Stumbling In

By Lyn

EMAIL: Lyn

SUMMARY: Themefic for Demeter who wanted: I'd also like stories where, in a dangerous undercover situation, Jim has to be really mean to Blair in order not to blow his/their cover(s). How are they dealing with the aftermath? I'll leave it up to you to define 'mean'...

 

"What? Tell me you're kidding!"

Blair looked up at the angry tone in Simon's voice. The nonchalant attitude he seemed to be able to pull off in the face of Simon's sometimes virulent temper dissipated when Jim wasn't there to 'watch his back', so to speak. Even when the captain's anger wasn't directed at him, there was always a nagging guilt that he was connected to it somehow and sitting in Simon's car, at such close proximity, it was impossible not to be caught in the crossfire. He jumped a little when Simon slammed the radio back into its cradle then stared out the front windscreen, his whole demeanor rigid.

"Captain?" Blair kept his voice low.

Simon spoke without looking at him. "Bailey walked this afternoon."

Blair's eyes widened in shock and his heart clenched. "You're kidding me! How? Who…?"

"Bailey's lawyer was able to convince Judge Murphy, who's way too liberal with his bail conditions at the best of times, that he wasn't a flight risk."

"But Jim -" Simon turned to look at Blair then and nodded.

"I know, Sandburg. First place Bailey's likely to go is back to Diego to convince him he can still be trusted and that he didn't squeal. He knows Diego will have a contract out on him already, so we can only hope he'll just pack his bags and get the hell out of Cascade."

"And if he doesn't?" Both men knew it didn't require an answer. "If he sees Jim…" Blair trailed off, not wanting to give voice to the danger Bailey represented to their undercover operation.

Jim had been working undercover to set up a major drug buy for over a week now. They'd arrested Bailey, a small cog in the very large wheel of the drug ring and had managed to get enough information out of him to allow Jim to infiltrate the gang and set up the buy. The problem was Bailey would recognize Jim in a second and they had no way of warning Jim without risking the case. Jim had made a brief phone call to Simon just minutes before, giving him the location of the buy and had then turned his cell phone off, as agreed. Nobody wanted to risk Jim's phone ringing in the middle of the operation. It also meant they had no way of warning Jim that he might get busted by Bailey.

"You have to let me go in," Blair said determinedly.

"No way, Sandburg. It's too dangerous."

"Bailey never saw me. They won't have any idea who I am but once Jim sees me -"

"He'll kick my ass to kingdom come… once he finishes with yours," Simon cut in. He shook his head. "We'll work something else out. Send in one of the guys from the Drug Squad or Vice -"

"Who Bailey or Diego probably know because of their little sideline in prostitution," Blair added. "I'm the only one they won't recognize."

"You're not a cop," Simon reminded him.

Blair bit back a sarcastic rejoinder to the oft-heard refrain. "I *am* Jim's partner," he said as firmly as he could. "I can do this. Just give Jim the message and get out."

Simon stared at Blair for a long moment then sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. "Jim's gonna kill me. All right -" Blair reached for the door handle before the captain could change his mind but was yanked to a stop. "Uh-uh, not so fast." Simon pulled Blair back to face him. "We'll be two blocks up from that alley where the buy's going down. You do not enter the alley, you understand? Intercept Jim on the street before he gets there, deliver the warning and get the hell out. Five minutes, no more."

Blair nodded. As long as he could leave knowing Jim was safe, that's exactly what he'd do. "You got it."

The skeptical look on Simon's face told him he didn't believe him for a second. Blair felt anger flare for a moment. He'd been around long enough now to know how this sort of thing worked. There was no way he'd jeopardize the case or especially Jim's safety by going too far. His ire dissipated somewhat when he realized that Simon knew just how seriously he took his job as Jim's back up. "I'll be fine," he said.

~o0o~

Blair hunched his arms across his chest in an attempt to stave off the stiff wind that cut through his thin jacket. The message from Jim that morning that the buy was going down had been unexpected and he hadn't had a chance to rug up against the winter chill. He leaned against the wall of an abandoned shop front and consoled himself with the fact that at least he looked the part of a down and out addict, looking for a fix.

He saw Jim at the same time as his partner spotted him. To the casual observer, Jim's expression didn't change at all but Blair easily noticed the small frown that creased his forehead and the slight hesitation in his step. Blair straightened from his position as Jim approached him, the detective's gaze fixed on the alley just ahead. Blair waited until Jim was almost past him before stumbling against him, unintentionally sending Jim slightly off balance. Jim caught Blair's arm as their feet tangled for a moment and Blair's momentum threatened to send them both to the ground.

"Watch where you're going, you creep," Jim growled.

Blair winced at the tight grip Jim had on his arm. "Sorry, man." He dropped his voice as low as he could, knowing Jim would hear him easily. "Bailey's out."

Jim's eyes widened just a moment before he schooled his expression back to neutrality. "Too late. He probably skipped town anyway."

"That's what we're hoping," Blair whispered. "Just… watch your back, okay?"

Jim looked at him and for a brief second, warmth lit his eyes then he straightened and shoved Blair hard, sending him crashing to the ground. "I mean it, you little creep, stay out of my way."

Blair nodded, the nervousness he felt not entirely faked. He'd seen Jim angry before and even when it wasn't directed at him, it was a formidable sight. "Sure, man, no problem."

Jim was gone before the words were out of Blair's mouth. Blair picked himself up and dusted off the seat of his jeans, grimacing at the dampness. He tried for a nonchalant stroll as he sauntered past the mouth of the alley but couldn't keep going. Pressing himself up against the brick wall, he chanced a glimpse around the corner.

Jim was several yards away, facing two men who stood with their guns aimed at Jim's chest. Blair ducked back before he was spotted and crouched down, listening.

"Stop right there, Collins. You bring the cash?"

"What do you think?" Jim's voice was sarcastic. "Just give me the stuff and I'll leave. Not the most attractive part of town, is it?"

"Drop the bag and kick it toward me. Vega? Frisk him."

"You think I'd come here unarmed? Just take the money and give me what I paid for."

"You want I should shoot him now, Manny? We can take his money a lot easier that way and we get to sell the drugs to someone else."

Blair tensed and without registering he'd moved, he scuttled around the corner and hunched down behind the relative safety of a dumpster. He looked around frantically, trying to locate some kind of weapon. There was no way he was leaving now and trying to get to Simon. Chances were they'd come back to find Jim dead. A thin metal pipe lay half under the dumpster. Carefully, willing his hand not to shake, Blair reached out and grasped it. Something hard pressed against the back of his head and he froze.

Fuck!

"Hey, Manny," an unfamiliar voice said. "I found me a little mouse."

He'd been so obsessed with Jim's safety that he'd forgotten even the most basic caution. It made sense that they'd have a lookout. Blair let go of the pipe and stood, his legs shaking. He made an exaggerated motion of wiping a hand across his nose and sniffed loudly, then put both hands in the air. "Hey, man," he whined. "I'm just looking for stuff." He indicated the dumpster.

The man in front of him lowered the gun until it was centered on Blair's chest. "You want I should do him here or take him for a drive?"

"Let him go." Jim's voice was icy-cold and Blair gave a mental cheer but when he risked a glance at his partner, Blair realized Jim's anger was also directed at him.

The armed man shot Jim a glare before turning his attention to the other men. "Manny?"

Manny Diego stepped forward, his own weapon now trained on Jim. Blair swallowed, his gut churning. Things were turning ugly real fast. "He a friend of yours?" he asked Jim.

Jim gave a quick shake of his head. "Just some junkie, looking for scraps. He's nobody."

"Could turn us in. He's seen us."

"I said let him go." Jim moved then, turning his back on Manny and striding toward Blair. Before Blair or the third man could react, Jim's hand shot out, connecting solidly with Blair's cheek. Blair's head snapped sideways and he tasted blood. Somehow he managed to keep his feet under him though they shook like jello.

His stunned gaze locked on Jim's stern countenance and he lifted a shaky hand to wipe at his mouth. A small part of his mind remained rational. It's an act. It's just an act for their benefit.

"Hey," he protested, resisting the urge to look at the blood on his hand, "no need to get rough, man. I'm gone."

Jim nodded and moved closer, the menace in his expression not diminishing. He reached out and Blair flinched back, but not fast enough. Jim's hand wrapped around Blair's throat and he forced him backward until he hit the brick wall behind him with a solid thump. Jim leaned in close, his breath hot on Blair's face. "You listen to me, you little creep," he ground out. "You saw nothing, you got that? You say anything to anyone and you'll be gone for good." He punctuated his words with a shove that slammed Blair's head painfully against the wall. Agony blossomed and lights exploded across his vision. Jim's face was a mask of pure venom and nausea roiled in Blair's stomach. The fear he felt was not feigned.

He managed to nod his head. "No problem, man," he gasped past the iron grip Jim had on his throat. He'd have bruises for sure by tomorrow. Better bruises than dead, he consoled himself. "I didn't see anything. Gotta go, gotta find me something to eat."

Jim's grip abruptly released and Blair almost fell to the ground. "Get out of here. You say anything to anyone and I'll find you."

Jim stepped back and Blair took off in a stumbling half-stagger toward the street. His heart pounded, threatening to jump out of his chest as he waited for a bullet to rip into his back. Through the hammering of his heartbeat in his ears, he heard Jim give a nasty chuckle. "He won't talk. Now, can we get down to business?"

He was only a few feet down the street, running as though the hounds of hell were after him when another powerful hand grabbed him. Blair panicked and tried to shake it off.

"Sandburg! Relax."

He looked up into Simon's dark face, his angry expression a match for Jim's. "Get back to the car and stay there," Simon ordered. "I'll deal with you after we pick these guys up."

He was gone before Blair had a chance to respond. Feeling drained as the adrenaline left him in a rush, Blair walked back to Simon's car and slumped against the door, his gaze fixed on the alley. A gunshot made him flinch and his heart resumed its frantic tattoo. After what seemed an eternity, he saw Jim walking toward him, unharmed.

Blair gave him a shaky smile. "Jim! Thank god you're all right." His smile faltered when Jim merely glared at him and strode past him, heading for his truck. "Get in the truck, Sandburg. I'm taking you home before you screw anything else up."

~o0o~

The silence in the cab was oppressive and Blair gave Jim a sideways glance, trying to judge his mood. Jim sat ramrod straight, his attention solely on the road ahead. Blair shifted so he was sitting higher in his seat. "Um, Jim-"

Jim cut his words off with a sharp chop of his hand. "Not now, Sandburg! And if you think I'm pissed with you, just wait til Simon gets through with you."

Oh, joy!

Stymied, Blair slumped back and stared morosely out the side window.

~o0o~

There was an annoying almost-itch, right in the center of his back. Right about the spot Blair figured the bullet would have entered had Manny Diego decided letting him go wasn't a good idea. Blair grimaced and tried to ignore it. He headed into the kitchen as soon as they entered the apartment and rummaged in the overhead cabinet for some Tylenol. His head was pounding ferociously and Blair knew it wasn't just from the pounding it had taken against the brick wall in the alley. His bottom lip felt thick and sore and he closed his eyes, attempting to will away the image of Jim's hand coming toward him, contacting his cheek with a sharp crack.

He swallowed the pills and drained the water in the glass, hoping it might wash away the sour taste in his mouth and thought for an ominous moment that he was going to throw it back up. After a second, his stomach behaved, and feeling wearier than he could ever remember feeling, he headed for his room. He paused in the living room. Jim stood at the balcony doors, staring out into the night.

"So," Blair began, "do you want to tear me a new one now or would rather do it in tandem with Simon tomorrow?"

Jim whirled around and Blair couldn't stop from automatically ducking back. For a moment, he thought he saw a flicker of remorse on Jim's face but it was gone too quickly for him to be certain, replaced with the, by now, familiar anger.

"It's no joke, Sandburg!" Jim ground out.

"I know that," Blair protested. "It's just -" He sighed. "I just wanted to explain -"

"There's nothing to explain," Jim shot back. He walked to the front door and picked up his keys. "You were told to do one thing and you chose to disobey that order, putting people's lives in danger and jeopardizing the case. I have to go down to the station, get the paperwork done."

"I'll come -"

"No!" Jim's tone was brusque. "Simon doesn't want you near the place until tomorrow."

"Gives me something to look forward to," Blair muttered. He held up both hands in a gesture of apology. "Sorry. I'm going to hit the sack anyway."

Jim merely nodded and before Blair could say anything else, he was gone.

~o0o~

He was running as fast as his trembling legs would carry him, not daring to look back, not wanting to see -

The pain hit a split second before he heard the explosion of sound, agony slamming into his back and stealing his breath. He sprawled on the damp ground, the cold of the blacktop leeching the warmth from his body. He could feel the blood pumping out of him, pooling beneath him.

He was dying.

Footsteps crunched on the ground and a pair of brown boots filled his vision. With a Herculean effort, he managed to turn his head, to look up into the face of his killer.

Jim smiled mirthlessly back at him…

"No!" Blair shot up in his bed with a shout of denial.

Dream. Just a… nightmare. Another one.

He lay back down and drew the covers up around his shivering shoulders. A moment later, there was a tap on his bedroom door. "You all right, Sandburg?"

Sandburg. He hadn't been Chief or even Blair since that day in the alley.

"Yeah," he managed to croak out. "I'm fine."

There was a moment's pause then Jim asked, "All right if I come in?"

Blair considered refusing. Frankly, the way he felt right now he was worried he was going to embarrass himself by breaking down and bawling like a baby if something didn't give soon. He'd been hauled over the carpet by an irate Banks and ordered to not come back to the PD for a week. Even worse than the punishment had been Jim's easy acquiescence to Simon's order.

"What if Jim needs me?" Blair had demanded.

"I won't," Jim responded shortly.

And that had been that. Blair had spent his days at the university then come home to, more often than not, an empty apartment. When Jim did come home, he seemed reluctant to share the details of his day with Blair, which generally led to Blair retreating to his room, to sit on his bed and listen to the silence.

He knew he'd screwed up but the punishment seemed to be way out of proportion to the crime and he didn't know how much more he could take.

"Blair?"

He blinked, taken aback by Jim's use of his name. "Sure. Come in."

He sat up when Jim entered and made room on the side of the bed for him to sit.

"Another nightmare?" Jim asked.

Blair stifled a yawn. "Yeah. I'm fine though."

"You want to talk about it?"

Blair shook his head. "It's nothing."

"Damn it, Sandburg!" Jim moved and Blair flinched back against his pillows then relaxed when Jim stood. He fixed his gaze on the bedspread, feeling a lump rise up in his throat. When he looked up, Jim had a shocked expression on his face. "I wasn't going to…" He shook his head. "Is that what the nightmares have been about?"

Blair managed a small nod.

"Sandburg - Blair, I'm sorry. I did what I had to do to keep you safe. Diego would have put a bullet in you without a minute's thought. If you hadn't -"

"And I did what I thought I had to do too, Jim!" Blair interrupted, his feelings overwhelming him finally.

"You were given an order," Jim roared. "Deliver the message and get out."

"I saw the guns, and I heard Vega say he was going to shoot you!" Blair snapped back. "I was trying to help."

"You're not a cop!" Silence hung heavy in the air and Jim snapped his mouth shut. When he spoke again, his voice was soft. "You're my partner and my guide but there are times I need to work alone and this was one of them."

Blair stared at Jim for a long moment then lay back down and turned to face the wall. "I didn't do it because I'm your partner or your guide. I did it because you're my friend."

Jim's hand grasped his shoulder, pulling him to his back and Blair resisted for a moment then went with the motion. "What?" he asked.

"I want to apologize," Jim said. "It's obvious I scared the hell out of you in that alley and now I've added to that by treating you like shit ever since and not once have I said thank you."

"Why?" Blair asked. "Why have you been acting like you have? I know I screwed up but…" He shook his head, unable to put his feelings of despair into words.

Jim sat down again on the bed. "I was so pissed off with you, for putting yourself at risk like that. That night, I had a nightmare, probably very similar to yours. The fear I felt… and the guilt at what I did to you in that alley… I guess I wanted you to pay for me feeling that way."

"I screwed up pretty badly, didn't I?" Blair said.

Jim shook his head. "No, you did what any friend would do for his buddy. Just - don't do it again, all right? I don't want the nightmares."

"Me either," Blair said feelingly. He held out his hand and Jim took it, squeezing it firmly. "So, we're good?"

"We're good." Jim slapped Blair's shoulder and stood. "Get some sleep, Chief. We have to be at the station early this morning."

"I thought… Simon said…"

"He had a change of heart," Jim said with a smile, "though if I were you, I'd be suitably respectful for a few days."

"You got it. Thanks, Jim."

"Ditto. Good night, Chief."

Warmth filled him at the familiar nickname and Blair couldn't stop the grin that almost split his face. "Night, Jim."

END

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