Thank you's: Lisa, for contributing wonderful art and being so patient even when at times it was questionable if the story would ever be finished. Ines, for helping me pull through with the last pages. And Lyn, for shaping it up - I'm glad to have you as my beta!

My donation to the Secret Critter Exchange 2007. Hope you enjoy, Terry!

Under The Surface

By Demeter

BlairnakedUTS.jpg (31116 bytes)

EMAIL: Demeter

"It's not your fault, Ellison," Vice captain Crandall said, a hint of impatience in his voice stealing itself through the honest concern. "You couldn't know--"

"I should have known he wouldn't listen!" Jim interrupted him brusquely, finally getting up from where he sat crouched beside the body of the young man. The scene was gruesome. The victim had literally been slaughtered by his killer, multiple deep stab wounds; the smells overwhelming, but maybe Jim had needed the exposure to punish himself. To confront himself with his own sins of omission.

For he knew, whatever arguments Crandall would come up with, it remained his fault alone. Time after time, Jim had warned the younger man he had come to consider a friend, not to fall back into his old and dangerous habits - but it hadn't been enough.

He took one long last look before he turned around to leave the scene, vowing he'd hunt the killer down and make him pay - whatever it took.

There would be no more.

***

"And that's it. Have a nice weekend, folks."

As the students eagerly left the room one by one, Blair sat down with a sigh, not equally as impatient as they were to get home at all. The loft would be empty, as was usual lately, and if it wasn't, then he would be occupied with trying to circumvent the silence that had somehow crept into the rooms, between him and Jim.

Jim was working on a case he hadn't talked about much; it was some cooperation with the Vice department that didn't have any use for an unofficial consultant, let alone a Guide. Blair was still hoping that it was really just the case, and that with its end, the easy relationship they'd once shared would naturally return - but at times, he wasn't so sure about that.

Anyway, he couldn't stay here, either.

Looking up, Blair was surprised to find he wasn't alone in the room, as he had thought.

Ariel blushed a little when she realized he had caught her watching him. "Hi, professor," she said, smiling guilelessly.

At thirty-eight, Ariel Jennis was older than the other students in the class, and he'd often wondered what her motivation had been to take it. She worked as a self-employed photographer, quite successful if you believed the grapevine, though he wasn't familiar with her works.

Blair remembered her saying something about how learning about the way people ticked in theory would help her bring out more depths in their models. Well, if it worked... "Ariel. I thought you had a weekend full of work ahead of you."

"I do," she sighed. "There's a problem though, and I was hoping you could help me out."

"Well, what's it about?"

She got up from behind her table, picking up her bag, looking a lot more confident than before, and he easily recognized the businesswoman again who sometimes took a backseat to the student, so that Ariel easily fit in.

Living in contradictory worlds, that was something Blair could relate to.

"Let me buy you dinner, and I tell you all about it," Ariel suggested.

No empty loft, and no difficult conversation - that was a prospect too good to miss. "Why not?"

***

Blair couldn't help it - he was staring at her. He was even lost for words, something that didn't happen all too often, but this situation definitely qualified. Never in the world he would have thought... And worse, he was blushing now, at the mere idea of agreeing to her offer. Not that he would. Of course, not.

Ariel had explained that she had to do a photo session over the weekend. If she didn't finish according to the deadline, she'd lose a lot of money - not that it would ruin her completely, but she'd rather not have it happen. One of her models had called in sick this afternoon, and she had to find someone to replace him.

"Well, I'm flattered you're asking me," Blair had said, puzzled, "but I'm afraid you'd be disappointed. I've never done anything like this before."

"That would be okay. I always work with amateur models; I actually prefer that. I take it you've never posed naked?"

"What--?" At this point, Blair had seriously considered the idea that he could have fallen asleep at his desk, and was still caught up in a strange dream. Had he really heard that?

Ariel smiled cordially. "I guess not. That wouldn't be a problem either. Look, I've got this photo series about a male couple, and I thought you wouldn't mind, since you and Jim are so obviously together, and you've told us about spending time with this tribe where everyone was always running around naked..."

"Yes, but -- wait a minute." The thoughts were chasing one another in his head at a speed that made it hard to find words to actually explain. Not that it would have been easy under the best of circumstances... "What I said about the tribe is true. Jim and I are not a couple, though. He's not -- I mean, we're both het."

Just why had he almost left himself out there? Blair silently gave himself the answer. He was sure as hell about Jim. And mostly doing a good job to hide his own insecurity about the subject.

"Whoa." Ariel chuckled. "I am so sorry! Talk about preconceived notions. I've always considered myself pretty open-minded, and look how I fell for the gossip. I'm really sorry, Blair. I never meant to make you uncomfortable."

Somehow, and Blair had no idea why, her words made him act defensively. "Who says I'm uncomfortable? It's just not that way."

"I understand. But I wouldn't have asked if I'd known the facts. You always struck me as a pretty unconventional kind of guy, so I put two and two together and made five of it. My fault completely."

"Well, I am. A pretty unconventional kind of guy, I mean."

They shared another smile, and Blair wondered why he felt the need to emphasize it. Certainly this was no attempt to flirt with her; he liked Ariel, but that was it. He didn't have to prove anything to her, right?

"Yeah, I know. It's such a pity you can't help me out. You'd be perfect."

Blair had taken a hasty sip of his wine, almost choking on it, because truth be told, the praise *was* making him a little uncomfortable. He was curious though. "I knew you are a photographer, but I had no idea you were doing porn. Not that I think it's necessarily a bad thing, but I'd thought in a place like the university, it would be hard to keep it secret."

"I don't do porn," Ariel laughed. "Actually, besides the gay audience, there are many women who are interested in my photographs. Want to take a look?"

"Yeah, sure." What the hell was he doing here anyway? Okay, just looking should be harmless, right?

But when Blair took the folder with the black and white photographs from her, flipping through the pages, he had to admit that he knew the answer to this question better than he liked to believe.

Ariel had been right; it wasn't porn, even though some of the poses were clearly sexual. These pictures were beautiful, and there was a tenderness in them, and a yearning, that made his own confused inner state only more obvious. Damn it all. "It's breathtaking," he said eventually. "It's not like I know a whole lot about the subject, but I can see you've got a great talent."

"Thanks." She smiled, offering half-heartedly, "You're sure I can't convince you with a little money? I hear that a TA doesn't earn too much these days."

There was a split-second when Blair felt like he was walking on a tightrope, having to choose between the retreat to a rather safe world, if that one had gotten a little dull lately - and the only alternative. He chose the jump.

"Exactly. And you know what? Since finals are behind us now, you're not my student anymore, so - if you're serious, I'll do it."

***

At the end of the day, Jim had to realize that he couldn't just put the images of the crime scene behind him the way he used to. Maybe Sandburg would have some witch-doctor remedy in his mind for this, some shamanic inspiration, but Jim had no intention at all to go down that road now.

He knew that Blair didn't understand - lots of things, actually, about why he had to stay on the outside where this case was concerned, or why Jim needed the silence at the moment.

It wasn't even something he could talk about, or wanted to. Doing this stint with Vice reminded him too much of a time in his life, a part of himself, he didn't want Blair ever being confronted with. Hell, it was hard enough to confront himself; and on top of all this, Andy had chosen to get himself killed.

Yeah, that's the way it was, if you put it correctly.

Reason enough, Jim thought as he parked his truck in the parking lot of Ernie's, a bar within walking distance from the loft. It would stay there until tomorrow.

Ernie, a former cop himself, had gotten back into his father's business after an injury that would have put him on desk duty for the rest of his career. It was a place where you could get smashed in peace, and that's what was on Jim's mind right now.

***

There was more than one moment when Blair thought he should reconsider his decision. Many of them, actually, but now that he'd made a promise, there was no turning back, right?

Ariel had her studio all set up, since she had originally planned to start the session right after class. She had called the guy who was the 'partner' in this session - talk about semantics - and Marcus arrived within a few minutes, obviously having expected her to come up with a replacement.

They said hello, and much to his credit, he was all cool about it, taking a bit of Blair's nervousness away - if not all of it.

"Hey, that's so cool," he said. "Ariel has already told me all about her great teacher with the gorgeous lover--"

"Stop!" she told him. "I've already put my foot in my mouth today, so you don't have to do it, too. They. Are. Not. Together."

Marcus looked a bit puzzled at that, but he shrugged it off. "Well, then. It's still nice you're helping us out here. You've seen Ariel's work, right?" he asked, apparently wondering if the replacement model knew what he was getting himself into.

But Blair had already jumped off a cliff in his life and survived - so what worse could happen? "Um, yes. No big deal," he blatantly lied. "I always try to help out my students when there's a problem."

Marcus laughed. "I wish I'd had teachers like that." He was pretty attractive, with blond hair and green eyes, looking younger than the thirty-five he said he was. The thought of doing cuddly scenes with this guy - it wasn't really appalling or anything, but maybe the fact it wasn't, was exactly that what made Blair feel like plotting a hasty escape. He didn't, though.

Ariel clapped her hands. "Okay, guys, I think you all know what they say about time is money. It's true, so I'd like to ask you to go to the stylist now, and then get out of those clothes."

Stylist?

Thoughts of escape were getting way attractive again.

***

"Jim! Haven't seen you in a while!" Ernie greeted him heartily. "Where's your partner?"

"Wish I knew," Jim muttered as his former colleague took a seat beside him, his gaze knowing. Exactly what he'd wanted to avoid for tonight.

"I've heard about the guy in the woods. Must have been bad, huh?"

"Yeah." Even though Eddie would have probably understood - he knew 'bad', too - Jim didn't feel much inclined to pour his heart out. He guessed that if he'd wanted that, he could have just gone home. "Bring me another beer?"

Ernie seemed to realize that his guest wasn't up for conversation, because he got up, nodding. "Sure thing."

When he was alone again, Jim thought back to the beginning of this case, wondering how it could have gone to hell that fast. The murder of a wealthy Cascade businessman named Gordon Peters, had stirred up lots of dirt, because of the vast amount of illegal porn that had been found on the computer in his office. Among the more under-the-counter features, there had also been some soft porn movies and pictures that featured young people, who were listed as Missing Persons, and then a task force had been put together.

There had been some colleagues in Major Crimes, outside of the gang, who had resented Jim's place in it.

As they had to sift through the multitude of the material with explicit sexual content - no shit - Jim had overheard a conversation, as two detectives passed the room.

"Well, better him than us," Philips had told his partner, the smirk clearly audible in his voice. "Now this Sandburg guy, he'd sure be interested in that kind of crap. Maybe get some idea for what they do when--"

He'd hastily broken off the sentence when Jim suddenly stepped into his path.

"Is there a problem?" Jim had asked, with the friendliness of a snake, and Philips had stepped back, angry, but apparently not wanting to risk a confrontation.

"Nope," he said curtly, walking on without a further word, and Jim went back into the room, aware of Captain Crandall's bewildered look.

Andy had been one of them, a chronic runaway, who'd been living on the edge ever since Jim had known him, back from those days in Vice. Jim had practically begged him to stay away from those back door photographers, but he always claimed he needed the money - and where Andy was concerned, running around naked was really just part of a job.

This time, he'd miscalculated the risk.

And Jim was trying to drink away the fact that all he really wanted was to go home and talk about it. It was impossible.

***

Everything's okay. Just think of this as something people do everyday, no big deal, right? It wasn't that easy though, and Blair couldn't help but feel mortified, as he sat on the bed, all naked indeed, Marcus embracing him from behind.

And if he was totally honest, it wasn't because of being in this - situation - with another man. Ariel was all professional about it, and that helped a little as he leaned back against the other man's chest the way she told him to. What was really getting to him was that the moment he'd first felt the touch of warm skin against his, the unfamiliarity of a male body this intimately close, it had truly been the opening of Pandora's box.

Hell, Ariel had been right; he'd been brought up in an unconventional way, something he'd always prided himself on, and Blair had always known he wasn't repressed enough to not see attractiveness in a man when he was faced with it.

He just hadn't thought... or just had been good at ignoring it...

No, Marcus wasn't the problem here.

It was just that whenever Blair closed his eyes, reality was slipping away, giving way to the bits and pieces of a fantasy he'd never dared to put together in a complete picture - but his body made the connection easily.

Ariel had mentioned it too, with a wink, that with the hundred or so models she'd worked with, she had learned that men were quite easily aroused, and that wouldn't be a problem either.

So far, so good. Not.

"Just relax," Marcus told him. "Besides, I'm flattered."

Blair tried to conjure up memories of murder scenes in his mind.

***

In another picture, Blair lay on his stomach, head resting on his arms, looking like he was comfortably sleeping. Next to him sat Marcus, one hand on his partner's back, gazing straight into the camera. The gesture was one of possessiveness.

"Whoa. I didn't know I was that much of a good-looking guy," Blair quipped, amazed at how exhausting it had been to do a little posing. Equally as amazed at the result. And also relieved to be wearing clothes again.

Marcus, also clothed again, gave him a suggestive smile. "I'm sure you know it damn well," he said. "Anyway, would you guys like to join me for a drink?"

"I wish," Ariel sighed. "I'll be working through the night, mailing this stuff and then sleeping for a week. But there's no reason why you can't have fun. Blair, I'm really grateful you could step in. Now, guys, get out of here before I change my mind and come with you."

***

As Jim opened the door to the loft, he immediately stumbled over something, cursing. He'd noticed before that there was nobody home; most likely Blair was on a date, had just gotten home to leave his things lying around and then disappeared.

Just - great. Not bothering to turn on the lights, he kicked the shoes aside and went into the kitchen, listening for the answering machine as he got himself a bottled water from the fridge, feeling like kicking something else.

Just why was he getting so angry, when it was him who'd wanted to keep Blair away from the task force, and the rumor mill?

He could just attribute it to getting drunk, something that Jim seldom did, because he hated the loss of control. But this time, there was more to it, and he knew it. Which didn't mean he wouldn't ignore it once more. He was experienced in pushing aside what he didn't want to see - or feel.

***

"Just this one drink. I could drive you home afterwards."

Shivering a little in the cool night air, Blair found it hard to believe that a few minutes ago, he'd found himself in a passionate embrace with this man, and found himself inexplicably disappointed that those moments seemed to have flown by like a dream.

He felt daring tonight, though, not wanting to immediately go back into a reality that kept closing the walls in on him. "Well, why not," he agreed.

"Look, I don't want to be nosy..." Marcus began as he pulled out of the parking lot of Ariel's house, "...well, I am. You said you and Jim are not together. But you'd be interested, right?"

"What, you're a mind reader, too? Why do you think that?"

Marcus smiled to himself. "I am friends with some het guys, but they wouldn't be caught dead in a place like this. I'm just wondering."

After a moment of futilely fishing for an explanation that would be enough for both Marcus and himself, Blair relented. "Strange, isn't it?" he said instead. "You'd think that at my age, I should know on which side of the fence I want to be."

"Some find it out much later. Some prefer the fence to being on either side... There's no right moment for this, ever."

"Well, thanks for the encouragement," Blair said dryly, and they both laughed.

"You're brave though. Starting with a session of male nude photography is a rather unusual approach."

As they had to stop at a red light, there was silence for a moment, not uncomfortable, but crackling with tension. Looking up, Blair noticed Marcus' gaze on him, finding he knew exactly what it meant. And he didn't look away either.

Taking his mind back to the memory of the two of them entwined like lovers, him and a guy he'd just met a few hours ago. He must have gone crazy. But if crazy felt like this, Blair wasn't so sure anymore it was such a bad thing. Not that he was very sure of anything at the moment.

"I don't know," he said, shifting in his seat.

Then Marcus leaned over, cupping Blair's cheek with one hand before he kissed him, with just a hint of tongue. "This making it a little easier?"

No, truth be said, it was making things way complicated. It was utterly thrilling, another new experience he'd been imagining over and over again, and yet, this wasn't 'it'. "I'm sorry." Blair felt foolish.

"Don't be. But let me tell you, if the guy you're so in love with can't make up his fucking mind, well, I'm here. You're an anthropologist, right? Think of it as an initiation."

Which was a tempting offer indeed, and Blair thought he was probably acting like an idiot, but he couldn't help himself. One step further, and his carefully built house of make believe would be torn down. And then there was no way he could go on living at the loft.

No way.

"Sorry," he said again. "I can't. I need to go home anyway."

"No problem. Just give me a call when you change your mind."

***

When you change your mind. Really funny. It didn't sound like there was any alternative, but somehow, Blair didn't mind as he walked up the stairs to 307, still pleasantly tipsy from the two glasses of wine he'd had.

Probably good that there hadn't been more; there was no saying where he'd have ended up... He smiled to himself. Marcus had clearly been interested...

So what if it took him about three attempts to get the key into the lock, and open the door? His mind was on other things.

So much, that he didn't notice the shadow next to the door. When he did, his heart missed a beat, and he jumped. "Hell, Jim give me a heart attack, why don't you?"

When he finally managed to hit the switch, Blair found his roommate's equally irritated gaze on him.

"If you hadn't made such noise, I wouldn't have come down," Jim said exasperatedly. "Where've you been anyway?"

"Out. I'll tell you about it tomorrow" - or maybe not - "But right now, I just want to crash."

Be alone, and try to ignore that sting of disappointment. He was a fool, really, Blair knew it. As it was, he and Jim couldn't even talk to each other at the moment, and how could he have been so stupid to think that... Instead of feeling like a teenager who'd been caught stealing himself away from his parents' house at night, like he was now, he could have spent this night differently.

Getting initiated, for example. "Good night, man."

Jim mumbled something in response, turning abruptly. With Blair moving at the same moment, they inevitably collided with each other.

"Hell, Chief, couldn't you watch out for--"

The silence that followed was deafening.

After the photo session, Ariel had given them both prints from the pictures; they'd get the real photographs later. Blair had just stuffed them into one of the folders he'd had with him, and somehow they had slipped out of it, now sailing to the floor.

He cursed inwardly. That was not how he'd wanted Jim to find out.

"What have you been doing?" Jim asked after an eternal moment of heavy silence. There was a dangerous edge to his voice; the kind that suggested, there's no use in lying, we've got a witness who saw you at the scene of the crime.

"Oh, it's not what you think, just a student of mine who--" What was he doing here anyway, trying to justify himself? Blair decided that there was no reason for it. "Well, it's kind of obvious, isn't it? Sorry, I didn't mean to scatter them all over the floor."

"Sandburg, are you mad?"

Okay, yelling it was now. "I can't believe this," Blair said, getting quite pissed himself, even though he was more than a bit uncomfortable with the course this conversation was taking. It wasn't a good moment to discuss this; it seemed they both had had more alcohol this evening than was usual, and he was worried they'd say things they'd regret later. Even if some of them happened to be true. "This is none of your business, man!" Fool he'd been to think it could be, right?"

"Are you really that dense? Do I have to spell it out for you?"

Blair would later ask himself how it'd happened, again, him with his back against the wall with Jim in his space. Many things had changed since that early encounter - but Jim feeling threatened was still a dangerous force.

And Blair hated that he was - what, afraid? Crap, he told himself. "Let me go," he said. "I don't know what the hell you're talking about, and I guess I don't want to. And you know what? I think I'm going to call the guy who's on these pictures. He didn't think I'm dense. Guess what - *he* wanted me."

"Congratulations, Sandburg. Go ahead, call him. And you know what? I've known guys like this. All enthusiastic about taking a walk on the wild side."

Jim let go of him so abruptly that Blair had almost stumbled. "Yeah, but--"

"Next time I saw them was on a slab in the morgue, with their guts ripped out."

"Now, Jim..." Alone, the thought was enough to make his stomach churn, but Blair thought he understood a little more about Jim's anger now. "This is not going to happen to me because of a little posing."

"A little posing, right, that's the bait. The real money is made with a real live snuff movie."

Oh, way to spoil what had been a great evening so far. Turning, Blair took his jacket from the hook, shrugging into it. Whatever demons were haunting Jim tonight, for once, he couldn't be the one to exorcise them. Just not this time.

"Where are you going?" There it was again, that edge. Jim seemed determined to make his point here. But so was Blair.

"I told you. We can talk about this some more when we're both sober again. I was helping out a student of mine, nothing else." He picked up his cell phone and dialed the number Marcus had given him. Good opportunity to test the guy's interest anyway.

"No way."

Blair just stared incredulously as the phone was ripped from his hands, and Jim disconnected the call. "Just where do you get off?"

He didn't wait for an answer, didn't even try to get the phone back as he turned on his heels, heading for his room. Just for emphasis, Blair slammed the French doors shut behind him hard enough to make the panes rattle.

***

Blair had been so mad he hadn't even picked up the scattered pictures - probably rightly so. Could be that it served Jim right that he had no real choice between just letting them lie around or pick them up himself, which meant he would have to look at them.

Strange, with the ease Blair saw through him most of the time, that he could still be this blind.

No, Jim didn't have a problem with taking a look at the image of two naked guys in what seemed to be a passionate embrace. It was admittedly beautiful in comparison to the things he had to work through in those damn task force meetings, or before that, in Vice --

But there was something about those photographs, troubling him, and the worry he'd tried to express, albeit inappropriately, was only half of the story.

***

In his room, Blair sat wondering why he had just behaved like a sullen child instead of standing his ground like he should have. Jim was his friend, his very best friend, right, but that didn't give him the right to dictate Blair's life.

Or express concern in a fashion that had been half a step from getting violent.

It might have been a bit exaggerated to feel that way, but looking back, Blair found he'd had more than his share of dealing with the fact that Jim got pushy when he was worried. Afraid, not that he'd ever admit it, but anyway. Most likely, that was adding to his anger, knowing that Blair could see through him.

With a sigh, Blair slumped back on the bed. He had really blown it, hadn't he? The secret was 'out', part of it anyway, and he didn't have any idea how to handle the new situation. If Jim had bothered to listen --

But no, he couldn't really imagine that conversation either. He'd always considered himself to be pretty self-confident when it came to relationships. Granted, some of them had been a disaster, but that mostly had to do with the woman's criminal background - Iris - or family, in Maya's case.

All that confidence and experience he'd thought to have gained didn't do a thing for him now, because - time to stop kidding yourself - what was making it all so difficult was that he wasn't just recently beginning to discover that he was attracted to men.

It had always been about Jim in the first place.

Jim, who teased him mercilessly about his dates, and so much more, but had risked his own life for Blair over and over, had talked him down from his drugged state in the police garage, had brought him back to life.

Somewhere along the line, Blair felt he didn't have any choice but to fall in love.

And he didn't have a clue about what to do now, because he might have hoped it, foolishly, that this photographs would somehow trick Jim into admitting that he was feeling the same.

God, how naive could you ever be?

Obviously, it had not happened that way. And where to go from here, Blair had no idea.

***

Saturday morning, Jim woke with a bad hangover, and a sense of unease that was only partly physical. Sentinel senses and alcohol do not go together well, he thought dryly. At least he managed to control the pounding headache fairly quickly, thanks to the dials, one of those incredible ideas the witch doctor punk could come up with.

Thinking of Sandburg, Jim knew an instant later what was wrong - it wasn't even 8 a.m. yet, and no way would Blair miss an opportunity to sleep in after finals. He wasn't in his room though; his heartbeat was the sound Jim had been missing.

Guiltily, his mind wandered back to last night's conversation - and screw alcohol anyway - because it would have been nice not to remember - no such luck. Every wrong word said, every wrong move, came back to him with painful clarity.

It was easy to acknowledge, after the fact, that he'd done it all out of a heedless fear - the present moment overlaid by images of Andy, carelessly offering his body, because he'd thought it was all he had to offer. Andy, dead, slain by some fanatical animal.

Rationally, Blair had been right of course, with everything he had said. What he'd done seemed quite harmless. The way he acted, and looked, in those pictures, was different from the inhuman ways of the omnipresent porn industry, right...

The way he looked, right, wasn't that exactly the problem?

It was impossible, Jim couldn't go there, not with this case still open. He'd apologize and hope that things would be better when that task force would no longer be needed. He just had to hold on to that thought.

***

They were standing in an embrace, Marcus resting his head on Blair's shoulder. It wasn't like the interested viewer could see much more than the lines of their bodies, with the shadows and all, but Blair could vividly remember how most of his awareness had rushed south...

"Don't worry about it," Marcus whispered against his neck, the feeling of warm breath against his skin only enhancing the sensation. "You *are* doing the same to me," and it was definitely true.

For a moment or two, Blair asked himself what strange kind of guy had taken over his body - sure, it was true what he'd told the class about the tribe, but that had been different, because in their culture, nakedness was natural, something no one cared much about. It just was.

Here and now, in the studio of a photographer who'd been sitting in his class throughout the semester, acing each test, Blair was surprised to find that, between the initial mortification and the panicky thought that he was an open book to read for everyone - he found himself enjoying it. Very much.

So, who was that man so comfortable with flaunting his body?

Okay, it was cowardly to sneak out in the morning, leaving a simple note that, in fact, didn't say anything. Blair was aware of that, but he was also afraid that if he'd stayed, he and Jim would have continued that conversation they'd had, and he just couldn't stand any more of that.

So he'd packed a few things and left the loft, intending to clear his mind and not coming back before he had accomplished that. Not coming back before he'd managed to push back his own feelings, because the way things were, they'd be getting him nowhere.

Ariel called him a little later that morning, proudly announcing that after her night shift, he could now come and pick up the real photographs. She had emailed back and forth with her customer, and she claimed that he was totally satisfied with the result.

"Blair, I want you to think about it, if this is really just a one-time-thing for you. As I said, you're a natural. The camera loves you. And so do I, if you come back for another series."

His first impulse was to snap at her, as if it was Ariel's fault that Jim didn't take so well to Blair's kind of miscalculated 'coming-out'. Yeah, right.

"I don't know," he said. "I mean it was fun and all, but I do have another job. I think Chancellor Edwards would not be amused."

"Your choice," Ariel said. "I'd still like to meet you, if you have the time, for the pictures, and your paycheck, of course."

"Okay. It's not like I have anywhere to go."

And this sounded really bad, if you thought about it.

***

It wasn't like anyone was directly asking him, "Hey, Jim, what the hell are you doing here on a Saturday morning on your day off?" Miraculously - or not - Jim could tell it was what most of them thought.

Even the ones who were not convinced that he and Sandburg were getting it on in their spare time threw him curious looks, and he put on a glare that at least saved him from having to answer any nosy questions.

To anyone but the boss, that is.

When Simon called him into his office, Jim thought with a sigh that the glare might not work on the captain - and he was right. Once he'd sat down, Simon offered him a coffee and got straight to the point.

"With another murder, the task force will remain together for a while longer, right?"

"I suppose so."

"You been talking to Sandburg about this?"

"The case we're working on?" - glare - "You know I'm not entitled to, sir."

Simon's expression was unreadable, his heartbeat steady as he said, "Might do you some good. You knew this runaway kid quite well, didn't you?"

"Yeah, so? What are you insinuating?"

"Nothing, Jim. I talked to Captain Crandall yesterday, and he told me. I'm sorry about this."

"Well, thank you."

"You need to talk about it to someone. And Sandburg needs to know you still trust him, because, believe me, Jim, he's not getting that impression from you lately."

Was that really true? And if it was, it definitely wasn't anything Jim wanted to discuss in the Captain's office, no thanks.

"It's not like he hasn't got other things to do." Things. Right. Shaking his ass in front of strangers' eyes. Getting all up close and personal with those strangers. "And the same goes for me. I'm going to take a look at the evidence once more, both murders. There's got to be something connecting them. Thanks for the coffee, Simon."

***

Down in Evidence, Jim went over every single piece, bagged and catalogued from the murdered businessman's house, and what little had been found near Andy's body. There had been a piece of paper or light cardboard, white, with some pink on it. It might have been a business card, or a strip of matches, but it was impossible to say now. They'd gotten a partial print from that.

Jim searched through the things from the house again, wondering if there was anything Andy and Gordon Peters had had in common.

And then he found it:

It was what they hadn't managed to identify yet, but indeed it had to have been a business card - and there was the same pink color on it, and one letter of the logo visible: 'J'. Another letter that might have been an 'A' or an 'M'.

How come two people leading seriously different lives like Andy and Gordon had had common acquaintances?

***

"I'm serious. Think about it and give me a call Monday at the latest. I'd love to work with you again."

Blair knew that he shouldn't make this decision depending on Jim's moods, but he found himself doing exactly that. If only they could talk about it once more, maybe Jim would see that he wasn't going to have a career in gay porn photography... but for that he'd have to go back. It was too soon.

"I'll call you," he said eventually, sulking like a kid who hadn't got the birthday present he'd wanted all the time. Oh man. "See you later, Ariel."

Leaving her studio, he almost collided with the man who was just entering it.

"Hey, what a coincidence - I was just about to call you."

"Um, hi, Marcus. Call me? Did I miss anything?"

Laughing at his confusion, Marcus shook his head. "Not yet. It's just that I've decided to give it another go and show you some of the alternatives to being in love with a het guy - if you want."

"You don't give up too easily, do you?"

Marcus winked at him. "I'm motivated. Aren't you?"

And maybe Blair was really a bit slow to catch up - here was an attractive guy who was more than dropping hints - he was interested, and if Blair was serious about this new development in his life, if he honestly wanted it - he had the chance.

Something that wouldn't happen with Jim, much as Blair had hoped for it. "So, what do you have to offer?"

***

Returning to the loft without having achieved much, Jim realized that Blair hadn't been there in the meantime, because those print-outs, the catalyst, were still lying on the coffee table.

Beckoning him.

Jim sat down on the couch, picking up the thin pile and taking a closer look than he'd dared before, picture by picture. Those scenes looked so -- real. The emotion in them did. And how stupid was it anyway to feel like a voyeur, looking at them, when that photographer surely hadn't planned to keep them on his hard drive only.

Hell, Chief, did you waste just one thought on the consequences?

Blair had been right; this didn't look like the work of some sleazy porn photographer, but still, the guy was bound to be publishing them somewhere. Jim tried to picture calendars sold in bookstores. Or an exhibition of some independent artists - Blair all naked and larger than life for all the world to see.

Jim couldn't help but acknowledge the smile that was teasing his lips at that thought. Because, if he was really honest, it wasn't Sandburg's reputation he was worried about most. However, the caveman inside was indignant about the idea of sharing his Guide with strangers.

Right, Ellison, now you're really losing it. Where was all this coming from?

No point in asking the questions, really, when he already knew the answers too well. Andy had said that, too. What are you waiting for, Jim? Waiting too long, missing the right moment. Like when he hadn't managed to keep Andy away from his murderer.

Frowning, Jim shook his head. No, he couldn't start an in-depth analysis of himself now, before the case had been solved. It came first. Then it would be time for the truth.

When Jim laid the photographs back on the table, something small and rectangular fell to the floor.

It was a business card, the left upper corner of it pink. The initials of its owner were twice the size of the other letters -

'Ariel Jennis'.

***

He was gently drawn back to wakefulness by the impression of somebody spooning up behind him, hugging him close, the warmth startling and enticing at the same time. Unfamiliar, but feeling safe. No objections so far, Blair thought dreamily.

They had spent the morning talking, walking on the beach, and somehow Blair had decided that he trusted Marcus enough to tell him about his crazy infatuation with Jim, and the not so ideal way last night had turned out.

"Don't want to get your hopes up too high, but to me, it sounds more like he's jealous - and not uninterested. Has weird ways of expressing it, though."

Yeah, translating Jim Ellison was a task for life. Only this time, Blair wasn't so sure about it. Not that he was so much more sure of himself.

They ate at a Chinese restaurant, then retreated to Marcus' apartment which was near the university. And somehow it had happened... when Blair had mentioned that he hadn't gotten any sleep because of last night's argument with Jim, Marcus had made an offer.

He'd said that he needed to get a bit of work done, and if Blair wanted to, he could stay at the apartment, take a nap and try the bed.

The tone between them was light, a bit of flirting between the lines, and it felt so good in light of the heaviness that was between him and Jim at the moment, not only case-related.

So Blair had said yes.

Yes to the testing of the bed, and the nap, that is.

Marcus hugging him close like this was stretching the boundaries of this deal a bit, but it didn't feel any more awkward. More like - exciting. Blair thought that maybe it was really time to grow up and let go of the fantasy he'd been flirting with for almost three years, on and off. No, that wasn't adult at all. And the chance was right here, the real thing --

Well, no. That title was most definitely taken, but anyway, if he was serious about wanting to explore new territory, so to speak, Marcus, who was funny and uncomplicated, wouldn't be such a bad start.

Yeah, it was true, he loved Jim, but Blair had also gotten more and more aware of how entangled their lives had become - not such a bad thing at all, at least as long as everything was okay between them. And the subject of betrayal didn't come up again.

Look at me, thinking of Jim even in a situation like this.

"Hey. Had a nice nap?" Marcus whispered.

"Okay. Got any work done?"

"Yeah, I did. I was thinking I deserve a reward, don't you think?"

"And that's me?"

It was maybe totally crazy, he'd met this guy not even 24 hours ago, but hell, he'd started relationships like this before. Not with men, granted, but the difference it made was written on another scale. And he wouldn't begin to obsess with how Jim had slept with Michelle Lazar the day he met her, and -- stop.

Blair relaxed into the embrace, smiling as Marcus slid a hand under his shirt, warm fingers taking a slow, sensual journey.

"If you want to..."

It was nice, really, and even though his mind wasn't completely convinced yet, his body surely had started taking notice. It had been a while since he'd found himself in that situation, being seduced by a lover. He was taking his chances. "Depends..."

Kisses to his neck that were making him shudder, all the while those busy fingers kept playing with his nipples. "You've got such a beautiful body," Marcus said, and he should know, hadn't he seen all of it before? "I bet you don't know half of what it can do."

"Come on. I'm not exactly a virgin." The indignation was half show. Testing how far each of them would go here.

"When it comes to women. There's a whole lot more out there -- I'd love to show you."

Gasping, Blair had a moment to ask himself how that hand had suddenly ended up down between his legs, caressing him through the thin fabric of his boxers. Oh, God, he wanted this to happen... but at the same moment, he just knew he couldn't.

Not here and now, because there was one question he needed to be answered first.

"I'm sorry."

***

"Detective, would you tell me what this is all about?"

Ariel Jennis was clearly pissed off to be still sitting in an interview room at the police station, glaring at Jim, who had asked her to come in. Not that he was impressed. She was the first real connection between Andy and the first murder, and there was no way in hell that Jim would let that chance pass.

He'd shown her the pieces of cardboard and asked her if it was possible that those were parts of her business cards.

"Could be," she admitted. "Isn't that what you've got Forensics for?"

He gave her a quick, wry grin. "Does the name Andrew Woods sound familiar to you?"

"Should it?"

"It probably should, yes. I'm pretty sure he was one of your models."

"There are more than hundred. I don't know them all by heart. I'd have to check them."

"What about Gordon Peters? One of your customers?"

"Same there. Really, Detective Ellison, I don't get you. If you're mad at me because of me involving your partner in my work, that doesn't give you the right to harass me. Sure as hell it's none of your business what he does in his spare time."

Jim stared at her for a moment, trying to rein his feelings just so he wouldn't say anything ill-considered. Problem was, her analysis hit just a little too close to home. Not that it hadn't been justified to ask her here for an interview, but what she said wasn't far from the truth, either. And he'd been just a tiny bit relieved to find out it had been a woman behind that camera, that, too. "Mrs. Jennis, the two men I was asking you about were murdered. And with both of them, a business card of yours was found. Believe me, if Blair wants to model for you, that's not reason enough for me have this conversation with you on a Saturday afternoon."

A small smile played around her lips, but she didn't say anything about it. "Why don't we go to my studio then and see if we find anything on them? I'd like to know about that connection myself."

***

Blair was mortified as he leaned against the elevator's wall on the ride down to the lobby. Was he about to lose his mind? He was quite lucky considering the fact that Marcus had been all cool about it, regretting Blair's decision, but not questioning it.

Playing with fire.

Only to come back to the same point over and over again.

Maybe this posing thing had been a very bad idea after all. Maybe it would have been the right thing to try and get Jim to talk - about the case, the worries each of them had about their relationship - and what they really wanted this relationship to be all about in the end.

Maybe, it was too late for that now.

Jim was home when Blair stole into the loft once again, like somebody who had secrets to keep. Only those secrets were becoming too much of a burden lately. He sighed, and Jim looked up at him, his face unreadable.

For a moment, they just held each other's gaze, aware of all those things between them, invisible, but consequential. Questions. Regret. Hope.

Well, I could have made that last one up.

"So, Chief, did you find what you were looking for?"

Jim's voice held no scorn, which was probably a good start. No doubt was he referring to all the things his senses told him about how Blair had spent this day so far. Much to his credit, he didn't mention the note either.

He could have told Jim 'no', and that it was bound to happen when you searched in the wrong places, but Blair chose not to answer directly. "I'm sorry," he said, wondering how often he'd still have to say it before something in his life could change. "I got it all wrong. I guess I needed to prove something to myself - it's ridiculous, really."

"I interviewed Ariel Jennis today," Jim said unexpectedly.

"Ariel? Why?" No, there wasn't any point in being disappointed again. What had he expected of Jim anyway? A sideways glance told him that those photographs were still lying on the coffee table, in a neat pile.

"Seems like she worked with one of the murder victims."

"Oh." Didn't Jim warn him just yesterday of the danger in this line of work?

"I don't think she's involved in any way. It's reason enough to be careful though. For her - and you." After a small pause, Jim continued, "You surprised me, that's all. Of course it's your decision who you date."

"I'm not dating this guy." The answer had come just a little bit too quick, and Blair was aware of it. He cast another glance at the photographs, and Jim caught him doing it.

"I just picked them up, I didn't know where you wanted them."

"So you --"

Looked?

Just for a split-second, Blair had hoped, then Jim spoke. "What do you expect me to say, Chief? I haven't got a clue here."

"Nothing. It's alright. You have any ideas for dinner, or should we go out?"

There was a shared relief in the air, for having avoided the most difficult subject at the very last moment. "Going out is fine," Jim said.

***

Over dinner, Jim told Blair why he had spent the afternoon with Ariel, and that she'd read him the riot act. That, and he told him about Andy.

It was all strategy, he knew. Of course, Simon had been right about it; he needed to deal with it on a different level than solve the case, and Sandburg sure was a good listener.

It also was helpfully distracting from everything else that had happened within the last twenty-four hours. It couldn't last forever. Once this task force thing was over, and everybody got back to their everyday life, he would have to be honest, not only to himself. That what had really made him overreact like this wasn't the content of these photographs, but seeing the man he'd wanted for so long in the arms of another.

"That must have been hard on you," Blair acknowledged now. "You don't have to worry about me though. Ariel asked me to do another session - I've decided to decline. It was kind of fun, but that's not me. Showing off like that, I mean."

Here goes 'distracting'.

"I think you did a very good job."

This moment, on razor's edge, Jim realized he was ready to say, screw the case, just let it happen, make a decision. It was absurd to try and deny it anyway - he'd taken his time to look at each of the photographs, and they sure had unleashed something in him -- beneath the jealously, and, farther away, the longing. Hell, he'd been getting hard looking at them. What more proof did he need anyway?

Blair looked at him intently, as if trying to figure out if Jim was playing a joke on him.

Don't you get it, Chief?

"Thanks," he said after a moment, and then the waiter arrived, taking the orders. When he left again, the moment had passed, like a door having opened and closed again.

***

They kept on playing this emotional hide-and-seek for almost another week, until one night - Blair's day at the university had been nothing if not exhausting, and he'd wanted to lie down for just a few minutes before cooking dinner, but then he fell asleep, not waking up before he heard the key in the lock, and Jim coming home.

"Chief? I'm going to start dinner."

The footsteps paused, then came closer again, and without opening his eyes, Blair knew that Jim was now standing beside the bed.

"Thanks. I know it was my night."

Jim didn't seem in a hurry to let actions follow his words, because he sat down on the bedside, the motion slow, deliberate. Not that Blair did complain, because he'd been expecting, hoping--

Jim laid one hand on the center of his back, and Blair didn't need to ask; he was mirroring exactly the pose of one of the photographs.

And this was it, the difference it made -- in the picture, Blair had been all naked, and it sure had been sexy and all, but Jim's touch, companionable with the promise of more, felt different, even through the layer of clothes.

Hell, yes.

"Do you want me to touch you like that?" Jim asked, and it was understood, 'like that' meant not this careful, almost shy advance, but everything Blair and Marcus had pretended to share for the camera. No more pretending here, though.

"Would that be such a bad thing?"

"No," Jim whispered. "No, not at all."

"You still mad at me about... you know?"

"Of course, extremely mad. But you know what, I'll give you an opportunity to make up for it."

There was a moment of silence, and then they were both cracking up with laughter, unable to stay serious any longer, and what was the best of it, Blair could tell it was the truth, this-not- so-clever idea of his wouldn't stand between them any more.

Everything was fine when they could laugh together again, the end of playing games of guessing and make-believe.

As he sat up on the bed, studying Jim's gaze on him and finding it held no more secrets - Blair wondered what had made them take all those stupid detours, all that wasted time, when it had been, should have been crystal clear that they'd arrive at this moment all the same.

"It's a deal," he said, and following a sudden inspiration, he sat on Jim's lap in a slow, languid move.

Jim's eyes darkened for a moment with an unmistakable sentiment, as he obviously hadn't expected this.

"Not so mad anymore, are you?"

In answer, Jim cupped his shoulders first, then slowly ran his hands down Blair's back then pulled him close up against his own body.

Blair gasped as their groins made contact through the layers of clothing; right, he might have been naive enough to think that this posing stuff would be a good preparation - the truth was, you could never prepare yourself for a fantasy turning real. It was bound to blow you away at any time.

"Was just kidding you," Jim admitted with a gentle smile. "I wondered what kind of ideas you'd come up with. I like it so far."

"You do?"

Impossible to hold back any longer; the next moment they were kissing, clinging to each other like it was the end of the world, and maybe it was, at least of that world they'd pretended to live in until now -- always busy to push back any thought of the possibilities.

"I didn't know," Blair said between kisses, breathlessly, as they were trying to get rid of their clothes and keep the close contact at the same time. "I swear I didn't know, I would have never agreed to--"

"It's okay," Jim simply said, and there was no reason not to believe him.

***

When he'd come home to find Blair comfortably sprawled on his bed like this, the picture had come to mind immediately, testimony to how present they were on his mind ever since Jim had taken a first look at them.

It was the expression on this guy's face, daring and defensive, that had probably set off some Sentinel instincts - or maybe just shown him how ridiculous this was, two grown men, unable to express what they really wanted, when it was so very clear that it was the same...

Skin to skin now, their bodies entwined in this incredible, indecent embrace, he stroked his fingers down Blair's hip, just like the man in the picture had, wondering if Blair had shivered in his arms just the same.

Deciding he didn't care - because, there was, in fact, no way he could have - Jim pulled him close for just another kiss, shamelessly dialing up every sense to the max so he'd have their every benefit in experiencing Blair's body. Following the sound of blood rushing, the softness of the lips parting under his, the heat of Blair's arousal against his own erection.

The sound of the ringing telephone was almost deafening.

***

It would have been comical, had it happened to anybody else. Hilarious.

But it didn't happen to anybody else, it was right now when they had finally found their way out of the silence, Captain Crandall's voice on the machine, urgently, "Ellison, I need to see you in my office, ASAP."

Not a good moment when they had just touched and caressed each other to a mind-blowing climax, and so far, it had been everything Blair had wished for and then some --

In the end, he was really less nervous being with a man who had approximately as much as experience in this department as he had himself - which was next to nothing - as congenial as Marcus had been, it would have never been anything but just another detour.

"Hell, tell him tomorrow you weren't home," he murmured, Jim's chuckle sending a pleasant shiver through his body.

"I'm afraid he won't buy it."

It had gotten dark outside, but Blair was very aware that Jim wasn't left to those limitations like normal people. As he lay very still now, enjoying the touch of fingers softly stroking over his hair, he felt Jim's gaze almost as intense as if he'd seen it.

"I wish you didn't have to go. This is so... new. I'm afraid to think I could be dreaming."

"You're not." Very gently, Jim kissed the tip of his nose, then his mouth, but very chaste now. "I'll see what he wants, then I'll come back." Almost as an afterthought, he added, "We have a long weekend coming up, don't we?"

"Yeah. Most definitely."

***

This couldn't be good. Not at all. The last time Crandall had worn an expression like this, it was before he'd told Jim about Andy. Already, Jim could feel that sweet sluggishness that had accompanied him here, vanish, making room for a sharp wariness.

"What happened?"

"I wanted to talk to you before anybody else get their hands on this. Those are print-outs from one of the password-protected homepages Peters loved to frequent. They're fairly new, and I'm sure they're manipulations, but still--"

Quickly flipping through the print-outs that Crandall had handed him, Jim did his best to hide his shock from the Vice captain. Damn it. He should have known, had known, if he was honest, but he guessed now that he had fallen all too easily for Blair's assurances and the fact that Ariel Jennis had seemed like a nice and honest person.

There were those pictures that had been the reason for this senseless fight -- but they were mixed with others, clearly pornographic poses, giving them a totally different connotation.

Somebody was dealing with Jennis' works on 'HotMenXXX.com'.

***

As the evening stretched into early night, and still no sign of Jim, Blair had finally gotten up, deciding in the midst of preparing a sandwich that he wasn't really hungry, feeling all jittery and restless inside.

He tried to tell himself that there was no reason at all to feel this way - shouldn't he be the happiest guy on earth now that he knew Jim was ready to be with him on that unknown road?

Well, he would be, just not now when he could hardly believe it had happened.

Smiling to himself, Blair memorized each moment from the time Jim had stepped into his room earlier this evening--

Until another shrill ring of the damned phone startled him out of his musings.

***

"Can we trace these people?" Jim asked, aware of the questions in the captain's gaze. He hadn't once claimed that those pictures were manipulated, or that he was surprised at seeing them.

That wasn't the biggest problem at the moment anyway -- someone had plastered them all over a website with illegal porn footage. A way bigger problem.

"It's going to be difficult, but you know that," Crandall answered truthfully. "And, Jim -excuse me if I get too personal here, but--"

"Of course they're manipulations, but we'll deal with that later. First of all, I want to know how they got here."

Of course, Jim had made a copy of the list Jennis had shown him, even though she didn't know about that -- and he remembered her mentioning the name Marcus.

Marcus Livingston.

Jim couldn't imagine that Blair had any interest in publishing those shots all over the internet, let alone together with real porn, but what about the other guy? They knew next to nothing about him, and Jim decided that had to change.

It wasn't about jealousy. This was about solving a case, and that's what he was going to do. "Don't show anyone yet. There's somebody I've got to talk to first."

***

Livingston's apartment was close to the university, so the loft was on the way, and Jim decided to stop by for a minute and let Blair know about the newest development at least. Damn, he had envisioned this weekend differently, after the promising start.

He'd been distracted by his thoughts, so it wasn't until he stepped out of the elevator that Jim heard the second heartbeat in the apartment, and then he really concentrated, on the laughter and the voices.

Suspicion tickled the edge of his mind - how could it be that Blair had a visitor right after the way they'd parted less than an hour ago?

What was going on here?

Unlocking the door with his key, Jim froze for an impossible, unreal moment. Seated close on the could, having dinner together was Blair... and the guy from the photo shoot.

Convenient, when you thought about it, hadn't Jim just been on the way to meet him? What he resented was the way Livingston had one hand on Blair's arm, having whispered something just a moment ago that had made both of them laugh.

Not funny. "What the hell is this?" he asked, not caring that it came out like a growl.

Marcus Livingston's look was critically assessing, while Blair jumped up, obviously not finding anything suspicious in the scene. "Hey, Jim, you're back, good. I've finally cooked dinner anyway, and Marcus dropped by, but there's enough for three."

"I don't think so," Jim said slowly, annoyed by the amount of pheromones in the room. "Mr. Livingston, I think it would be better of you came back at another time." That was about as polite as he could manage. "I'll see you out."

"Now, Jim--" Blair protested, but Marcus got up and smiled at him.

"Not a problem, Detective," he said.

Out in the hallway, Jim didn't waste any time. "Interesting that you're showing up just when I have some questions for you myself."

"How so?"

"I think you both have a contract with Ms. Jennis - you've got copies, but she's got the publishing rights."

"That's how it's done, right. I don't think it's a crime to keep them on my private website though. Ariel knows about it." Livingston was very cool, his heartbeat calm. "Why are you asking?"

"Because they appeared on another page that deals with illegal porn, and I'm wondering how they got there."

Marcus shrugged. "Sorry, can't help you there. Illegal porn, you say? That's not the career I've had in mind. I'm not interested in anything that's not within the law. Even though I do like it a bit more graphic at times, who doesn't?" he said with a wink.

Jim didn't take the bait, though. "You be careful," he said, and if there were various possible interpretations, that was his intention exactly.

"Thanks for the tip, Detective." Now the sarcasm was open.

***

The sound of the door falling shut was portentous.

"What was he doing here?" Jim asked, a brazen accusation permeating the air.

"You are crazy. You really are. You don't believe--"

"Don't try to turn this around on me, Sandburg. Nobody can be that naive."

It had been a bad idea. Blair had known from the moment he answered the phone, and it was Marcus asking him if he could come over and try to talk him into participating in the next photo series.

Looking back, Blair could hardly believe himself that he'd said yes, right, but Jim's reaction was still way over the top. He was paying with lots of disappointment for this little bit of silver lining. And how could anyone be in a relationship like this anyway? "You still don't trust me," he stated. And then the words just tumbled out, regardless whether it was smart at the moment to lay it all on the line like this or not - "What happened this evening, was serious for me. If I just had wanted to experiment, well, Marcus was there all along. And I kept leading him on and then running away, because I was never sure where I stood with you. I'm not sure now."

"Hell, Chief." Jim looked tired all of a sudden, as he lowered himself on the arm of the couch. "'I'm sorry. It's not you I don't trust. It's him."

But was that really enough of a concession? "It didn't sound that way to me. And I can't live like this, when things are perfect one moment, and then you go accusing me of betraying you the next."

"But I'm not--" Jim broke off the sentence when it seemed too obvious that there was no arguing against this. "So what do you want?"

Everything but this, the negotiating of their relationship. What Blair had wanted was all of these crazy turns of the couple of few days of days to lead to something -- but at the moment, it seemed too difficult. Hard to imagine that they'd been passionately making out just before Jim went to see the Vice captain.

It wasn't really that easy - but he still had to say it. "To be with you."

"I want that too. There's something I've got to show you first, though."

***

"How can I help you, Detective?" Ariel's tone was mildly teasing.

"I won't bother you for long," Jim promised. "Just one question: How much do you know about Marcus Livingston?"

She looked puzzled. "Not a whole lot. We've been working together for about three months, and I can't complain. I've granted him permission to keep the pictures on his website just for personal use. Is there a problem?" Her eyes narrowed a bit, and Jim could almost read her thoughts.

"It's not what you think," he felt compelled to say. "I'm quite sure neither of you were meaning to support the porn industry with your works."

When he showed her the pictures that framed her own works on the porn site, Ariel's face went red with anger. "Damn him! I can imagine who's behind this, and if you find any reason to put him behind bars, I'd be glad. Wait a minute, I'll get you the address from the customer's file. His name is George Barnes."

Her answer had come suspiciously quickly.

"What makes you so sure?"

Ariel was rolling her eyes. "He bought a couple of pictures from me, and then kept calling me about 'different projects', as he put it. Meaning videos and photography of sex in front of the camera. I told him I wasn't interested."

"He left you alone then?"

"After I threatened him with reporting him, yes. Marcus was quite helpful, too - so it's a good guess he did this to get back at both of us."

"Sounds likely," Jim acknowledged. "Thanks, Ms. Jennis. That's all for now."

For her, anyway. Otherwise, the trouble seemed to just have started. There was no way that he could keep those pictures from his colleagues in the task force now. Damn this Livingston guy anyway - if he hadn't appeared last night, the evening could have turned out much differently.

As it was, Blair had been rather indifferent about the news of the porn website, and it had taken lots of self-restraint on Jim's part not to yell at him again. What the hell was he thinking? This wasn't about the rather harmless rumors and innuendos about the two of them at the station - if the wrong people got hold of this site, it could mean danger, and he wasn't thinking about Chancellor Edwards dropping dead at the sight of them.

***

Out of reach. Jim definitely was that again, having headed off to work early, the guy who had to get the job done, everything else had to wait.

Of course, knowing about Andy, Blair could understand that, for Jim, this case was one of his most personal - but… But? You're selfish, he told himself. Surely you're not jealous because of a guy who's been murdered that way? Well, about as jealous as Jim was of Marcus, and Blair couldn't seem to make it clear that every thought he'd even given the idea was from a time when he couldn't have been sure that Jim was really interested. Running around in circles here.

And that porn site? Hell, there wasn't a name under his picture. Blair didn't assume that anyone he knew would ever go there, so why was it such a big deal?

Jim had been right in one thing - they had to get this case out of their lives before they could really start their relationship unburdened by all those ghosts from a recent past.

***

Jim easily identified the source of the snicker from two desks away. Even without it, he would have bet on Philips to be the clown who had left an enlarged copy of that picture on his desk.

Objectively regarded, it wasn't even all that sexual - just a shot of the two of them close, Marcus' one hand on Blair's chest, his other one... God knew where. Given those facts, Jim was only waiting for Philips to give him a reason to give the man a piece of his mind, but as he was just about to get up, he saw Rafe and Joel Taggart approaching Philips' desk.

Well, this could be interesting.

"Look, Philips," Rafe began, "you haven't been in Major Crimes for long, so we understand…"

"Understand what?" the man in question asked irritably.

"The rules we have in here," Joel explained with a friendly smile. "There's nothing to be said against a practical joke, but we aren't a kindergarten here. Just so you know."

"Couldn't have said it better, thanks, Taggart." Simon had emerged from his office, joining his detectives. "Detective Philips, I want to see you in my office."

He shot a warning glance in Jim's direction though, which Jim answered with a shrug and a wry grin. Okay then - no need to go into Blessed Protector overdrive.

***

The evening had passed rather quietly, until the phone rang, and the answering machine came on. Neither of them was very motivated to get to it.

"Hi, this is Marcus. Blair, if you've got the time, please call me back."

"He's not giving up easily, is he?" Jim said rather ironically.

Blair looked up from the book he'd been pretending to read, taking a long look at his roommate, the man he'd called his Holy Grail and meant it. God, nothing had really changed, he still had it bad. If only everything wasn't so complicated right now - but when had it ever not been where the two of them were concerned? If they kept waiting for the 'right moment', would it ever come?

"You think I care?" he asked. "What about you?"

The look Jim gave him was so intensely intimate, it made Blair's heart beat faster, and Jim's mild smile told him he had of course noticed.

"I tell you something, Chief. You don't ever let him in again, and we'll start all over."

"You mean, like, tonight?" Could it be that the temperature in the loft had increased several degrees within the last minute? Oh man.

In an unhurried move, Jim got up and walked over to cross the space between them. Blair was vaguely aware of the fact that he was staring - and probably had on a number of occasions before. Oh yes, the way Jim could move, when he was deliberately channeling his animal spirit, that big cat - had always done something to him.

Blair got up as well.

It would be too good to be true if they could really leave everything behind them, that had been standing in the way, but was it really possible? Hell, he didn't want to wonder about that now. He wanted to--

"I can feel those pheromones coming off of you in waves," Jim said in a low voice, just barely above a whisper. "What the hell did you ever want with that guy?"

"You didn't exactly come clean either. How was I supposed to know you were interested?"

As if in answer, Jim pulled him close for a kiss that was all but gentle, but oh-so good, making Blair's knees go weak, letting his hands slide under Blair's shirt, down his back and then below the waistband of his jeans. "Can you tell now?"

Jim didn't wait for any response, but slid down to his knees in one fluid movement. Whoa. Who was this guy and what had he done with Jim Ellison?

He looked up at Blair with a knowing grin. "Oh yes, I'm sure you can." With that, he pulled down the zipper of Blair's jeans excruciatingly slowly, then drew them down just a little, together with the briefs. "You're curious, want to know it all? Fine with me, babe. I'm with you."

Blair had little time to react to Jim calling him 'babe' like that, because the next moment, he couldn't think straight at all any longer, as Jim's mouth was on him, warm and wet, wonderfully indecently. Of course, they'd been naked together before, that one time where they never got to finish what they had started, but this was still different.

Nothing would interrupt them now.

Blair closed his eyes, the enthusiasm - and the talent with which Jim went to task, making him think twice about assuming that he could be equally as inexperienced.

***

"Hey. You're in there?"

Oh yes, he was, just way too lazy and happy to make the effort of talking, let alone get up from the floor where they'd somehow ended up, limbs still tangled. The silly grin Blair knew he was wearing was obviously answer enough, because Jim chuckled, trailing his fingers lightly through his hair. He leaned into the touch, would have been purring, if he'd been a cat.

"Chief, if I had known it's that easy to make you happy, I would have done this years ago."

"Was worth the waiting, man." Opening his eyes, Blair had a moment of asking himself if he should be mortified, half-naked, cuddling up to a still very dressed Jim. "Hm, how about we unplug the phone, lose the rest of the clothes and take this to a comfier place?"

"Now there's an idea," Jim said, pulling him close for a deep kiss, before they got up to continue in a more suited place.

***

He might have felt insulted when Blair had first offered that infamous 'caveman' remark, but looking back, Jim had to admit that some of it was true, right under the surface. Maybe it had to do with the fact that he'd actually come very close to bring their story to an unhappy ending, and maybe that was why he was so easily ready to assume that Livingston had played any part in the murders.

It didn't matter now; in fact he should be thanking the guy -- for pointing them into the right direction, finally.

They hadn't unplugged the phone, but Jim thought nothing short of an earthquake would make him answer to anybody now, as they'd made it to bed now -- and hadn't he loved Blair's wide-eyed, admiring gaze on him - but this, he loved even more, the two of them in a close embrace of tangled limbs, naked, hot, the warm, welcome weight of Blair's body covering his, as they moved together.

There was only a hint of regret as he wished he could share how all this felt with the use of his enhanced senses, an intensity he'd hardly ever experienced before, because the possibility of having to explain a zone out to a freaked lover had always made him think twice. With Blair, of course, all of it came naturally and easily, his sensitive fingers greedy for the contact with warm skin and those silky curls.

And the sound of Blair's voice, spiked with arousal, as it rasped over his skin like an actual touch, "I wanted this so much, with you, all the time... Jim!"

"Yes," was the only thing he could answer to that, dialing up a little further, as he could feel his toes curl with the orgasm setting in. "Me... too, Chief."

He held on tight through all of it, his climax pleasurably heightened by Blair's moan and the helpless shudder passing through his body, as he came again.

"Wow," Jim said when he could almost breathe properly again. "Way to make a guy jealous."

"You are doing that to me," Blair said with a drowsy smile. His eyes were serious.

***

A nice way of starting over, Blair mused, having been awake for only a couple of minutes, but already deciding that this would be a good day. It had been way early when they'd stumbled into bed yesterday, and they'd only left it to clean up a little, and then later... he couldn't help the pleasant shivers as he remembered the touches, and the cuddling later -- and they had even talked some.

So, what if there were still some questions left to answer - Blair thought that he was very happy where he was now, and also relieved he hadn't gone any further with Marcus.

Some rather embarrassing situations aside, he'd always known what lay underneath that curiosity, and that there was only one way to satisfy it.

He turned around to shift a bit closer to Jim who was still sound asleep, enjoying the warmth and the intimacy of the touch, his hand on Jim's chest, body curled against his side lazily.

A while later, they'd get up and begin the day, settle into a routine even, despite the changes, but for now, he just wanted to be here. The very first morning after, how did that sound?

***

The waiting had gotten them nowhere. In the end, though, Jim had to admit to himself that much of his worry had been irrational. Livingston was clever, probably knowing from experience that the kind of seduction he sold would work well with a younger, curious man - but Jim could do that as well, and of course said man was Blair Sandburg which changed everything.

For the first time in what seemed like a long time, the air between them felt clear and relaxed. It was in the little things, like when he set the coffee pot on the table and used that opportunity to drop a quick kiss on Blair's neck - who leaned into it, cat-like - just because he could. They had breakfast together like any of those many times before, but there was a different knowledge between them now, an intimacy grown with last night that hadn't been there after the first hurried making out.

Andy had been so right. And, Jim knew, he owed him.

He'd see George Barnes today and find out if he was connected to the murders.

***

Blair had joined Jim at the station until early afternoon, but couldn't go with him to the interview, because he had to give two classes at the university. All day, he'd been wavered between this total high, and the worry that it could be over as soon as it had before... the case wasn't closed yet, and he supposed that as long as that wasn't accomplished, the subject of those pictures, having occurred on that porn site, could still hold danger.

At least, no one in Major Crimes was giving him any grief, and Jim had explained to him that according to the official version, the pictures were manipulations. When he'd told him, Blair had had a moment of insecurity, even though he'd never thought of the photographs as anything but beautiful. "I'm not ashamed," Jim had said, nearly reading his thoughts. "It's just, with the connection to our case, it's better not to involve any more people."

And Blair had understood, that nothing really had changed for the worst; this was one more way of Jim trying to protect him. For once, he didn't argue, because there was a killer on the run, one that might be getting off on looking at these pictures right now.

Hell, part of him already wished he'd never gotten involved in Ariel's project... only, if he hadn't, the rest probably wouldn't have happened either, so he was grateful.

Even more so, when he was about to leave, and Jim got up from behind his desk, saying quietly, "Chief, do you have just one more minute? In the break room."

"Sure, man, No problem." And he'd blushed, as if knowing that as soon as that door was shut behind them, they'd be kissing hotly, breathlessly, until they'd both pulled back and Jim said, "H is coming," and Blair said, "I really gotta go now," at the same time.

Brown gave his colleagues a quizzical look when they both cracked up with laughter at his entrance.

***

Barnes was all calculating and cool. He even admitted having 'seen' Andy on different occasions. "So my tastes are a bit out of the usual; I hope that's not a reason to arrest me, Detective. I'm sorry about Andy, but I can assure you, I had nothing to do with his death -- when he could do so much more for me alive, you understand?"

Jim chose not to answer that, but he entertained himself with an image of how he would have liked to wipe the smug grin off the man's face.

"Is it true that you were threatened with a harassment suit not that long ago?"

Barnes made a dismissing gesture with his hand. "Yeah, right, that dyke getting off on two men cuddling together. I was trying to open her eyes to a way of making more money. She claimed I harassed her and sent me one of her lapdogs. That's it."

"I see, Mr. Barnes. Just one more question: When did you see Andy for the last time?"

Barnes shrugged. "I could look that up if it's important to you."

"Yes, please."

While he waited for Barnes to open the file of his day planner, Jim's attention was drawn to something bright, glittering on one of the giant bookshelves. Dialing up sight, he realized what it was:

A silver earring. One, he was certain had belonged to Andy. He'd known anyway, because the other one had been found with the body.

***

Blair knew he had a silly grin on his face when he locked up his office and strode down the hallway. Jim had just called him on his cell to tell him he'd be tied up at the station a little while longer - and while they probably wouldn't have dinner together, Jim had suggested he'd wait upstairs...

Right, he could get used to that. Definitely.

His good mood wasn't even killed by the sight of the familiar figure leaning against the side of the Volvo.

"Oh. Hi, Marcus," he said, careful not to put too much enthusiasm into the words. Blair was well aware that he hadn't really done much to make things clear between them. Chances were, they weren't as clear to Marcus as they were to Blair now, because it had only been a couple of days...

"Hey, Blair." Marcus greeted him with a smile. "Since you wouldn't call me back, I decided to see for myself how you're doing."

"That's, um, very nice... I'm fine. Please excuse me, I don't have much time. Sorry I didn't call. See..." It wasn't so easy to find the right words when he, not so long ago, had practically soaked up the guy's advances. Blair felt silly suddenly. He'd really messed things up, hadn't he? If he'd just been a little braver and been honest with Jim right away...

"I'm just - sorry."

The easy smile on the other man's face stayed in place. He shrugged. "That's a pity, but hey, no problem. Actually, I was hoping you could do me a favor. My car stopped just a few blocks short of Rainier, so I hoped you could give me a ride. But if you're busy..."

The awkward silence lasted for a few moments, while Blair remembered Jim's 'til-later'-kiss, the whole development up until that moment, and the way he'd been making a fool of himself. All in all, Marcus seemed to let him off the hook easily.

"If you don't have to go to Seattle, it's doable. So let's go."

***

The phone rang just as Jim put on his coat, ready to leave for the day, fond thoughts about how to spend the evening - with Blair - on his mind. His lover. He couldn't help the grin from spreading on his face to save his life, and Simon who had just left his office, groaned.

"Ellison, I'm sure she's wonderful, but as long as you're here, I'd still like you to answer your phone."

"I'm on it, sir." He was surprised to hear a familiar voice. "Ms. Jennis. How can I help you?"

She sighed. "I'm afraid this won't earn me any points with you, but I honestly forgot about it; had these pictures in some boxes from when I moved into the new studio. I worked with Woods all right. He was goofing around, calling himself Woody... and he did two series with Marcus last year."

"Thank you, I appreciate this."

Hanging up a couple of minutes later, Jim called the number of the loft on impulse. Predictably, he only got the machine, so he hastily punched in the numbers of Blair's cell next, only to be connected to the mail box.

Don't panic. Blair often turned off his cell when he was at the university, had even once given Jim a lecture on how they were living in a society of impoliteness where no one bothered to listen to anybody any more -- "It's different now," he'd said, and Jim could remember it had been shortly after they'd closed the case on Choi's murder. "You know I need to do my job, but I will be available for you."

He'd given the promise more than they ever had imagined.

"Bad news?" Simon asked, and Jim shook his head, as the two of them left the bullpen together. He'd drive by the university first. Just to make sure everything was all right.

The two men stepped into the elevator; when the doors slid shut, Jim was aware of the increase in Simon's heartbeat, and he knew in advance that the question the captain had for him, would be an awkward one.

"There's talk around the station, Jim. Those pictures, were they really manipulated?"

Jim leaned against the elevator's wall, finding no point in lying to his superior and friend, so he met his gaze straight on.

"No, Simon, they weren't. But no one expected them to turn up on a site like this. It wasn't Sandburg's intention, and the photographer is clean. I might be close to the perp though."

Simon nodded. "That's a good development then. You and the kid been clearing things up between the two of you?"

Boy, did we ever. Jim was aware that he was blushing, but didn't really care. Of all people, he guessed Simon wouldn't be very surprised.

With a soft sound, the elevator doors opened, and the captain shook his head, laughing. "You got it bad, don't you?"

Jim wasn't about to protest.

***

They'd been driving for almost twenty minutes, and Blair was beginning to doubt the wisdom of his decision to go with Marcus. Talk was a little awkward; now that the smoke had cleared. They had only known each other for quite a short time, and for a very narrowly defined purpose.

He was glad though that his curiosity hadn't gotten the better of him; it could be difficult working around Jim's impulse to keep those closest to him at arm's length, but then again, there were reasons for him acting that way. This guy, Andy, had only been one tragic loss of many.

With us, it will all be different.

"It's just around the corner," Marcus said, looking contentedly. "Thanks, Blair, you're a real pal."

"Well, I do what I can." Blair parked the Volvo, frowning, as he peeked outside. He couldn't remember ever having been in this part of Cascade. "Have a nice evening, man."

"I will, don't worry. Why don't you come up for a minute and meet my friend? He really liked those pics."

***

Damn, this was just what Jim had been afraid of. And afraid, he was, as well as mad, at his partner who could be this naive, and the man who was supposedly with him now

Marcus Livingston.

Jim had talked to a student he remembered, because Blair had tutored him for one semester, and Chad had described the man in his company in detail. What did the guy want? There were ties to Andy, and ties to George Barnes, a little too much coincidence, if you asked Jim.

I like it a little more graphic at times, who doesn't? Livingston had said.

Enough to take part in a murder?

On the way to Livingston's apartment, Jim turned on the siren.

***

Of course, Blair had said no to the quasi-invitation, thinking resignedly that Marcus maybe still hadn't gotten the message. He got out of the car though, because, as he'd thought he'd parked a little close to the small stone wall framing the lawn, and he didn't want to risk anything happening.

Not having gotten the message is quite an euphemism, he thought, as Marcus immediately crowded him against the side of the car, kissing him roughly. Taken by surprise the first instant, Blair pushed back angrily.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"That thing you like so much. Playing games."

"Oh, come on, don't be silly. I apologized. I made a mistake, all right? Doesn't give you carte blanche to go all jerk on me."

Marcus gave him a speculative, somewhat nasty, smile. "Oh, and I thought that is another thing that works for you, bossing you around? Or does it make a difference who does it?"

"Let me go. I'm going home."

Those fingers were suddenly spreading some cool substance at his neck, and Blair tried to shrink away from the sensation, his back against the side of the car again.

"I'm sorry, Blair. Can't do that."

The voice was soft now, almost regretful, and Blair understood when he suddenly felt dizzy, his knees starting to give way under him. "What..."

"Don't you worry," Marcus whispered. "It will be all right."

With darkness closing in on him, Blair was more than convinced that this was a blatant lie.

***

The state of Livingston's apartment gave cause to more worry -- empty hangers and drawers, light rectangular shapes on the walls where frames had been. It looked like somebody had been burning his bridges recently.

Cursing, Jim called the number of Barnes' residence, but he only got to talk to a housemaid who told him that Mr. Barnes had left early that morning. Okay. Think. Maybe Ariel knew more, anything about the guy's friends or hangouts. She had to.

He called the station, requesting an APB on the Volvo. When he disconnected the call, Jim realized that his hands were shaking, the image slamming into his mind of when he'd done exactly the same thing for Andy. Andy, who'd driven a vehicle that looked like it would break down if somebody did so much as cough while standing next to it. He'd been found a few feet away from that car, as the killer had probably used it to bring his victim to the killing site...

Resolutely, Jim shook off the near paralysis.

Not again.

***

"You're... stupid!"

Fear was warring with anger, the latter gaining momentum, even though his words still sounded somewhat slurred. Blair was mostly mad at himself for once again having trusted too easily, a tiny bit at Jim in advance because he'd say 'told you so' and be right this time -- and of course, Marcus.

There was no friend to be visited, just a sparsely furnished apartment with two couches, a table and a TV set with a DVD player in one corner.

"Maybe," Marcus acknowledged with a smile that might have been guileless under different circumstances. He crouched down beside the couch, stroking Blair's cheek tenderly. "I just couldn't bring myself to give you up that easily, you know?"

Blair turned away from the touch angrily, even though his reaction was just a tiny bit delayed by the residue of the drug still in his system. "Now - what? You know that Jim is a cop. He knows that you called me. This is going to be over before you know it."

Marcus chuckled at his words, absently fingering the fabric of the torn strips he'd used to tie Blair up with. "But before that, I'd like you to meet my friend, George. You know, what Ariel does, is really cute, and of course, it's easy money... what can I say. My tastes are more diversified than that."

"Frankly I don't give a damn what your tastes are. Wake up, man! You let me go now, and there's a fair chance for you to still get out of this."

"Don't worry about me, babe. As soon as we're done here, I'm gone. George has everything prepared for our little movie already; we just need to get on with it... Ah, and here he is."

The first look at the man who entered the room made Blair's heart lurch in real and utter fear. He'd seen him just a few hours ago. Marcus' friend, George, was Jim's suspect in the murders he was investigating with the task force.

George Barnes.

The man who had supposedly slaughtered the young runaway Jim had been so fond of.

***

Jim had met Jennis in the parking lot of the address she had given him, a bar where she'd accompanied Marcus Livingston a couple of times. He was well aware of the appreciating look the bouncer gave him, when they entered together. Whatever.

The bartender, however, looked rather skeptical when asked about Marcus. "Haven't seen him in a while," he said with a shrug. "Is he in trouble?"

"Come on, Max," Ariel addressed him, obviously aware of Jim's impatience, "he's done something stupid, it seems. We need to find him."

Max kept wiping the counter as he took his time to answer. Jim thought it was the man's luck that there *was* a counter between them. "Stupid doesn't even begin to cover it," he growled, very aware of the deep worry underneath his posturing.

There was a possibility that this case could be closed tonight, but in his heart, he hoped that Livingston would not turn out to be associated with Barnes. Let him just be the nuisance I initially thought he was. In any case, this couldn't be good.

"Last time I saw him, he was with some guy, I don't know, ... Andrew? You know, he's an okay guy, but he's got a big mouth. Talking about hooking up with some big shot photographer, making movies..."

"I didn't hear that," Ariel muttered, while Jim laid a photo on the counter. Andy, Andrew Woods, the last time he'd seen him.

Max blanched. Jim could sympathize; this wasn't the way a human body should look, ever... but anyway, he needed information badly. "That his companion?"

"Right." Max swallowed audibly. "Only he was much more alive the last time I saw him. Shit, what's Marcus gotten himself into?"

"That," Jim answered grimly, "I'd like to know myself. You have any idea where else he hangs out?"

A shrug was the answer. "Sorry. Don't you know?" he directed at Ariel. "I always thought you guys were friends."

More than anything, Jim wanted to know that Blair was all right and safe. For an instant, he flashed back on the first night they really spent together, so full of promise. It wasn't supposed to end here.

***

The floor was tilting, a wave of dizziness hitting him, his vision blurring. Blair was utterly grateful for the arms that were holding him up, the support of the warm body belonging to the person who was walking him across the room... which was moving, or so it seemed.

"Jim?" he whispered, inwardly cursing his pitiful state. "When did I get drunk?"

Someone chuckled, someone who definitely wasn't Jim. Wait a minute, this was all wrong.

"Hey, you...."

The back of his knees met something hard, then the room took another spin as he was gently laid onto a soft, yielding surface. Apart from the room-moving thing, he could have almost enjoyed this, except... it was so damn hard to concentrate. A voice was talking to him, and Blair forced himself to try and decipher the words.

"Goin.--- leave Cascade anyway, so--- thought you --- wouldn't mind starring in---"

Another voice, shouting. "--- Get on with it."

That's when it came back to him, and even though his vision still wasn't working properly, Blair recalled who the two men in the room with him were, and what they were planning to do. And it wasn't like he was in the best possible shape to stop them.

"Just a minute!" Marcus snapped back, and this time, his voice came across much clearer.

"Please... no... killer. Killed Andy."

Marcus' face was hovering close over his, his hand stroking Blair's cheek. "Oh come on, babe, George wouldn't hurt a flea, right?" He leaned in for a kiss. "Nothing for you to worry about. This is what you were always after."

"Andy... Woods. Killed him. Jim... evidence."

By now, Blair's heart was racing so hard that it hurt, and he was afraid he'd pass out. If that happened, it was all over.

"What the hell is he talking about?" Marcus demanded, turning to Barnes.

"Crap, that's all it is. You don't believe the guy?"

There was a seemingly endless period of silence, in which Blair desperately tried to keep moving his limbs a little, not to escape; he knew that was a lost cause at the moment, but to fight the drug enough so he wouldn't lose consciousness.

Except one small part of him kept telling him it might be a good idea not to be conscious for the rest of it. No! He had a life, and he had plans with it. Just -- keep moving.

"Not sure about that now," Marcus said coldly. "Look, I'm doing a little of the soft stuff, but snuff is not my scene, okay? If that's what you're after, I think me and Blair are out of here."

Tell me about it!

"Pity," Barnes sneered, before the sound of flesh against flesh was heard.

There was blood on Marcus' face, and he looked kind of shocked.

Barnes was holding a gun on him.

***

"Hey, wait," one of the patrons called after them, as they were just about to leave. He was a young man, early twenties, with straight, dark, long hair he had pulled back in a pony tail. "You were asking about Marcus?"

"You know where he is?"

It sounded marginally polite, Jim thought. They had been inside for no longer than twenty minutes; already, the mix of different smells, aftershaves, alcohol, pheromones and whatever else, was getting to him; the different voices and the music blended together, and he felt just on the verge of getting sick when he knew he couldn't.

"Not sure about that, but he used to hang out with this rich guy. He came here once or twice, frowned about the place. Marcus talked about going to a place where the guy had a big studio... Barney or something?"

Barnes, George.

Jim was aware of the worried look Ariel gave him.

"Look," he said, putting all the intensity that was possible into his words, "it's really important. He and someone else are probably in danger. Do you have any idea where we find that place?"

Someone, right. The guy I'm in love with... At another time, Jim would have stopped and smiled about the admission; as obvious it probably had been, he'd needed quite some time to get there.

I love you. Hang on.

The young man's expression darkened. "Even better. I can show you. I've been there."

***

Barnes had kept on kicking the other man even when he had stopped moving, and all Blair could do was watch with horror. Marcus had been seriously stupid, his behavior criminal even, but these were the things you didn't wish on anyone, except for cold-blooded killers.

Maybe he wasn't thinking too clearly at the moment; that could have something to do with the drug, or even what Barnes had been planning for him.

God, he had seen the crime scene photos of the case Jim had done his best to keep away from Blair. That won't happen to me because of a little posing... yeah, right.

"You know, I'm looking forward to this."

Blair was startled out of his musings, jumping when the murderer addressed him. "Ellison had a reputation of taking a liking to strays. Obviously, it's still true."

"Fuck you."

Who cared if it didn't sound very convincing from a man who couldn't move more than a fraction? The drug was slowly beginning to wear off, too slowly though. Keep him talking, that was his only chance.

Barnes laughed nastily. "More like the other way round. But you know, it's funny - it's not really the sex that turns most of them on so much. It's the blood - the gore - and eventually, death. Andy became a bestseller, you know? I'm thinking, you will, too. Now let me get a few more tools, and we can begin."

He was hearing the words, but trying not to interpret them. No! You couldn't be at the mercy of someone talking like this, half-clothed, and still stay sane. Marcus must have removed his shirt and jeans while he was out. The smoke was beginning to clear.

He was still tied up, but the strip of whatever rag Marcus had used was loose on one side. Being right-handed, it was, of course, only his left hand he managed to slowly pull out of the restraint, agonizingly slowly, but there was something he'd seen glinting on the nightstand.

Something that might save Blair's life, and he could have cried with relief when his fingers wrapped around it.

***

Barnes brought a chisel and a butcher's knife, among other things. There was a smile on his face as he climbed on the bed, but there wasn't the madness in it that Blair had seen in people like David Lash.

Barnes knew exactly what he was doing for his sick pleasure, and lots and lots of money.

It was like one especially disturbing nightmare come true, the one you couldn't wake up from.

Blair willed himself to empty his mind, not to think of anything, not even Jim -- forgive me -- because he needed all of his returning focus concentrated on one thing, the object he was clutching in his left hand, that was continuing to gain feeling.

One chance.

Maybe.

"Say goodbye," Barnes whispered above him, bringing down the knife, while Blair shoved the nail scissors into the man's face, the resounding howl a satisfying sound.

***

During the drive, Jim had called Captain Crandall, informing him of the progress, and requesting backup. Other than that, and a few detailed words on where to find Barnes' studio, from Mike who had joined them, there was a tense silence between the occupants of the car.

Maybe they were just hanging on for all it was worth. Jim had switched on the siren, aware that every minute counted now.

Even over that annoying sound, he dared to open up his hearing, but soon gave it up, because it felt like his ears were starting to bleed.

The front door of the two-story building was too sturdy to break down, so he went straight for one of the windows, telling Ariel and Mike to stay behind and wait for the backup, to direct them when they arrived.

"They're upstairs," he said, not caring about the confused looks on the two of them.

He could hear them now.

***

The moment he was in the room - this door could be broken down just fine - Jim was almost overwhelmed by the smell of blood. Barnes held a bloody knife over Blair in a shaky hand, and for a dizzying moment, it looked as if they were both drenched in it.

Then his vision cleared and he reacted instinctively, shooting the knife out of the man's hand.

Barnes staggered backwards with a yelp, and Jim hurriedly put the cuffs on him then turned to Blair.

"Where are you hurt?" It sounded as panicky as he felt. Jim moved closer, gently prying the nail scissors from bloody fingers, and freeing Blair's right wrist from the bedpost.

"Not... all mine," Blair managed to whisper, and Jim could finally piece together an image of the desperate fight that must have taken place. Nail scissors. Against a butcher's knife.

"Thank God," he breathed, carefully raising the white undershirt where blood had been seeping into the fabric, to reveal a bleeding slash. Painful, no doubt, but not life-threatening. Barnes had been clutching his eye, Jim remembered with cold satisfaction.

In the distance, he could hear the approaching sirens, but he guessed there would be a minute or so of time for...

Very carefully, he pulled Blair up and into his arms, adding his own body warmth to fight the chill of shock, allowing the horror images that had been on his mind all of the time to be replaced with good, soothing ones.

Like Blair in his arms, alive, the two of them finally given a chance to start all over.

***

It was early the next morning when Blair was allowed to leave the hospital where the doctor had wanted to keep him overnight to check for possible side effects of the drug. It had turned out to be a sedative absorbed the through skin with a substance called DMSO which was acting as catalyst, carrying with it whatever was mixed with it.

It still made Blair shudder to think that the drug had been the same as given to Woods -- it made you dizzy, unable to move, but not unfeeling.

Andy had been alive throughout the worst of it.

No wonder Jim had acted like he did, when he'd all the time considered the young man's death his own personal failure.

History had not repeated itself, though.

And their life was now going on with a little less baggage from the past, even though fragments of it would come visit in nightmares. That much, Blair thought with a sigh, he was sure of.

"You okay?" Jim asked gently, as they closed the door behind them, home at last.

"I will be," Blair answered honestly, but had to smile at the memory of Jim holding him close, even when Captain Crandall and the other officers from the task force had entered the room.

Even in his distressed state, Blair had noticed Crandall's knowing smile, when he'd said, "Good work, Jim."

"Look, it's still early, and I always sleep badly at hospitals... I'd like to lie down a bit, if you don't mind."

"Sure. I managed to get the rest of the day off - we could go out for breakfast later. Hey," Jim added, when Blair was heading for his room, "where are you going?"

"I thought--"

"Yeah, that's what I was afraid of," Jim deadpanned. He moved closer, wrapping his arms around Blair gently, mindful of the gash on his chest. "I'm sorry. I've been a jerk so far. A jealous jerk, even. I'll do better, I promise. Now let's go have that nap - upstairs."

"All right." Blair reached out a hand to cup Jim's cheek. "I forgive you, you know. Because the jealous jerk saved my life."

***

It was still early where that aspect of their relationship was concerned. Kissing, touching, restoring their connection, was all that happened that morning. Eventually, a few more hours of undisturbed sleep.

When Blair was awake the next time, he could hear the sounds of Jim moving around downstairs - still wearing his boxers, as a quick peek over the railing revealed.

"Like what you see, Chief?" The grin was audible in his voice, just a little bit smug.

Blair blushed despite himself, but he was pleased. Granted, it had taken another horrible experience, but what he'd hoped for a couple of weeks ago was coming true. He'd always marveled at the extent to which Jim was so much more relaxed in his presence, had enjoyed it, prided himself, and almost gotten desperate when this case seemed to have changed everything between them.

Well it had... but to the better, in the end.

"Always have, man," he said without raising his voice, Jim's chuckle revealing that he'd been listening.

***

A few days later, Ariel called to check up on him. She sounded quite subdued, apologizing a couple of times. "I had no idea what I was getting you into. Hell, I had no idea what I was getting myself into!" she said solemnly.

"Don't worry, I don't blame you. I didn't act too smart myself."

Ariel sighed. "Well, at least that monster is behind bars now, and Marcus will make it through with mostly just his pride damaged. How could he be so stupid to -- well, we'll never know. So you'd say yes if I invited you for an innocent cup of coffee?"

"Hm, considering what happened the last time..." he teased her. "Hell, of course, Ariel. Despite all the crap on the side, some interesting things have happened as well."

She chuckled. "I can imagine. Personally, I always thought you were made for each other, but what would I know?"

They scheduled to meet the same afternoon.

***

"I have an idea," Ariel said with a smile.

"Oh. Am I going to like this?"

"I still think you're a natural, and since the idiot nearly assaulted you, you probably won't have any good memories about that session. So I thought about it, and --"

***

As the morning had been quiet, there was enough time to share a coffee with Simon, a kind of ritual that welcomed Jim back at his usual workplace.

Simon regarded him for a moment with what seemed amusement.

"What?"

"That day off seemed to have done you one hell of good. So what is it I hear about you and the kid? Or is it just Crandall's weird imagination?"

Jim felt his cheeks heat. Not that it was such a bad thing, to feel the lightness of being in love. Compared to the dark prison of self-reproach he'd built around himself -- and part of him, no matter what anyone said, would always carry and accept the responsibility. But it wasn't weighing him down as much as it had weeks ago.

"Depends," he said.

"You're aware you're just jinxing every chance at making it all official and Sandburg becoming a cop?"

"I don't think he'd ever want that, sir. But this is..." Damn, lost for words, too. "It's what we both want. Have wanted for a long time."

"Too much information," Simon said, grinning good-naturedly. "Didn't we have that conversation a while ago... I guess I could see it happening then. Your cousin's kid, right? Hell, Jim, I'd always hoped we'd get a chance at making the kid a detective, but it was probably wishful thinking. Congratulations, then…"

"Thanks, Simon. It's good to be back."

"It's good to have you back," the captain said.

***

The sight of Blair's naked back was too tempting, and so Jim scooted closer to embrace his lover from behind. "You sure you don't have another five minutes?" he asked, running his hands over Blair's chest in a caress that should guarantee to make the answer a 'yes'. It felt so incredibly good to be able to do this, now -- and Blair's sigh, as he leaned back, was quite appreciative.

"Office hours, man," he said regretfully. "Can't be late."

"So how was your meeting with Ariel?"

"Not sure how to put it," Blair mumbled, a blush rising on his skin, though Jim wasn't sure what had caused it, mentioning Ariel, or their current activities... "She'd like to do a session, kind of as an apology--"

"I hope you told her, no chance."

"Well, that's not really what the problems are... one, she'd like to have some light bondage in it, because that's the next project -- two, she wants you in it with me."

"Pardon me?" Jim said, his hands stilling.

Blair turned his head, their lips met, and the subject was delayed for a couple of minutes. "It's kinda my fault," he said wistfully. "I told her that, with all the times some criminal nut case has tied me up, I'm not really comfy with the idea. Well, at least, unless it's one certain guy doing the tying up." He shrugged. "To be honest, with all that happened, I'm not even sure about that. Sorry. It's not your fault, I just...."

"I know, Chief, I know," Jim said, tightening his arms. "I think I'm going to have to talk to that crazy woman myself. But not before... you're going to cancel office hours for the sake of *my* little project."

"And that would be?" Blair asked, a smile in his voice.

"Making love," Jim whispered, enjoying the shiver it caused to pass through Blair's body. A pleasant one, he could tell. That, he could work with. He wanted to do anything to counter what damaged trust that stupid ass Livingston had done... and now seemed like a good moment.

He shook his head at one last thought on Ariel Jennis, then found himself a spot on Blair's neck to taste thoroughly. Blair's voice sounded rough enough over the phone to make everyone think he really needed to spend the day in bed...

Epilogue - Tying the knot

Blair raised his arms, goose bumps all over when Jim, also bare-chested, leaned closer behind him, wrapping the silk tie loosely around his wrists. He simply leaned back and closed his eyes, no bad images occurring.

If any, it intensified the feeling of Jim's hands on him, tying the knot, but not tight; the fabric felt more like a caress itself. And the words sure did. "You're gorgeous." With their bodies pressed closely together like this, Blair could feel that he really meant it, and the realization must have put a smug smile on his face.

They had taken turns with the sensual scenes, more romantic than real bondage, and instead of freaking him out, like Blair had feared, it had been beautiful. Hot, even.

God, what had ever taken them this long to get there?

"I agree," Ariel laughed from behind the camera. "You both are, I always knew that. Okay, you're done now. I've got a surprise for you, by the way."

Putting on some more clothes again, both men smiled at each other. "I'm afraid to ask," Blair grinned, and she swatted his arm affectionately.

"Yeah, right. You can take printouts with you, the real thing later. You know, I won't use them for the project. It's a shame, because they would sell like nothing else before, but I realize this is way too private for the two of you, even complicated. Consider them a gift. It was fun."

"For us, too," Jim said. "Thank you, Ariel. Now, Chief, there's something for Simon's next birthday, right?"

It took a while before either of them could get serious again after cracking up, but then it was decided that the photos would have a special place; after all, they were there to remind them of something.

It had been a good idea to take a look under the surface -- they'd found love.

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The End

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