If Wishes were Horses
DISCLAIMER: No harm, no foul.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: I know absolutely
nothing about Child Protection Services in the United States though I have nursed several
children here in Australia who slipped through the protection net. Some didn't survive.
For that reason, I'd like to dedicate this story to one little boy in particular, who
deserved a chance at life and didn't get it.
So, for Shane, you were loved and you are missed.
WARNING: Set Post TSbyBS, Blair is a cop in this story.
Detective Jim Ellison looked up from where he was sprawled on the sofa as he heard the scratch of a key in the lock. Blair pushed open the door and stepped inside, immediately swiping the hated police cap from his head and tossing it onto the counter.
"Hey there," Jim greeted him.
Blair simply raised a hand in greeting. He looked exhausted, Jim thought. Standing, Jim headed into the kitchen and pulled a beer from the fridge, holding it out to his weary partner.
"Thanks," Blair said. "I've been looking forward to a beer all the way home." He twisted off the cap, and took a long swallow, then sighed and set the bottle on the counter.
Jim wrinkled his nose at the sour smell that emanated from Blair's uniform. "God, Chief, what did you roll in?"
"Sorry, man," Blair said tiredly. "Baby puked on me."
Jim dialed down his sense of smell to compensate. He took a shallow breath through his mouth but the smell still got to him. "You look tired."
"I am a little beat," Blair admitted. He took a longing look at his beer, then, seeming to come to a decision, unbuttoned his shirt. "I'm going to go take a shower. I must stink."
"Well, I didn't want to say anything " Jim let the comment hang in the air, relieved to see a small smile upturn Blair's mouth before he headed for the bathroom, shedding clothes as he went.
"Smartass," Blair threw over his shoulder.
Shaking his head, the detective gathered the items up and deposited them in the laundry hamper before going into the kitchen to start dinner.
When Simon Banks had first announced that the Commissioner had ordered Blair do a month-long ride-along with the uniform branch as part of his police training, Jim had balked angrily at the idea. His blessed protector instinct kicked into overdrive, self-righteously convinced that no one else could protect Blair as well as he could.
"I thought we had an agreement, sir," he said to Simon, his anger making his words sound razor-sharp. "Blair's my partner. He's done the required firearms training."
Blair surprisingly had quashed his complaint, agreeing readily to the duty. "I think it's a good idea, Jim," he'd said, one hand patting Jim's arm soothingly, calming ruffled feathers with action and voice. "It's only for four weeks." He did a quick mental calculation. "I'll be done by Christmas."
Finally, Jim had relented, but not before going privately to speak with the cop that Blair would be partnered with. Bill Griggs was a tough, no-nonsense vet with a heart of gold, who took Jim's concerns with the proper dose of seriousness. "I'm not going to let anything happen to your partner, Jim. I know how important a partner is. He'll be safe with me."
Jim, feeling slightly mollified, had sworn the man to
secrecy and left it at that. He knew Blair would be embarrassed if he discovered Jim had
taken extra steps to ensure his safety.
Now, with his partner back at his side, feeling more settled, Jim focused his hearing on the sounds of Blair relaxing under the shower and got on with tossing the salad.
The very fact that Blair was completely silent under the shower sounded alarms. Blair was a sing in the shower kind of guy; any other night Jim would have been thanking every deity he could think of for the blessed respite from Blair's on-key, but loud and repetitive bathroom concerts. Tonight, he'd give anything to hear Blair burst into a rousing rendition of 'Smoke on the water', complete with air guitar.
It had been a tough four weeks. Blair had become progressively morose as his time in uniform wore on, his fatigue evident in the fine lines that framed his blue eyes. Initially, he had regaled Jim with stories of his day on the beat, but as Christmas drew nearer, he became withdrawn, depressed at his inability to fix all the problems he encountered. It was probably the worst time of the year to be seeing life at street level. The festive season had a nasty habit of turning poor, honest folk into desperate, angry people and fracturing happy relationships with the upward tilt of a glass of booze.
Jim pushed away his dark thoughts as Blair emerged
from the bathroom in a cloud of steam, a towel slung low about his waist, a second one
doing mop-up duty on his short, but still unruly curls. He'd been told that he didn't have
to cut his hair; that he could tie it back but Blair had insisted that a visit to Jim's
barber was a wise move. Coupled with concern at being the odd man out, Blair was also
worried about the attention he might attract, not a foolish idea given the feeding frenzy
that his fraud confession had aroused.
Jim picked up Blair's beer and followed his partner into his room. Blair lowered himself to the bed with a sigh and accepted the drink with a grateful smile. He swallowed appreciatively before saying, "Thanks, man."
Jim sat beside him and waited until Blair drank his fill before taking the bottle from his hands and placing it on the bedside table. He remained silent, waiting for Blair to speak.
Finally, Blair sighed and scrubbed a hand down his face. "We got a call to an apartment building, kids crying. The neighbor had tried to get them to open the door, but they refused. Mom and dad were out on the town and the kids had been left alone for God knows how long."
His voice wavered and Jim reached out and squeezed his shoulder. Blair took a deep breath then continued. "The apartment well, let's just say, mom wasn't Martha Stewart. There was no food in the place. Three little kids. I don't think the oldest girl would have been more than eight. The two older ones were so quiet. The baby was so distraught that she puked all over me when I picked her up. The neighbor gave me a bottle of warm milk and I managed to get her to sleep. Their little faces, Jim " He looked at Jim, his eyes full of sorrow. "I wish " He threw himself back on the bed, resting his arms under his head. "I've got two days off now, before I come back to Major Crime. I need to go to the mall tomorrow. Wanna come?"
"Ah, you know me and shopping malls, Chief. I'll have a headache all Christmas," Jim said, fending off the invitation with both hands raised in the air. "Besides, my Christmas shopping is already done."
"I just want to buy some things. Some clothes, maybe a few toys."
Jim sighed. Truth was, his control over his senses was almost total these days. He and Blair had worked especially hard on achieving that after the press conference, hoping that there'd be no chance of Blair's lie being discovered, but he still hated malls, especially at Christmas. "I guess we could do that," Jim conceded. "You know you can't buy toys and clothes for every kid you see on the job, though, right?"
"Yeah, I know. Just this once, all right?" Blair sat up again and clasped his hands, staring down at them. "Look, you don't have to get involved in this. I understand."
"We'll hit the toy shop in the mall tomorrow before they close for the Christmas break," Jim said. "How about we split the bill, now you're earning a wage?"
Blair smiled at him. "I can pay."
"I know. Still, if I'm coming with you, I may as well donate. I didn't get a chance to get any tags from the Wishing Tree this year." He stood and picked up the beer bottle. "Dinner in ten."
Blair didn't appear when Jim called him for dinner, and exasperated, Jim walked to the doorway of his room, expecting to see him reading or typing away on his laptop. Blair might no longer be a student, but the study habit was as strong as ever, every spare second found him researching more stuff about Jim's senses or checking the background on their latest perp.
Blair was asleep, his eyes still framed with shadows of exhaustion but his brow finally free of the furrows of sadness that had haunted him in the past months since he'd declared himself a fraud. He looked at peace with himself and the world.
Jim debated waking him then decided rest was more important than a meal. He'd spring for lunch before they went shopping the following day, to celebrate the end of Blair's spell in uniform.
There were monsters in his closet.
During the day, they didn't scare him, but at night, when his room was dark and the old house creaked, he would lie in bed, too scared to close his eyes, his frightened gaze fixed on his closet doors, waiting for them to open, waiting for the monsters to pounce. The moon shone in through the window, accentuating the menace and he wished they were back in their old apartment, where Naomi had read him the story about monsters in the closet and he'd laughed, not frightened a bit, but here, the menace was too real.
His mother worked most nights, not getting home until the early hours of the morning. He'd wait, wide-eyed, in his bed, fatigue pulling at him, until he heard her welcome tread on the front porch, then he'd curl up, snuggling under the bedclothes until only the top of his curly head showed, and drift off to sleep, knowing the monsters wouldn't come out once his mother was home.
Tonight though, the monster who sat in the living room, drinking beer after beer, swatting at Blair whenever he came within arm's reach, laughing at him when he cried for his mother, dragging him back from the table by his hair and forcing food down his throat until he threw up, was far scarier and dangerous than the ones in his closet.
His throat was raw from vomiting, his wrist was swollen and hot where he'd been dragged out of the chair and tossed across the room for daring to refuse to eat the stale, cold dinner left over from the night before. The mere sight of the gravy congealing on the meat had been enough to make him gag.
"Blair? Get your ass in here now! I'm not done with you yet!"
Blair touched his cheek, the flesh still burning from the backhanded slap he'd received when he'd threatened to tell his mother what Rob had done. He'd waited, shaking in fear until Rob had turned from him in disgust and gone to get another beer from the fridge. As quietly as his shaking legs could manage, he crept into his room and stood in front of the closet.
"Please don't get me, please don't get me," he whispered as he reached out a trembling hand and pulled open the door. It was so dark inside.
"Whare are you, you little shit?"
Startled by the voice and the heavy, staggering footsteps of his tormentor, he threw himself into the closet and huddled into a ball, silent tears of distress streaming down his cheeks.
He must have slept. He woke to shouting and the sound of smashing bottles. He heard his mother scream and he hunched further back in the closet, dragging Naomi's old coat over him as camouflage.
His heart pounded deafeningly in his ears and he shook with fear. The door was suddenly pulled open and he couldn't stop the yelp of fear that was wrenched from his throat.
His mother crouched down and reached for him, wrapping him in her arms, shushing his terrified sobbing with soft words. She lifted him and set him on the bed, stroking a hand down the mark on his cheek. "You have to stay quiet, sweetie," she whispered. "Rob's asleep."
He watched while she packed his backpack, stuffing books, toys and clothing into it haphazardly, then she picked him up again and set him on her hip. "No noise," she whispered.
Blair nodded mutely, his throat too closed up with fear to make a sound. Carefully, she crept through the house, freezing once when a floorboard creaked beneath her feet. Blair wrapped his arms around her neck, burying his face against her shoulder.
Something grasped at them and tugged them backward, flinging Blair from his mother's arms. He hit the floor hard, the breath knocked out of him, and lay still, momentarily stunned. Rob loomed over him, his foul breath wafting over him as he reached down and grabbed Blair by one arm.
"No! Leave him alone!" Naomi was in front of Rob, placing herself between the enraged man and Blair, tearing at Rob's hands, his face, her nails raking scratches down his face. Rob turned, tossing Blair away from him like discarded rubbish and reached for Naomi.
"You bitch!" Rob yelled. "I'll kill you and your little bastard as well." His hands wrapped around Naomi's throat and he pinned her to the wall.
"No!" Blair's rage and fear for his mother overwhelmed his own terror and he flung himself at their tormentor, pummeling him with little fists and feet. "Leave my mommy alone. Leave her alone!"
"No! Leave my mommy alone!"
Blair's frantic yelling had Jim awake in seconds and he tore off his sleep mask and raced down the stairs to Blair's room. Blair was tossing and turning in the bed, his body twisting beneath the covers, his hands flailing out as though attacking an invisible enemy.
"Blair!" Jim reached down and shook Blair's shoulder, narrowly avoiding a vicious punch. "Sandburg," he said more loudly. "Wake up!"
Blair froze almost instantly and he shot up in the bed, his eyes blinking rapidly, tears shining on his cheeks. "Wha " He lifted his head and stared at Jim groggily. "Jim?"
"Yeah. You okay now?"
In answer, Blair groaned and lay back down, pulling the covers up to his chin. "I had a nightmare."
"You're telling me." Jim sat down on the edge of the bed. "Do you remember what it was about?"
Blair turned his face to the wall. "Yeah," he said softly. "Sorry I woke you up."
"You want to talk about it?"
Blair shrugged. "Not really. I guess seeing those kids last night brought up some buried memories. Stuff I'd forgotten."
"Your mom? You were telling someone to leave her alone."
"One of Naomi's less than stellar conquests." Blair turned his face to Jim and smiled, though it was weak and strained. "Not a very nice guy. I'm fine now, really."
"Okay." Jim nodded and stood. He had enough skeletons in his own closet. He understood how it felt to want to keep them buried. "If you want to talk any time "
"Thanks, man. Later maybe. Just not tonight."
"Good night, Chief."
Blair was already up when Jim came down the stairs the following morning. Jim had thought, knowing Blair had two days off, coupled with his disturbed sleep the night before, that his partner would still be in bed.
"Morning." Blair turned and sketched a wave at Jim with his coffee cup.
"Morning," Jim responded. "Coffee hot?"
"Just made." Blair poured a cup and handed it to Jim.
This close, Jim could see the dark shadows under Blair's eyes that had disappeared the night before were back. He felt a twinge of concern. He took a sip of coffee then asked casually. "You get some more sleep after your nightmare?"
Blair looked puzzled for a moment then he smiled and nodded, waving Jim's concern away with a hand. "Oh yeah, you know, a little."
"I just wondered " Jim shook his head. "Nah, forget it."
"Why Naomi didn't leave him sooner? Why she let it go on? Why she left me with him?" Blair set his coffee mug down and stared at it.
Jim nodded. "I mean, she must known, must have seen something."
Blair shrugged and turned to pull eggs from the refrigerator. "I got pretty good at hiding the bruises. Sometimes I wanted her to find out. Man, I used to dream about how she'd come storming into the house and drag me out of there give him a good kick in the balls on the way out, for good measure, but a part of me was terrified that if she did find out, he'd do what he threatened. I was only five."
Jim pulled Blair to him and wrapped his arms around him, giving him a brief but tight hug. "You should never have been in that situation."
"Some kids go through a lot worse," Blair said philosophically. "Some kids don't get to escape."
"I know." Jim watched him for a moment while he scrambled the eggs and toasted bread. It was entirely too nice a day for maudlin thoughts of what-if. "Hurry up with that breakfast, Chief," he said finally. "If we're going to the mall, I want to get there before the rest of Cascade."
"What do you mean, they've gone?" Blair shifted a brightly colored shopping bag from one hand to the other and regarded the social worker in shock. "Gone where?"
Margie Williams looked at the earnest young man standing in front of her, a pile of gaily-wrapped packages in his arms and several others held by the well-built police officer behind him.
She knew Jim Ellison and had worked alongside him on several underage prostitution cases when he was in Vice. She'd heard too about his partner, Blair Sandburg, and had seen the press conference regarding his fraudulent dissertation. She knew now that she'd been right all along. Jim Ellison was a tough son of a bitch, who didn't take crap from anybody. If Blair Sandburg had faked his thesis and used Ellison's name, there was no way known that the man would still working with Jim as his partner.
She looked at Blair now with new respect. Margie had worked with kids like Blair for years. Those who came from single parent families, or from the wrong side of the tracks, or had the wrong color skin. Some of them were content to hustle for a living. Every now and then, a kid came along with a certain look in his or her eyes, a hunger for knowledge, a desire to get somewhere in life and Margie would go into bat for them, try to get them that foot in the door that might set them on the path to meaningful success, or at least the opportunity to achieve something more than their parents had.
She'd heard that Sandburg had worked on his dissertation while riding along with Ellison, plus teaching, not an easy task for anyone. Then he'd thrown it away just when he was on the cusp of achieving something he'd worked years for, and joined the police force. That was one hell of a partner and friend. She hoped Jim knew just how fortunate he was.
"I'm sorry, Blair. It was entirely out of my hands," Margie said now. "Shelters and foster homes are full to brimming over at this time of the year. It's tough out there as you've no doubt seen. The parents made an application to have the children returned to them, and as there were no prior charges against them, we had no choice but to release the children back into their care. The parents have been cautioned and counseled, and an appropriate report has been placed. The best I can offer you is that should the children come through the system again, they will be flagged."
"System? Flagged? You make them sound like car parts," Blair huffed.
"Easy, Chief." Jim's hand descended onto the young man's shoulder and Margie saw an unspoken understanding flicker between the two men. Blair nodded and stepped back to stand at his partner's side.
"I'm sorry, Ms. Williams," Blair said quietly. "I know it's not your fault."
Margie smiled gently. "I understand your anger, Mr. Sandburg, I really do. When I first got this job, I was na´ve enough to think that I could rescue every underprivileged child in this state. It didn't take me long to realize that I wasn't doing the children any good by trying to buck the system. Now I work with it and sometimes sometimes, we have a victory."
Blair looked up at Jim. "We could take the gifts to the apartment," he suggested.
"They're not there anymore," Margie said. "Mr. Kramer lost his job. They told me they're moving back to Chicago. I don't think it would be a good idea for you to go there anyway. Some parents don't take kindly to accusations that they're not taking good care of their children."
"They're not," Blair replied doggedly.
"The law says they are," Margie said gently. "If you go there, even just to give some toys to a few frightened kids, and he asks you to leave and you don't, Kramer could scream harassment, and you run the risk of putting those kids totally out of our reach. I have a friend in Child Protection Services in Chicago. I'll make sure someone keeps an eye on them."
Blair stared at her for a long moment then sighed and nodded. He held the packages out to her. "Think you could find a good home for these presents?"
Margie accepted the gifts with a smile. "I'm sure I can. Thank you."
The two men turned to leave then Margie called to Blair. "Ella," she said. He looked at her in confusion. "The baby you cared for the other night," she explained. "Her name is Ella."
Blair smiled. "Thank you."