes through Cascade every December. I make it a point to drag everyone out there at least once."
"Like a grammar school outing to the zoo?" Jim asked in a fractious tone.
Recognizing that Jim was being purposefully belligerent to get on his nerves, Blair gave his sweetest smile and pretended not to notice. "Well, with the Anthro 101 class, it sometimes feels that way."
"There's the Empire of China," Blair said a few minutes later when the restaurant came into sight. Pulling into the parking lot, he asked, "What do you want?"
"Nothing." Jim almost sounded like he was sulking.
The guy definitely didn't know how to handle this, Blair realized. Trying to be his most reassuring, he asked, "Would you like to come in with me?"
"Don't you trust me with your car anymore?"
"I just thought you might be more comfortable inside. The heater doesn't work too well."
Jim appeared to be about to give him some other smart-ass comment when the older man looked into his eyes. Jim's prickly retort seemed to falter. After a second, he said less argumentatively, "I'll wait here. I'm not exactly dressed for a family restaurant."
"You sure?" Blair asked, not wanting to embarrass the man, but unwilling to let Jim think he was afraid to be seen with him in public somewhere where he was known. "They're pretty hip in here. The receptionist has more studs in her earlobe than you've got on your jacket."
That earned him a genuine smile and a light chuckle. "No, thanks, anyway. I'll wait right here."
It was Jim who was uncomfortable about being seen outside of the club while dressed that way, Blair realized. "Be back in a sec."
Ten minutes later, Blair climbed back into the Corvair, loaded down with bags.
"Are you gonna eat all that?" Jim asked, staring at the three white sacks Blair carefully stored on the floor in the back.
Blair, who'd already eaten and wasn't the least bit hungry, replied, "Ah-hah." Then he put the car in gear and turned back out onto the road. The loft was less than three minutes away.
By the time they arrived, Blair was very glad that he'd stopped for the food. The silence in the car was becoming unbearable, what with Jim seeming to go out of his way to be truculent and/or uncommunicative. Once home, the routine of unpacking the take out food, getting drinks, and sorting out plates and cutlery was a comforting distraction.
Jim spent most of the time that Blair was in the kitchen studying the art and artifacts on the walls. It was strange to look up and see Jim in there, dressed like a leather boy, studying Barry's paintings like he was a New York Times critic at the Met.
Finally, finished fussing with the bags and plates, Blair took a seat at the large mahogany dining room table. As he'd hoped, Jim drifted over in a few moments. The guy was acting cool and unaffected, but Blair could tell that underneath it, Jim was as nervous as he was.
"Please, help yourself," Blair offered, gesturing to the over-burdened table. "I didn't know what you liked, so I got a little of everything."
"I already ate," Jim said, but his eyes passed over the fragrant white cartons with unmistakable interest.
"That was hours ago. Come on, grab a plate and have a little." It was rather like trying to befriend a people-shy stray, Blair thought. Jim had a hungry look about him, but he was holding back ? out of pride and suspicion, no doubt. After a few minutes of standing between the living room and dining area table, just watching Blair feign delight with his shrimp fried rice, Jim cautiously approached the table and took a small plate of chicken chow-mein. It disappeared in seconds.
Without waiting to be asked, Blair passed over the rest of the carton and started dishing out spring rolls and spare ribs. Though neat and tidy in his eating habits, Jim devoured it all like a man who hadn't eaten in days.
And, who knew, maybe he hadn't, Blair thought. Jim had said that his injured face had driven off customers. He didn't know Jim's financial situation, but it was entirely possible that the loss of a couple of nights' work might leave him without funds. It wasn't something he could ask about, however. That sort of probing definitely fell into the spilling one's guts category.
So, Blair pretended an interest in his own meal, while surreptitiously keeping his companion's plate full.
After a truly astonishing amount of food had disappeared, Jim finally pushed his empty plate away and wiped his mouth with his napkin. Just like the hungry stray that was wooed by food, Jim seemed to trust him more after eating. Or, at the very least, the food warming his empty belly appeared to lift Jim's mood. The smile Jim turned on him was small, but it was real and unforced. "That was great, Teach. Thanks."
"Don't thank me. I didn't cook it. Anyway, it was good to have someone to eat with. I don't mind having a place of my own, but I do hate eating alone," Blair admitted.
"Yeah, I know what you mean. You can keep busy doing stuff most of the rest of the time, but when you sit down to eat, it's just you and the food staring at each other. At least you've got a lot of room here. It's got a really warm feel to it." Jim seemed to be trying to make amends for his earlier attitude with small talk.
Unwilling to discourage him, Blair quickly replied, "Thanks."
"Do you rent it?" Jim questioned, visibly straining for safe conversational topics.
"No, actually, I inherited it," Blair explained. At Jim's open, if unvoiced, curiosity, he launched into his history with Ralph.
Jim proved to be a surprisingly good listener. He seemed genuinely interested in hearing about his unconventional mother and how they'd hooked up with the lonely trucker.
When the story wound to its inevitable conclusion, another strained silence seemed to fall between them. Normally, after giving his own bio, this would be the point where Blair would have inquired after Jim's family and personal history, but all of that fell into the off limits zone Jim had declared earlier tonight. So, instead, he looked around the loft for inspiration and asked, "Would you like to listen to some music? Maybe watch a little TV?"
"Whatever you want to do is fine, Teach. I'm paid to entertain, remember?"
"I wish you'd stop saying that," Blair grumbled, then forced himself to let it go. "You want to take a beer inside and just shoot the breeze for a while?"
The Jim he'd picked up earlier tonight would have stuck to his guns and made him as uncomfortable as humanly possible by continuing to press home the fact that Blair was paying him to be here. But for whatever reason, he didn't force the issue. A contrite expression played over Jim's face before he agreed, "Sure, that sounds good."
Blair went to get the beer from the fridge. When he returned, Jim was standing by the wall beside the stairs, seemingly transfixed by some South American arrows hanging there on the brick wall.
"They're beautiful, aren't they?" Blair commented, coming over to stare up at the brightly painted shafts and bring Jim his beer.
"Yeah, they are." There was a far away tone to Jim's voice, like he was lost in memories or something.
"They're from a tribe in the Peruvian rain forest. The guy who sold them to me said they were Mastop hunting arrows. There's next to no information on the Mastop. They're nearly extinct now."
"They're not Mastop, and they're certainly not hunting arrows," Jim said with such matter-of-fact certainty that for a moment Blair was completely taken aback.
"What do you mean 'they're not Mastop'?" Blair asked. They were one of his prized possessions. If he'd paid five hundred dollars for some clever fakes, he was going to walk to Peru and strangle that lying snake of a guide ? and then himself.
"The tribes in that area identify themselves by the color bands they put on their quills. Mastop are blue, yellow, and red. These are red, yellow, and black. These are Chopec," Jim informed, staring at the arrows as though they were transporting him a million miles and years away. "And they're a warrior's arrows, not a hunter's. Be careful of the tips. They're dipped in curare. Even old and dry like this, they can be dangerous, if not lethal."
Blair stared at his houseguest as though the man had just sprouted a horn in the center of his forehead. With anyone else, he would have suspected he was being put on, that the arcane ? and invaluable ? information was just a joke at the obsessed anthropologist's expense. But every instinct Blair owned screamed that Jim wasn't bullshitting him. From the guy's far-away tone and abstracted expression, it was obvious that he was lost in thought, that Jim didn't care at all if he were believed or not. It was hardly the attitude a practical joker would take.
And what practical joker would know about the Chopec? There was even less known about them than the Mastop. At least you could read about the Mastop. Blair couldn't think of a single textbook that even mentioned the Chopec. The only reason he even knew about them was because he'd cross-examined every one of their guides on the three expeditions he'd taken to Peru. A few of them had mentioned a lost tribe that was as shrouded in mystery and secrecy as the ancient Mayan rituals. The only thing any of the natives had known for sure was the name of the tribe ? the Chopec, that and the fact that any outsider who strayed into their territory was never seen again.
Unable to let this pass unchallenged, Blair asked, "Would my asking you how you know this information fall into the hounding you for your life's story zone?"
"Huh?" Jim turned to stare at him, blinking as though awoken from a deep sleep.
"Jim, there's not one man in this city, maybe even the entire country, who knows that stuff. I've been studying anthropology for almost ten years now and been on three expeditions to that region, and I didn't know it. I'd really like to know how you came across your information." Blair tried to tone down his excitement. He was a hair's breadth away from grabbing onto Jim's jacket and jumping up and down in excitement.
The minute Jim absorbed the gist of his question, his expression made it plain that he regretted his candor. "What makes you think I didn't make it up?"
"You telling me you did?" Blair asked softly, holding those blue eyes until they shifted away.
"No, it's true."
"So, give, man. How do you know this stuff?"
Jim stared up at the arrows a moment longer, then turned and walked into the living room.
Blair dogged his footsteps with all the patience he could muster ? which wasn't a hell of a lot. He stopped beside the couch, sitting down after a moment. He watched and waited while the other man wandered over to he terrace doors to stare out into the night and the ship lights out on the bay.
"I, ah, already told you I was an Army Ranger, right?"
Blair nodded. "Yeah, you did."
"About ten years ago, we were sent out on a top secret mission into Peru –"
"Can you talk about this?" Blair interrupted.
Jim gave a humorless laugh. "Yeah. We were sent in to stop the drug traffic from coming through a specific mountain pass ? that I can't name. The mission never came off. Our plane crashed deep in the rain forest. The powers that be thought that there were no survivors, that all eight of us were killed in the crash. But one man lived ? me."
"Oh, my God." Blair, who was terrified of heights and flying, couldn't help but empathize. Jim's story was like his worst nightmare given form. "The others were all dead?"
"Yeah. I buried them all where the plane crashed. I hung around the site, waiting for rescue that never came."
"That must have been terrifying," Blair said to Jim's stiff back. Jim seemed more comfortable telling his tale to the night.
"It was … pretty rough. I'd been hurt myself in the crash. I tried to keep the wound clean, but infection set in. If you've been in the rain forest, Teach, you know what that means. All that moisture and heat is like an incubator for viruses and bacteria. A couple of days later, that leg wound was festering and I was down with fever, out of my head. I knew I was a goner, and that there'd be nobody there to bury me, that when I died I'd just lay there for the cats and the ants to eat…"
"Jeez…" Blair shuddered. "So what happened?"
"The Chopec found me. I don't know why I was different from all the other invaders that they killed or let die, but they took me in." That last sentence didn't have the complete ring of truth about it, but before Blair could question Jim, he continued with his enthralling tale, "Their medicine man healed me with native herbs. When I was recovered, they sort of adopted me. I helped them hunt and they helped me clean the drug dealers out of the pass."
"You still did that?" Blair was shocked. The guy was all but abandoned by his country and he still carried out his mission.
"Those were my orders," Jim said, as if it explained everything.
And maybe it did, Blair thought. Jim was that dedicated. How he'd ended up selling his ass in a place like Whispers was a question he was burning to ask, but he'd given his word. If he violated it now, he knew that Jim would never tell him another word about any of this ? and this was the most professionally significant conversation he'd ever had. Jim was a living authority on a people that were little more than a myth in the world of anthropology. The Chopec were to an anthropologist what a living sasquatch would be to a biologist.
"Jim," Blair enthused, "this is incredible, man. Would you mind answering some questions about the Chopec? Maybe let me take some notes?""
"Huh? What for?"
"The Chopec are like the Brigadoon of South America, man. There're stories about them all over Peru. Someone comes out of the rain forest with some wild tale of seeing Mayan warriors hunting in the jungle or some mysterious primitive village where there aren't supposed to be people. But whenever the officials go back to check, there's never anything in the areas of the sightings. The Chopecs are like ghosts, Jim. Most anthropologists don't even believe they really exist."
Jim turned around to look at him, his features going hard. "They want it that way, Blair."
Jim sighed, his banged up features reflecting the weariness of a soldier fighting a battle that he knows can't be won. "The Chopec have seen what happens when modern man gets involved with the people. They get forced off their lands; their children are lured away from the old beliefs; their entire culture is bartered away for a few books and electronic toys. The Chopec know that they're fighting a losing battle, Teach. They're on the run from modern civilization and fighting to survive. I'm not going to do anything to shorten what little time they have left."
"It's not always like that," Blair tried to protest, but he knew he was on shaky ground here. He'd personally seen the damage twentieth century influence could have on previously isolated societies.
"No?" Jim challenged. "What about the Mastop? You said yourself that they're nearly extinct now. Fifty years ago, there were thousands of Mastop living in the forest. Now the Chopec will go for months before they encounter a Mastop village, and most times, it's not even a real village. Just a few old Mastop shamans and their families hiding out in the jungle."
"You've seen this?" Blair shifted in his seat, wanting to get closer to Jim, but knowing that the other man needed this distance to tell his story. He was barely able to quell his excitement to a manageable level.
Jim's eyes seemed to darken as he nodded. "Once."
"What were the Mastop like?" Blair questioned; for that matter, he needed to ask Jim what the Chopec were like. There was so much he could learn here.
A frightening intensity settled over Jim as he replied, "Easy pickings."
"In the jungle, it's all about territory, Teach. The rain forest might look huge on the topographical maps, but they don't tell you squat about how many square miles it takes to support a village in that hostile environment. If a tribe doesn't have sufficient manpower to protect its hunting grounds ? or itself, for that matter ? it isn't going to survive."
"You're saying that the Chopec destroyed the Mastop village?" Blair had heard about this sort of raid – historically. He'd never met anyone who'd witnessed one.
"I'm saying that they did what they had to to survive," Jim woodenly responded.
"And you helped?" Blair questioned, trying to take this man's measure. What Jim was saying here seemed to contradict that superhero image he'd formed of him.
"I didn't partake in the raid, but I didn't stop it, either." Jim said those words like a challenge. The look in his eye as he watched him seemed to indicate that Jim was waiting to be tossed out.
That, in itself, gave Blair some idea of how brutal the proceedings they were discussing must have been.
"Look, Jim, I understand that you want to protect your friends, but this kind of information is absolutely invaluable. I hope it doesn't happen in this lifetime, but someday the Chopec might go the way of the Mastop. If that happens, the only thing that's going to tell the world they ever even existed are eyewitness reports and studies of their culture."
"And if their secret is kept, that might never happen," Jim countered, in the assured tone of a man who'd long ago made peace with his conscience over this particular dilemma.
"You're right. As long as the Chopec remain just another jungle myth like the Temple of the Sentinels, they're perfectly safe. That is, for as long as their environment remains intact."
Jim nodded, seeming to think Blair was agreeing with him. "That's what I figure."
"And when the loggers and oil companies steal the last of the rain forest in Peru, the Chopec will vanish like the ghost they are ? die there with the trees that support them like a panther or monkey," Blair intoned, using his deep, convincing lecture voice, the one that always got the bored freshmen to sit up and take notice.
It wasn't wasted on Jim. The undamaged skin of his face paled slightly, then reddened with anger as he demanded, "What's your point here?"
"My point is, if the world doesn't know the Chopec are living there, nothing can be done to protect their homeland."
"And how is the world's knowing about them going to buy them any protection? You and I both know that notoriety is the key to exploitation," Jim argued as articulately and vehemently as any of Blair's colleagues.
"Not always." Blair thought this through at light speed, decided he was willing to live up to the commitment involved on the off chance Jim should go for the idea. It was a phenomenal amount of work he was considering taking on here, but the results would be more than worth it, if it kept another culture from dying.
"What do you mean?" If possible, Jim's suspicion now was even more palpable than that which he'd displayed in the club's parking lot when Blair had suggested he come home with him to talk.
"Have you heard of the Milori tribe?"
"By name maybe. We never encountered any."
"It's unlikely you would. They're much further north than the Chopec. The Milori are another tribe that never had much contact with modern man ? until the loggers started ripping their world down around. In conjunction with several wildlife organizations, anthropologists studying the Milori were able to persuade the Peruvian government to halt the logging in that area and declare it a natural preserve. The same could be done for the Chopec ? if the government knew they existed."
Jim's eyes narrowed, every fiber of his being seeming focused on him as Jim asked, "You're bullshitting me here, right?" His concentration made Blair imagine that the man was almost listening to his thoughts.
Or maybe checking his vital signs, the part of his mind that had been unconsciously puzzling out Jim's weird abilities suggested. For the past two months, he'd been dismissing such thoughts, but this time he just filed it away for future consideration.
"No, I'm not. I was part of the expedition that did the studies on the Milori. I helped draw up the proposal for legal protection."
"And you're saying you'd do this for the Chopec?"
"I'd be willing to try. As with anything that has to do with governing bureaucracies, I can't guarantee it'd be a sure thing. It's all influenced by politics and popular opinion. What flies one year will be rejected the next." Jim's nod seemed to indicate that he was aware of this fact of life. Encouraged, Blair continued, "But the more documentation we have, the better our case will be."
"So, you want to ask me about the Chopec?"
"Yeah. I'd like to document as much of their daily life as you can remember."
"And this information would be used for?"
"Initially, a few articles in anthropological journals to get some attention. Then we have to get some first-hand research, an expedition to verify their existence and the danger logging will pose to them."
"In other words, we're talking years here, right?" Jim demanded, visibly annoyed.
"I'm not gonna bullshit you. It'll be a long, grueling process," Blair admitted.
"Which will make you famous, no doubt." Jim's natural suspicions were coming to the fore again.
Blair snorted. "It's possible, but not probable. All helping the Milori got me was blackballed. That's why I'm teaching at Rainier and not at Princeton or Yale. I had offers from both of them, but they were suddenly withdrawn after I got back from Peru the last time."
"For someone who won't allow questions into their private business, you're awful nosy," Blair commented, but he said it with a smile. After a quiet moment, he explained, "What I did was right ? morally. Professionally, it amounted to suicide."
"I still don't follow you, Teach. Saving that tribe sounds like something that would get your name all over the papers."
"For about five minutes," Blair retorted. "What I chose not to acknowledge was the fact that while most universities are dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, they're also highly dependent upon corporate grants and donations. A lot of those donations and grants were coming from companies that stood to profit from the Milori lands. Although my colleagues at those institutions might have respected the choices I made, they didn't want their budgets cut."
"But Rainier took you on?"
"It's not an Ivy League college. We don't have the budget or the patrons those larger institutions do. Besides, I did my grad work here. I had some friends in the department that were willing to take a chance on me, though, I'm still untenured."
"So you could lose everything by helping the Chopec?" Jim asked.
Blair shrugged, "Not for five or ten years. That's how long a study like this will take. And by then, who knows? It might get me to Harvard."
Just as Barry would have done, Jim saw right through him. "Or out of a job."
"Yeah, but that's the chance you take with this kind of project."
"And if I don't tell you about the Chopec, you keep your job," Jim said.
"What?" That obviously wasn't the response Jim was expecting.
"Rainier could decide tomorrow that they can't afford another tenured Anthropology professor and I could be out the door. Or someone could have seen me leaving the club with you tonight and I could get my walking papers tomorrow morning. Nothing's ever sure in life, Jim. You just gotta do what you think is right, and hope for the best."
His words almost seemed to hurt Jim, for Jim turned back to the window. His head bent, shoulders slumped, the muscular man looked almost defeated.
Drawn by that unmistakable misery, Blair rose to his feet and crossed soundlessly to the window. He could see Jim watching his approach in the reflective darkness of the window. With the night and dark waters of the bay filling the scene, the terrace door and windows looked like a wall of huge, slick black mirrors.
"What is it, Jim?" he whispered, daring to lay a hand on Jim's stiff shoulder.
Although Blair barely touched him; Jim winced in pain.
Recalling the injuries that had brought Jim here in the first place, Blair removed his hand. But he stayed close enough to share his body warmth with the leather-clad figure.
"You have such faith ? in the world, in yourself… even in me…."
"I've been lucky," Blair said softly.
Jim turned to look into his eyes, "No, people like you make your own luck."
Blair shook his head. "No, it's all about choices, Jim. And you've got a big one to make here. How 'bout it, man? You gonna talk to me about the Chopec? This could be the most significant decision either of us makes in our entire lives. If this works out, we could save an entire people."
"And if it doesn't, I'll be betraying my friends and dooming them to extinction."
Blair wasn't going to lie, not about something this important. "Yeah, but we're gonna do everything in our power to guarantee that doesn't happen. And there's another thing to consider. It'll take years to do this. If you keep silent now, the Chopec might be safe for the moment. But in ten years when we might have won their forest a preserve status, the loggers might have cut it down already, and the Chopec will be gone ? in spite of your silence. Think about it. I'm gonna go clean up the Chinese food containers."
Leaving the somber man at the window, Blair moved to clear away the remains of their dinner.
It was a full twenty minutes before Jim left his sentry post at the terrace door to rejoin him. When he did, Jim seemed nervous, antsy.
Blair stowed the last of the plates in the dishwasher before acknowledging Jim's presence. He tried not to read anything in the set lines of that bruised and sore looking face, but it was hard. Jim looked so grim it was impossible not to view his decision as negative.
"If I agree to answer your questions, you have to promise me something first," Jim announced.
Wondering if he were once again going to be forced into a promise to stay out of Jim's life, Blair guardedly asked, "What's that?"
"When the first contact team goes in to find them, you'll be on it."
Braced for something personal, Blair grinned at the surprise. "You got it, man. That's me ? first in line to contact a people who historically kill all outsiders."
Jim seemed to appreciate the dark humor, for he laughed openly at his joking response. Jim's laughter had an infectious quality. In the span of a single breath, Blair was doubled over, too.
"Does this mean that we have a deal?" Blair asked when they'd stopped laughing.
"Yeah. What do you want to know?"
"Everything, and I mean, everything." Blair smiled, "Come on, let's go inside and sit down. This is going to take a while."
That turned out to be one of the grossest understatements Blair had ever made. They spent the remainder of the night sitting on his couch, downing coffee and fortune cookies as Jim detailed the life and culture of the almost mythical Chopec. In the end, it was exhaustion, rather than reluctance or boredom that silenced them both.
Bleary-eyed, Blair stared out the window at the pink fringe of light on the far horizon. It seemed like they'd just sat down a moment ago and already it was almost dawn. They'd both been a little tired, but he felt like a kid hearing a fairy tale. He hadn't wanted it to end, while Jim seemed happy reliving those old memories. It was with real reluctance that Blair finally said, "I guess it's time I took you home. We've both got class today."
"Yeah." Though hoarse, Jim appeared equally regretful.
Blair stumbled to his feet and moved to get his heavy jacket.
The wind was howling off the bay like a keening banshee. Its icy claws dug into him as they hurried towards the Corvair. It was only when they were out of the cold and he had the car all warmed up that Blair realized that he had no idea where he was going. "Where to?" he asked with the stupid smile of the under-slept, who were second only to drunks in the insignificant things they found amusing.
Red-eyed from exhaustion, Jim hesitantly said, "Willis, off Chattam."
"Ah, my old neighborhood. That's about ten blocks from where the warehouse I used to live in was."
"The one the drug dealers blew up?" Jim asked, no doubt recalling Blair's earlier story.
"The very same."
It was quiet in the car as they rode through the deserted, freezing streets of Cascade. Unlike the trip to the loft, this was a comfortable kind of silence. After all the talking they'd done, Blair felt very close to Jim right now. It wasn't until they got to Jim's apartment that he realized that their newfound closeness might be over. He'd offered to pay a hundred dollars to spend the night with Jim. Now that that night was over, the closeness they'd forged might be gone as well. He had all too vivid a memory of Jim's withdrawal the last time Jim had spent the night at the loft.
"Have a good night, Teach," Jim smiled when the car came to a stop, seemingly prepared to bounce out the door.
"Jim?" Blair called when Jim opened the door.
His cheeks warming, Blair awkwardly reminded, "Aren't you forgetting something?"
"Huh?" The poor guy looked out on his feet. Little wonder, after all the talking and reliving of past traumas he'd done.
"Our original bargain…." He didn't want to insult Jim if Jim had decided not to charge him for the night, but he didn't want to stiff the guy either.
"Oh, yeah…." Jim appeared equally uncomfortable all of a sudden. "I guess I must be out on my feet, huh?"
"It's been a long night," Blair said and quickly pulled the envelope he'd prepared before going to Whispers out of his jacket pocket.
Jim seemed puzzled by the envelope at first ? no doubt most of his customers just handed him the cash. Almost as though he didn't know what to do with the thing, Jim glanced inside the open envelope. "Teach, there's five hundred dollars in here."
"Yeah, I put it together before I left for the club. Keep it."
"But we agreed on a hundred…."
"Tonight was worth more than money to me, Jim. Thank you once again, for everything."
Exhaustion seemed to have left the other man's emotions very close to the surface. Jim blinked, then looked quickly away. "I don't go back on my word. We had a deal for a hundred. This would buy you five nights, not one."
Not sure what Jim was trying to tell him here, Blair studied the averted profile. Was Jim insulted? Or was Jim trying to tell him in a roundabout fashion that he wanted to spend more time with him? His face wasn't going to be healed up in the next four nights. Maybe Jim did want the company, and didn't know how to ask. Or didn't dare.
Whatever the case, Blair was more than happy to take him up on the offer. "Fine, then I'll pick you up here tomorrow at seven, okay?"
Jim had himself firmly back under control when he met Blair's eyes. "Okay. There's probably some more information you're going to need, anyway."
"Yeah, there is, but not tomorrow night. I, ah, have a pair of tickets for tomorrow night's Jags game. I noticed that you were wearing one of their basketball caps last week … do you want to go with me?"
Jim's face blanked with shock. "You mean … just go to the basketball game, no questions…."
"Yeah." Seeing the other man's interest ? and fear ? Blair explained, "Barry was supposed to go with me, but he's seeing someone new and hasn't come up for air in two weeks. I don't want to go alone."
"You could take a date," Jim suggested, that nervous look he wore whenever Blair started to get close to him clouding his face.
"I'd rather take another Jags fan. That way I don't have to spend half the night explaining the game. Please say you'll come."
Jim gave an audible swallow. Looking as though he were making the mistake of his life, Jim gave a slow nod, "Okay … thanks. It's been years since I went to a game. It'll be fun."
"Yeah, it will ? if we can stay awake," Blair grinned. "I'm sorry to get you home so late."
"Don't be. I'd be getting home about this time by bus, anyway. Guess I better go in."
"Yeah, guess so," Blair repeated, an odd aching rising in him at the thought of Jim leaving.
The fact that Jim didn't immediately shoot out the door told him that Jim was similarly reluctant to end the night.
A quiet fell between them, this one rife with tension as they both simultaneously seemed to realize their positions. They were sitting in the front seat of a car, staring into each other's faces after having spent the night in each other's company. In any normal social situation, a goodnight kiss would follow.
Their gazes locked. For a moment, Blair could see that the exhausted, lonely man beside him was as hungry for that intimacy as he was himself. He watched as Jim bit the lower lip he longed to nibble on.
After a strained silence in which neither of them obviously had the guts to make that first move, Jim gulped and gruffly reminded, "I'm still your student."
His body suddenly wired with tension, Blair squeezed his eyes shut and nodded, "Yeah, you are. I'll pick you up tomorrow night at seven. Okay?"
He could feel Jim scouring his face. Blair braced himself for a rejection. He almost collapsed when that quiet voice said, "Okay."
Grinning, Blair opened his eyes to see Jim shoot out of the car like a spooked buck. Beginning to believe that he and Jim might have a future, though he had no idea what kind of a future, he watched Jim hurry into the rundown apartment building with its handle-less, graffiti-splattered front door.
Strangely satisfied for a night in which he'd had neither sex nor sleep, Blair turned the car around and started for home.
The next four nights were among the most wonderful Blair had ever spent – certainly, the most enjoyable where he wasn't having sex. From sharing the basketball game to simply hanging out with Jim, Blair had a great time with the man. He found Jim a complex blend of inapproachability and well-concealed vulnerability. Although he didn't renege on their agreement to spend the time together, Jim seemed to keep trying to withdraw from him, but there was something inside him that didn't seem able to completely push him away. Blair suspected it was his loneliness.
On the outside, Jim seemed as self-sufficient and as barricaded as one of those remote Gothic mountain castles: distant, defiant and unreachable. But Blair suspected that it was a very different affair inside. The man seemed to be bleeding all the time, not physically, but emotionally. It was like Jim had some raw wound that couldn't be seen, but only sensed. Blair saw glimpses of it with the little Jim would let slip during their conversations. The vivid verbal portrait Jim painted of his life among the Chopec showed a very different kind of man than the closed-in loner who peddled his flesh for money. That Jim was a man with friends, a man who knew his self worth and was confident enough to take control of a life and death crisis situation and lead his tribe to victory. By comparison, this Jim was lost and alone. And Jim seemed to know it. Blair could tell from the wistful, nostalgic air that clung to Jim during those reminiscences how very much he would have loved to return to those happier days.
What had caused that Jim to morph into this one was something Blair was dying to learn, but he'd given his word that he wouldn't ask. He just kept hoping that Jim might want to talk about it ? which, of course, never happened.
As disappointed as Blair was by that personal failure, he couldn't complain. The detailed information Jim gave him on the Chopec more than made up for it. What Jim told him those nights would have been enough to fill a dozen dissertations. The ex-Ranger had fantastic recall ? and seemingly preternatural perception of all aspects of Chopec daily life.
Blair had done this sort of interviewing before. In the past, he'd always reached a point in the questioning where his informant's information would falter into the unknown. Most people just didn't have any observation skills. But aside from the meanings of some of the more obscure religious rituals, Jim's memories never faltered. He knew what the Chopec did and why they did it, how they lived, how they loved, how they fought, and how they died. Jim conveyed his experience in such vivid detail that Blair almost felt as though he were there with Jim, experiencing it all over again.
Blair took notes and audio-tapes of the interviews, being careful not to miss anything ? for he knew that he was on a very strict time table here. He had four nights to learn what he needed to know. After that, Jim would be returning to work.
The fact that this was his last night was eating Blair's heart out. He'd learned so much, but as interesting as the anthropological information was, he'd been hoping that by day four he might have cracked through Jim's shell, found a way past the man's guards. But although the truculence of their first night was not repeated, he never broke through those defenses. Jim kept his council, and his secrets.
But their close association did give Blair an opportunity to study the man who'd captured his imagination. As he did, unrelated oddities slowly began to mesh together into a rather astonishing suspicion.
Blair tried to tell himself that he was crazy, that he was dreaming and grasping at straws. He was so besotted with Jim that he was romanticizing the hustler into a true superhero; that had to be it. Only, every time he convinced himself that he was imagining things, Jim would do something to get him wondering all over again.
Take yesterday, for example. Blair had been so busy with Jim the last few nights that he'd had no time to restock his groceries after work. Finding himself out of granola, he'd cracked open a couple of eggs from the fridge. The only problem was that he'd forgotten how long those eggs had been sitting there. The fumes from the rotting yolks had left him nauseous, so he'd just packed the entire mess into a ziplock bag and tossed it down the garbage chute. He'd scrubbed the pan with bleach and aired out the loft afterwards. By the time he'd left for the university at eight o'clock yesterday morning, not a whiff of the sickening odor remained. Yet, the first line out of Jim's mouth when they'd walked in the door last night ? a good fifteen hours after the incriminating eggs had been removed ? was 'Better check those eggs, Teach.'
After that, Blair had spent the remainder of the evening remembering how many times Jim had seemed to sense his presence in circumstances when most people would normally remain oblivious. Both times at the club, Jim had been sniffing the air as though he'd smelled him. And then there were all those times when Jim knew without turning around that it was his teacher who'd entered the lecture hall. Or that first night at Whispers where Jim had seemed to have overheard his conversation with Barry, in a noisy club from fifty feet away. That last incident might have been dismissed if Jim knew how to read lips, but even that didn't really fly, for Barry had been facing away from Jim at the time. There were just too many similar instances for everything to be dismissed as coincidence.
After four days of surreptitious observation, Blair was dead certain that Jim had an abnormally sensitive sense of smell, equal or greater than most of those perfume testers he'd interviewed when he'd been looking for evidence to support his abandoned Sentinel project. And he was willing to bet that Jim's hearing was off the charts, too. But he still hadn't put that theory to the test yet.
Thinking that there was no time like the present, Blair paused in the doorway on his way back from the bathroom. It was their last night together. They'd decided to stay in and watch the out of town Jags game on cable.
Jim was stretched out on the couch about fifty yards away, clear on the other side of the loft. Blair couldn't help but admire his visitor. Jim looked so comfortable lying there, like he belonged there, his jeans and blue wool cardigan all rumpled, his long limbs for once relaxed and free of tension.
The television was on fairly loud. There was no way Jim should be able to hear anything from that far away. Also, the constant roar of the crowd's applause seemed to fill the entire room. Blair had been asking Jim to repeat himself the entire night; though, in retrospect, he now realized that his companion hadn't appeared to have trouble hearing him even once
Deciding to lay his crazy speculations to rest with a totally impossible test, Blair took in Jim's oblivious figure. Jim was facing the other direction, with his eyes glued on the loud game. There was no chance he could lip-read now. In his lowest whisper, Blair asked, "Jim, would you pass me my coffee cup, please?"
Jim didn't look up ? of course, he didn't, for no human could have heard him, Blair told himself. Feeling vaguely stupid and glad that he hadn't made a complete ass of himself by raising his absurd suspicions with Jim, Blair took a single step towards the living room ? only to freeze in his tracks as Jim reached out a hand to blindly grope for the mug on the nearby coffee table. Without taking his eyes off the screen, Jim absently held Blair's coffee cup up, as though he expected to have it immediately removed from his hand.
Shocked beyond thought, Blair just stood there staring, his blood seeming to stop in his veins at the stunning revelation.
A minute, perhaps two, passed before Blair saw his guest go very still. Then Jim's wary gaze traveled from the upraised mug to where Blair was standing nearly a hundred and fifty feet away.
Blair's stomach did flip-flops at the expression of open fear that flashed across Jim's scabbing face. Very slowly, Jim lowered the mug to the table and turned back towards the game. But his sprawl was no longer comfortable and, after a second, he sat up to perch on the edge of the couch. Even from across the room, Blair could see how tense Jim's muscles looked. Jim appeared ready to sprint for the door at any second.
Unsure how to play this, Blair slowly reentered the living room. Hesitating briefly, he came to sit on the couch a foot or so away from Jim. Although Jim didn't say a word, he could almost feel how closely his companion was concentrating on him. It was disconcerting to be the object of such fear, especially from a man who could toss half the football team around for fun.
That Jim was scared because he'd performed that little test was obvious. As Blair sat there, almost vibrating from the ferocity of the other man's nervousness, he tried to figure out what that fear meant.
Jim was apparently aware of his abnormally sensitive hearing, maybe scent as well. It was equally clear that Jim was purposefully trying to hide those abilities. But why?
Trying to understand, Blair studied his companion. Jim was hunched forward now in a purely defensive position, almost protecting his belly. His gaze was fixed unblinkingly on the tube, for all that Blair could feel every iota of Jim's attention focused on him. Jim was visibly scared stiff ? simply because of that stupid little test.
Unable to bear knowing that he was the cause of this kind of anxiety, Blair softly laid his palm on the bright turquoise sweater covering the broad back. He was careful to make sure he put no pressure on the skin below the garment, for he was still uncertain as to the degree and nature of the injuries he'd sensed there.
Jim actually flinched at the soft touch. Not from physical pain, though, Blair was fairly certain.
"It's okay, Jim," he whispered, leaving his hand there.
"What is?" The question had a harsh bite to it.
"Whatever." Needing some more contact, Blair dared to lightly stroke his hand across that muscular back. He watched Jim's eyes sink closed, then the powerful chest pulled in a deep breath. Sensing that Jim liked the touch, he let his palm rove in wide, reassuring circles, careful to keep the pressure off.
After a couple of minutes, Jim released a shuddery sigh. Seeming to force himself, Jim softly questioned, "Aren't you going to ask about that mug business?"
"Not unless you want to tell me," Blair mildly replied and kept on rubbing.
"Then why'd you do it?"
"I just wanted to make sure I wasn't going crazy," Blair said.
"That's it? No comments, no third degree?"
"Jim, you're not the first person to have sensitive hearing or an enhanced sense of smell. There are some musicians who can hear way above what's considered normal human range. And in Vietnam there were Vietnamese scouts who could – "
"Smell a Westerner by his waste," Jim completed.
"Yeah," Blair agreed.
"How do you know all this?"
"I was going to do my thesis on a related topic, but it never panned out. Before I gave the idea up, I interviewed a lot of people with one or two enhanced senses."
Sensing how Jim was hanging on his every word, Blair quietly offered, "It's no big deal."
"What isn't?" Jim questioned, seeming to relax again under his steady back rub.
"Having a superior sense."
"You should try it from this side of the street, Teach. It's a whole different story."
"Yeah?" Blair questioned the ironic statement that had bordered on sarcasm.
Blair offered, "If you want to talk about it…."
"I know. I've got your number." Where Jim would have sounded put upon three days ago, tonight it was almost fond exasperation gentling his tone.
When Blair didn't say anything else, the big man seemed to let go of his tension. The muscles under Blair's palm became less rigid, Jim's breathing deeper as he obviously let go of his anxiety.
Taking a chance, Blair edged a little closer, lessening the strain from reaching so far. He knew Jim was aware of the move, but Jim didn't pull away as he normally would have. Jim seemed to need this.
And why wouldn't he, Blair thought, aching inside for his friend. People paid every night to hurt him, and Jim didn't let anyone else close enough to be gentle to him. God only knew when the last time was that anyone had touched Jim without giving him pain. So Blair just sat there, lightly rubbing the wide back, glad to be able to give something meaningful. By slow, subtle degrees, he felt the last of the residual tension and fear seep out of his friend.
Jim shifted a little, no doubt getting uncomfortable in that hunched forward position.
Unwilling to destroy the closeness, but equally reluctant to discomfort Jim, Blair let his arm snake over those broad shoulders. When Jim didn't shrug him off immediately, he gave a barely perceptible tug, gently urging Jim towards his chest.
Jim hesitated for a fraction of a second, then sagged bonelessly against him.
Blair looked down as Jim's face tentatively settled against his chest. The uninjured cheek was snuggled against the warm blue plaid flannel. Jim's eyes were squeezed tightly shut, as though anticipating the direst consequences for this simple show of trust.
Emotion gripped Blair's throat so tight that it really felt like he was choking. He could barely swallow around that lump. But, although Jim's trepidation brought stinging tears to his eyes, he didn't make an issue of it. He just kept right on stroking that strong back, like it was no big deal that Jim was now lying in his arms.
Jim's heat and scent inundated him. Jim smelt of baby shampoo, a subtle, piney cologne and a warm aroma that was all his own. Blair breathed the other man in, taking Jim deep into his lungs and memorizing the bouquet as Jim's delicious body heat stole through him. No matter how high he raised the thermostat, every winter Cascade's dampness left him freezing. This was the first time since September that he could remember actually feeling comfortably toasty.
Blair didn't know how long they stayed like that. He was half-asleep when he felt Jim move. Thinking that Jim was just going to return to his own side of the couch, Blair kept his eyes closed, not wanting to see the withdrawal.
But they snapped open instantly when a large, skilled hand settled over the front of his blue jeans and began to rub him to fullness. His traitorous body was obviously four jumps ahead of his sluggish mentality, Blair realized, for he was already sporting an impressive hard on ? probably had been for some time, he belatedly recognized. The heat and pressure of Jim's hand were perfect, teasing and squeezing his hungry flesh to….
"No!" Blair groaned and pushed Jim's hand away. It nearly killed him to do it. He was gasping and moaning like a drowning man pulled from the sea, needing that touch more than he did oxygen. But, although Jim tried to squiggle his hand loose and continue, he held on tight. "No…."
"But you need it ? you want it. Let me…" Jim whispered, soft and seductive as his touch.
"I didn't bring you here for that," Blair hissed, dragging his rebellious body to the other end of the couch. He gulped in some deep breaths, trying to ease the pressure at his groin.
"But you were holding me and…."
Blair translated the meaning behind the half-sentence ? the only time anyone held Jim, they wanted sex from him. Sobbing in some more cool air, he finally got hold of himself. "I like holding you, Jim. It wasn't a come on. I swear."
He watched Jim's right cheek and the skin around the rough scab on the left one fill with color.
"I-I'm sorry," Jim all but stammered.
Regaining his humor ? and some room in the front of his jeans ? Blair shook his head. "Don't be. It felt incredible."
"Then let me finish," the words were nearly a plea. Jim continued with, "I don't mind. You've been so good to me these last few days that –"
"Friends are good to each other, Jim, and they don't expect sexual favors for it," Blair softly corrected. Jim was so inviting. Even with his face all messed up, he was unbelievably attractive.
"They don't charge each other to spend time together, either," Jim lowered his gaze, his embarrassment almost palpable. "I'm not your friend."
"Why? Because I paid you to be here?" At Jim's stiff nod, Blair said, "It was my idea, remember? Anyway, the information you've given me is invaluable. I'd've paid to hear you lecture on this, so quit feeling bad about it. I've enjoyed having you here. To be honest … I'm really gonna miss it."
He heard Jim's loud swallow from across the couch. The tension that he'd rubbed from Jim's body seemed to be back a hundred-fold. In a whisper so low that Blair was barely sure he heard, rather than imagined it, Jim admitted, "So will I."
Blair studied his companion for a moment. Reading the hesitation and sincere sense of loss, he said, "So, don't be a stranger. You want to drop by, drop by. Or call me and I'll pick you up."
"That's not a good idea," Jim sounded like it had taken every ounce of strength he had to get those words out.
"Maybe not, but what's the sense in both of us being miserable?" Blair challenged
"You wouldn't be miserable," Jim denied.
"Oh? And how would you feel if someone you cared about refused to see you because he felt friendship for you?"
"I can't do this, Blair. You don't belong in the world I live in…."
"Neither do you," Blair heatedly contested.
"Maybe not, but … I've got commitments to meet. I need the money."
"What sort of commitments?" Blair demanded, growing tired of the mystery.
"That's ?" The none of your business Blair saw blazing in those frustrated silver blue eyes remained unvoiced. Instead, Jim simply answered, "That's not relevant right now."
"Okay," Blair argued, "I'll pay you."
Jim's expression was very mild as he softly refused, "You couldn't afford me."
"Why don't you just let me worry about that, okay?"
Jim gave a negative shake of his head. "If I didn't give a shit about you, I'd take you up on that in a minute, but I'm not going to let you bankrupt yourself on my behalf."
"What if I say I need more information to save the Chopec's forest?" Blair played his last, dishonorable card. It was a low blow, but he was desperate.
"Then I'd tell you to let me know and I'll meet you on campus to talk to you," Jim levelly replied, no longer allowing his arguments to fluster him. "I'm gonna split now, Teach."
Alarmed, Blair stood up. "Don't go, please…."
"It's late. We've both got class tomorrow."
"But –" Blair reached out to hold Jim in place.
Jim stared down at the hand on his biceps for a quiet minute, before saying, "If you want me to stay, I'll stay, but we'll both regret it."
Puzzled by the shade of warning in the tone, Blair asked, "What do you mean?"
"I'm tired and you are the most decent, desirable human being I've met in my life," Jim gulped, his Adam's apple bobbing nervously up and down like the little red and white ball at the end of a fishing line. "Take me home, Teach, while you still can."
His body ablaze at the declaration and the lonesome longing in those expressive eyes, Blair held that vulnerable gaze, considering his options. If he made a move now, he might find his way into Jim's close-guarded heart. He might earn Jim's trust enough for him to open up and tell him all those deep dark secrets he kept hinting at, or … he might lose every inch he'd gained and end up just another john, another user. And whatever might come of these feelings he had for Jim, he was determined never to use him.
Sanity won out ? just barely. Jim was asking him to take him home ? he'd take the man home.
"Okay," he gruffly agreed. "I'll take you home. But I'm gonna see you again ? even if I have to pay for the pleasure of your company."
Jim, who just seemed relieved to be escaping, gave a short nod. "Whatever you say, Teach."
As they headed to the coat-rack beside the door, Blair could tell from the resolved cast to Jim's features that he had a fight on his hands. But that was all right with him. If he'd learned one thing at all during the past five days, it was that the man hidden behind all those defensive barriers was worth fighting for. Whatever it took, he was determined to help the Jim Ellison he'd met through the ex-Ranger's reminiscences about the Chopec find his way back from wherever he was lost. He might have lost a minor battle tonight, but he was resolved to win the war.
With that declaration of war, mental and private though it might have been, Blair commenced to wage one of the most relentless battles fought in history. His determination and dedication to the achievement of his goal made the Hundred-Year War look like a kindergarten squabble. He was ruthless in his tactics, using every dirty, manipulative trick he knew to keep Jim in his life.
Jim had confessed to hating eating alone, so every evening, just around suppertime, Blair would call Jim, just to shoot the breeze. At first Jim had seemed annoyed by his calls, but he found the fact that Jim picked up the phone, even though he had a machine screening his calls, very encouraging. During the course of those lazy dinner chats, he always asked Jim out, but didn't push the issue. Jim always politely refused, but that didn't daunt him. It wasn't so much the dating as the communication itself that was important to him.
It was at school, before class when it was just Jim and himself in that big empty lecture hall, that Blair pressed the getting together issue. Employing what Barry had long ago labeled the Sandburg Foolproof pleasepleaseplease approach, Blair would invite Jim out to everything from bowling to art exhibitions. Once again, Jim always refused the invitations, but every day the ex-Ranger's resolve seemed to wear the tiniest bit thinner. Most telling of all was the fact that Jim didn't get mad at him for asking anymore, nor did he freeze him out.
Now, nearly two weeks into Operation Win-Jim, Blair decided to move the battle to yet another front. It was Saturday night, and he was damn tired of spending his Saturdays alone. So, here he was at Whispers' entrance once again, dressed to kill. He had on a pair of tight black jeans, black leather cowboy boots that could have come out of Barry's closet, save for their size, and a loose, flowing shirt that was so white it hurt the eyes. His curls were free tonight, flowing around his shoulders, their usual wild abandon enhanced by the help of the November gales raging outside. He looked artistic, free-spirited and hot ? and he was careful to move like he knew it.
Blair figured that he must look pretty good, for he was approached by a guy before he'd even cleared the parking lot.
"Hi, there." The low, gruff voice came out of the darkness.
Blair turned to see a huge biker, all black leather and pointy riding helmet, just stepping off his Harley down at the end of the row of parked cars.
Some might have been scared by the motorcyclist's imposing demeanor, but Blair had spent a good portion of his childhood among guys with this look. Nine times out of ten, it was all show. They were usually sweet as kittens under all that bluster. Of course, there was always that tenth case that was a true psycho.
Blair quickly evaluated the man. Beneath the don't- mess-with-me image that was so much a part of a biker's persona, the shaggy blond almost seemed nervous as he removed his helmet. That uncertainty made him suspect that he was dealing with the tattooed teddy bear variety, instead of a Hell's Angel.
"How's it going, man?" Blair smiled back, not too bright, just enough not to be insulting.
"Doin' fine. You meeting someone?" Pale, blue eyes studied him out of a handsome, ginger-whiskered face.
"Sorry, I am," Blair put a hint of regret into his voice. He knew it wasn't easy for these big macho types who had the type of proclivities that brought a man to Whispers.
Sometimes they were deeper in the closet than Anthropology professors. "This your first time here?"
"Yeah," after a pause the biker asked, "Does it show?"
"Not really," Blair all out lied.
"Good. You really meeting someone, or were you just being polite?" Those light blue eyes bored into him. "You can be honest, man. I won't mess you up."
"Really meeting someone ? someone special."
"Well, if he doesn't show, I'll be at the bar. I'd love to buy you a drink, man. My name's Marty."
Blair smiled and held out his hand to shake, "I'll take you up on it if he doesn't show, Marty. I'm Blair."
As they started for the club side by side, the big biker questioned with barely concealed nervousness, "How is this place? They gonna welcome my kind or am I gonna have to fight my way out the door?"
Definitely, the teddy bear type, Blair decided. "Nah, they're cool here. Flower children and bikers all welcome," he joked.
Marty's grin was bright and charming. Another night, Blair might have taken up the offer and spent some time talking with the lonely guy, but tonight he had plans. Giving Marty's arm a friendly goodbye pat as they walked in the door, Blair said, "Have a good time, man."
"Yeah, you, too, Blair. You change your mind or need something, you just give me a wave," the biker advised.
He knew what that oblique 'need something' line translated to. For whatever reason, the big biker had just placed him under his protection, for the night at least. Blair had seen it before. Some of these guys just lived for a fight. Life was just way too staid for these chrome- mounted warriors. "Thanks, Marty, I will."
With an incongruously sweet smile and a touch to his arm, Marty ambled over to the bar.
After checking his jacket, Blair paused to take his bearings. The club was packed once again. Only since it was Saturday, the entire feel of the place was different. There was an electric quality to the atmosphere, an almost predatory undercurrent that made just being here dangerous. He hesitated only long enough to soak in the vibes of the place and mark his quarry.
Jim wasn't hard to find. He was in his usual spot over by the far wall, half cloaked in shadows. Tonight he was clad in faded blue denim, so tight that it affected Blair even from across the room. Jim was absently staring out over the dance floor when he first saw him. Unsurprised, he watched those nostrils twitch moments before Jim focused on him. Jim's sense of smell was definitely as good as his hearing.
Grinning like the Cheshire Cat at the expression of open consternation ? and the helpless once-over Jim gave him, Blair made his sauntering way over to his friend.
"Hey, there, Jim. How's it going?" he greeted, trying very hard not to giggle as Jim's stoic gaze fixed on his face. Blair had seen how those eyes had moved unconsciously downwards when he'd approached.
"Fine ? until now. I guess I don't have to ask what you're doing here," Jim commented in the resigned tone of someone condemned to suffer the trials of the damned indefinitely.
"Just figured that since you wouldn't go to the movies with me, I'd come hang out with you for a while," Blair smiled sweetly.
"I'm working, in case you hadn't noticed."
"Oh, I noticed," Blair drawled. "I like the denim. You'd make a great Marlboro Man."
Jim sighed and shook his head. "Whatever sells."
The conversation faltering as they got lost in each other's eyes, Blair swallowed hard and grasped at topical straws, "How's business?"
"You stand beside me a few more minutes looking that good and you'll find out."
"Huh?" Blair questioned.
"You look hot, like another rent boy," Jim softly explained.
Blair felt his cheeks warm, "I don't have the body for it, man."
"Don't underestimate yourself, Teach. There's something ... very compelling about you."
Blair peeked almost shyly up at Jim through his lashes. "You think so?"
Jim nodded. "From the day I first laid eyes on you."
"Yeah?" Blair whispered, transfixed by his companion's gaze. Jim's eyes were so very bright and clear, seeming to shimmer like quicksilver even in the low lighting.
After another one of those Jim says-it-all nods, Jim's head began to tentatively lower towards him. It didn't seem to be a conscious decision, more like something the ex-Ranger couldn't stop himself from doing.
Blair didn't know whether to view it as a victory or a set-back, but, whatever it was, their first kiss was about to happen right here in public...
Blair could feel the moist warmth of Jim's breath wafting against his face, when a deep unctuous voice behind them made Jim freeze like one of the extras in The Day the Earth Stood Still. With all the varying degrees of trepidation and fear Blair had seen on his friend's face over the last two months, Blair had never seen terror as intense as that which flashed through those horrified eyes as that voice behind them announced, "There you are, James."
Jim's fear was quickly masked, seemingly replaced by a deep, simmering rage lurking below his pale face. Blair could feel Jim's repressed fury sympathetically seeping along his own nerves like an empathic time bomb just waiting to go off.
A tall, well-muscled man with hard brown eyes, slick dark hair, and a shiny leather jacket stepped right up to Jim. Appalled, Blair watched as the guy took hold of Jim's face and turned the left side around for better viewing. "See, dear boy, I told you that you were overestimating the damage. You're good as new."
His heart pounding so loud that he couldn't even hear the Reggae band up front any longer, Blair realized that this had to be the bastard that had hurt Jim a few weeks ago. His gaze leapt to Jim's face. Jim had gotten his anger under control, replacing it with the bored, arrogant sneer Blair had seen the first time he'd met Jim here at Whispers. But even though Jim hid his emotions very well, Blair could feel the almost palpable revulsion that his friend experienced while suffering that touch.
"Do you have plans tonight, sweet boy?" The creep asked, his treacly voice oozing over Blair's nerves like sewer sludge.
It was too much to take. Jim opened his mouth to answer, but before a single syllable emerged, Blair found himself stepping forward. There was no thought to his action, no consideration of the possible, painful consequences. His hand shot out to roughly knock the interloper's fingers off Jim's face in an aggressive manner the bookish Blair had never employed in his life. He'd never experienced this kind of rage before, even when Dillon and his buddies had jumped him. It was truly transformative.
"He's busy. Get your fucking hands off him," Blair sneered. Without thinking, he placed his own 5'8" body between these two six foot up giants, as though he had a wall of muscle to hide Jim behind.
"And who would you be?" Those dark eyes studied him with open amusement.
Too mad to even think, Blair hissed, "I guess you'd call me his ... agent. I arrange his social calendar these days. And you're in deep fucking shit, man. You're the asshole who cost me a week's earnings last month."
"You expect me to believe that a sweet, little boy-toy like you is his ... pimp?" the pain-freak scoffed.
It was the wrong attitude to take. Blair didn't know who he was channeling right now, but the spirit controlling him obviously thought he was built like Lou Ferrigno. Almost as a spectator to his own actions, he watched both his hands push the sleazoid's chest in a solid shove that all but toppled the man.
Blair had never taken so physical a stance in his life, even when the bullies used to beat up on a regular basis. But this wasn't about him; it was about Jim, and somehow that protective fury gave him the power to overlook such trivialities as his lack of muscle, fighting skills, and probable, imminent demise.
The jerk raised a fist towards Blair's face, but before it could move, Jim's hand shot out to intercept it. "Don't." It was the Jim from that night at the university, the one who'd taken down three attackers without getting winded.
"You're not serious, James?" Jim's former trick demanded, the first traces of real anger entering his attitude.
Not wanting Jim to get caught in the fallout of this, Blair once again interposed himself between the pair. "It's not him you have to worry about. It's me you're gonna have to deal with!"
"And who are you, child, that I should worry?" the creep smiled.
Extemporizing even faster than his rising temper, Blair questioned, "You ever hear of the Guarino Family, man?" he sneered right in the guy's face ? or as much in his face as he could get, given their size difference.
"You're joking, right?" the skell laughed, but there was a hollow sound to it. Those dark eyes were studying him, seeming to weigh his suicidally threatening attitude with his obvious lack of assets to back it up.
"We never joke about Family, man. You made a major mistake messing up our investment here. You cost us a truckload of money. My associates are more than eager to take it out of your hide."
"Your associates?" the freak echoed, his eyes going wide.
"Yeah." Putting on an Oscar winning performance, and coincidentally laying his life and balls on the line, Blair gestured with his chin to where the biker he'd befriended earlier in the parking lot was now lounging with several other Hells Angels types at the bar.
He'd seen Marty watching him earlier as he spoke to Jim. He hoped to God that the motorcyclist was still observing him. It turned out to be even better than he'd thought. Marty and three other bulky bouncer types were watching Blair push the bigger pain-freak around like Blair and company were the paid mud-wrestling entertainment.
When Blair glanced his way, the biker tilted his head questioningly. Praying to every god he'd ever even heard of, he gave a nod and held his breath.
To his astonishment, not only did Marty storm over, but two of his well-muscled, bearded buddies came along for the fun.
"You got a problem here, boss?" Marty asked Blair, playing into the scenario as though he had a written script in hand. The teddy bear from the parking lot was history. This Marty had met a few kindred spirits and had an image to uphold now. The biker and one of his buddies each took hold the pain-freak's arms, stepping in close so that their superior bulk concealed what was transpiring from the rest of the club. Obviously, this was a scenario they'd played out before.
"I don't know." As much as he wanted to bury the degenerate in an unmarked grave, Blair wasn't quite ready to involve his new friend in manslaughter ? no matter how eager Marty seemed. Turning to gaze at Jim's abuser with the malicious speculation a hunting cat would accord a quivering mouse, he asked the visibly terrified pain-freak, "Do we have a problem here? You gonna clear out or do you need an eviction notice, 'cause my boys here would be more than happy to accommodate you."
"They're not connected. They're just bikers," the sadist made a last attempt to salve his pride.
"My business associates are nothing if not adaptable," Blair bluffed. "This isn't exactly the kind of place my respectable relatives want to be seen frequenting, if you take my meaning. Father Migliore would be very upset to see them in such an establishment, but we're not above making a profit off it."
An evil grin spread over Marty's face as he apparently figured out what Blair was playing at. "We don't do concrete goulashes anymore, man, but we can show you some places in Cascade National Forest where a body'll never be found. How 'bout it, you want a private tour?"
The sleazoid turned ghost white at the biker's gleeful suggestion. "I-I don't want any trouble." The pleading eyes turned to Blair.
Remorseless, Blair shrugged, "Too bad, you got it. We don't like losers who rough up our investments. It's bad for business. I tell you what, though. I can't afford any more trouble with the law this week. You clear outta here now, and I just might let you keep your skin intact. But if you show your pathetic hide in this place again, my boys here will carve you up in little pieces and leave you scattered from here to the Canadian border. Am I making myself clear?"
"As crystal. I'm gone," the nearly gibbering man pleaded.
"You can let him go, guys," Blair said to his borrowed muscle, holding his breath to see if he'd be obeyed. For the first time he began to understand why some guys were into this kind of power trip. Having a couple of gorilla-sized fighters jump at your beck and call was a weird, heady feeling.
To his great relief, the bikers released the pain freak. The creep was gone so fast he seemed to leave his shadow behind.
As the three motorcyclists erupted into hearty laughter, Marty moved over to clap Blair on the back. "You may be small, buddy, but, fuck, you've got the biggest cojones I've ever seen! You had that dude shittin' his pants!"
"Thanks for your help, guys," Blair breathed, too relieved for words. Now that the scene was over he felt almost rubbery. Beside him, Jim had gone paler than Blair's shirt. "Come on, let me buy you a drink or four!"
Hooking the silent Jim's arm, Blair guided the group over to the bar.
"My three friends here are drinking on me, tonight," Blair told the bartender as he handed over his credit card. "You just charge it, okay?"
"Sure thing," the androgynous blond behind the bar beamed, little dollar signs almost popping up where his pupils should have been.
"Hey, you don't have to do that," Marty rumbled.
"It's my pleasure. Thanks again." Accepting his soon to be maxed-out card back from the bartender, Blair flashed a smile at his new friends. "Have a good time, guys."
After fielding all three's enthusiastic thanks, Blair turned to Jim, who was still silent and deathly pale at his side. "Are you all right?" he whispered.
"Yeah ... no.… I don't know…" Jim admitted. He was visibly shaken, but doing his best to hide it.
Seeing that his friend was in no shape to work tonight, Blair asked, "You want to get out of here? I'll make up your losses. We can stop at the ATM machine on the way home."
"Like you're really gonna have anything left when these three are done," Jim grumbled, but his heart wasn't in it. He looked like he was fighting back nausea.
"Come on, let's go." To Blair's surprise ? and worry ? Jim allowed himself to be led to the door.
Blair delayed only long enough to fetch their jackets from the coatroom, before leading Jim to his car.
The icy bite of the wind was merciless as they stepped out into the night. It ripped into their exposed flesh like ghostly talons. Normally, Jim was almost unnaturally immune to Cascade's cold temperatures. But tonight as the ex-Ranger settled into the passenger seat, he was shivering worse than Blair.
It was clear that whatever had gone down with that pain-freak, it had been pretty traumatic. Blair still couldn't figure out why the creep was up and walking when Jim could have twisted his head from his shoulders without any trouble at all. But he didn't know how to ask that. Jim didn't really look like he was up to too many questions at the moment.
They were ten blocks out of the club before Jim broke his silence. "I don't understand you at all."
This not being what he expected to hear, Blair brilliantly inquired, "Huh?"
Jim stared off into the darkness of the frigid, empty streets they were passing, before speaking. "Anybody would be ... disgusted with all this, but you treat me like it doesn't mean anything, like it doesn't matter that I sell my ass to freaks like that."
"It hurts you ? it matters to me," Blair got his choked up throat to respond. He kept his eyes focused on the empty road; he didn't dare look at Jim for fear of what that proud man acting so broken would do to him.
"No one ever ... defended me like that." Jim still sounded stunned. "You were incredible. I almost believed that stuff about the mob myself."
"It was no big deal, Jim," Blair tried to dismiss.
"No big deal? He could've broken you in half, and you didn't care."
"Nah, you never would have let him do that," Blair tried to joke.
"I ... thank you. I mean that," Jim gave an audible gulp.
"I know," Blair whispered.
After a moment, Jim hesitantly offered, "I think that you are the bravest person I've ever met."
"I'm not brave, Jim. I was just ... mad ... at him," Blair added, so there would be no misunderstanding. After a quiet moment, he hesitantly requested, "Can I ask you a personal question, man?"
"I guess you've earned it," Jim tentatively allowed.
"I've seen you fight. Why didn't you kill that son-of-a- bitch for what he did to you?"
Jim was silent for so long that Blair began to fear that he'd overstepped the bounds of the fragile trust Jim had extended, but finally Jim answered. "There aren't many people willing to pay five hundred a night for sex ? at least, not normal people. You charge that kind of price tag, they want something ... special. Yeah, sure, I wanted to kill that SOB, but ... it would have been bad for business."
"So you're saying you would've ... gone with him tonight?" Blair couldn't keep the disbelief out of his voice.
"No, never again."
Blair chewed his lower lip and concentrated on his driving, to keep from asking all those questions he'd promised he wouldn't voice.
"Oh, for ? whatever it is, just spit it out," Jim demanded at last. "What happened? Did getting close up and personal with the scum I ... service dash all those rosy illusions you have about me?"
"I don't have any rosy illusions about you. I know you're ... living on the edge here. I guess I just don't understand why."
"Why what?" Jim didn't sound annoyed, just weary.
Blair figured he'd start with something easy, "Well ... you're working Whispers five, six nights a week, right?"
"At five hundred bucks a night, that means you're bringing home somewhere between two to three thousand non-taxable dollars a week," Blair continued.
"On a good week, yeah. So what's your point?"
Blair sighed. There was no polite way to phrase this. "I've seen the place you're renting. You don't wear expensive jewelry or drive a Ferrari. Although you look and dress great, you're not a clotheshorse. I can't figure where all that money's going, when you live the way you do."
Expecting to be informed in no uncertain terms that this was none of his business, Jim's, "I told you; I've got commitments," came as a real shock.
Digesting that, Blair finally ventured, "What kind of 'commitments'? Are we talking a wife and six kids here, an uninsured mother on dialysis, a junkie brother, or what?"
Jim vented a long, drawn out sigh. "I knew that sooner or later you'd demand my sob story," he lamented, but there was no real bite to the words.
Nevertheless, Blair felt compelled to explain. "Look, I'm not asking out of idle curiosity here. I'm just trying to figure out why the person I'd risk my whole world to get close to makes his living doing something that he obviously despises. I can't believe that it's just for the money."
"Believe it," Jim advised in that aggravatingly truculent tone.
"You're gonna have to do better than that, man. I don't buy it," Blair argued.
"Whether you buy it or not, it's the truth."
"Jim, you're a bright guy. There are a zillion things you could do –"
"That would bring home a couple of grand a week after taxes?" Jim challenged. "There's only one other thing that I'm good enough at to make that kind of bread doing, and I won't kill for a living."
"Jesus, Jim, what the hell are you into that you need that kind of cash?"
The breath Jim released then sounded like one of complete defeat. Blair glanced over for a second. Jim's face was so set it looked like a Medusa had turned him to stone.
"I'm into breathing free air. I'm into not spending the next ten to twelve years in a cage ? all right?"
"What?" Blair looked over, then returned his attention back to the road to navigate an ice patch on the street.
After a prolonged, tense silence, during which Blair half-expected his companion to ask that he pull over so that Jim could get out of the car, Jim finally opened up.
"After I got back from Peru, I was pretty messed up."
"That's understandable," Blair consoled. "You were the only survivor on your mission. You were left to fend for yourself in a hostile environment for nearly two years before being rescued. I'm no shrink, man, but that's gotta be pretty damn traumatic."
"Maybe, but it wasn't so much the being stranded as the rescue that ... screwed everything up. When I was living with the Chopec in the jungle, everything was fine. I felt ... at peace for maybe the first time in my life. That all changed when the Army brought me home."
"Culture shock?" Blair guessed, giving Jim a quick smile of encouragement before returning his attention to his driving.
"I guess. I started having ... seizures when I got back."
"You mean like epilepsy?" Blair asked.
"Not really. I just ... black out. The docs ran all kinds of tests on me, but they couldn't find any organic causes. It isn't epilepsy; it isn't chemically induced, it's not vascular, or neural... They gave me a long list of what it wasn't, but no one could diagnose what it was. The shrinks decided that it was mental. I was just another crazy vet to them, I guess. They labeled me with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome and sent me home with sedatives. The pills... Well, let's just say that I don't react well to medications and leave it at that."
"So you're trying to pay off medical bills?" Blair tried to make sense of this. "Don't you get veterans' benefits? Wouldn't the Army pay all your medical stuff?"
"Yeah, they paid all the bills, but...."
Blair heard Jim draw a deep breath. He could almost feel the waves of reluctance emanating from the other side of the Corvair's bench seat. "Those seizures interfered with my job. I was trying to get on the Cascade PD. Everything was going fine. I'd passed all the tests, and then ... then I had a seizure on the shooting range, in the final sim test."
"Oh, my God..." Blair breathed. Jim had been going to be a cop.…
"After that, I took a number of jobs. I was a private dick for a while, then I worked as a rent a cop... It was there I got into trouble. I was working security in Garvey's, that Art Studio down on Witherbee. Do you know it?"
Blair nodded, "The one with the Rodeo Drive prices?"
"Yeah, that's the one. About ten months ago, we had an exhibit of antique porcelain in. I-I had a seizure and fell on one of the cases. To the tune of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars worth of damages. Garvey's brought me up on charges. They swore I was stoned. I was tested for drugs and came up negative, but the doctors couldn't find an organic cause for the seizures. Since I didn't tell them about the problem when I applied for the job, the courts held me liable for the damages."
"They're expecting you to pay back two hundred and fifty thousand dollars?" Blair couldn't even comprehend what that sort of over-whelming debt must feel like.
"Yeah. I've paid off about fifty?"
"Thousand?" Blair almost choked.
"Thousand," Jim confirmed. After another block or so of quiet, Jim said, "You haven't asked how I ended up at Whispers."
"No, I haven't," Blair hollowly responded. He didn't understand why Jim didn't hate him for making him talk about this stuff.
"You interested?" The tone had no inflection at all. It was just a quiet, emotionless void offering Blair the opportunity to back out.
Blair was coward enough to be sorely tempted to go that route. He wasn't even sure he could stand knowing the rest. What he'd heard up to now had just about ripped his heart to shreds. But if Jim wanted ? maybe needed ? to tell him, he was duty bound to listen. He was all too aware that he'd brought all this up with his own callous probing. No one should have to live through the things Jim was talking about, let alone recite the events. Christ, but he should have kept his stupid questions to himself.
Finally, Blair whispered, "Only if you want to tell me."
Jim's chuckle totally freaked him out. "It's nowhere near as lurid as you're imagining, Teach."
"It's not?" Blair hesitantly questioned.
"No. After I lost the court case, I ran into one of the guys who used to work as a salesman at Garvey's. He was young, good-looking ? very gay. He'd heard about what happened to me. He told me he was making a couple of hundred a night … working Whispers' clientele. He said that I'd make a fortune with my macho looks. He was right. The first night I walked in there, some business man gave me a thousand dollars to pop my cherry."
"Oh, my God, Jim..." His insides squeezed up so bad that it was all Blair could do to keep from driving the car off the road. All he wanted to do was cry. He'd never heard a tale like this. He didn't even know how to react inside, much less what to say.
"So that's it, the sad and tragic story of Captain James Ellison's downfall. It'd make a pretty good movie of the week, don't you think?"
The sarcasm nearly finished Blair. "Don't make jokes, man," he rasped.
Prospect finally came into view. Barely able to see what he was doing through the liquid clouding his eyes, Blair pulled into an open spot in front. When the Corvair was safely parked, he turned off the ignition and just sat there, staring blindly out the windshield at his building as he attempted to get control of his emotions before he disgraced himself. Jim must already think him an insensitive, nosy bastard. He didn't want Jim to think of him as a crybaby as well.
But it was too late. He'd always been too sensitive. If he'd seen this in a movie about total strangers, he would have been sobbing his heart out by now. Coming from someone he cared about, he was devastated. The waterworks had already started. He was able to hold the sounds in, but there was nothing his embarrassed heart could do to halt the flow of tears. They were streaming down his cheeks fast as spring melt-waters.
"Teach?" he heard Jim call, then a softer, hesitant, "Blair?"
A hand touched his shoulder, light and careful. It was a breakthrough, of sorts, Blair supposed. Jim never touched him ? or anyone, unless paid to do so.
But Blair was just way too upset at the present moment to appreciate anything other than the pain his boorish probing must have caused this very private man.
"I-I-I'm sorry," he stammered, too self-conscious of his transgression to even look at Jim.
"Huh?" Jim sounded stunned. "What have you done to feel sorry about?"
"I-I should never have asked…" Blair brokenly explained, seconds before the noise broke through and he was shaking all over.
There was no hesitation in the powerful arms that collected him and pulled him across the bench seat into an embrace.
Blair buried his face in the rough, scratchy material of Jim's pea coat, inhaling the familiar smells of the subtle, expensive cologne and Jim's sweeter natural scent. He could feel a large hand rubbing his back through the thick layer of his sheepskin jacket as he soaked the navy material with his tears. He couldn't believe that Jim would want to comfort him after he'd so thoughtlessly forced the him to reveal his painful history. But that reassuring rubbing kept up through the storm of his sorrow, and, after a few minutes in that sheltering embrace, Blair felt something that made his heart twist and jerk to a complete stop.
Jim's lips … gently kissing the crown of his head….
Gasping in shuddery breaths, which were exhaled into the rapidly cooling air of the car in a cloud of steam, Blair raised his head to stare up at Jim's face. Jim's expression openly revealed the degree to which his tears had touched him. All those stiff guards and protective barriers Jim habitually hardened his face with were gone. In their place was an incredulous wonder that softened every one of the hard planes and deeply imbedded character lines with an emotion that Blair could only define as awe.
Blair sat spellbound and trembling as that handsome face lowered towards him. He dragged in a much-needed breath, preparing himself. Absurdly, he wished he wasn't crying. He was going to taste all salty and icky when….
The fretful worry froze. Blair had thought it was a kiss that Jim was going to deliver, but as it turned out, it wasn't quite what the shaken up anthropologist had expected. Instead of claiming his mouth, those tender lips landed on the newly healed skin of his left cheek. While Blair sat there stunned and shaking, Jim proceeded to lick/kiss the tears off both his cheeks.
It was comforting, it was sensual, it was delightful. In his lifetime, Blair had been blessed with many a gentle lover, but not a one of them had ever initiated their relationship with such a reverent gesture of caring. And he couldn't even be certain that Jim intended this slow, laving sweetness sexually. But the tenderness of it, the near-worshipful approach Jim was taking made his insides quake as not even climax with another had. As those licking kisses cleaned his face of all traces of his tears, he knew that he adored this man as he had no other. Whatever it took, he was going to help Jim escape the darkness that had claimed his life.
Jim's mouth followed the tracks of his tears down Blair's face. When he reached the corner of his lips, Jim's mouth glided gently over to cover his.
Blair had never known anything like the delicious melting that followed. It wasn't like any first kiss he'd ever experienced, or any kiss at all, for that matter. There wasn't any urgency, no drive to completion, no hurry to get onto bigger and better things. Jim's lips just kneaded against his own until Blair's mouth sank open. Their tongues brushed, both seeming to pause and taste, then their teeth clicked as they delved deeper … and still it went on.
Jim tasted … wonderful. Blair's own tears flavored the larger man's mouth, but beneath it was the sweet essence that was pure Jim. Blair drank it in, made that taste part of himself, as Jim appeared to be doing for him.
Finally, the need for oxygen forced them apart. But even then, Jim pulled back slowly, like maybe he didn't think breathing was the more important choice.
The sigh Blair released as they parted filled the now-freezing car. Blair's head sank back against the headrest, his eyes lazily drooping shut as he savored the memory of that kiss.
"I, ah, guess I just crossed the line there, huh, Teach?" Jim said at last. Incredibly, there was a hint of nervousness in his voice, like maybe he expected him to be angry with him.
"What?" Blair blinked, feeling as though he were experiencing afterglow instead of the effects of a single kiss.
"You don't date your students," Jim stiffly reminded. Blair had never seen such a bewildered look on the man's face. It was obvious that Jim hadn't intended to kiss him that way.
"I think we crossed that line a long time ago, big guy," Blair acknowledged. As much to see if he'd be permitted to, as for the actual enjoyment of it, Blair reached out to cover Jim's large hand where it rested on Jim's denim covered thigh.
As close as yesterday, Jim would have flinched and pulled back from that contact. But, although the athletic body beside him tensed up some, Blair didn't receive any 'no trespassing' signals. If anything, Jim seemed to be waiting for him to give him a sign as to what was to follow. The cautious gaze that met his own, pure silver in this uncertain light, appeared braced for the worst.
But, what that might be, Blair hadn't a clue. Did Jim want them to progress to the next, predictable level or did Jim want things to go back to the way they were? Maybe a man who made his living having sex wouldn't view this as anything but a busman's holiday, Blair worried. Whatever went down, he didn't want Jim to ever think that he'd use him like all the men who paid did. But how was he going to know what was motivating Jim here, he wondered. Jim had offered to have sex with him in the past out of gratitude. What made tonight any different?
Finding no answers in that once-again fortified face, Blair grasped at the one certain thing in his reality at the present moment. Now that Jim had pulled back to his own side of the winter-chilled car, Blair was freezing. "Come on, let's move this indoors. It's freezing out here."
Choosing not to answer the silent request for a definition of a relationship he had no concept how to pigeonhole, Blair covered with, "Unless you want me to take you home?"
Even though it hurt, Blair offered his companion an easy out. In spite of the trust they'd forged here tonight, he knew that they'd be back at square one tomorrow if Jim left now.
To his surprise, Jim didn't leap at the chance. Instead, the tongue that had so generously laved his face only a few brief moments ago slipped out to moisten visibly dry lips. Looking, and sounding, totally out of his depth, Jim confessed, "I don't know what…."
"Me, either," Blair admitted. "Let's just get out of the cold, okay? If you need me to take you home after we warm up, I will, okay?"
Jim nodded, then quickly exited the car.
Two tense, silent minutes later they were turning the lights on in the loft and removing their winter wear. Jim absently reached out to take Blair's coat and hang it up on a hook by the door for him. That automatic gesture of small kindness, which Jim employed whenever they went anywhere, always touched him. Inside this emotionally scarred and wary man, there was a hell of a sweet guy hiding.
"Want some tea?" Blair asked, still shivering.
"Sure," Jim agreed, visibly nervous.
His taller shadow trailed him into the kitchen. Jim paused to lean against the wooden support beam beside the counter in an unconsciously seductive pose as he silently observed while Blair got the kettle going and cups together.
Conscious of that scrutiny, Blair was once again reminded of one of the first impressions he'd had of Jim. Jim was still like a jumpy stray he'd brought home, a survivor of the streets who, now that he'd been won, was waiting to see what form their life together would take. Those cautious eyes seemed to be assessing him. Jim almost looked as though he were trying to decide if Blair would turn out to be just the latest in a long line of abusers or the safe haven he'd seemed. And Blair hadn't even the faintest idea as to what it was going to take to allay those fears ? if they could even be laid to rest.
So, once the water was boiled, Blair busied himself with filling the pot and preparing the tray to bring inside. Once it was ready, Jim stepped up to the counter and wordlessly picked up the serving tray.
Blair had to smile at that. If nothing else, Jim had learned how big a klutz he was.
Once the tray was safely stowed on the coffee table, they settled side by side on the couch.
There was very little that was comfortable in the silence that descended between them. All those issues that had been raised by their kiss seemed to be vibrating between them again.
"You were going to tell me what this is," Jim commented.
"That's not just for one person to say, Jim. We're in this together, man," Blair softly protested.
"There's that this again."
"Yeah," Blair sighed, frustrated by all the walls.
"Why don't you tell me what you want, Blair," Jim suggested, those quicksilver bright eyes studying him.
"I want you to stay with me tonight," Blair admitted, almost afraid that his honesty would send Jim running for the door.
"All right," Jim's expression and nod were totally inscrutable. It might have been the look of a hustler who'd just agreed to have sex with a client, or it could mean that Jim really wanted to be here with him.
Blair shivered inside, realizing that if he made a move now, they'd be making love in the next ten minutes. Or Jim might be giving away for free what he normally got paid to do ? out of a misplaced sense of gratitude. As much as he longed for this man, he wasn't taking that kind of chance.
"I have something for you," Blair announced as an idea struck.
"What sorta something?" Jim asked with a playful guardedness, his gaze moving knowingly down to Blair's crotch.
"Wait here a second." Jumping to his feet, Blair scurried up the stairs to the loft above.
Although Barry slept up here whenever he stayed over, Blair never entered the room without feeling like he was encroaching on the deceased Ralph's private territory. Casting aside that feeling, he moved to the bottom drawer of the big bureau. He hadn't opened it in five years. Snuggled safely inside, just where Blair had left it, was Ralph's bulky blue terrycloth robe. All his pajamas were nestled underneath. He extracted the pair with the least loud pattern, then took them and the robe downstairs.
"What's this?" Jim questioned as Blair laid the old man pajamas and staid robe between them on the couch.
"Pajamas ? if you want them. The guest bed's upstairs. The sheets are clean."
"I, ah, guess I don't understand," Jim said, looking from Blair to the sleepwear, then back again. "I thought that we were … that you wanted me…"
"I do want you. But you're my friend. That's the most important thing. This is about us, both of us, being comfortable with our choices. So, why don't we just drink our tea and talk for a little while, okay?"
Jim's eyes seemed unnaturally bright as he nodded and looked quickly away. After a moment Jim's gaze settled on him again. "You're still cold. Do you want me to light the fire?"
Blair had actually stopped shivering over five minutes ago, but he was always cold in the winter. Wondering how Jim knew he was still chilly, he nodded. "You sure you don't mind? I can do it, you know."
"Yeah, I've seen you," Jim agreed. It was more how he said it, than what he said that made Blair laugh. Those four nights Jim had spent here last month had obviously been more than sufficient to acquaint Jim with nearly all of his peccadilloes. His ongoing battle to ignite his firewood in less than half an hour was one of his more colorful shortcomings.
Efficient as he was in most things that Blair had seen him do, Jim had the fire crackling and roaring in three minutes. As Jim paused there, hunched over the hearth with a poker in hand, Blair couldn't help but admire the pleasing lines of Jim's denim-clad body. With the orange-tinted firelight dappling him, Jim looked very much like a cowboy of old: handsome in a rugged, capable way, his attractive body molded in such pleasing muscles not from vain upkeep, but from hard work. All Jim needed was a black Stetson to step into his Wild West imagery.
While Blair was waiting for Jim to finish playing with the fire, he poured out their tea. Normally, he'd let it brew longer, but he'd discovered that his companion was very sensitive to even subtle flavors. He'd added the milk and sweetened both their cups to their very separate tastes when he began to realize that something wasn't quite right.
Jim wasn't playing with the poker and the logs anymore. He still had the rod in his hands. In fact, it was still dangling into a roaring log as Jim just knelt there, seemingly frozen.
"You all right there, Jim?" Blair casually inquired, leaning over to put his mug down on the table. Receiving no response to his question, he looked up from his task mid-bend.
The change in perspective afforded him a view of his friend's face. The empty stare Blair saw there raised the hairs on the back of his neck. Belatedly, he realized that that poker must be getting pretty hot.
"Hey, Jim? JIM!"
As the squatting man started to list forward, heading straight for the open flames, Blair jumped to his feet. He vaulted over the coffee table and caught Jim's sagging figure seconds before his still-healing face could make contact with the hungry flames. Having no choice, he pulled the other man back onto himself. Grunting as the two hundred pounds of hard muscle landed on him, he guided them both over onto the safety of the rug.
For a moment, Blair just lay there, hugging Jim tight, taking deep frantic breaths to get over the close call. Comforted by the living warmth he held in his arms, Blair's tension ebbed a bit. They were both safe now, but … what the hell had happened? For no apparent reason, Jim had nearly tumbled face first into open flames.
"Jim," he called, "what's going on, man?"
There was no response, no tensing, no stirring, nothing…
Terror rising in his chest, Blair scrambled to his feet and laid Jim flat on his back. If Jim were choking on something and unable to make a noise…
But, no, Jim wasn't choking. His chest was moving steadily up and down in a slow, reassuring rhythm.
Jim's breathing proved to be about the only thing reassuring about the guy. Blair had never seen a living face so slack and expressionless. Jim looked like one of those life-like dummies in Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, one that the sculptor hadn't taken the time to properly finish. His eyes were wide open, fixed unblinkingly at some point in the far distance. When Blair moved his fingers way too close to Jim's eyes, there wasn't even a residual autonomic reflex. No blink, no change in pupil dilation ? nothing. It was the scariest thing Blair had ever seen. Jim looked dead, but he was still breathing.
"Jim?" he called again, to no effect.
Blair didn't know what the hell was going on, but he had to get some help here. He was on his knees, about to scramble across the room for the phone to call 911, when he recalled the blackouts Jim had mentioned in the car earlier tonight.
Was this one of them?
It sure as hell wasn't epilepsy. At this point, something explainable like that would have almost been reassuring. Nor was it a dead faint. Jim's eyes were still open and his breathing was, if not normal, at least too close to the waking norm for him to have simply passed out.
Blair replayed the events that had led to this in his mind, putting his training to use. Jim had been fixing the fire. He had paused to watch the dancing flames … then keeled over. He wasn't sick or injured. His pulse and breathing were strong and steady. It made no sense…
Blair's mind froze on that word, and just sat there staring at it for an eternity. Something vague, but significant stirred in his memories, trying to push its way to the surface.
What was it about the word sense… Something he'd heard? No, something he'd read? Forcing himself to ignore Jim's unnerving, sightless stare, Blair forced himself to think.
The word itself had a connection to Jim, of course. Jim was one of those rare individuals whom fate or genetics had blessed with a sense that was superior to his fellow man's. But Jim didn't have just one enhanced sense, Blair realized. He had two, perhaps even three. Hearing, olfactory, maybe even taste ? were Jim's aversion to even mildly spicy food any indication ? all were enhanced in Jim's case.
So what connection did that have to Jim's zoning out like a robot whose power pack had been pulled?
The breath froze in his lungs as his sluggish, frightened mind finally made the vital connection. Superior senses, blackouts … zoning. Jim was zoning.
It had been years since Blair had stumbled across the description of this phenomenon in Sir Richard Burton's obscure monograph on Sentinels. He'd never thought to see it, not in the real world. It had taken over eighteen months of fruitless searching before his frustration had finally allowed him to accept the truth that his planned thesis on Sentinels had even less empirical data to support it than one on leprechauns would have. To this day, he was still bitter about being forced to abandon the concept. And now, years later, it had taken him nearly four months to recognize the fact that he had a living, breathing Sentinel right in front of him ? a Sentinel who'd lost his entire world because of his inability to cope with his senses.
Of course modern medicine hadn't been able to fix Jim, for there had never been anything wrong with him. Jim was just walking around with his primitive hunter's senses wide open, and suffering the inevitable consequence of overload from the chaos of technical society. Those doctors had seen only the symptoms, not the cause. They'd misdiagnosed a perfectly sound, mentally healthy man with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome and sent him out into the world to suffer alone with only a handful of pills to help him.
The only people who might have been able to help Jim work through this were those Chopec Indians he'd been living with in Peru. No wonder Jim had said that he'd been at peace in the jungle! It was probably that extended time of solitude that had kicked his natural latent abilities on line in the first place ? for Blair sincerely doubted if Jim could have been a fully functional Sentinel before the plane crash and survived to this age.
Well, whatever the hell Jim had or hadn't been, he was a zoning Sentinel right now, and he, Blair Sandburg, was probably the only urban dweller in North America who could help him. If he was able to…
Blair didn't allow any ifs to undermine his confidence. Jim needed help; he'd help him. It was as simple as that.
Lifting the heavy weight of Jim's head, Blair carefully eased it onto his lap. The slack features were still chillingly empty.
Blair forced himself to ignore the effect of that blank stare. Softly stroking the skin on Jim's high brow, he allowed his fingers to trail into the soft fuzz of the macho buzz cut before beginning to speak in a low tone, "Jim, I know you can hear me somewhere in there, man. Don't be scared. I know what's going on. It's gonna be all right. Just listen to my voice, Jim. Forget about the fire. Just concentrate on my voice. I know you're sorta trapped in a mental freeze frame here. What I need you to do is to try to block out certain things as I speak ? just keep a tight hold on my voice while you do it." Thinking fast, Blair picked out some imagery that anyone could respond to, "First, I want you to try to tone down the brightness. Picture a knob on one of those old TVs and slowly dial the brightness down 'til it's back to a normal level. Now, I need you to do the same for colors. The world isn't all orange and white flame anymore. Turn down the orange, man. Bring up the blues and the greens and the blacks. Let that picture of the fire start to fade now. Hear my voice, buddy. You're safe now. I've got you. Feel my hand on your brow and just follow the sound of my voice back up to –"
As quickly and as dramatically as it had departed, consciousness snapped back into Jim's eyes. Blair felt Jim's entire body froze in sheer terror. Horror tightening his face, Jim shot up to a sitting position. Staring wildly around the room like a man awakened from a nightmare, he visibly attempted to get his bearings.
"You're okay, Jim. Everything is all right now," Blair assured, reaching out to lay his hand on the nearby shoulder.
"I … I had another seizure," Jim said dully, looking around the loft as if searching for an escape route.
"No, you didn't have any kind of a seizure, man. Those doctors were way off base. You don't have PTSS," Blair quickly explained, trying to ease Jim's anxiety.
"What the hell are you talking about?" Jim was obviously too upset to curb his irritation. "I just –"
"You just zoned." At Jim's blank stare, Blair informed, "It's a condition people like you are prone to when they don't know how to properly control their abilities."
"What are you talking about, Sandburg?"
The use of his last name told him how rattled Jim was. "I'm talking about your being able to hear and smell things other people can't. When you came back from Peru and were tossed back into this big city, it drove you crazy for a while, didn't it, Jim? The noise, the smell, the constant motion… I bet you weren't able to sleep for weeks."
"How – how can you know that?" Jim was watching him like he was clairvoyant, like for his next trick Blair would start bending spoons with his mind.
"I know it because I tried to make a study of people like you ?"
"You mean hustlers?" Jim's face hardened with suspicion and dread.
Blair shook his head, sending his curls flying everywhere in his excitement, "No, Jim. I mean Sentinels."
"You're losing me here, Teach." Jim's menacing tone conveyed a total lack of patience.
"I'm sorry, it's just … I didn't believe…" Blair took a deep breath and forced himself to chill a few notches. With everything Jim had suffered, he didn't want him to end up feeling like some kind of lab rat, even though all he wanted to do right now was to take this creature from legend out for a test run. "Look, can we sit down on the couch and talk this out?"
With another of those stiff nods that said more than all the words in Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, Jim climbed to his feet. He still seemed a little out of it as he reclaimed his place on the couch. Jim's gaze dropped to the robe and pajamas folded on the blue cushion, some of the defensive hardness seeming to melt from his face at the sight of them there.
Once Blair had settled beside him, Jim quietly stated, "You're the first person who ever witnessed one of those things that didn't entirely freak out."
Appreciating the effort the visibly discomforted man was making to make amends for his earlier anger, Blair forced a grin and admitted, "You should have seen me when you first zoned out. You'd probably change your mind."
The lines on Jim's face deepened in obvious puzzlement, "You mentioned that before ? zoning. Just what does it mean?"
Blair took a deep breath and paused to consider how best to explain this. "People like you are … special, Jim. Your hearing and sense of smell are a gift. In ancient societies, your natural abilities would have made you the guardian of your tribe. One of the researchers of the last century coined a phrase for people with your abilities – Sentinels. The Sentinels were scouts, patrolling the borderlands and village perimeters for danger –"
"Like I did in Peru," Jim said, his intense expression revealing his subdued excitement.
"Yeah, just like that."
"And this zoning thing?"
"It's something that happens to Sentinels who haven't learned how to control their senses properly. They'll focus their attention on something, and concentrate their full being on it until they sort of hypnotize themselves with the input. All they can see, hear, feel, taste, or smell is that specific stimuli, like the fire before."
Jim paled. "That's exactly what happened. I-I thought I was crazy all these years…"
"You're not crazy," Blair assured. "Your senses are just being overloaded on a daily basis and you don't know how to deal with it."
"So how do I turn this off?"
"You mean your senses?" Blair asked. He was surprised by the question, though, on reflection he supposed that he shouldn't be. These special abilities had torn this man's world apart. It was only natural that Jim would resent them, want to get rid of them. At Jim's confirming nod, he answered, "You can't turn them off ? at least, I don't think you can. What you can do is learn to control them, so that you don't get ambushed like that."
"How?" The harsh demand seemed motivated more by frustration than anger.
"Focus is important. You've got to learn not to let yourself drift like that."
"And how am I supposed to do that?" Jim snapped.
"The same way you learn how to do anything, by practicing." Seeing the defeated look that flashed across Jim's face, Blair offered, "There are all kinds of meditation exercises and techniques that might work."
"You don't know how to control them, either?" Jim's barely birthed hopes seemed to die stillborn.
As much as he wanted to, Blair couldn't lie to this troubled man, so he gave an honest answer, trying to be as enthusiastic and encouraging as he could, "Specifically, no. No one has ever studied a real live Sentinel, Jim, let alone guided one."
"Historically, Sentinels had a partner, someone who watched their back and helped them through these zone-outs." Blair tried not to sound too over-eager.
If Jim were as confident as he might once have been, he would have cracked some joke here like, 'Are you applying for the position?' like he had that first day with his Native Guide crack when they were flirting in the hallway. But this was obviously too important an issue for humor. "Yeah, well it isn't like there's gonna be anyone lining up for that; now is it? How do Sentinels who don't have these partners get by?"
"I don't know that they can. There's only ever been one monograph written on this entire subject and that's over a hundred years old. But, if you wanted to give it a shot, I'd work with you on it, help you eliminate those zone-outs."
"Completely?" Strangely enough, it seemed to be worry, not hope, etching the lines in that stoic face.
"Well, yeah, that would be the idea, wouldn't it?"
Jim bit his lower lip, then reluctantly said, "Thanks for the offer, but … I can't."
Too stunned to even think about editing his responses, Blair couldn't stop himself from blurting out, "What do you mean 'you can't'? You've just spent the last two hours telling me how these 'seizures', as you call them, have ruined your entire life. Why wouldn't you want to get rid of them?"
Confused, he watched Jim's cheeks fill with color. "Jim?"
"I just … can't."
"Why not?" Blair demanded, totally at his wits' end now.
"Because I wouldn't be able to earn a living without them," Jim finally spat out, looking, of all things, ashamed.
Jim might as well have answered in Chinese for all the sense it made to him. "Huh?"
Jim's gaze stared off to the dark terrace, totally avoiding Blair's eyes as he haltingly explained, "I couldn't … do what I do if I wasn't able to … go away from it…"
"You mean you … intentionally zone out while you're … working?"
Jim gave a tight nod.
Another sharp up and down jerk of his chin, then Jim raggedly whispered, "I couldn't … get through it, otherwise."
"Oh, my God…" Blair muttered. It felt like the bottom of his stomach dropped out at that revelation, like his guts were going to spill right out there on the floor and just lie there all twisted up with the feelings Jim stirred in him. If he didn't do something, he knew he'd start bawling again, so he sprang to his feet and paced to the terrace door.
Once there, he paused to stare out at the red and green tug boat lights moving far out on the black sheet of ink that was the bay at night. But he wasn't really seeing them.
His arms rose to hug his chest tight, his head bowing. Though he was looking outward, the only images in Blair's mind were those horrors conjured up by this proud man's reluctant confession. All he could picture was Jim, naked, and maybe tied down on a bed somewhere, zoning while one of these pain freaks whipped him or pounded mercilessly into him. And, as much as Blair would like to see Jim naked, the images running through his head made him want to vomit.
"Blair … are you all right?" The soft inquiry came from directly behind him. After a moment, a warm hand settled hesitantly on his shoulder, almost as though Jim were afraid that Blair wouldn't want him to touch him.
Blair gulped back his tears and nodded. He tried to hold back, tried not to inflict his feelings upon this already over-burdened man, but when he saw Jim's concerned image reflected in the slick black glass of the door, he couldn't do it. Something inside him broke. He just spun around and flung himself at Jim's chest, locking his arms around the bigger man's waist as he buried his face in the soft blue denim work shirt.
After only the slightest hesitation, Jim's arms encircled him back, squeezing just as desperately.
Blair sighed as Jim's cheek lowered to rest on the top of his head, Jim's larger bulk seeming to enfold him. It felt so good to hold Jim like this, so right. The simple contact moved him more than sex with some people had.
"I'm going to help you," Blair swore into the perfect chest. "I'm gonna be your Guide and I'll help you get a handle on this zone-out factor. We'll make it work. I promise."
Blair could feel the tremors coursing through the muscular form. Jim mightn't have broken down, but he was obviously wracked with emotion.
Blair squeezed tighter and ran a reassuring palm over the broad back. "It'll be okay, Jim. I swear."
He didn't know how long they stood there locked together like that, all he knew was that it was something both their souls seemed to need.
A very long time later, Jim's arms finally loosened around him. Taking a deep breath, Blair reluctantly stepped back. He stared up at his companion, reading all Jim's fears and reservations clearly in his exhausted features.
Finding a smile, Blair reached up to touch Jim's almost healed left cheek. The skin there was still pinkish and angry-looking, but Blair was fairly certain it wasn't going to scar. This time.
Resolving that there wasn't going to be a next time for such savagery, Blair stood up on his tiptoes to place a quick peck on Jim's chin.
The tired face lit up, the worried features sagging into a thousand laugh lines as Jim gave a shy, slightly bewildered smile.
"We're both done in," Blair said softly. "Maybe we should call it a night and get some rest? We can talk some more about this Sentinel stuff in the morning, okay?"
"Okay," Jim agreed with a sigh.
"Good. I'll clean up the tea tray if you want to hit the bathroom first. There're a couple of new toothbrushes in the cabinet under the sink. The towels and washcloths are in the closet right outside the bathroom door. Feel free to use anything you need," he offered.
"Thanks … for everything."
"No, thank you," Blair corrected.
Blair felt himself blush. "For … trusting me, I guess."
The way Jim's face softened at those words made his gut ache with an undefined longing. It wasn't his usual must-rut-or-bust urgency. This was something that he couldn't ever remember feeling before, a gentler need that was somehow more powerful, more irresistible. He didn't so much want to jump Jim's bones as enfold the man in his arms again and never let him go. Too tempted to do just that, he kept his hands firmly at his sides.
"Anytime, Teach," Jim replied, his eyes seeming to offer something different than the simple acknowledgment his words conveyed.
Gulping, because he knew if he put his hands on Jim again they'd end up naked right here on the rug, Blair stammered, "W-well, I'm gonna go clean the tea cups." Then he shot out of there like he had a fire to put out, feeling Jim's gaze burning into his retreating back the entire way to the kitchen.
A half-hour later, Blair was exiting the bathroom after his own turn. He was dressed in his usual bedtime attire: a warm pair of gray sweats, heavy blue sweatshirt and woolen socks, what Barry called the Sandburg equivalent of a flannel nightgown. After the emotionally draining night, he was dead tired. But he could sleep now. There was nothing more that needed his attention. The dishes were done, the doors locked … everything was battened down for the night.
Blair took a glance up the loft stairs as he passed. It was dark up there, but he could almost sense Jim's heat from below. Releasing a deep sigh, he turned out the living room lamp and made sure the grate was up in front of the embers still glowing in the hearth. Then, finally, he turned towards his bedroom.
The minute he got into bed, his head was overwhelmed with the exciting discovery he'd made tonight. A living, breathing Sentinel. Once, such a find would have had him scrambling to document everything about the man. He would have been thinking thesis and talk shows and fame. But knowing Jim had changed all that. Jim had been used so much that Blair couldn't even consider exploiting him that way. Although he did intend to keep a conscientious, scientific record of whatever steps he took to guide Jim through his problems, he was determined that all such documentation would be purely for future purposes. Perhaps to guide some other poor soul through the living hell of enhanced senses. Right now, all he wanted to do was find a way to help Jim.
He was furiously scribbling down the fifth page of his ideas on how to master the zone-out factor when a movement at his open doors caught his attention.
Every muscle in his tall form telegraphing his uncertainty, Jim stood paused in the shadows just beyond the door, looking in at him. Jim was wearing Ralph's out of style pajamas, with the plain blue robe closed tightly on top of them. He should have looked vaguely ridiculous in the old man fashion, but somehow, Jim made even that prim and proper getup look desirable.
"Hi," Blair softly greeted with a smile. "Everything okay?"
"Yeah, I mean, no… I mean…"
Blair snapped the notebook closed, stowed it on the night table and sat up in his bed. "Come on in."
Jim stepped a total of three feet into the room.
"Something wrong, Jim?" Blair asked, concerned. When he'd first looked up and seen Jim standing there, his heart had leapt with the hope that Jim had wanted to move their relationship to the next level. But it was clear now that the man was troubled, not aroused.
"I was wondering if…" Jim made a false start. His face turning a livid shade of scarlet, he dropped his gaze and quickly apologized, "I'm sorry to bother you. This was a stupid idea…"
"Whoa," Blair was out of the bed and grasping a terrycloth covered elbow before the other man could make good his escape, "what was a stupid idea?"
He heard the loud gulp Jim gave, saw Jim look away. He looked like he was about to die of embarrassment.
"Nothing, I-I'm gonna go back upstairs now. I'm sorry I –"
Blair released Jim's elbow and quietly requested, "Please, Jim, tell me what you came down here for. Whatever it is, I probably won't say no." Feeling a little exposed, he quickly added, "I've got Haagan Daaz in the freezer, if it's something as simple as an attack of the munchies."
Those nervous eyes pinned him. "I was wondering if…"
"Yes?" Blair encouraged.
Jim seemed to garner his courage. Taking a deep breath, he forced the words out in a jumbled rush, "Could I sleep down here with you, even though I want to wear the pajamas?"
When he finally untangled the meaning of the words, it felt like the floor dropped out from under him. Jim wanted to be close to him…he just wasn't sure about the sex part yet. Blair had never had a more touching offer than the stumbling request.
Recognizing that Jim was about to flee at his continued silence, Blair kicked his tight throat into gear. Forcing the words around the lump that was attempting to choke him, he quickly assured, "I'd love you to stay down here with me."
"I'm not … propositioning you," Jim awkwardly blurted out.
"I didn't think you were," Blair countered. "Which side of the bed do you want?"
"Whichever." Jim looked like he was about to die of embarrassment.
"The outside, okay?" Blair asked, quickly sliding in.
"Fine." Once again, Jim wasn't looking at him.
But Jim got into the bed, which was all that really mattered to him.
Blair settled on his back at the far side, watching out of the corner of his eye as Jim tentatively lay down in the spot he'd just vacated.
After a minute or two, Jim softly questioned, "Do you want me to turn off the lamp?"
"If you want to," Blair replied. "If you feel more comfortable with the light on, I can sleep that way."
A second later, the bed rocked a little and then the room was plunged into darkness.
Preternaturally aware of the tense man at his side, Blair felt Jim lie back against the pillows. After a few moments when nothing untoward happened, Jim softly whispered, "Good night, Blair."
"Good night." Blair hesitated for a moment over the request he wanted to make. Jim was nervous enough just being here. Yet, he must have wanted some form of physical contact between them or he wouldn't have come down at all. Finally deciding to let Jim decide for himself, he lowly asked, "Would it bother you if I moved closer to you, maybe put my arm across your chest?" he quickly added, "I'm not making a move on you. I just want to hold you."
To his astonished delight, Jim slid right over to him. There was a momentary awkwardness as they shifted to accommodate one another in the dark intimacy of the double bed. When all the blanket moving and pillow adjusting ended, Blair was startled to find himself spooned against his larger companion. He was snuggled under a heavy arm and leg, with Jim holding him tight against his broad chest like Blair was a living teddy bear. He could feel Jim's warm exhalations ruffling the hair at the top of his head.
"You okay?" Jim asked, perhaps concerned that he was putting too much weight on him.
Blair, who was completely warm and physically content for the first time in months, smiled into his pillow. He would have been even better with Jim's full weight on top of him, but he didn't want to push his luck ? or his self-control. This much contact, he could handle without asking for things Jim might not be ready to deal with yet. "Toasty. You?"
"Sweet dreams, Jim," Blair wished, placing his left hand over the hand Jim had resting over his heart.
"You, too, Teach."
Blair felt a sweet shiver play down his spine as Jim pressed a soft kiss on the top of his head. A sleepy sigh, and Blair closed his eyes for the night, sleep quickly claiming his exhausted body.
The heat and the living bulk in the bed beside him proved to be subconsciously comforting. Initially, Blair slept deeper than he normally would have. But with the residual stress from the club confrontation and all those conflicting feelings that Jim's tragic tale had roused in him, it was almost inevitable that his dreams would turn dark.
Tonight's terror wasn't a new one. It was the same scenario that had sent him shooting straight up in the bed with a scream on his lips at least twice a week since October.
Once again, Blair found himself back in that lonely, dark walkway between Rainier's Science Building and the Clock Tower where he'd been attacked in October. The shadows were so deep, he couldn't see his own hand, but, somehow, Dillon, Wallace, and Kramer's forms were explicitly clear. In fact, they seemed bigger and more monstrous in this dream than they'd ever been in reality. When they stepped out from behind those big old oaks, their faces were distorted and ugly with hate, while their eyes glowed red like silver-screen vampires. As had happened that night, there was no escape. The three demonically crazed predators fell upon him like feeding sharks, desperate for blood as they punched, kicked and ripped at Blair's flesh. Only this time, no one came to save him. The beating continued unabated, inhuman in its relentless savagery until Dillon lifted a three-foot boulder high over Blair's head. That horrible gray rock hung there, suspended over his head like Damocles' sword for a frozen eternity before a malicious grin of victory touched Dillon's sadistic face and the attacker with the glowing red eyes sent the heavy rock crashing straight down at Blair's face to brain him...
"NOOOOO!" His eyes snapped open to absolute darkness. Blair couldn't see Dillon anymore. Maybe the boulder had blinded him. Was he dead…?
Something touched him out of the darkness ? a hand gripping his shoulder. They were still here with him, still after him…
Releasing a panicked gasp, Blair scrambled away from this new threat, blind in the pitch darkness. They were gonna get him, gonna kill him. He had to escape.
Horrified, he felt something wrap around his legs, tripping him, making him tumble... The bed, he was falling off of the bed. His arms pinwheeled mid-air in a vain attempt to fight gravity, but there was nothing to grab, no purchase at all.
The cry forming on his lips died unvoiced as strong hands halted his panicked plunge, pulling him back to safety.
"Hey, Teach, you okay?" A concerned, sleepy voice asked out of the darkness.
His eyes finally adjusting enough to the dark to distinguish forms, Blair made out the vague shape of the man sitting beside him in the middle of the twisted bedding. Jim, it was only Jim. And the thing that had grabbed his legs, it was the tangled up sheets.
"I'm sorry, man," Blair stammered, feeling a complete idiot. Jim was going to think him the biggest wimp to come down the pike at this rate ? first he'd bawled all over him like a baby, then woken him up with a screaming fit. That was real attractive.
"Huh? For what?" Jim still sounded half-asleep.
"For waking you up." The words were shuddery, but he got them out without breaking.
"Forget about that. Are you okay?" Jim repeated.
"Yeah, but I'm sorry..."
"No problem, Teach."
"Ssssh, it's no big deal," The thicker shadow that was Jim shifted in the darkness. Once again, a warm hand settled on Blair's shoulder, giving it a friendly pat before withdrawing. "Bad dream, huh?"
"Yeah." Blair was still shaking in reaction. He fought to get his traitorous nerves under control, embarrassed by his overreaction to a simple nightmare.
Now that he was calmer, Blair could see far more clearly. The silver light seeping in from the window cast a strange gray pallor over his companion's features. But it was enough to make out the naked concern touching those sleepy features.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Jim didn't push, but the offer seemed genuine.
Venting a deep sigh, Blair quietly confessed, "It's really pretty stupid. I keep reliving..."
"That attack at school," Jim finished.
"It's not stupid. You were almost killed. Anybody would be shaken up by something like that," Jim softly stated.
"Do you have nightmares about it?" Blair demanded, his cheeks hot with shame. He always seemed to hold onto these fears longer than most people did.
"I wasn't the one they jumped," Jim smoothly replied. "But I have plenty of nightmares."
Blair gulped, feeling even stupider now. With Jim's profession, the man lived a waking nightmare every night. He didn't even want to think what Jim's bad dreams must be like. His own distress seemed petty when compared to that. But even though he felt foolish for waking them up like this, just hearing Jim's voice calmed his jangled nerves. He was glad the other man was here. Waking up scared and alone in the dark after one of those nightmares was always the worst part of living alone.
"Come on, Teach. Tell me about it," Jim gently urged.
Shuddering a little, Blair detailed the horror show his subconscious ran for him a couple of times a week. When he was finished, he sighed, "Put into words, I guess it doesn't really sound so scary. It was more the feeling of it."
"It sounds pretty damn terrifying to me, Teach. Those jerks were trying to kill you that night. That isn't something to just brush off. And even if they weren't, scary dreams aren't anything to be embarrassed about."
"No?" Blair questioned.
"No. The braver you are, the worse those nightmares will hit you. When I was in the Rangers, barely a night went by without someone waking us up."
"Yeah." As if sensing the calming effect his voice was having, Jim continued, "There's this one recurring nightmare I have. Man, it's a real doozie. You want to hear about a really foolish dream?"
Silently acknowledging that he'd love to hear this man recite the phonebook, Blair gruffly replied, "Sure, if you want to tell me."
"I'm back in the rain forest. I'm beneath some of the oldest trees, under that deep canopy where it's almost a perpetual twilight, always misting and dripping. Have you ever seen it?"
Blair nodded, glad to take his mind off his own fears. "Yeah, you can almost feel those tree trunks thinking around you ? and the light is always almost gray. It's spooky."
"Yeah, it sure is. So, I'm out there alone, or so I think. After a while, I can tell I'm being followed. I quicken my pace, but whatever it is, it's still right on me. I look back, and there's nothing there but vines, tangled undergrowth, and shadows. But I'm still being watched. So, I start running, just to get away from that feeling. Finally, I glance over my shoulder and spot it. It's the biggest, blackest jaguar I've ever seen. It looks like part of the night sky was given physical form, it's so big and dark. And it's gaining on me."
Blair gasped, caught up in the imagery. "I saw one of them kill a man once. It was... horrible to watch. It bit his throat right open ... ten feet ahead of me on the trail. The jaguar was gone back into the underbrush before we could get a shot off at it."
"Yeah, you definitely don't want one of them hunting you," Jim said.
"So what happened in the dream?"
"It catches up with me, of course. It jumps right at me, but it doesn't kill me. It sort of passes right through my flesh. I feel it there in my chest, a wild crazy energy."
"And then?" Blair encouraged.
"I wake up when it jumps into me. But, the really weird part is, sometimes I still see that cat afterwards, when I'm wide-awake. It will be standing there in the shadows of the bedroom, just staring at me with those spooky green eyes that read right into your soul." Jim gave a forced laugh. "Crazy, huh? So you see, you shouldn't feel too bad. At least your nightmares don't hang around when you open your eyes."
"It sounds creepy," Blair commented, shivering as he thought about one of those bloodthirsty killers watching him out of the dark.
"Or psychotic," Jim countered. "There was a stretch there where I really thought I was losing it, what with these freaky senses going out of control all the time and those dreams."
"We'll get those senses under control," Blair promised, unable to repress the shudder that coursed through him. Sitting still in the late night chill wasn't exactly the brightest idea for someone so sensitive to the cold.
"We better get you back under those covers before you freeze to death," Jim said.
"You saw me shiver?" Blair questioned, his excitement rising again. Jim wasn't touching him anymore and the sensation certainly hadn't been enough to shake the bed. The only way Jim could have known was if he'd seen him trembling ? and there just wasn't enough light in here for any normal human to distinguish something like that. Of course, to a Sentinel, this light would be bright as high noon under an Arizona summer sun. "You've got enhanced vision as well? It's smell, sound, taste and sight?"
Jim froze in the act of untangling the covers that Blair's thrashing had twisted into a Gordian knot.
Blair felt those silver-glinting eyes settle upon him as the big cat's in Jim's dream might have done.
"I can't help you if I don't know everything, Jim," Blair whispered, almost feeling the other man's reluctance.
His large, capable hands returning to their task of unwinding the twisted blankets and sheet, Jim dropped his gaze to his work and softly added, "You forgot touch."
"All five?" Blair gasped.
"Yeah. Sometimes my skin gets so sensitive, the clothes feel like sandpaper against it. I just want to rip them right off. It's … insane."
Blair scooted down the bed to kneel beside Jim. Reaching out, he grasped the lightly stubbled chin and lifted Jim's bowed head. "It's normal for someone with enhanced senses. Once we start practicing those control exercises, it will get much better."
"You really think so?"
There was such hope in the subdued question that it choked him up. "I know so." Wanting nothing so much as to cover that beautiful mouth with his own and kiss away Jim's vulnerability, he quickly offered, "Here, let me give you a hand with those. I'm an expert at untangling these days."
Together they straightened out the bedclothes, climbing back under side by side. For a few moments, Blair just lay there glorying in the precious warmth. They weren't touching, but it really didn't seem to matter. There was an emotional closeness developing between them that was almost more solid than actual tactile contact, and the bed was small enough so that they were forced to lie near enough for body heat to travel. Blair loved the feel of that solid strength resting beside him, and knowing that it was Jim lying there made it all the more exciting. After being alone for so very long, it made such a difference having another human body close like this, even if it was just for sleep. It had been way too…
"It's been a long time since I slept with anyone like this," Jim shocked him by completing his thought.
"I mean slept with, not…"
"I know what you meant, Jim," Blair said softly. "Me, too."
"Really? I would have thought…"
"What?" he encouraged, curious about Jim's impressions of him.
"You're so good with people. I would have thought there'd be someone in this bed every night of the week, if you wanted it that way."
"When I was younger, there was – "
"Younger? You're just a kid now," Jim objected.
"I turned thirty last summer." Blair turned onto his left side, so that he could face Jim as he spoke. He liked talking to Jim in the dark this way. Not understanding the grimace that followed his announcement, he asked, "What?"
"I'm forty-one." The way Jim said the words made them sound like a death sentence.
"And?" Blair prodded, absently noting how long and dark the fan of Jim's eyelashes was in profile close up.
"I've got no business being here in this bed with you, like this. I don't know what I'm doing here…." As Jim turned his head away from him, Blair saw those chalk white teeth capture and worry his lower lip in a habit that Blair was beginning to suspect might be responsible for its fuller size.
His insides squeezing tight at the self-castigation in Jim's ragged voice, he reached out to turn his face back to him. He let his fingertips linger on Jim's cheek, running them over the rough stubble that was just beginning to emerge. "You didn't let me finish before. When I was younger, I would have humped a table leg. I was careful to practice safe sex, but there was a parade of people through my bed and life. Girls, guys… When I hit college, I was like a kid let loose in a candy shop. But it got old, you know? It was fun, but it didn't mean anything. Now, the only people I sleep with are those I really care about. That's what you're doing here."
"It's not right," Jim protested.
"Me … anyone who cares about you…"
"You care about me," Blair stated. He mightn't be sure what Jim wanted out of this complex web of sexual tension that was between them, but the one thing of which he was entirely certain was that Jim genuinely cared for him.
Jim's gulp was very loud in the darkness. "I don't count."
"Don't you ever say that, man." Blair propped himself up on an elbow to stare down into that troubled, lined face. "Meeting you, getting to know you has been one of the single most important things in my life."
"Because of the Sentinel stuff?" Jim challenged, as if he were looking for some logical reason to explain his interest in him.
Resenting the hell out of that suggestion, Blair hotly denied, "Because of you, Jim, because of who you are and how you make me feel."
"I'm a hustler who sells his ass to the highest bidder," Jim growled.
"You're the person I've fallen in love with," Blair quietly corrected, his gaze locked on Jim's face.
He didn't have to wait long for a reaction. Jim's entire body seemed to freeze up, his wide eyes darting almost fearfully to his face.
Reading the flight impulse all too clearly, Blair quickly added, "You can run out on me if you want to, but that won't change anything. All it'll do is mess me up inside ? hurt me bad."
"Like anything else wouldn't?"
A weird clutching sensation tightening his guts, Blair watched Jim sit up and swing his legs over the side of the bed. "Your staying here wouldn't hurt me."
"My staying here after a line like that would cost you everything. Christ … love … you don't even know me, Blair."
"That's not true," Blair whispered.
"You like the way I look. You feel sorry for me. You've got this whole gratitude thing going… That's not love. That's pity. If – "
Unwilling to listen to another word of that garbage, Blair shouted, "If what? If I'd met you without knowing what you were, I wouldn't feel these things? I did meet you that way. That first day of class, when I banged into you in the hallway, I was already hooked on you. I'd've done it with you right there on the floor if I'd had my way."
"That's not love," Jim said tiredly.
"You're right, it's not. That was chemistry, and we've got a hell of a lot of that working for us. But what I feel now…."
"Why not?" Blair demanded, his eyes stinging as he faced the magnitude of his error. "I've already blown it. You're gonna cut out on me ? just like every other person who's slept in this bed has since I took out the revolving door. I think you've got the right idea, Jim ? charge for it and keep things simple. That way you don't get hurt."
Abruptly out of ammo, Blair stumbled back to the bed and sank down. He lowered his head, hiding behind the veil of his curls, so that he wouldn't have to watch Jim walk out that door.
Blair had never known any way to keep the important people in his life from leaving. From the time he was a small child and he'd beg Naomi not to abandon him with some relative while she went off on her adventures, straight up to when Old Ralph had cashed in his chips five years ago, nothing he ever said or felt made one whit of difference. He was always left alone in the end. Maybe Jim was doing him a favor in walking now before they'd even made love. None of the others to whom he'd entrusted his heart had ever spared him that pain.
The silence in the room was absolute. Blair wondered if Jim could have left the loft so soon. Someone in his line of business probably had quick, discreet exits down to an art form. But surely he would have heard the door slam if Jim had gone.
Finally, he wasn't able to take the not knowing any more. Blair raised his head back up, expecting to see a fully clothed Jim stalk out of the loft. Shocked, he stared in incomprehension at the figure frozen in his doorway.
Jim wasn't wearing his Marlboro Man getup and rushing for the escape hatch. He was standing there frozen by the door, wearing Ralph's loud, yellow and green old man pajamas and an expression of such indecision that Blair almost pitied him.
Almost, but not quite. It was hard to feel sorry for someone who was ripping your heart out ? and telling you that they were doing it in your own best interests.
"What? You forgot where the door is?" Blair tried to take refuge in sarcasm.
The look Jim shot him would have withered the General Sherman Sequoia. "You're wrong."
"About what, specifically? Or is that, like, a general overview?" Blair hated when he got like this, when he hurt so bad that he just wanted to strike out and wound back.
"It's never simple. Whether you get paid for it or give it away for free, it doesn't change anything. You always get hurt in the end."
"Great philosophy of life, there, Jim. I'm sure it'll be a comfort in years to come."
To his shock, Jim flinched as though Blair had just struck him with a whiplash. His large hands balled into fists at his sides as his head lowered, seemingly in defeat. "There is no comfort."
Even though Blair was bleeding inside and still wanted to strike out, he couldn't, not in the face of such bleak despair.
Jim might still be spouting bullshit, but … he was also still standing there to spout it. He hadn't walked out the door ? yet.
Gulping past the lump that was attempting to choke him, Blair offered some truth that would probably hurt Jim as much as anything hateful he might have thrown at the man at that moment. "I found some comfort in your arms earlier tonight. I sort of thought you found some in mine, too."
Jim released a drawn out breath and leaned his forehead against the doorjamb. His eyes squeezing shut, he hissed, "No matter what I do here ? it's wrong. I'm gonna hurt you one way or the other. Can't you understand? If I walk now, it's a clean break…."
"Not from my side of the street, it isn't," Blair informed, unable to hide his anger. "I can't stop you from walking out on me, but don't you dare tell me you're doing it for my own good!" The words rose in volume as they rushed out of him, ending at a level that would have been heard throughout a lecture hall. His shout shattered the heavy stillness that was characteristic of this late hour of the night, the vehemence of his outburst seeming to startle them both.
"God damn it, it is! Why can't you see – "
"See what? How every time I get the nerve up to tell someone I love them, they trip over their feet running for the nearest exit?"
"Damn it, you can't compare this to…." Jim's chin jerked back up as he swung around to face him, his eyes sparking fury.
"No? I told you I love you and you're bailing. Maybe you can see a difference here, but it sure as hell feels like the same old story to me."
"Blair, you're … something wonderful. You deserve better than a human sewer –"
"Don't say that about yourself!" Blair shouted, damning the tears that stung at his eyes. He wasn't going to let them fall. No matter what happened; he'd keep that much of his dignity. Jim was not going to walk out and leave him a weeping wreck. But holding them back took every ounce of strength he possessed. He was shuddering like he'd already sobbed his heart out. "What I deserve is for the person I love to love me back. Just once in life."
Those words seemed to rock Jim to the core. Paler and more shaken than he'd been at the club when that pain freak had shown up earlier tonight, Jim raggedly whispered, "Love isn't selfish, Blair."
"I'm not being selfish!" Blair denied, cursing himself for being so overemotional as a couple of those hot tears he was holding back splashed his cheeks. "I'm not asking you to do anything but stay. You don't have to make love to me or –"
He found Jim's radically softened expression, incongruous at the present moment, totally mystifying. "What?"
"I wasn't speaking about you."
"Then what did you mean?" he couldn't keep the suspicion out of his tone.
"I was talking about me."
"Huh?" Blair scoured those chiseled features, finding only truth there.
"You give so much. I don't have anything to offer in return ? except what everyone else pays for."
Blair was off his pity pot and crossing to that forlorn figure in his door before he even thought about moving. "That is so not true!"
"Yeah? Then, name me one thing that I've got to offer you that you can't get from someone your own age ? someone not lugging all this emotional baggage around with him."
Blair didn't even hesitate on that. "You can offer me Jim Ellison."
Jim swallowed hard, his entire body seeming to vibrate with emotion as he refuted, "It's not enough, Blair."
"Well, it's all I want. I want the man who held me while I cried in the car tonight, the man who talked me down after my nightmare, the one who protected me from those monsters, then carried me home and took care of me. That's the Jim Ellison I want."
Blair could see that he was getting through to Jim, and that Jim was consequently scared to death by that. When those cornered eyes filled with a grim resolve, he knew that he wasn't going to like whatever followed.
Jim proved him right. With a smile that held positively no warmth or amusement, the ex-Ranger demanded, "You want to know why I have to get out of your life now? I'll show you. What about this Jim Ellison ? do you want him?"
And before Blair could so much as blink, Jim's hands flew to the front of his borrowed pajama jacket. A vicious tug on each side sent the little plastic buttons flying all over Blair's rug. Without pause or further preamble, Jim pulled the flannel from off his shoulders, lowering the top until it hung from his elbows. Then Jim turned quickly around to reveal his back.
Blair felt his eyes bulge in horror as he took in the lattice of livid wounds and scars that ran the entire length of Jim's broad back. He'd never seen anything so revolting in his life. Some were old and beginning to fade to pink, but the majority of them were new … or opened so frequently they never got the opportunity to close. They weren't actively bleeding at the moment, but some of those gouges were still wet looking. And they were all terrifying.
Blair could hardly even imagine the kind of pain that must be involved. The degree of cruelty that had inflicted such damage made his skin crawl.
"They go all the way down," Jim woodenly informed. As fast as it had been doffed, the pajama top was re-donned.
His stomach roiling dangerously, Blair just gaped as the disfigurations disappeared beneath the bright green and yellow print of the pajamas.
"That is what I would bring to you," Jim whispered without turning around. "Every time you looked at me without clothes on, every time you touched me … every one of those freaks would be right there between us. Forever. It's been so long since I've done it without ? what did you call it? ? zoning, that I don't even know how to do it normally anymore. Can't you understand? I - I wouldn't be any good to you…"
Blair couldn't take any more. He tried to be brave, to remain controlled, but … he'd never seen such … brutality. Jim's back…
For the second time that night, though from the same cause, Blair lost control. His tears gushed out like someone had thrown open the floodgate on a dike. His throat and chest were so tight with emotion that he thought he might die from the squeezing pain.
As had happened earlier, powerful arms surrounded him after a moment. Blair felt himself drawn into a warm embrace, his cheek coming to rest against the warm, smooth skin of Jim's chest.
Blair's arms went around Jim's torso to return the hug. His whole body froze as his hands hesitated behind Jim. He didn't know where he could lay down his hands without hurting.
A gruff whisper in his ear said, "You can touch me ? if you still want to."
"Jim…" He didn't know what to say, so he just held on and cried his heart out ? against the naked chest of a man who had every right to spend each day sobbing, but whom Blair had never seen shed so much as a single tear or voice so much as a solitary complaint.
For someone who was working on goodbye, Jim seemed to be having a hard time letting him go. The person who'd orchestrated a shocking scene like that was supposed to split while their victim was still standing there with his mouth hanging open. They weren't supposed to linger and console. They weren't supposed to rub your back or stroke your hair or hold you close like this, Blair disjointedly thought. And they certainly weren't supposed to rest their lips against the top of your head, breathing you in like they were memorizing your scent while their body shook like it was them who'd just had their world blown apart.
"I-I'm sorry," Jim whispered at last. "That was cruel. But I had to make you understand why –"
Blair lifted his head from Jim's tear soaked front. He tilted just far enough back to meet his gaze.
Those eyes were tortured, shadowed with a waiting-to-be-let-down vulnerability with which Blair was intimately acquainted. Jim looked like he was prepared to forfeit his entire world here.
"I want that Jim, too," Blair sniffed, his right hand letting go of Jim's back long enough to wipe his dripping nose.
Blair felt every muscle in the form enfolding him lock up solid. Jim's face clouded over with shock, his silver-blue gaze completely incredulous.
"Please … don't do this to me, Jim. Stay with me … please?"
There was no verbal answer. Jim just sagged against him. Those athletic arms banded his back, clenching him tight.
Jim was shaking all over. It took a couple of more moments for Blair to feel the drip of burning water onto his neck where Jim's face was pressed. Crying, Jim was crying….
That wasn't what Blair had wanted. He hadn't intended to hurt the other man this way. He just hadn't wanted to be abandoned again.
"I'mmm s-soorrry, Jimm…." Blair's own barely regained controls broke again. His already swollen and abused sinuses began to flood anew under a fresh burst of waterworks.
Who was comforting whom became very unclear during the next few minutes. All Blair knew was that they were hanging onto each other, riding out the storm. Jim's grief was so much quieter than his own. Jim almost seemed to be trying to hide it, burying his face in Blair's neck. His hot tears flowed almost non-stop, however, despite the lack of accompanying sound. And the big guy never stopped shaking, clinging to Blair's more slender frame as if he were his last hold on life.
And maybe that thought wasn't too far from the truth, Blair realized. To a man who truly felt that 'there was no comfort', this closeness might seem a lifeline.
When the worst of it seemed past, Blair slipped an arm around Jim's waist and turned them towards the bed. His own insides tensed up, aware that it was the moment of truth. Jim was either going to pull back now and cut and run or…
Or he was going to allow himself to be shuffled over to the rumpled bed ? as Jim was presently doing. Although they'd started the night with Jim sleeping on the outside, he didn't appear to have any objections to being herded over to the other side. He slid in and lay there on his back, his tear-streaked face following Blair's every movement.
For all that he had allowed himself to be moved and guided, Jim's gaze was watchful. His limbs were corpse stiff, his self-consciousness and uncertainty clearly visible in his ravaged features.
Blair didn't waste any time crawling in beside him. Once there, he immediately turned to wrap himself around Jim.
"You mind?" he asked as he made to pillow his head on the bare chest peeking out between the open folds of the button-less pajama jacket.
Jim shook his head, his right hand rising to guide him down.
It felt good to rest his cheek against Jim's smooth skin, even better to hold him close after their joint breakdown of control. Both their breaths seemed to still be catching with those hiccupy tries for air that came after extreme emotional release. When Jim's hand moved to rub across his back in slow circles, it seemed to calm them both.
"Thank you," Blair murmured after a few quiet moments when they both just seemed to be introducing themselves to the intimate sounds and scents of the body they were wrapped around.
"What for?" Jim's voice still had a gruff, cried-out quality to it.
"For not bailing out on me."
"You won't thank me in the future," Jim wearily predicted. "If I really cared about you –"
"You'd stop talking like that," Blair demanded, leaning up on Jim's chest so that he could stare down into the bigger man's face. "I want you here."
"I'm here," Jim quietly replied, his eyes giving away every one of his reservations.
Unable to stop himself, Blair bent to kiss Jim's high domed forehead. His hands rose to rub over the peach fuzz of his short cut, loving its feel. It was very fine and soft, like the fuzz on a baby's scalp.
Those eyes were watching him as Blair rose from the gesture. "Jim?" He didn't even know what he was asking. All he had was this vague sense of needing permission. "Is it okay if I…."
Blair protested, "I didn't finish asking what –"
"Whatever you want, it's okay," Jim told him. The raspy tone and gulp that followed told him it hadn't been as easy a concession as it sounded.
"What do you want, Jim?" Blair countered, "I really need to know."
"I want … to please you, to make you happy." Jim raised a hand to his left temple to stroke the mussed curls that were plastered there by the sticky tears.
Blair wondered if he was ever going to get rid of the lump that clogged his throat whenever he was with Jim. It was getting so huge he could barely swallow around it anymore. "What about for yourself?"
"Are we talking sex here?" Jim didn't sound worried by the concept, more like he just wanted everything made clear up front.
"Maybe," Blair allowed. "Before, you talked about my seeing you naked, me touching you. It sounded like you'd thought about us that way. If that's true, I'd like you to tell me what I can do to make you happy."
Those fingers at his temples gently wound the captured curl into a tight ringlet around his index finger. "You could please yourself."
"Jim…." Blair couldn't hold back his frustration.
"I'm not trying to be difficult here, Blair. I swear. It's just … I honestly don't know what to tell you."
Reading the truth of that, Blair calmed himself. "Well, what did you like before … before you started working out of Whispers?"
His finger still trapped in Blair's curl, Jim averted his gaze. After a long moment, he quietly confessed, "Ever since I got back from Peru, I've had … problems. I … zone when I get too excited. I told you that I wasn't doing you any favor by staying here," Jim completed, his cheeks bright with shame.
The breath caught in his chest as he comprehended the trauma and misery the other man had so casually admitted to. Blair bent his face down to Jim's and rubbed his cheek against its red and embarrassed counterpart. God, how this man had suffered without a Guide…
When Blair raised his head again, his companion's self-consciousness seemed to be back under control. His expression eager, perhaps even a little desperate, Jim pleaded, "Please, Blair, let me make you happy. I-I'd really like to … be close to you ? sexually. This is as near as I can get to the real thing these days."
"You mean, like, you want to give me a … hand job or a blow job and just … watch me come?" Blair didn't want to be so blunt, but he really had to be sure he understood what they were talking about here. Euphemisms could be a bitch in a situation like this.
"Or you could … take me. Whatever would make you happiest," Jim added, still looking hopeful, like this was really what he wanted.
Every instinct Blair owned told him that wasn't the answer. Letting Jim get him off or fucking Jim while the other man was lost in a zone-out, that wasn't the way he wanted their private life to be. He wasn't going to be another user, if a well-intentioned one.
But Jim sincerely believed that he wasn't capable of functioning normally anymore. Blair couldn't help but feel that it was more than a little arrogant on his own part to believe that he could undo something like this on their first night together, but … he just couldn't stand the thought of not sharing this experience with Jim.
"Jim, have you ever tried to do it without zoning?" Blair questioned. "I mean … before Whispers."
"Of course I did," Jim shot back, sounding irritated. "There were women…."
"Were you upfront with any of them? Did they know about your senses?" Blair probed.
"Of course not. I kept hoping each time that … it wouldn't happen, that I could get past it. I already felt like a complete freak. I didn't want to scare them off before…."
"So you've never really tried to work through this with a real lover?" Blair couldn't contain his excitement.
Seeming to read his renewed enthusiasm, some of the defensive hardness left Jim's guarded features. "I haven't had a real lover since I got beck from Peru. You ? you're the first."
The first … and Jim wanted him to take him just like another john. That was so not happening that Blair wasn't even considering that route as a valid option anymore.
As if the admission had left him feeling too exposed, Jim looked away again – not easy to do with Blair resting on his chest and hovering right over him. But although he didn't seem able to withstand his scrutiny at that instant, his hand remained tangled in his curls. Jim didn't appear inclined to do anything to break the contact.
Opting to perform a little experiment, Blair turned his face into Jim's hand. Moving up so that his mouth was tight against Jim's palm, he pressed a kiss into the slightly sweaty skin there.
Delighted, Blair felt Jim jolt in response and give a breathy gasp. Those eyes turned back towards him, silently questioning.
"Did you like that?" Blair checked, even though he knew Jim had.
"Yeah, but –"
"You said I'm your first real lover. Did you mean that?" Blair decided a small pop quiz was in order.
"You also said I could do anything I wanted to you. Did you mean that, too?"
This time the response was more guarded, confined to a non-verbal nod of agreement.
"Do you like me touching you, or do you find it intrusive … offensive? You can be honest here, Jim. With what you do for a living, I wouldn't blame you if you didn't like to be touched anymore."
"Why do you want to know?" Jim asked.
Blair tried not to be discouraged by the question. Jim didn't look like he was challenging anything, more like he was just trying to understand what Blair was getting at.
"I'm asking because I need to know if you'd … share sex with me if you could. Or if it's just something you're doing to make me happy."
Regret etched those strong features. "I would, if I could. I-I like your touch."
Blair drew a relieved breath, thanking God for that much. No matter what else happened, they could build on that. They had a place to start now.
"Jim, would you let me…."
"Let you what, Blair?" Jim gently inquired. "I already told you that you could fuck me if you wanted to. Anything you want to do, I'm game."
"I-I'd like to touch you, Jim," Blair confessed in the tone that he might have used had he been taking Jim up on his offer to have anal intercourse. "Would you let me take you as far as I can … please?"
"It's a waste of time," Jim denied, that cornered glint back in his eyes again.
"What are you so scared of? I'm not going to hurt you, I swear…." Blair vowed.
"I know that," Jim snapped. "It's just…."
"I don't want to disappoint you. If I can't … and I won't be able to ... it'll hurt you…you'll think it's you, and it isn't you. It's me…."
Extracting sense from the jumbled rush of words, Blair swallowed hard and forced his words around the boulder in his throat. He felt like he'd swallowed Plymouth Rock. "My ego's not that fragile, man. If you can't, then you can't. But if you like my touch, I promise you'll enjoy the ride ? however far it might take us. Please, Jim, let me try? Let me be a real lover to you."
That terrified expression should have been turned on someone who'd just asked to whip him, Blair thought, not given to the person who wanted to cherish Jim's body from head to toe.
"All right," Jim ungraciously agreed.
"Great," Blair smiled, then leaned down to kiss that doubtful frown from his companion's face. He started with the high forehead, following those shallow creases of skin down to the crater-deep laugh lines beside Jim's eyes. The skin was still slightly moist there from their recent crying session. Remembering the wonderful attention Jim had paid him in the car after his own earlier breakdown, Blair slipped his tongue tip out and lightly lapped at the sticky residue. The salty flavor filled his entire being. He'd heard some smack addicts describe how they'd been hooked for life from their first taste of the stuff. It was like that for him. The instant he took a little bit of Jim Ellison inside him, he knew he was going to be coming back for more of the same for the rest of his life.
"Mmmm…" Blair purred, "you taste so good. Do you like this, or am I, like, grossing you out here?"
A shuddery intake of air delayed Jim's response for a moment.
"I ? it's great," Jim sighed at last.
Blair's hands moved up to Jim's head, letting his palms rove all over the peach fuzz there. He memorized the contours, then allowed his thumbs play with the sensitive area behind Jim's ears. Meanwhile, his mouth blazed a slow trail for Jim's lips.
Once Blair came within kissing range, Jim's mouth latched desperately onto him. Jim's lips kneaded against his own like the man had been craving this contact since they'd left the cars hours ago.
Who opened his mouth first, Blair didn't know. All he was conscious of was his sudden plunge into those sweet, sensual depths. He could never remember wanting to taste someone's saliva like this, but, kinky though it might be, there was no part of Jim's body that he wasn't eager to sample ? orally or any other way Jim would let him.
Their tongues fell into a playful game of tag between them as they both sought to make a tactile topographical survey of every nook and cranny the other man's mouth held.
Blair swore that they must have spent a full half-hour locked together like a pair of kissing gourami fish. Finally, he allowed his hungry mouth to dip down Jim's strong chin. He learned the exact shape and angle of Jim's jawbone, as well as the slant of his throat, mostly by molding his wide-open mouth around the areas. When he started to suck on the delicate skin of that long pale neck, Jim released a sound that could be described only as a whimper.
Blair lifted his head to gaze down into Jim's face. "You okay?"
Those beautiful eyes seemed more silver than blue now. They were heated, more than a little unfocused. Looking stunned, Jim just nodded.
So far, so good, Blair thought and returned to the tasty throat. The hollow where it met Jim's chest was a moist mystery. Blair earned himself a true groan as he began to investigate the shadowed area, lapping up the salty sweat there.
His hands left Jim's head to come down and join in the fun. Blair had been longing to run his hands all over that chest for so long that there was no holding back now that he finally had free license to do so. The button-less pajama jacket proved to be an impediment. It might have been torn open down the center, but it was still covering both of Jim's breasts.
"I-I can take it off…" Jim mumbled.
As much as he wanted to see all of Jim, Blair hesitated. Jim had spent nearly a year now stripping down and bending over on command, while the person paying for that pleasure viewed, penetrated, or maimed him. Although there was nothing of that exploitative quality to this union, he wasn't about to take any chances. Jim had felt more comfortable earlier with these silly pajamas on him. Obviously, their presence had represented a certain degree of control in his relationship with Blair that Jim didn't enjoy elsewhere. So, even though Ralph's old flannels were probably the least sexy sleepwear he could have envisioned, he made no move to remove them. This wasn't about what he liked right now. This was about making Jim feel safe and relaxed enough to be comfortable having consensual sex again ? without zoning, without pain, without shame.
Nosing under the soft yellow and green fold covering Jim's left pectoral arch, Blair murmured, "It's okay … I'll just push them aside like this…" and over it went, spilling down the side of the towering bulk that was Jim Ellison's perfect torso. The fact that Jim didn't immediately make a big deal about getting rid of the top completely told him that he'd made the right decision.
As his hands roved the lattice of those perfect abs, Blair lowered his mouth towards the flat brownish nub of Jim's left nipple. His tongue tip peeked out to delicately rim the flat little bump.
To his delight, Jim gave a long, drawn-out hiss from between gritted teeth and bucked his hips up at him.
"Ah, that's good, baby … so beautiful." Stopping for a second, Blair quickly thought to check, "Is it okay if I call you 'baby'? I'll probably get even worse, I'm pretty mushy," he warned.
With a visible effort, those passion-bright eyes struggled to focus on his face. Jim's trembling hand rose to stroke his cheek. In Blair's entire thirty years on this planet, no one had ever turned an expression of such absolute worship upon him. "'Baby' is good. Whatever you want. Only…"
Jim's gaze grew frantic, almost fretful, "Please … don't stop…"
The ragged request quivered right through him. "I won't," he promised, then lowered his head to his service again.
If Jim's face had tasted good, his nipple was exquisite. It budded up to meet Blair's lips, as if eager for his attentions. He rimmed, sucked, and laved the sensitive flesh until he had Jim gasping loud and painfully for each breath. Jim's entire chest was beaded with perspiration now, his head beginning to toss restlessly on the pillow up above as he responded to his playful ministrations.
Seeing how totally lost in the moment Jim was, Blair's heart nearly broke. Jim had made it sound like he was incapable of experiencing even this small degree of pleasure. It mightn't be climax, but it sure was a hell of a lot better than nothing at all. Just thinking about all the joy Jim had denied himself for so many years ripped him apart. Because Jim had had nobody whom he trusted enough to explain his situation to, no one who had loved him enough to force him to try, the man had suffered alone like that for… Had Jim said that it was six years ago or seven since he'd returned from Peru? Whatever the length of time, it was over, as of tonight.
After treating Jim's right nipple to the same exquisite torment, Blair raised himself back up a bit. He caught the now-thrashing head between his hands.
Jim's eyes snapped open as he did so, perhaps a little alarmed, almost as if he needed to visually check to see whom he was with. But when Blair's head lowered for a kiss, those eyelids sank trustingly closed again and Jim's mouth opened wide for him before he had even touched the passion reddened lips with his own.
Blair drank deep of that juicy mouth. There wasn't any tongue tag this time. When he poked his tongue into Jim's mouth, Jim sucked on it like a baby at a teat, or as though he were performing fellatio.
Blair grew instantly hard at the thought. God, but he'd love to feel that wet heat around him…
Curious about something he hadn't dared investigate yet, Blair slipped his right hand free from where it cupped Jim's head. He ran his palm down the firm, bulging length of that perfectly sculpted, sweat slick chest, over Jim's flat, tight belly, right down to the elastic waistband of the ridiculous pajama bottoms. Praying that he wasn't about to ruin everything, he increased the ardor of his kiss, working harder against that kneading mouth to distract, and then ran his palm over Jim's groin.
He'd never touched Jim here before. The hard, straining bulge that jerked beneath his hand gave lie to that 'unable to function' bullshit. Jim was so hard he felt like he had a lead pipe down there.
Blair grunted into their kiss as Jim's fingers tangled painfully in his curls. When they started to pull at his head, he reluctantly came up for air. "You okay, Jim?" he asked the passion flushed man below him.
"Do you … want me … to … strip … them off?" Jim gasped out.
'Do you want me to', not 'get the damn things off me'. Very conscious of the nuances of the wording, Blair shook his head. "No, baby. I'll take care of everything, okay?"
" 'kay," the beleaguered sounding Jim agreed with such touching trust that Blair fell in love with him all over again.
Gently kissing those swollen lips, Blair carefully eased his hand under the elastic waistband. Jim's impressive length was tenting the material up just a little ways down. As Blair slid his palm around it, its size and solidity struck him. Jim was huge, built like a stallion. The moist flesh jerked at his touch, Jim releasing a responsive gasp.
Blair withdrew from the kiss so that Jim could breathe better, also he wanted to see what he was doing down there. Carefully, he started to pump.
Jim felt so good in his hand, so perfect. Holding Jim in his palm like that and working his flesh, it was one of the greatest turn ons Blair had ever had. Somehow, doing it under those silly pajamas made it an even bigger thrill, like they were a pair of twelve year olds discovering each other on the sly.
Glancing up to share the idea, Blair froze. No one was home. Jim wore that scary lobotomized, slack stare he'd had on his face when he'd toppled over in front of the fireplace before.
Blair's first impulse was to let go of Jim's cock and start panicking, but that was probably what every one of Jim's other paramours had done ? at least, those that hadn't been lost in their own sadistic psychoses. So, instead, he took a deep breath and started talking.
"Jim, I know it feels pretty good right now, but you've gotta come back for me, buddy. Come on, I know you can hear me. Listen to my voice. Picture that dial again, only this time it's touch we're aiming to lower. Turn it down a bit. I know you want to get off, baby, but you can't do it 'til you come back a bit…"
Blair spent the next four minutes or so softly talking, instructing the zoning Sentinel to follow his voice back up. Sure enough, after a few more moments of that, Jim blinked and came back to consciousness.
"Oh, no … I didn't…" Jim moaned.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Blair pasted on his brightest smile and assured, "You didn't miss anything, lover. We're still right there." To illustrate his point, he gave the hard steel nestled in his palm a good squeeze.
Jim moaned, his tormented, frightened eyes blindly pleading with Blair for help.
"It's okay, baby," Blair promised. "I've got you here."
Blair bent down to kiss those lips again. After Jim spent a few minutes calming himself by sucking on his tongue, Blair pulled back and whispered, "I'm going to start pumping again, Jim, but I'm also going to start licking and nipping your neck. I want you to count how many times I nibble you, okay?"
"I'm not sure, but I think you're too focused to come. I think you need to dilute the pleasure a bit, so just try to count for me, okay?"
"Out loud?" Jim asked, sounding like a bewildered child.
"That would be fine."
Recommencing his pumping, Blair lowered his mouth to Jim's throat and started sucking. At intermittent points, Blair would dig his teeth into the sensitive flesh just hard enough to be noticed. The first time he tried it, there was no response; Jim was happily climbing to the stratosphere again under Blair's pumping hand.
"That was one," Blair announced.
"Oh, yeah, one…"
Lowering his head again, Blair sucked behind Jim's ear. He received a pleading whimper at that, but this time when he lightly used his teeth, he received the proper response.
"Two…" Jim gasped.
The closer they came towards orgasm, the harder it seemed for Jim to maintain his focus, but under Blair's patient prodding, that beautiful cock ran through its paces.
"Oh … ohhh … God … ten!" Jim roared.
Blair felt those tight sacs his knuckles had been banging into on every down stroke twitch, and then his hand and the steamy tight interior of those pajama bottoms were bathed with a geyser of hot semen.
Blair was so caught up in the act that he thrust his own hips into the mattress he'd been pressing into. Utterly stunned, he felt himself explode against his loose sweats. He'd been so into Jim that he hadn't even been aware of his own arousal building.
With a shocked, muffled cry, he found Jim's mouth with his own. Jim's arms closed around him in a painfully tight grip, clenching him to the sweaty chest as though he'd never let him go. The need was mutual. They had locked onto each other like a desperate remora and hosting shark. Blair was so lost in the symbiotic joining that he'd be content to remain glued together like that forever.
It was only when he felt the hot drip of tears between their mashed together faces that he ripped himself free of the kiss. "Jim?"
Belatedly, Blair pulled his hand from the sticky steamy press of his lover's groin. He could smell the semen and musk from here. He didn't even want to think what the olfactory barrage must be like for a Sentinel. But, then, Jim appeared a bit too distressed at the moment for his sensibilities to be so easily offended.
The clenched eyelids opened.
To Blair's sagging relief, Jim didn't seem scared or hurt. To the contrary, there was something of a contented glow about him as he met Blair's gaze. But the tears were still flowing.
Beginning to get a handle on what was going on, Blair relaxed and picked one of the tears up with his smelly, semen-sticky forefinger. "This is a good thing, right?"
There were a million things shining in Jim's over-bright eyes, but he didn't seem capable of voicing a single one of them.
"Don't try to ef the ineffable," Blair advised with mock-solemnity.
The upraised eyebrow that earned him made him smile.
"I'll explain later," Blair promised. Needing the comfort of closer touch, he shifted onto his back. He reached for Jim, giving the other man the option of staying where he was if Jim needed a little space at the moment. He could only imagine how he'd be feeling about now himself if it had been years since his last climax.
Jim didn't even hesitate. He cuddled up around him like they'd been ending the night this way their entire lives. It sort of felt that way to Blair, too, as his eyes sank shut. All the tension and anxiety of the night had drained away with his unexpected climax. For Jim, too, apparently. Jim was already a heavy, deep breathing weight in his arms. Still floating on the golden waves of afterglow, he followed his lover down into the seductive arms of Morpheus.
Blair awoke to bright morning sun, birdsong and the heavy, burning weight of James Ellison attempting to flatten him into the mattress. Both of the last were novel enough to bring his sluggish mind to full wakefulness. The birdsong was strange because it was November and most of the avian population with even vestigial self-preservation instincts had cleared out for warmer, southern climes weeks ago.
And as for Jim, well, Blair had never really dreamed he'd have him in his world. Yet, here he was, bigger and larger than life. Now, all he had to do was figure out a way to keep him there.
Everything they'd shared last night was still thrumming through Blair's being. He'd never met anyone who got to him the way this misused, lost soul did. Although he felt an incredible degree of compassion for the horrors Jim had suffered ? a man would have to be utterly bereft of humanity not to be moved by Jim's plight ? his interest in Jim wasn't based on pity or an impersonal, charitable urge. He felt Jim's suffering as though it were his own, from Jim's traumatizing isolation in the rain-forest, straight on down to the degradations he suffered at the hands of those sickos, all of it made his heart ache in a way no friend's problems ever had before, not even Barry, who was closer than a brother to him.
Beyond the unique abilities with which genetics had blessed Jim, the man himself was special. Jim's strength of character, his fortitude, his sense of honor, the gentle barricaded heart that was a lethal liability in his line of work, the nurturing protector instincts that had wound themselves around Blair's heart ? the fact that all of that could even exist in the face of all the abuse and cruelty and unfair twists of fate that Jim had suffered ? all of these things called to something in his very soul.
Blair couldn't explain the attraction. There was so much empty talk about finding one's soul-mate these days that he could hardly hear the term any more without an uncharacteristic surge of cynicism churning his stomach, but uncomfortable as the concept made him, he couldn't find any other label that so aptly described his feelings for Jim. From the moment Jim Ellison had crashed unexpectedly into his world, the subtle, intrinsic fibers of their personalities had inexplicably meshed. Since that day, they were held together by an unseen web, that bent and twisted and yanked them in all sorts of directions but had yet to sever. Blair hoped to see to it that it never would.
But if they never spent another moment together, he would gladly give up his world to guarantee that Jim would be free of that perverted nightmare of an existence, and he was fully prepared to do so. Lying here with Jim wrapped around him like this was as close as he had ever come to heaven. And no matter what it took, he was resolved to hang on to this. Or, if he couldn't hang on to it, then at least make sure that Jim was free to find it somewhere else.
It was nearly two hours later when Jim rolled over and slowly opened his eyes. The big man's entire body froze up as he took in his strange surroundings.
"Good morning," Blair softly greeted, watching Jim closely.
A bright blush claimed the older man's cheeks as Jim shyly responded, "Hi."
Those blue eyes seemed self-conscious under Blair's gaze. They shifted nervously around the bedroom, as though searching for a safe place to rest. Finally, Jim quietly stated, "I never even thanked you for everything you did for me last night."
Blair smiled, keeping his response simple, letting Jim set the tone. He didn't want to push him too hard too fast. "You don't need to thank me. It was my pleasure. I loved every minute of it."
Jim remained quiet then, his face unreadable.
So much for letting Jim set the tone.
It was like they were strangers again, looking to make small talk, rather than two people who had shared the deepest intimacy. God, but he hated mornings after.
The ball back in his court, Blair searched for something ? anything ? to say. "You hungry? I make a killer omelet…"
"I'm gonna have to head home," Jim quietly announced, looking firmly past Blair's face as he sat up in the bed.
In the two hours Blair had lain here waiting for the other man to awaken, he'd prepared for this moment. Yet, as the dreaded words were uttered, they still knocked the wind from his sails. He regrouped quickly though. He knew his life, his future, his world ? everything that mattered ? perched precariously on the tip of this moment. He drew a deep breath, steeling himself, prepared to fight for Jim with whatever it took.
Sitting up, regarding Jim with solemn resolve, he stated, "You're not going back to that place … to that life. That's over."
Jim sighed, his face weary . "We've been through this. I explained my position to you. I've got commitments. I can't afford…"
"What you can't afford to do is throw away everything we've got here. We made real progress last night, Jim. We know what's going on with you now. It's not some deep, dark mystery controlling your life anymore. And the zones … for the first time since you returned from Peru, you were able to emerge from a zone-out in a few short minutes. Just think of what we'd be able to do if we really worked on your control." Blair couldn't keep his enthusiasm under reign. He was gesturing wildly, his heart pounding inside his chest. "You could have control of your life back!"
"And a shitload of good it'll do me when they throw my ass into prison when I miss my payment next month." Jim swung around to glare at him, visibly frustrated ? and hurting. Blair realized Jim didn't want to leave any more than he wanted him to go.
"Don't you see that you're already in prison? Is that what you're in such a hurry to run back to?"
"I don't have a fucking choice!"
"But that's what I'm trying to tell you. You do! If you would just listen to me, you would see…"
Jim shook his head vigorously. His hands came up as though to shield himself from a powerful blow, "No, Blair. No more. I can't listen anymore. It's just too hard. I told you before … I can't bounce between worlds like this! I just can't! It'll destroy me…"
"And you really think what you're doing now isn't succeeding in doing that already?
Jim flinched at the words, his voice growing tighter. "So? What difference does it make? That beautiful little trip to paradise that you gave me last night aside, I live in the sewer. That's where I exist. That's my world. I've enjoyed my visit to your world, but my time is up. The clock struck twelve and I've turned back into a rent boy. Goodbye, Blair."
Jim lunged past him on the bed, moving towards the edge.
Blair snagged his arm, shouting, "Oh, no. Not on your life!"
A quick upwards thrust of Jim's elbow dislodged his hold. "That is my life. You've had your kicks slumming on the wrong side of town. I'm sure you've got enough material to write ten thesis'. So go back to your world, Professor, and let me get back to mine!"
After the closeness of last night, this hurt. But Blair shook off the blow. He didn't have time to lick his wounds. Jim was lashing out like a cornered animal. If he got thrust into the role of target once more, then so be it. He'd be anything he had to be to keep Jim here.
"This is your world! You belong here with me. Deep inside you know that and it scares the shit out of you. The only way you know how to deal with scared is to lash out. So, go ahead. Yell at me. Say all the nasty shit you want. But you're NOT going out that door!"
Jim was on his feet in a flash. Through the open folds of the ridiculous yellow pajamas, Blair could see Jim's hard chest heaving. "And just how do you plan to stop me?"
Bolting off the bed, Blair flung himself in Jim's path, standing toe to toe, if not eye to eye.
"Any way I have to!" Blair declared. "I will NOT let you go back there, Jim. Never again. I saw your back! I've seen those psychos who pay money to hurt you. I've seen the fear and the pain in your eyes. I've shared your tears. No more! Whatever it takes. Whatever I have to do, I'll do ? because I can't let you go back there and be destroyed. I won't allow it!"
Blair watched his words tear into the other man. For a fleeting instant, Jim's reaction was all there in his eyes. Jim had obviously expected some form of attack to answer his own cruel accusations. His protective declaration seemed to come clear out of left field. Jim was hit hard by the words, his expressive gaze revealing how deeply they touched and moved him … maybe even scared him if his reaction were anything to go by.
Blair had seen it a hundred times or more now, that shutting-down of all emotion that occurred whenever anything got too close to Jim's inner core. It was Jim's only line of defense against an abusive world that had betrayed him, but it didn't come without cost. While the rent boy persona did protect him from the world that was often too cruel to bear, it was also slowly sucking the life out of the real Jim Ellison. His Jim … the one he could touch … the one who could love him, was slipping away. It would only be a matter of time before there was nothing left but that empty shell that the monsters paid to disfigure.
Seeing the now familiar metamorphosis begin, watching how the chiseled features wiped clean of all expression, Blair knew he had to act fast. He had to reach his Jim now or he might lose him for good.
From behind the emotionless mask of that stranger, Jim stated with chilling apathy, "Move, Blair."
Blair threw himself onto Jim, wrapping his arms around the broad neck in a desperate strangle hold. His full weight dangled, anchor-like, down the front of Jim's body, his feet searching for purchase several inches off the floor. "No! If you go back there, I'm going with you! We're staying together. Your world or mine. You pick."
Blair didn't give a shit about pride or dignity or anything else. All that mattered was Jim.
Jim grunted from the force of the impact, but remained singularly unimpressed by the theatrics, continuing his forward motion across the room despite the added burden around his neck. "What are you doing?"
"I told you, before," Blair grunted as he scrambled to hang on. "I'll do whatever I have to do. If that means swallowing my pride and clinging to you like some abandoned child, then that's what I'll do."
"And what's the point?" Jim sighed. "What good do you think this is going to do? We both know I could shake you off without even breaking a sweat."
"Well, then, go ahead!"
Blair tightened his grip to make his point. He pulled his legs up and wrapped them around Jim's waist as well. He was not letting go. If Jim wanted out, he was either going to have to forcibly remove him or head back to Whispers with a hundred and forty pound necklace.
Jim stood still now, but his voice still carried the detached tone of the stranger. "Blair, please stop this. I don't want to hurt you."
"And just what do you think is going to happen to me the minute you walk out that door?" Blair challenged. "Do you think the things I feel for you are going to just disappear over night, that I'm going to be able to live a happy life knowing that the person I care about most is out there selling his ass to a bunch of pain freaks? That he chose those monsters over staying here with me?"
There hadn't been a lot of color in Jim's face at the beginning of this discussion, but what little he had left blanched to a sick pallor. That cornered glint with which Blair had become so familiar over the last few weeks replaced the hustler's protective apathy. In a tired tone, Jim whispered, "What do you want from me, Blair?"
"I want you to listen to me. I have an idea. Something that could end this nightmare once and for all."
He watched the Adam's apple a mere two inches from his chin bob as Jim hollowly reported, "I've lived this existence for almost a year now, wracking my brains for an out. It doesn't exist. Now please get down."
"What are you so scared of? What's it going to cost you to listen?"
In the close press of their bodies, it should have been hot, gritty perspiration which beaded Jim's exposed chest and soaked the torn open pajama jacket. Only, it seemed to be a cold, damp sweat that Blair felt saturate the flannel of the pajamas he was pressed against. And as for Jim's bare skin, that felt almost clammy where Blair's forearms rested against his neck.
The vaguest hint of fear seemed to shadow Jim's reply as he suggested, "My sanity?"
"Walking out the door may well cost you that, too, so, what do you have to lose? Give me a chance, Jim, please?" Blair beseeched, too scared to care what he sounded like to the other man.
Painfully aware of how foolish and pathetic he must look clinging here, Blair watched in silence as Rent Boy and His Jim seemed to fight it out for the dominion of Jim's soul.
"You've got two minutes," Jim bit back, then gently detached Blair from his chest with an ease that confirmed his suspicion that Jim could have been out the door any time he wanted without even ruffling his curls, let alone having to hurt him.
Once he was standing on his own two feet again, Blair got in the other man's face and announced, "You don't want to leave here, Jim. If you did, you'd've been gone a long time ago. In fact, if you really wanted it, I'd've been gone a long time ago, too. You'd've shut me out like you do all the others. Yeah, I'm a threat to that cold, detached Rent Boy persona that you needed to rely on to survive. I have been all along."
"What the hell are you talking about? Rent Boy persona?" Jim was visibly trying to play it cool, but he couldn't even look at his face at that moment, much less meet his eyes.
"We're not gonna play that game anymore. You know what I'm talking about. Rent Boy ? that hard ass cover you put on to push people away ? the one you're trying to erect now. But it's not going to work this time. Rent Boy's scared of me, 'cause he knows I love you and it pisses the hell out of him."
"You're crazy!" Jim countered.
"Am I? Then what the hell are you doing here? We both know if you were what you say you are, you should've been out of my life months ago. Yet, at every turn there's been a part of you that's been unwilling to let me go. Yeah, I was pushing. But you're not a man who's easily pushed. You were letting me, whether you can admit that to yourself or not."
A reassuring echo of his normal bluster entered Jim's attitude, "So what if I was?"
"That part of you … the part that couldn't let me go … that's the part of you where the flicker of hope still lives. That's the part that wants to survive. It's the part that endured eighteen months in that jungle. It's the part that didn't go insane when your senses went haywire. It's the part that came back to school. That part is in there, Jim, but he's growing weaker by the day. He can't take much more abuse before he shuts off for good. He can't coexist along with Rent Boy. So we need to rescue him. Now. Right here, today. I'm going into the bank and taking out a mortgage on the loft. We're going to settle your debt to Garvey's in full."
Blair watched shock burst that half-born bluster like an overfilled balloon.
His Jim was back for the moment, looking like he might pass out from shock, as he stammered, "Blair, that's … that's the most … I … thank you. But I can't. I just can't. That offer is so incredible. But I can't…"
As much as he wanted to offer the comfort of touch at that moment, Blair knew he had to keep the other man off-balance long enough to win this war, "You're missing my point here, Jim. This is not a debate. This is what I'm going to do."
"You can't. You're not going to throw away your home … your future … for me. I won't let you," Jim tried to argue.
But Blair didn't even allow him to draw breath, before he cut in with, "You don't have a say. You can't go back to that life. I have a solution. Are you so stubborn that you'd turn your back on that to go back and crawl into that sewer?"
With that flare of anger that turned Jim's eyes a brilliant blue, Blair's Jim was totally back. Looking like Blair had kicked him when he was down, Jim hoarsely denied, "This is not about stubborn. Do you think I fucking want this life? I'm the one who lives it, Blair, day after torturous day. You think I haven't wracked my brains every single day since this nightmare began to try to find a way out? You think I haven't lain awake every night since the day I first looked into your gorgeous blue eyes and wished to God things could be different … that I could be different. But it can't. My life may well be a fucking nightmare but it's my nightmare and I won't drag you down into it."
Ready for this, Blair shot back with, "You know you once told me 'it's no insult to your masculinity to accept help when you really need it.' Were those just words? Was that all talk, along with all that stuff about pride and how letting someone help you doesn't diminish that pride. You told me that the night you saved my life. You saved my life, Jim! Now I have a chance to return the debt of honor. Are you going deny me that too?"
Blair could see the fear hiding behind all that fury as Jim responded, "You don't owe me anything, Blair. I don't need your guilt money."
It was one dig too many. Blair just lost it. "Guilt! God, are you thick. You've got all these senses but you can't see and hear what's right in front of your face. I fucking threw myself at you. I've been following you around for months. I paid money just to spend time with you. I've let you take your shit and your anger and aggression out on me and I come back for more. I used to pride myself on my independence. I've lived my whole life on my own. Yet, I would have gotten down on my hands and knees if that's what it took to keep you from walking out that door. I love you, Jim. I fucking love you, you thick-headed bastard. And the man I love is not going to spend one more day at the mercy of those sadistic sons of bitches. Not if I can help it."
The terrified man who'd used his scars as a weapon last night argued, "Blair … I don't deserve your love. I don't have anything to give back. I'm dead inside."
"Bullshit, "Blair exploded, "The man who cried in my arms last night is not dead. The man who blossomed under a simple hand-job like a sunflower is no fucking corpse. You're damaged, Jim, not dead. But I can help you. God, nature, whatever, made you a Sentinel. But then as some cosmic joke they tossed you into a society that doesn't understand what you are and that nearly destroyed you. But you're not dead yet. You survived. And now you have me. I understand you. I'm not gonna stand by and watch you be destroyed because of your differences. I told you I'd be your Guide and I will. A Guide's first priority is to keep his Sentinel alive and healthy. Which is why you're going to move in here with me."
The part of Jim Blair liked least, the sarcastic bad-ass who didn't care whom he injured in his pride, attacked with, "So let me get this straight … not only do you want to pay my debts, but you also want me to live with you? How is that so much different than what I'm doing now? If you own me or they own me, what's the difference? I'm still bought and paid for."
Blair wanted to just push the protest aside, but he couldn't. It might have been voiced with the intent to hurt him, but he knew it was an honest concern for a man who'd lost everything but his pride. "I don't own you. I don't want to. I just want to love you. I'd like us to have a life together, to be, like, a real couple, but if that's not what you want, I'm not gonna force you to be here with me."
"So you're saying that you're gonna sell every bit of security you have and put yourself into debt for the next three decades, just to watch me walk away from you?"
Blair's own fear abruptly coming into play, he gave a tight nod. "If that's what you want. Like I said before, it's a debt of honor."
"And because I saved your life that night, you'd want me to move in here with you, freeload off you for the next thirty years…?"
"I thought you had enhanced hearing? First of all, gratitude is so not the main motivation here. I love you, Jim. And, I don't expect to be supporting you, you know. When I help you get your senses back online you can get a job. We're going to have a mortgage to pay. Half that debt will be yours. This is not some one night trick, here. We're talking commitment. I help you, you help me. We work together. We share a life. You think you're up for all that or would you rather go put your studded jacket back on and peddle your ass instead?"
Jim blinked at his crudity. His mask was gone. The man before Blair appeared totally overwhelmed, "You don't leave a guy much room to say anything do you, Blair?" Jim covered.
"You haven't seen anything yet. I can talk all night … all week … I'll talk as long as I have to until you listen. You know me. I don't go away very easily."
"So I've noticed." On the surface, it might have been sarcasm behind the words, but there was something almost like adoration lurking in those over-bright eyes.
Blair pressed his case home, offering Jim what might be the final inducement, "So, why don't you make this easy on both of us. Say yes now and we can stop wasting time listening to me and all my highly convincing arguments and we can go pack your stuff up and move it into that spare closet upstairs."
Jim's face almost fell at the suggestion. After a too-quiet moment he asked, "The closet upstairs, not the one over there in the corner?"
"There aren't any strings here, Jim. I'm not buying you. If it takes separate beds to prove it, then that's what it takes."
"And if I want to put my things in that closet over there?" An endearing hint of shyness entered Jim's attitude.
"Then we put your stuff in the closet in the corner," Blair assured, his heart leaping.
Seemingly dancing on the sword-edge, Jim gulped and questioned, "Do I get to keep the pajamas?"
His own eyes nearly as bright as his love's, Blair gulped and nodded, "There's a drawerful of them upstairs. They're all yours, man. Does this mean you'll stay?"
A galaxy could have been born and died in the time it took Jim to give his answer, or so it seemed to his anxious mind.
Finally, Jim ended his suspense. Looking as though he thought he were committing the worst mistake of his life, he softly answered, "Blair, I'm still not real sure this is a good idea. But I'll try it … for you. You were right before about that part of me that couldn't walk away from you. But I want you to know, you're always free to walk away from me. You're not obligated here."
Blair tried not to lose it again. He was so relieved that Jim was staying he was ready to start blubbering again, but that heart-felt offer was almost too much to bear, "Love isn't an obligation, Jim. It's a blessing ? like you."
Jim barely seemed able to get the next words out; he was holding back so much emotion. "I don't know if I even believe in love anymore, Teach. But if it exists … I feel it for you."
Blair would never know who moved first in those next moments. All he knew was that his nose was suddenly squashed into soft yellow flannel. As he was clutched in the shelter of those arms, he peeked up at the uncertain face of this man who was risking perhaps his last shred of pride by trusting him. Not knowing how to make this any easier for Jim, he whispered, "I like the pajamas on you, man."
And then they were back in that kiss that had so rocked his world last night and nothing else mattered.
This last chapter was co-written by GlowRug, who saved the story with her inimitable style and generosity of spirit.
The tribes mentioned in this story are purely fictitious