Strangers by Night - Rushlight

Blair huddled deeper into the thigh-length thickness of his heavy coat and pressed back against the chill wall of the building behind him, trying to ignore the steady pounding of his heart. The lingering scent of baked pastries and bread dough caught his attention, leaking through a nearby window, and his traitorous stomach gave an absent-minded grumble, reminding him that he hadn't eaten since early that morning. He ignored it with an effort, turning his attention to the street around him. The normally negligible weight of his ever-present backpack felt like a stone strapped to his back, weighing him down, and he shifted the thick strap across his shoulder impatiently.

Around him, the street glistened under the streetlamps with a silvery sheen, wet with the rain that had fallen earlier that evening, and it reflected the brilliant crimson and white lights of the occasional cars that passed by in a glittering mosaic of refracted brilliance. Everything around him was painted silver on black, moonlight on shadow, touched with the faintest glimmering of color where the streetlights bled across the scene in front of him. It never ceased to amaze him how even the most thickly populated metropolis could exude a certain aestheticism, after the light had faded and the streets were cloaked in a concealing layer of darkness. Tonight, however, it made him think of nothing so much as midnight in the city of the damned. He could still hear the insistent footsteps of the pursuers who followed him, and he inwardly cursed as he realized that he hadn't lost them after all.

It seemed that youth and cleverness were no match for stubborn determination, after all.

Fighting back the growing flutter of fear that insisted on settling next to the ache of hunger inside his stomach, he pushed away from the wall of the bakery and made for the gaping black entry of an alley that yawned open about twelve feet away. His footsteps seemed to echo around him as he ran -- too loud, he chastised himself harshly -- and he bit back the bitter and unwelcome sting of tears as he swooped into the shadowed expanse of the narrow crevice between the buildings without stopping to catch his breath. There was no way he could outrun these bastards in the open streets; his only chance was to find a place to go to ground until they decided to give up the chase.

As soon as he got a good look at the haven he'd chosen, Blair realized that he'd made a terrible mistake. There was no exit from the alley at the far end -- it ended in a solid brick wall, where the buildings to either side converged in some heretofore unanticipated amalgamation of architecture that seemed deliberately Machiavellian in his current state of mind.

Shit.

He nearly jumped out of his skin at the sound of scuffling footsteps behind him, blocking off his only route of escape; he hadn't expected them to be so close behind him. Clenching his fists, he turned, refusing to look intimidated by the six or seven shapes that ranged out in front of him, backlit by the lights from the street. He tensed immediately, sensing instinctively the subdued air of menace that seeped into the alleyway ahead of them like a cloying fog.

"Hey, guys," he said, relieved that his voice wasn't shaking. He pushed his hair back away from his face with one hand, affecting an air of forced casualness; the hand, unfortunately, was shaking. He glanced back and forth between the tall shapes nervously. "Fun's fun, all right? You've proven you're the biggest, baddest badasses in Cascade. Let's just call it a night, what do you say?"

"Fucking cocksucker," the largest one of the group said by way of reply, moving further into the alley until the light from the streetlamps was eclipsed behind him, casting Blair into what seemed a mile-long shadow. This particular Neanderthal looked as if he had been carved from a solid slab of granite; he was in his late teens, massively built, with a thick neck and a shaved head. From some of the conversation he'd overheard earlier, Blair had learned that his name was Nick; it seemed an innocuous name for such an irrefutable asshole.

The other boys spread out around him, flanking Nick to either side and fixing Blair with decidedly unfriendly gazes -- there were six of them altogether, each several years older than he was. They seemed more than content to let their leader do all the talking, and merely lend the uncompromising intimidation of their presence. Blair barely caught a glimpse of heavy dark clothes and the fleeting flash of bright gang colors before the light disappeared behind them, morphing them into a horde of half-seen shadows.

"Fucking faggot," Nick continued, and his voice was angry now, ugly, filled with loathing and bitter contempt. Blair flinched at the word despite himself, remembering the numerous other occasions in his life when he'd heard that particular epithet flung at him. "You think you're so hot, wagging your ass through my city, fucking whoring on the street corners..."

"That's not true!" Blair exclaimed hotly, unable to help himself. He skittered back a few steps reflexively, tensing. "I was just ... I didn't..." His heartbeat was racing now, his pulse thundering in his ears, and his breath rasped shallowly with each anxious breath he took. The air seemed to crackle with impending violence, chilling his skin and causing the hairs to stand up rigidly along the back of his neck.

It was no secret that the streets were a dangerous place for someone like him to live -- he was too young, too pretty, and too clever by far to fit easily into the natural order of things. Add to that the fact that he was gay and obviously unable to hide it convincingly, and what he had was an explosion waiting to happen. It seemed strange in these so-called enlightened times that "gay" could be considered synonymous with "whore", as if by having an atypical sexual preference he was immediately classified as a societal deviant. Never mind that the only crime he was guilty of was being caught gazing in appreciation at another boy, and being far too vulnerable to defend himself from the consequences. It was the same old story, ad nauseam -- only the players changed.

Fighting back the tears that burned insistently at his eyes, Blair backed further into the darkness that pooled like spilled ink between the buildings, his stomach clenching. He was shivering, and he found himself wishing fervently that they'd just get it over with already. It wouldn't be the first beating he'd gotten in his lifetime, but he was desperately afraid that these clowns wouldn't be content to leave it at that. There was something deeply disturbing about the sheer single-minded determination with which they'd tracked him down tonight, as if they were mortally offended by his very existence in the universe and felt it was their sworn duty to teach the long-haired hippie teenage punk street-kid a lesson he would never forget.

He was afraid that they were going to kill him.

Suddenly, there was nowhere left to back up to. Shit, shit, shit. Blair let his backpack slide from his shoulder to thump on the ground next to the dumpster at the end of the alley and straightened slowly, letting his arms fall to his sides in a pathetic attempt to limber up for the coming tussle. Fuck, but he wished that he knew how to fight. Maybe it would be better to just let it happen, not fight back, and not risk pissing them off any further by resisting. But he had never been one to just stand idly by and let others abuse him, no matter what the circumstances. And he sure as hell wasn't going to beg, either. He figured that these jokers would get a real big laugh out of that, right before they kicked his teeth in.

He ducked the first swing more from reflex than anything else, and the sheer overabundance of adrenaline that was pumping through him gave him the speed he needed to land a blow of his own. One of the shadows that surged around him spun away with a harsh grunt, clutching at its face, and Blair felt a momentary spike of exhilaration before the rest of the shadows converged on top of him.

The sudden flurry of motion and fury that erupted around him made it seem as if there was a legion of adversaries ranged against him instead of only half a dozen. The first blow hit him across the ribs, making him double over in agony, and then a second followed through across the side of his face, half-blinding him with the pain of it. Blair fell to his knees, gasping, just as a third blow caught him across the backs of the shoulders, sending him pitching onto his side on the ground. After that he lost count, as he wrapped his arms around his head and settled himself in to just endure, and the pain flared and spread within him like a living thing, blow after blow after blow, and they were laughing now, damn them, laughing as they kicked at his writhing form, shouting obscenities at him and urging each other on with harsh cries and dark invectives, fury feeding the fire of their bloodlust until nothing in all the world was real for Blair except the pain.

It ended unexpectedly. He was peripherally aware of the fact that an unfamiliar voice had cut through the fray, but still, it took him several moments to realize that the beating had stopped as abruptly as it had begun. He tentatively raised his head from the folded cocoon of his arms, blinking rapidly against the flare of light at the end of the alleyway as he tried to figure out just what in the hell was going on. These bastards hadn't exacted near enough punishment to assuage the sheer naked fury that seethed within them, and he was wary of this seeming break in their focus on him.

It was difficult to tell what was happening, what with the darkness and the close quarters and the insistent pounding in his skull, but he thought he could make out a tall figure standing just inside the far end of the alley. Like a pack of wild dogs, Blair's attackers were circling towards the newcomer in uncertain appraisal, trying to determine whether he constituted a threat to them.

"Whatcha doin', boys?" the stranger inquired casually, and Blair's heart leaped as he noticed that the man held a handgun in a rather convincing two-handed grip at shoulder level, the perfect picture of righteous retribution falling down on those who dared oppose it. There was something about the guy that just screamed cop! to Blair, and his pulse raced as he considered the implications of it.

"Fuck off," Nick responded pleasantly, and Blair had to bite back a snort of near-hysterical laughter at the seeming normalcy of the conversation. Excuse me, sir, could you please step back and let us finish murdering the hippie gay Jew in peace? Thank you.

It was difficult to see in the shadows that cloaked the alley, but Blair could almost believe that the stranger smiled. He was a big man, broad-shouldered, with hair cut short, maybe twenty-five years old. He didn't appear to be intimidated in the least. "Detective James Ellison," he said, just as pleasantly. "Cascade PD. You do realize that hate crimes aren't exactly encouraged in this city, don't you?"

"Shit," one of the boys behind Nick muttered, bouncing nervously. "Cops, man." The others looked none too pleased with this discovery, either.

"Fuck that." This appeared to be Nick's all-time favorite word in the English language. "He's no cop. Cops don't work alone, and they're not going to care what happens to a runaway faggot kid that nobody cares about." He seemed to be trying to bolster his own confidence as much as that of his troops, and Blair felt momentarily heartened by the thought that Nick might possibly be willing to cut his losses and run in the face of this newfound opposition.

"You okay, kid?" It took Blair a minute to realize that the cop was talking to him. He felt the weight of the other man's gaze on him and nodded shakily.

"Y-yeah," he said hoarsely, surprised that his vocal chords were deigning to work at all after the thrashing he'd taken. Cradling one arm around his aching ribs, he scooted into a sitting position with his back against the dumpster and absently wiped at the blood on his lip with the back of one hand. "I'm okay, man."

He watched in reluctant admiration as the cop moved into the alley, giving curt instructions for Nick and his companions to stand up against the alley wall. One of the gangbangers took a menacing step forward, a sturdy-looking length of chain dangling from one beefy fist (which they apparently hadn't gotten around to using on him -- thank you God that they hadn't used that on him), but Ellison disarmed him neatly without ever letting loose his grip on his pistol and shoved the boy forcefully against the wall. Muttering angrily under their breath, the others complied without too much of a hassle.

"Why pick on the kid?" Ellison asked, holding his gun steady in one hand as he slid a cell phone out of the inside pocket of his coat with the other, presumably with the intention of calling for backup or an ambulance, or both. He sounded honestly curious.

Nick laughed, glancing over his shoulder at the older man, and there was nothing of humor in it. It was a harsh, ugly sound that made Blair cringe. "He's a fucking fairy, man. You can't tell me you really give a shit what happens to him."

The words made the hair on the back of Blair's neck stand on end, and he shook in helpless shame and anger that such words should ever be leveled against him. No matter how many times he told himself that it shouldn't matter -- that they were only words -- it never failed to cut him deeply. And that such abuse should be hurled at him in the presence of this strong, inexplicable, somehow sympathetic man who had chosen to defend him for reasons that Blair still could not determine, was well nigh unbearable. Angrily, he wiped at the tears on his cheeks with his palms, trembling uncontrollably.

He still couldn't see the stranger's face well enough in the dimness to read his expression clearly, but Blair was sure he saw those strong shoulders tighten fractionally at Nick's offhanded comment. Maybe he was as offended by Nick's casual bigotry as Blair himself was.

That was the moment when things started to get really strange. Time itself seemed to still as moonlight broke from behind a cloud and the cop suddenly froze, his entire demeanor shifting from tense watchfulness to an instant, almost zombie-like vacancy. Blair stared in growing horror as he realized that something had just gone shockingly, unaccountably wrong with his rescue. Awareness slowly dawned on the others as well, and Blair watched in mute alarm as they each stepped tentatively back away from the wall and then, sharing uncertain glances with one another, turned and fled.

Ellison made no move to apprehend them. He didn't even seem to realize that they were gone.

Nick was the only one to remain behind, and Blair could hear him cursing at the cowardice of his erstwhile comrades. The older boy clenched his fists at his sides in unspoken rage at this betrayal, muttering something unintelligible under his breath that had a great deal of F's in it, but then his attention shifted back to the cop in front of him.

Blair felt the hairs prickle along the back of his neck as Ellison continued to seem unaware of what was going on around him. Nick took a slow step toward the cop, then another. Still, Ellison did not react to his presence. Blair was excruciatingly aware of the gun that was still held tightly in the cop's outstretched hand, and knew instinctively that this was what was drawing the focus of Nick's attention, as well.

"No," Blair whispered, feeling a surge of unfettered rage rise up in him. There was no way in hell that Nick was going to be laying a finger on this man. Rising unsteadily to his knees and then pulling himself carefully up to his feet by clinging to the side of the dumpster behind him, Blair snatched up a discarded beam of wood from where it lay against the wall of the alley and carefully limped toward the tableau that was playing out in front of him.

Nick seemed to have forgotten Blair's presence entirely, or else he had completely discounted him as a threat. That suited Blair just fine. Trying to be as silent as possible, he hefted the beam up onto his shoulder and moved in behind the other boy, shaking more with anger than with fear. He ached in about a hundred different places, and there was blood gumming the eyelashes of his left eye, but he ignored his physical discomfort as he moved in behind Nick. Nick was chuckling softly to himself now, obviously amused at the cop's continued unresponsiveness, which was really beginning to scare the hell out of Blair.

Before Nick could gather up enough nerve to attempt to disarm his suddenly vulnerable adversary, Blair let loose with the beam, catching Nick across the shoulders with enough rage-induced strength to send the other boy flying to the ground like a felled piece of lumber. Nick gave a raw, pained cry and rolled away, staring up at Blair with wild eyes and raising his hands up in front of his face defensively.

Blair held up his weapon like a baseball bat and dared Nick with his stance to try anything further. Alone now, unarmed, and without the encouragement of his colleagues, Nick did the math with admirable haste and came to the conclusion that he was no match for his furiously defiant former victim. Hastily, he skittered back in crab-like fashion and then pulled himself unsteadily to his feet.

"You'd better watch your back, fairy boy," the gang leader said furiously, each word dripping with such hatred and scorn that they made Blair shiver in chilled response. In the filtered light of the lamps on the street, his expression was one of abject fury. Then he turned around and ran, racing around the corner of the bakery to catch up to his departed friends. The muted echo of his footsteps faded and then disappeared altogether.

Blair let the wooden beam drop from fingers gone suddenly numb and turned to face the man who had just saved his life. A feeling of unreality fell over him, as if this entire evening were nothing more than an incredibly vivid nightmare, and he could expect to wake up at any moment. Shivering, he stepped up to the cop's side and touched a tentative hand to his back.

"Come on, man," he urged, feeling the ringing echo of panic begin to rise in him. What the hell was wrong with this guy, anyway? He'd swooped in out of the shadows like fucking Batman, chasing off the bad guys without hardly raising a sweat, and now he was completely MIA. It didn't make any sense, and the sight of that studiously blank stare was making Blair's skin crawl.

He tightened his grip on Ellison's shoulder and shook him gently -- the response was immediate, and Blair jumped in surprise as the cop straightened with a gasp, turning swiftly around as if he didn't remember quite where he was.

"What the fuck..." Ellison hissed, shoulders clenching, and Blair backpedaled as quickly as he could, half afraid that the man was going to mistake him for one of the gangbangers he'd been in the process of arresting. He froze as that sharp-eyed gaze suddenly latched onto him, pinning him to the spot and spearing into the heart of him all in the same moment. It was like locking gazes with a fucking mountain lion. Blair couldn't breathe for the length of time it took for Ellison to recognize him, and then all of the tension seemed to bleed out of the other man's frame. The hand with the gun dropped down to his side.

"They gone?" the cop said with a sigh, running a hand back over the hair at the top of his head and turning to glance back at the street.

"Yeah." Blair hated that his voice was shaking. "I mean, they all ran off when you blanked out, but I had to scare the last one away." He glanced briefly down at the fallen beam by his feet, and then looked up again, trembling. "What the hell happened to you?"

Ellison shrugged, shoving his gun back under his coat with a sharp, angry motion. "I don't know. It happens sometimes." He sounded completely unconcerned, but Blair (who was a bit of a master at obfuscation himself) figured that it was merely an act to conceal how much it bothered him. The older man sighed. "What's your name, kid?"

Blair hesitated, but he saw no real reason to lie. "Blair," he answered, rubbing absently at one shoulder as he moved to pick up his backpack. "Blair Sandburg. I really do appreciate the help. Things were about to get really nasty, I think."

"Jim," the other man offered. "And you're welcome." Now that the moonlight had broken from behind the clouds, Blair could see that he was actually quite handsome. Fuck, he thought in bitter recrimination, immediately curtailing that line of thought. Isn't this the way you got yourself in trouble to begin with?

Ellison's expression suddenly sharpened in a way that made Blair distinctly uncomfortable, as if he were somehow able to sense the younger man's sudden increase in heart rate. His eyes in the murky, half-lit darkness were the intense blue color of gas flame.

"Look, man, I appreciate the help, but I have really got to get going," Blair said with a forced smile, looking away nervously. His heart was pounding now with more than the aftereffects of the fight; if this man really was a cop, there was no way Blair could risk letting him know that he was living on the streets. Nick had already let too much out with his thoughtless verbal assault, and Blair truly feared nothing so much as a trip to social services and a one-way ticket back home.

The cop -- Jim -- nodded dubiously. "You sure you don't want me to call you an ambulance? Or I can call someone to come get you..."

"N-no, but thanks anyway." Blair's mind was spinning, searching for any means of extricating himself from this untenable situation. "I ... I'm a student at Rainier. Anthropology." Seeing the blatant disbelief spread across Jim's face, he added hastily, "Yeah, I know I look young, but the court granted my petition for emancipated minor status earlier this year. I don't have any medical insurance, though, and you know how much an ambulance ride costs in this city. I am fine, man, perfectly fine. I'm staying at McConnell dorm. You know, the one on the north end of campus?" He was all but bouncing now in his nervousness, gesturing absentmindedly with his hands.

The expression in Jim's eyes was unreadable, but Blair had the uncomfortable suspicion that the man didn't believe a word of his hastily concocted tale. Blair shifted anxiously from one foot to the other, praying to every deity he had ever heard of that the fiction would be accepted at face value.

"It's after curfew," Jim said finally, making Blair's heart sink. "You won't be able to get into the dorm until morning." He paused for another inscrutable moment, then added, "If you want, you're welcome to spend the night at my place. You can get cleaned up, get something to eat, get some sleep, and be on your way in the morning. You really shouldn't be by yourself tonight after the knocking you took."

Blair blinked at him in surprise. He'd gotten the impression that Jim wasn't buying his "emancipated minor" story at all, so why the hell was the man offering to help him? If he really was a cop, he should feel obligated to contact the nearest social services office and report Blair as a runaway. If he wasn't a cop, the very last thing Blair should be willing to do was go off alone with him.

Blair wanted to mistrust this man -- he couldn't remember the last time that anyone had played straight with him about anything -- but there was something undeniably appealing about the offer. His stomach chose that moment to remind him exactly how long it had been since he'd eaten last, and he rubbed a hand over it absently, trying to massage the dull ache away. He was tired and cold and beaten in both mind and body, and suddenly, nothing seemed quite so alluring as the thought of a warm, dry place to sleep for the rest of the night.

Reluctantly, his shoulders sagged forward in defeat. "Sure," he said, trying to sound more casual than he felt. "Sounds great, man. Thanks."

Jim smiled, as if he understood just what a struggle it had been for Blair to accept his offer. "Come on, kid," he said gently. "My truck's just around the corner."

Blair followed him tentatively, trying not to think too hard about what he was doing. Sure, this guy had just saved his life, but Blair had to wonder just what exactly he expected to get in exchange for the service. He'd lived this long on the streets without resorting to selling himself, and he wasn't planning to start now. The low, insistent ache in his stomach grumbled mockingly at him, however, as if taunting him by asking how much longer he thought he'd be able to keep that promise.

Jim's truck was a surprisingly attractive teal green four-by-four with a rack of spotlights mounted on top of the cab and the rear door of the bed removed to provide less wind resistance during acceleration. The thing purred like a kitten when Jim turned the key in the ignition, and Blair couldn't help but smile in admiration as he held out his hands in front of the sudden blast of heat that poured from the vents as the heater kicked on. "Sweet," he commented absently, shivering as the heat worked its way slowly into him, chasing away the lingering bite of the cold.

"It was a gift from my old man," Jim said brusquely, pulling smoothly out into the near-empty street and pointing the truck toward the center of town. He didn't sound at all happy about the admission. "Not like I could actually refuse it; it's hard enough as it is to make ends meet on a cop's salary."

"So you really are a cop?" Blair tried to sound casual, but he knew that his voice betrayed his anxiety. Maybe Jim would just think it was a lingering case of nerves from the fight.

"Yeah." Jim glanced at him briefly, and then turned back to the street in front of them. A few scattered droplets of rain struck the windshield as the weather turned determinedly foul once again. "You don't have to worry, kid. I'm not going to run your ass in."

"Blair," Blair corrected, without knowing quite why he did so. "My name's Blair." He hunched back further in his seat and tucked his chin into the collar of his coat morosely. "Not 'kid'."

Jim didn't say anything in response to that, but his silence was weighing.

There was no further conversation as they drove, and eventually Jim pulled the truck into the parking lot of a tall red building on Prospect Avenue. Blair jumped reflexively when the steady growl of the truck's engine sputtered and died away, and he sat there stiffly for a moment, listening to the heavy silence around him.

"We're here," Jim said unnecessarily, and Blair turned to look at him, one hand clutched tightly around the strap of the backpack in his lap.

"Yeah," Blair said, not sure what he was agreeing to. His heart was pounding again.

He opened the door beside him and slid out of the truck without thinking, dropping his gaze to the ground. Jim made sure the doors were locked and then led the way toward the double glass doors that opened into the apartment building, half-jogging to get in out of the lightly falling rain. Blair followed after him without having to be told, glad that at least it wasn't pouring out like it had been earlier in the day, and absently adjusted the strap on his shoulder when he reached the shelter of the building.

He hesitated outside the door of the third-floor apartment when they reached it. There was no pretending anymore that this wasn't happening, that he didn't have a decision to make. He met Jim's gaze challengingly for a moment and then glanced nervously back over his shoulder, sweeping his gaze down the length of the hall. Everything around them was still and silent, offering no clues whatsoever about the philanthropic sincerity of the man in front of him. For all Blair knew, the guy wasn't even a real cop.

"Relax, Chief. I'm not going to bite." Jim smiled wryly, rubbing at the back of his neck with one hand and regarding him with a look of mild amusement. "I'll tell you what? We'll keep the door unlocked, so you can leave whenever you want. Fair enough?"

Blair met his gaze evenly, considering. He couldn't believe he was actually standing here, intending to go alone with this man into his apartment. He'd heard enough stories on the streets about scenes exactly like this one, and they always ended the same way.

But Jim had saved his life. And nearly gotten himself killed in the bargain. It was curious, but Blair felt strangely protective of him, as if it was somehow his responsibility to make sure that the man was taken care of. Perhaps it was a sense of duty he felt because of the amazing rescue earlier that evening, but somehow he knew that it was more than that. That debilitating stroke or seizure or whatever it was had been truly frightening; there was something vulnerable about this man, despite his obvious ability to take care of himself, that set Blair's protective instincts racing into full gear.

"Sure, man," he said, realizing suddenly that Jim was still waiting for an answer. He bounced lightly on the balls of his toes, trying not to look as anxious as he felt. "Whatever you say."

Jim smiled slightly and moved to enter the apartment, letting Blair trail behind. Blair hooked one thumb under the strap of the backpack on his shoulder and looked around with wide eyes as he stepped inside, taking in the details of the room around him.

It was bigger than he'd been expecting. The predominant feature of the place was the sheer amount of open space that stretched within it; it was decorated sparsely, with an attention to detail and lack of excessive ornamentation that he found oddly comforting. Definitely a bachelor's pad. Involuntarily, his eyes followed the angle of the wide wooden stairs to the half-glimpsed expanse of the open loft that stretched out above the far end of the room; it appeared to be a bedroom. Swallowing with difficulty, he turned his gaze away.

Jim was in the kitchen, rummaging around in the refrigerator. Blair realized he was still standing in front of the open doorway and shut it, slowly.

"You want a soda?" Jim asked.

Blair dropped the backpack off his shoulder and set it carefully on the floor beside the door. "How about a beer?" he countered, pushing his hair back away from his face with one hand. His heart was hammering inside his chest, but he was determined not to show how uneasy he felt.

Jim snorted as he came back into the living room, carrying a pair of Diet Cokes in one hand and an icepack in the other. "Sure. You gonna tell me you're twenty-one now, kid?"

Blair held his gaze evenly. "Eighteen. Why?"

"Yeah. And I'm sixty." Jim handed him one of the Diet Cokes and the icepack. "More like fifteen, I'd say."

Now, that did sting. "I'm sixteen," he snapped, popping the tab on his soda with a quick, irritated motion. He immediately guzzled about half the can, surprised to discover how very thirsty he was.

"You want to catch a shower while I make us something to eat?" Jim asked, deliberately ignoring the intended obfuscation about Blair's age the same way he'd ignored the emancipated minor lie earlier. He gestured toward a darkened hallway stretching out in back of the kitchen. "How do hard-shell tacos sound? All I'll have to do is brown up some hamburger and grate the cheese, and we'll be good to go. You can slice the vegetables when you get cleaned up."

Blair nodded, glad for any excuse to leave the room until he'd regained his composure. He pressed the icepack gingerly to the sore spot above his left eye and winced reflexively. "Sounds great, man. Really great." Just the thought of sitting down to a home-cooked meal was making him break out into an ear-splitting grin, and his stomach clenched in fervent approval of the idea.

"You got some spare clothes to change into?"

Blair glanced down at his ripped and dirt-streaked flannel shirt and brushed his palm absently across the thighs of his jeans. Despite his instinct to persist in the obfuscation that he was a college student, he realized that there was little point any more in pretending that he was anything other than what he was.

"Uh ... no," he said, feeling uncomfortable all over again. "I mean, yeah, I have a spare shirt and jeans, but they got drenched during the storm earlier this week and I haven't had the chance to go to the laundry..." His face colored as he realized just how pitiful he must seem to this man.

Jim was silent a moment. "You're not a student at Rainier, are you?" he said at last. His expression was inscrutable.

Blair kept his gaze focused unwaveringly on the floor in front of him, and concentrated on trying to control the tremors that wanted to vibrate through him. "No," he whispered, feeling his face flush, and wondered just where the hell this sudden masochistic streak had come from. Since when had the truth held any great appeal for him, anyway?

To his relief, Jim didn't seem distressed by the admission, nor did he seem ready to toss the younger man out on his ass for lying. In fact, Blair thought he saw a glimmer of admiration pass over the other man's eyes, there and then gone. He couldn't help feeling that he had just passed a test of some sort, although he couldn't even begin to imagine the reason why.

And that still left the question of why in the world this man was helping him.

Jim told him to stay put and then jogged upstairs to the bedroom loft, returning with a folded pair of grey sweats in his hands. He handed the clothes to Blair and nodded in the direction of the hall. "You've got about ten minutes till dinner's ready," he said, and there was something surprisingly mild in his voice that made Blair look away uneasily.

Mumbling a disconcerted thanks, Blair went down the hall to the bathroom and locked the door behind him. He wasn't quite convinced yet that Detective James Ellison didn't have ulterior motives in inviting him here, and he wasn't about to take any chances until he had more of a handle on the situation. Moving carefully, he stripped out of the blood-smeared clothes he was wearing and dumped them in a corner of the room, wincing as each movement jarred his newly acquired injuries. Damn, but he'd almost forgotten what it felt like to get worked over like this. Nick and his cronies had certainly been efficient in their enthusiasm.

He set the water running in the shower as hot as it would go, and while he was waiting for the temperature to adjust, he stood in front of the low sink and looked at his face in the mirror. Shit. He reached for a couple of tissues from the box on the back of the toilet and dabbed at the swelling cut over one eye, running cold water into the sink and dampening the makeshift cloth lightly. He winced as he probed at the open wound, carefully clearing the dirt and blood away from the new collection of bruises that decorated the left side of his face. Fortunately, underneath all the blood and grime, it didn't appear to be too serious.

Thank god.

The thought reminded him once again of how lucky he was that Jim Ellison had appeared on the scene when he did. No matter how trustworthy the man ended up being, Blair owed him his life. He clenched his hands tightly around the edge of the sink and hunched his shoulders forward suddenly, trying to control the violent shakes that wanted to wrack through him. Right now, he really just wanted to forget that this evening had ever happened.

And he would start by washing the evidence of it off of him. There was a satisfyingly thick cloud of steam pouring from behind the thin shower curtain now, and he stepped into the shallow bath eagerly. The water felt heavenly as it pounded against his aching body, throbbing painfully where it slid across the network of darkening bruises that dotted his torso but intensely satisfying nonetheless. He soaped up his hair with the shampoo he found on a nearby ledge and massaged at his scalp luxuriously, enjoying the pure primal comfort of being clean, and then proceeded to wash the rest of his body perfunctorily. By the time he stepped back out into the steam-filled room, he was nearly boneless with satisfied pleasure.

He pulled on the clothes that Jim had provided for him carefully, mindful of his still-aching body, and couldn't help but notice the faded white logo of the Cascade PD that decorated the front of the sweatshirt. It was starting to look as if Jim was telling the truth about being a cop after all. The sweats were about two sizes too large for him, but once Blair tightened the drawstring around his waist and rolled the sleeves of the shirt up some, he was reasonably comfortable. Still it felt odd, though, being warm and dry and cocooned within the lush softness of another man's clothes.

It was with no small amount of trepidation that he left the relative safety of the bathroom to make his way back into the main room. Jim was in the kitchen, working diligently over the stove, and the air was filled with the rich, sharp scent of browning beef, causing Blair's stomach to rumble fitfully. Jim looked up over the small center island and froze briefly when he saw Blair emerge into the room.

"Don't you clean up nice," he commented, and then shifted his gaze away, looking vaguely uncomfortable. Blair got the impression that he wasn't quite sure why that particular remark had come to mind. Or else he wasn't sure what had prompted him to say it aloud.

"Thanks," Blair said hesitantly, not at all sure how to take the comment. Changing the subject quickly, he asked, "What can I do to help?"

Looking relieved, Jim gestured at the cupboard behind him. "Plates are up there if you want to set the table. Then there's a tomato in the bottom drawer of the fridge you can start slicing."

Blair moved to comply, setting the table carefully for two and then positioning himself at the counter next to Jim to start cutting the tomato. He kept his gaze lowered as he worked, initially uncomfortable about standing so close beside the man, but he was pleasantly surprised to find that they actually worked quite well together. They went smoothly about their respective chores and before Blair knew it, they were sitting down at opposite sides of the table and he was shoveling his taco shell full of spiced beef and assorted condiments.

"So, what'd you do to piss off those guys, anyway?" Jim asked, glancing up at him briefly in the process of reaching for the bottle of hot sauce on the table in front of him. "They're small-time, but they're mean little shits."

"Tell me about it." Blair touched the skin above his left eye gingerly. With some embarrassment, he realized that his hand was shaking, and he quickly moved it underneath the table onto his lap.

But not quickly enough to escape Jim's notice, apparently. "Hey, don't worry about it," he said, and his voice was filled with that odd note of gentleness again that Blair found so unnerving. The look in his eyes was unreadable. "It's none of my business anyway."

"No, it's all right." Blair took a deep breath and then let it out slowly, forcing himself to relax. "I was sitting by the fountain at the university this afternoon, reading -- I've been spending a lot of time on the campus lately, sort of hanging out there when no one notices. I've kind of been sleeping wherever I could find space that security doesn't patrol too well, and I guess that clued Nick and his goons in that I wasn't a student there." He shook his head. "I honestly didn't think anyone was paying any attention."

"Easy pickings," Jim commented, pausing in between bites of his taco.

"Yeah." Blair dropped his eyes to the plate in front of him, trying to ignore the warm flush that was tingeing the tips of his ears. Jim had already heard it all from Nick; what difference would it make to repeat the story now? "Well, there was this guy from the football team who walked by, and I sort of..." He trailed off, not sure quite how to say it.

"You were checking him out." Jim sounded very matter-of-fact about it, which calmed Blair's rampaging nerves considerably.

"Yeah. But I wasn't being obvious about it -- I swear! Shit, man, I was just looking at him, and the next thing I know, these neo-Nazi fucking bastards are chasing me all over the damn city." He realized he was shaking again, but he didn't care. He finished off the last bite of his taco angrily and then reached for the fixings for a second. "They waited until after dark, of course, when there was nobody around, and then they just sort of cornered me in this one corner of the campus. Started calling me all kinds of pretty names, and I knew right off what they'd seen. I mean, how could I have been so fucking stupid?"

Jim's fingers suddenly brushed across the skin of his wrist from across the table, stilling him in mid-tirade. Blair stared at him in surprise, seeing the naked concern gleaming in the other man's eyes.

"It wasn't your fault, Blair," Jim said quietly, his voice intent. He held Blair's gaze evenly. "You didn't deserve what they did to you. They were just out cruising for trouble, and you were a convenient target. Guys like that don't care who they harass; they're mad at the world, and they feel they have to take it out on somebody. Any excuse at all would have been sufficient."

"It's because I'm different than they are," Blair said softly, dropping his gaze. Instinctively, he recognized the truth of Jim's words, and some of his inner self-flagellation faded. "I'm too young, and I'm smarter than they are, and I read too much. And I'm gay." There -- he'd said it. "It's the same old story, man. It never changes."

Jim regarded him contemplatively for a long moment, then turned back to his meal. "Being different is hard," he agreed, so softly that Blair could barely hear him.

Blair swiped irritatedly at the wetness that was pooling at the edges of his eyelashes. "So what's your story?" he asked, glad for a chance to change the subject. "What happened to you in that alley? Was it some kind of seizure?"

It was a moment before Jim responded. "Something like that," he said, sounding uncomfortable. He wouldn't meet Blair's gaze. "It happens to me sometimes; I'm not sure why." He hesitated, apparently unsure about whether he wanted to elaborate, but then he continued, "It's like all of a sudden, I get caught up in something that's going on around me -- the ringing of a church's bell, or the smell of the salt in the air down by the ocean, or the way the moonlight forms patterns on the walls when it comes out from behind a cloud -- and everything else just ... blanks out. Sometimes I don't ... don't come out of it for hours. Other times I'll just get these mammoth fucking headaches, like the whole world is trying to crush in on me and I can barely hold it off."

"That bites, man," Blair said sympathetically. "Have you been to see any doctors?"

"Yeah. No one can find anything wrong with me. According to them, there's no physical reason for any of it." His eyes looked haunted; he gazed at Blair speculatively for a long moment, as if he were judging whether or not to divulge anything further. Finally, he said, "My boss has put me on 'temporary medical leave' until I get it worked out; he says I'm a liability to have out in the field."

"Shit." Blair was honestly incensed on the other man's behalf. "That can't be very good on the self-esteem."

Jim snorted with surprised laughter, caught off guard by the comment. "You're right," he said dryly, grinning. "It's not."

Blair smiled at him, beginning to relax for the first time since the entire nightmare evening had begun. "You took a risk coming into that alley to help me, didn't you?" he said, seeing the miracle of his rescue in an entirely new light. "I mean, not knowing when you might have another attack."

Jim shrugged. "I was just driving by when I heard the commotion and decided to stop and check it out. No big deal."

Blair blinked in surprise. "You heard us in the alley when you were driving by on the street?" The thought seemed peculiar for reasons that he couldn't quite pinpoint. He thought about how the windows had all been rolled up and the heater was blowing on full when he'd gotten into Jim's truck. It was almost impossible to think that anyone could have heard the scuffle at the far end of the alley under those circumstances, no matter how enthusiastic Nick and his boys had been.

"Yeah." Jim looked uncomfortable again, but before Blair could ask why, he was countering with, "But what about you? Things could have gotten really ugly if you hadn't run off that last asshole for me. You said that there was one who didn't take off running, and you had to chase him off, right? I'm guessing it would have been easy enough for you to slip by while he was occupied with me and just disappear into the ether. You took a real chance, helping me."

Blair was startled by the comment; the thought had honestly never occurred to him. Flustered, he turned his attention back to his meal.

After they were finished eating, Blair moved to help Jim carry the empty dishes into the kitchen. He couldn't remember the last time he had felt so full and sated and generally at peace with the world, and he found himself chatting easily with Jim as he washed the dishes, handing them each to the other man to dry.

"You're really serious about this anthropology thing, aren't you?" Jim asked, bending to put away the last of the pans in the cupboard beneath the counter. He wiped his hands on the damp dishtowel and laid it over the edge of the sink to dry.

"Yeah." Blair pushed his hair back away from his eyes and leaned against the pillar beside the table, crossing his arms gingerly over his chest. "I've already graduated high school -- I wasn't lying about that, man." His grin was wry. "I want to start taking classes at Rainier, but I can't do that unless I can get Naomi to sign off on it. Naomi's my mom," he added belatedly. He dropped his gaze to the floor, rubbing absently at a sore spot on the curve of one shoulder.

He waited tensely for the expected question, but it never came. He could feel Jim's eyes on him, but then the older man was looking away from him, obviously intending to let the subject drop.

"You hurting bad?" Jim asked unexpectedly, and that odd, somehow tender note was back in his voice again. His eyes were shadowed.

Blair looked up at him in surprise. "Some, I guess." Which was a bald-faced lie, actually; right now he felt as if he'd been knocked over in a train wreck.

Jim sighed. "You took quite a pounding out there tonight; you really should have someone take a look at you. I can drive you to the hospital, if you're worried about the cost of the ambulance ride."

"I'm fine, man." Blair could feel his face heating, and his heart rate immediately jumped into triple digits. Damn, but he hated how out of control his emotions had gotten lately. There was no way he could let himself be checked into a hospital; there was too much of a chance that they'd find out he was a runaway, and take the expected steps to ship him back home.

The expression on Jim's face was thoughtful; it seemed almost as if he understood the younger man's dilemma. "I'm not a doctor, but I have had some first aid training on the force. Would it bother you if I checked you over?" He sounded honestly concerned.

Immediately, Blair's heart seemed to jump into his throat. This was either a perfect example of the kindness of strangers, or else the smoothest come-on line he had ever heard.

Jim sensed his hesitation and frowned slightly. "If you don't feel comfortable having me look you over, we can find you a doctor. But I saw the kind of thrashing you were getting, and I really think you need to get looked at. I don't want to wake up in the morning and find you in a coma with brain damage from a concussion."

Blair glanced away from the laser-precision of that blue-eyed gaze, his heart pounding. He wanted to believe in Jim, but he was still uncertain whether the man was honestly what he appeared to be. And he had a right to be skittish, goddamn it. He'd been through a lot in the past couple of hours, and his life hadn't exactly prepared him to give into the kindness of strangers readily. For all he knew, this man was some kind of twisted pedophilic pervert who got his jollies coercing teenage boys into his apartment and then having his wicked way with them. It occurred to Blair suddenly that if that were the case, there would be very little he could do to stop him.

Nevertheless, he allowed Jim to coax him into the living room, where he perched on the edge of the coffee table and rested his hands on his knees in an effort to appear more relaxed than he actually was. Jim disappeared into the bathroom to fetch some first aid supplies and then followed him. Setting the materials down on the table, he touched Blair's chin lightly, tipping his head up to look at him.

"Jesus," Jim commented softly, frowning. His eyes sparked with a dark emotion that made Blair shiver involuntarily. "They really did a number on you."

Personally, Blair didn't think the damage to his face was that bad. "Could've been worse, man."

Jim snorted lightly. "Yeah."

He checked Blair over perfunctorily, looking for signs of serious injury in a way that made Blair think he truly must have had extensive first aid training in his lifetime. He was very thorough, asking Blair if he was feeling any dizziness, had any dark spots or blurriness in his vision, if he felt at all nauseous. Blair answered each question in the negative, relieved despite himself when it seemed that he didn't have any kind of lasting injury after all. When Jim asked him to remove his shirt, he found himself complying without even a token protest.

Blair turned his gaze to the side as the older man knelt in front of him, trying to breathe evenly through the sudden increase in his heart rate. "Relax, Chief," Jim said quietly, picking up on his fears regardless. "I just want to get these ribs taped up before you lie down for the night."

Blair kept his eyes glued to the floor and tried to ignore the feel of those feather-light fingers ghosting over him, winding the smooth white tape around his chest and ribs. Despite his fears, Jim's touch was impersonal, probing with surprising gentleness along his skin, tucking the ends of the tape in against his sides when he was done with each pass. Blair pressed his lips together and concentrated on not reacting as those strong, somehow graceful hands moved over him, somehow both soothing and exacerbating his nervousness all at the same time.

Finally, Jim stepped back away from the table and pronounced Blair relatively fit. "By morning, you're going to feel like a walking bruise," he said, smiling reassuringly, "but you'll be all right. You were lucky." He shifted his gaze away after a moment, as if the sight of Blair half-unclothed made him distinctly uncomfortable for reasons that Blair couldn't begin to fathom.

"Thanks, man." Blair dressed again hurriedly, wondering at the fact that he didn't feel any less naked in front of this man fully clothed. It was as if Jim could somehow see inside of him in a way that had nothing to do with clothes or barriers or the outside appearances of things.

Jim smoothed over the awkwardness of the moment by going into the kitchen to fetch them fresh sodas from the fridge. Blair moved to the couch and sat back with a sigh, propping his feet up on the low coffee table and running his hands back through his hair. He could still hardly believe that he was here; there was a surreal feeling to the setting around him, as if he could expect it all to wink out of existence at any moment and leave him stranded back out on the street. He glanced at the broad balcony windows to his right, watching the rain slide in midnight-black rivulets down the smooth glass. During the day, in more favorable weather, this room must have an awesome view of downtown Cascade.

What would it be like to live here, he wondered suddenly, to belong in a place like this? To come home every day and know that you had a place to sleep among people who cared about you? Someplace warm and dry and comfortable, where people accepted you for who you were?

He wiped at his suddenly damp eyelashes irritatedly as he heard Jim approach from the kitchen. If he didn't find some way to get his emotions under control, he was going to scream.

Either Jim didn't notice his momentary lapse of control, or he chose to ignore it. Either way, Blair was grateful. Jim handed him an unopened can of Diet Coke and a fresh icepack, along with three Extra Strength Tylenol.

Blair grinned as he accepted the medicine and swallowed the pills easily, washing them down with the soda. "Thanks," he said, settling back against the cushions and lifting the icepack up to the side of his face.

"You're welcome." Jim's tone was wry. "I can tell you from experience that it'll get worse before it gets better."

"Yeah, I know."

Silence greeted his statement, and Blair glanced at the window again, biting his bottom lip. He was sharing a bit more than he was comfortable with about his home life. Beside him, he thought he heard Jim sigh softly.

Instead of commenting, Jim moved to squat in front of the wood stove at the far side of the room. "It's kind of chilly in here. You mind if I start a fire?"

"Nah, that'd be great." Truthfully, Blair did feel a little cold, and he was glad for the offer of additional heat. He eyed Jim's back surreptitiously as he bent in front of the fireplace, unable to stop himself from noticing the smooth slide of muscles underneath the other man's shirt as he reached for a nearby log and set it into the hearth.

Damn. Deliberately, he moved his gaze away. Outside the balcony windows, lightning forked a jagged edge across the sky, followed soon after by a bass rumble of thunder. Rain pounded a staccato cadence against the glass.

"So, tell me about this anthropology program that you want to pursue." Jim came back to sit on the couch beside him and stretched out his legs with a contented sigh, obviously enjoying the opportunity to just sit and rest after what was presumably a very long day. He looked over at Blair curiously. "You say that you've already graduated from high school?"

"Yeah, two years early." Blair was surprised at how easy it was to talk to this man. He followed Jim's lead by stretching out as comfortably as possible and leaning his head against the back of the couch, enjoying the coolness of the icepack against his face. "But I can't get admitted into a university until I'm eighteen, not without my mother's permission." It was difficult to keep the low note of bitterness from his voice.

Silence greeted his statement, but he knew by now that Jim wasn't going to pry. After a moment, Jim said, "I went into college right out of high school. Majored in business, if you can believe it." He snorted in self-directed amusement.

Blair glanced at him inquisitively, his curiosity piqued. When it came to prying into other people's pasts, he did not share Jim's constraint. "Why'd you take business classes if you didn't want to?"

Jim shrugged. "That's what my father wanted me to do."

Blair remembered Jim's earlier comment about how his father had bought his truck for him. "Money's really important to your father," he guessed, without thinking.

"You have no idea." The grin Jim favored him with was wry. "Of course it took me four years of college to realize that I really didn't want to go into business, and I signed up for the police academy instead. You should have seen the look on my dad's face when he found out."

Blair laughed out loud, wincing in between muttered gasps as the movement upset the stiffening bruises on his face. "I'll bet," he said, once he had gotten himself back under control. Grinning, he added, "Don't make me laugh, man. It hurts."

"Sorry." The amused spark in Jim's eyes, however, was not at all repentant. A moment later, though, he sobered. "My dad and I always had problems when I was a kid. He used to try and set my little brother Stevie and me against one another all the time, sort of a macho man pissing contest, if you know what I mean. Like nothing we ever did was ever good enough, you know?"

"Yeah, I know." Blair knew the feeling of not measuring up all too intimately. Turning his attention forcefully away from that line of thought, he asked, "Did you have seizures back then like you do now?"

Jim hesitated. "Sometimes," he admitted, shifting his gaze away. "Not nearly as bad as now, but yeah, it used to happen back then, too. Like I'd hear things, or see things, that no one else could. Of course that made my dad fricking overjoyed, having a son that all the neighbors thought of as a freak. I learned real quick to keep those kinds of comments to myself."

Blair stared at him, feeling an unnerving sense of déjà vu shiver through him. He never would have guessed it from their initial meeting, but maybe he and Jim had a lot more in common than he had originally assumed.

"My mother never made me feel like a freak," he said softly, without really thinking about the words as they left his mouth. "But she had this endless stream of boyfriends, you know? And most of them were pretty cool, actually. But they never lasted. And even when we lucked out by finding a good one, there'd always be another asshole on the way."

"They hit you?" The question was asked casually; apparently the Jim Ellison book of etiquette deemed it acceptable to address the topic once Blair himself had initiated it.

"Not all of them." He shrugged. "And whenever they did, man, Naomi would pull me out of there so fast it made the bastard's head spin. She's a good mom, Jim, and she always took care of me."

Jim held his gaze seriously. "I'm sure she did."

"It's just that she could never seem to settle down, you know? And even the ones who didn't hit me were never really happy to have me around. Naomi's such a free spirit, and she tends to attract people who're similar to her. They never really appreciated having a kid hanging around, dragging them down. Add to that the fact that I'm too smart for my own good, I could talk circles around most of them, and I'm gay. You'd think this is a tolerant country, but it's fucking not, man."

"Sounds like your mom was attracted to a lot of disturbed people."

Blair glanced at him sharply, then away, tightening his fist in his lap. "It was just dumb luck, man." Letting his breath out in a heavy sigh, he said, "The nice ones just wanted to 'fix' me, you know? Like there was something wrong with me. Some of them were just plain mean, called me 'faggot' and whateverthehell else they could think of. Like I was trying to personally ruin their image by being the way that I am. You've already seen proof of the fact that I can't hide it very well."

Jim gazed at him sympathetically. "That can't be very good on the self-esteem."

Blair let out a bark of surprised laughter, recognizing his own words tossed back at him from earlier that evening. He held his side painfully as the laughter jarred his sore ribs, and shot Jim a withering glare. "Bastard," he said, grinning.

Jim was grinning, too, although his eyes were serious. "So why'd you leave, after all this time and the roller coaster of the many boyfriends? Why now?"

Blair's laughter stilled abruptly, and he glanced down at his lap, smoothing at a wrinkle in his grey pants. It took a moment for him to answer. "It was Naomi's latest boyfriend."

He could feel Jim frown, even though he couldn't see it. "He was really bad, huh?"

Blair smiled tightly. "Nah, he was great. We did things together, you know? Going to the movies, hanging out together. Almost like a dad would do. I really liked him. And he didn't even care that I was gay. It just ... wasn't an issue with him."

He could sense Jim's frown deepening, and now there was a puzzled cast to it. "So what was the problem?"

It was a moment before Blair could make himself answer. He moved his gaze to the window and stared out at the rain morosely. "Naomi didn't love him, man. And he really wasn't very good for her. Kind of stifling, you know? But I could tell she was thinking about settling down with him, getting married even. She always smiled when he was around, but I could tell that she wasn't really happy. But she was going to go ahead and marry him anyway."

"Because of you." There was a new note of understanding in Jim's voice.

"Because of me," Blair agreed. He wiped at his eyes with the back of one hand surreptitiously. "I couldn't let her do that, Jim. Make that kind of a sacrifice, that kind of a life decision, because of me. To make sure that I was happy, that I wouldn't feel the need to grow up any faster than I already have."

"So you left."

"Yeah." He sighed. "I was planning to get a job, get my own place, prove to her that she doesn't have to take care of me anymore. But it's not as easy as it sounds, man. I've been ... so fucking terrified that people will realize I ran away from home, and send me back there. Because I don't think I'd have the nerve to leave again."

"You go out and try to support yourself, it'll be well nigh impossible for you to go to school." Jim sounded concerned.

Blair shrugged. "Whatever it takes, man. I'm not going to see Naomi wreck her life because of me. I could never do anything to hurt her like that. I've been ... calling her every week to let her know that I'm okay. That I'm doing okay, I mean. She's worried about me, but at least ... at least she's not tied down to me anymore."

There was silence then, punctuated only by the drumming of rain against the window and the low crackle of the wood in the fire. Jim's silence was one of thoughtful acceptance, which Blair found enormously comforting. He dropped his head back against the top of the couch and let his mind wander, relaxing into the comfortable stillness that stretched between them.

Why had this man chosen to help him? It seemed incredible that he would have seen Blair, recognized him for what he was (and Blair was convinced that Jim had known from the start that he wasn't a student at Rainier), and yet still invited him into his home, knowing what he knew. What did he hope to gain?

Blair thought suddenly of the odd feeling that had come over him as he'd stood outside the apartment door earlier that evening, when he had been near overwhelmed by the incomprehensible desire to take care of this man, to protect him, to ensure that he didn't come to harm. He wondered if perhaps Jim had felt something similar toward him, if in fact he had felt it before Blair himself did. If so, why? What did it all mean?

He thought about Jim's headaches then, and that odd seizure, and Jim's accounts of seeing and hearing things that other people couldn't. It was tickling something at the back of his mind, some memory of something he'd read, somewhere... Something to do with tribal watchmen, and people with heightened senses, scouting around the edges of the villages to track the movements of game...

"Hey, Jim," he said quietly, breaking into the companionable silence that filled the room. "I think I've read something about this problem you've been having. I'm not exactly sure, but I want to go down to Rainier's library tomorrow and check it out."

Jim didn't respond immediately. "Schizophrenia?" he said at last. Blair could tell by the tone of his voice that this was his greatest fear.

Blair shook his head. "No, not schizophrenia. Something ... different."

Silence again. Blair was beginning to be able to read this man's silences the way he read his smiles.

"I'll go with you, if you want," Jim offered after a moment. He sounded tentative. "To the library, I mean. If you can find something that'll help me, I'd be really interested to hear about it."

Blair wondered suddenly how each of them would have turned out if they'd made different choices in their lives. If, say, Jim had been the one to leave home, instead of kowtowing to what his father told him to do. Or if Blair hadn't decided to run away from home, had in fact found some other way to deal with his problems. A Jim with more sharp edges, and him without quite so many. Would they ever have found each other? Would there ever have been anyone with which he shared this easy, laid-back camaraderie that felt as natural as breathing?

"Sure, Jim," he said, holding the other man's gaze steadily. "I'd like that."

Something in Jim's gaze flickered then, and Blair felt a burst of heat sizzle straight down into his groin. He sat up straighter, startled, but Jim had already looked away again.

"Jim?" he queried, his heart pounding.

Jim wouldn't meet his eyes. "I think it's time we both thought about getting some sleep," he said, reaching for his empty soda can and standing abruptly.

"Jim?" Blair's voice had sharpened, and it stopped Jim in his tracks halfway to the kitchen.

He didn't turn. "I don't want you to think that I'd hurt you. I wouldn't ... I couldn't do that."

"I know that, man." Blair stared at the hard line of the other man's back, confused and more than a little frightened. What the hell had just happened here?

Jim sighed. "Let it rest, Blair. Let's just ... get some sleep, okay?"

This time when Jim started for the kitchen, Blair let him go. He settled back against the corner of the couch, thinking. Letting his eyes trail after Jim, he wondered what the other man saw when he looked at him. Did he see a pitiable, whiny kid? Or did he see something more? For the first time, he found himself wondering if Jim thought he was attractive.

Wondered if one of the things Jim's father hadn't liked about him was the fact that he was gay.

When Jim came back into the living room, his emotions were clearly locked away once again. Jim Ellison, master of repression. Blair had to hide a smile at the thought.

"Look, I've been thinking." Jim hovered over the coffee table, looking uncertain. "You don't have to leave tomorrow if you don't want to. You're welcome to stay for the week if you want, until you can find a place to live."

"A week?" Blair echoed, surprised and indescribably thrilled by the offer.

"A week," Jim agreed. "Just until you can get out and get into a place of your own. They're looking to hire someone down at the precinct -- you know, putting files away, doing some light typing, that sort of thing. I can put in a good word for you, if you'd like."

Blair stared at him in utter shock. It took him a moment to find his voice. "Uh ... yeah. That'd be great, man. That'd be, like, so cool." He was nearly bouncing on the edge of the couch now, barely able to contain his excitement. It hardly seemed possible that he was being offered the chance to get off the streets, and in a way that wouldn't compromise himself or Naomi.

Jim smiled. "Not a problem, Chief."

Despite protests, Blair stayed on the couch while Jim went to put fresh sheets on the futon in the spare bedroom. Outside, the storm was quieting, and he listened absently to the lulling sound of the rain on the windows as Jim puttered around in the back room. Already, this place had the feel of home to it, and he wondered if Jim would honestly be willing to toss him out on the street again after his allotted week was up.

Somehow, he doubted it.

Maybe Jim was in need of a roommate, after all. It was something that Blair would bring up when they went to the library tomorrow. If he did get that job at the precinct, he should be able to shoulder his share of the rent, and the money he saved sharing expenses would give him the opportunity he needed to go to school in the evenings. If, of course, he could convince Naomi to sign him in at Rainier, and give him her blessing to go off on his own and pursue his dream of becoming an anthropologist.

When Jim emerged from the bedroom, he paused at the smile he saw on Blair's face. Blair had his chin resting on the back of the couch and was watching him avidly, knees tucked up to his chest.

"Something I should know about?" Jim said mock-warily, obviously pleased to see the younger man in such high spirits.

Blair shook his head. "Just thinking." There would be time enough to talk to Jim about his fantasies in the morning. His lids turned heavy as he pondered the thought of a future with this man; somehow, in a way he couldn't quite describe, it just felt right to him. Maybe it would feel right for Jim, too.

That low flicker moved across Jim's eyes again, there and then gone. This time, Blair was certain that he hadn't imagined it. It made a sizzling warmth slide under the surface of his skin, electrifying him with its subtle energy, warming him in ways that he had never before experienced.

The truth shot like raging buckshot into his mind: Jim Ellison thought he was attractive. Maybe he thought he was a good person, too.

"Jim...?" Blair said tentatively, an unstated question. His heart was speeding again, as that pleasurable flush moved through his body.

"Blair." Jim sighed and took a few steps nearer to the sofa. He hesitated, then said, "I saved your life tonight. Gave you some food, gave you a place to stay. There's an understandable amount of hero worship going on here."

Blair stiffened, lifting his chin from the back of the couch. "I'm not a kid, Jim."

"I know that. But you are young, and trusting, and vulnerable, and I am not going to take advantage of that." Jim's tone was unyielding.

"I saved your life, too, you know." Blair wasn't sure quite why he felt the need to press this point, but for some reason it seemed important to him.

Jim held his gaze for a long moment, then nodded slowly, conceding the point. "Maybe we just saved each other," he commented softly, dropping his gaze to the floor. Blair had the distinct impression that he wasn't referring to the fight earlier that evening.

Time seemed to still as that one isolated moment drew out into a lingering eternity, defying all known laws of physics. Blair stared wide-eyed at the suddenly vulnerable man in front of him, as the persistent cadence of the rain faded into the background around them. He watched in mute wonder as Jim's hand lifted in seeming slow motion to touch the side of his face. Just the slightest brush of fingers, a lingering bloom of warmth against the arch of his cheekbone, and then Jim's hand fell away.

"I think it's time for us to get some sleep, Chief," Jim said, and time jumped into its normal course once again. His eyes in the suddenly bright lights of the room were very blue.

Blair drew a shuddering breath. "Yeah," he said, dropping his gaze away. He wasn't surprised to find that his hands were shaking, and this time, it wasn't from fear. He wiped them across the tops of his thighs absently. "Yeah."

He uncurled gingerly from his seat on the couch, his body already stiffening from the abuse it had taken earlier that evening, and allowed Jim to help him into the spare bedroom. Suddenly, he was excruciatingly tired, the fatigue crashing over him in dark waves, and he lay down with a low groan of pleasure, glad for the chance to rest his aching body against the sheets.

"Get some sleep, Chief." Jim pulled a blanket up from the foot of the bed to cover him with, and carefully brushed his hair back away from his face. The gesture was curiously intimate, in an impersonal sort of way, and Blair smiled softly to himself as he snuggled further down into that welcoming warmth.

"Good night," he said softly, looking up with sleepy eyes to meet the older man's gaze. "And thanks."

Jim smiled, and the expression brightened his eyes, giving his entire face an almost beatific cast that Blair found eminently appealing. He decided then and there that he was going to find ways to make this man smile as often as possible.

"See you in the morning." Jim turned to leave, palming off the light switch as he went, and Blair watched him go with a feeling of warm contentment spreading deep within him. See you in the morning... It seemed both encouragement and promise, in a way that transcended both.

Blair felt a bit as if he were Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole; he didn't know quite where he was going to end up, but he was determined to enjoy the journey regardless. He felt an undeniable bond with Detective James Ellison, and more than that, he liked him.

And he was fairly certain that Jim liked him, too.

With thoughts of a future he couldn't even imagine dancing lightning-quick through his mind, Blair allowed himself to give into the irresistible lure of sleep, lulled by the steady drumming of the rain.

The End

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Acknowledgements: A heartfelt thank you to my hardworking betas: Jennie, ADM, and Jai. This story is dedicated to ADM, who put the original plot bunny for a teenage Blairfic in my mind and then steadily encouraged it to full growth. :)