The Ground Sown With Salt by PsychGirl

The Ground Sown With Salt - PsychGirl

August, 2004
Richardson College, Maine

Mark Collines braced himself as the rickety elevator jerked to a stop, and, sliding his crutches under his arms, gingerly swung himself out into the hallway, keeping his weight off his right foot, which was swathed toes to knee in bright white plaster. He’d only been out of the hospital for two days, but already his wrists were aching and he could feel the blisters coming up on his hands. But this was the last detail he had to take care of. If Sandburg agreed to this, then he could go home and relax.

He made his way unsteadily down the hallway, coming to a stop at a door with a nameplate that read, “Blair Sandburg, Assistant Professor of Anthropology”. He raised his hand and knocked, then waited, propping himself up on his crutches.

The door swung open and his friend and colleague’s eyes widened as he saw the cast and the crutches. “Mark? Holy crap, what happened to you?” Blair gasped.

“Car accident,” he replied ruefully.

“Well, come on in, have a seat,” Blair said, stepping aside and motioning him into the tiny office. He hobbled over and eased himself into the chair set at an angle in front of Blair’s desk. Blair took his crutches and leaned them up against the desk, then went over to the coffee pot that sat on a low table next to the window.

“Wow, man, I had no idea,” he said, as he poured out two mugs of coffee. “Was Jane with you?”

“Yeah,” Mark said, accepting the mug of coffee Blair handed him. “She’s shaken up, but fine. I hit a slick patch on Route 10 and slammed the car sideways into a tree. Car’s totaled and my ankle’s broken. Six to eight weeks before the cast can come off.”

“Jesus.” Blair returned to his seat and took a sip of coffee. “I’m sorry about your ankle - that really sucks. Weren’t you going to lead an expedition in September?”

Mark nodded. “To Central America; Honduras, in fact. There’s a newly-discovered tribe there, in the heart of the eastern rainforest. They’ve been so isolated, their customs and language have been almost completely free of outside influence. Learning more about their culture could give us incredible insight into the ancient Mayans.”

“And now you have to call it off. Man, that bites. Bad luck.” Blair gave him a sympathetic look.

“Well... whether it ends up being bad luck kinda depends on you....” He raised his eyebrows and grinned in what he hoped was an encouraging manner.

He watched comprehension sweep across Blair’s face, followed quickly by dismay. “No. Oh, no way. I’m sorry, Mark. There’s no way I can take your place.”

“Why not?” he asked. “Is it your fall classes you’re worried about? I’ll be able to cover them. The ankle won’t keep me from doing that.”

“Yeah, I mean no, but....”

Mark saw his friend’s hesitation and pressed forward. “I’ve got all the preliminary work already done; all the permissions and visas and everything. And I’ve got background on the tribe for you. All you’ll have to do is lead the expedition.”

“Mark, I just don’t know....” Blair’s eyes were downcast and he was picking at a piece of lint on the desk surface.

“It’s a fascinating culture, Blair,” Mark said soberly. “And a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There’s gonna be more than enough data for us both to publish.” He couldn’t understand why Blair was so reluctant. Sure, it was short notice, but most of the work was done. Anyone else would have leapt at the chance.

“Look, it’s not that I don’t appreciate the offer....”

“But?...”

Blair exhaled, running his hand through his hair. He still wouldn’t meet Mark’s eyes. “I just don’t think... I don’t think I’m up to leading an expedition. It’s been a while, you know....”

“Yeah, I do know,” he replied softly. “Blair, buddy, you need this. You’re up for tenure in two years and you haven’t published anything. Nada. Not even your dissertation.”

Blair’s mouth was set in a thin line, his fingers worrying at the top of his desk again.

He knew it was like rubbing salt in the wound, but he had to get through to Blair somehow. “Maybe you’ll find another sentinel—”

“No.” Blair bit off the retort, and the look in his eyes was bleak. “I won’t.”

Mark felt a flash of guilt at bringing up what was clearly still a very traumatic memory for Blair. Attempting to bring the conversation back to the present, he said, “It’s a good group of kids, too. They’ve done a lot of prep work, and they’re very steady. Raj, it’s his second expedition, so he’s an old hand now. And Casey, she just declared anthro as her major last spring, but she’s got a good head on her shoulders.” He knew he was babbling a little, but he felt compelled to do something to erase that hollow, haunted look from Blair’s face. “And, hey, her father’s a senator, so if things go well... it can pay to have someone like that on your side when you’re going for funding....” He trailed off, unable to think of any more inducements.

Silence filled the cramped space, and Mark was about to give up and say goodbye when Blair took a deep breath. “Let me think about it,” he said quietly.

“Okay,” he agreed, “no problem. Just let me know by Monday? Because if you’re not going to do it, I’ve got a lot of people to notify.”

“Sure,” Blair replied.

He pushed himself to his feet, one hand on Blair’s desk for balance, as Blair came around and handed him his crutches. On his way out, the sharp bite of remorse nagged at him, and he turned and put a hand on Blair’s shoulder. “Look, I’m sorry... I didn’t mean to dredge up all that painful crap—”

“Oh, hey, no, it’s okay,” Blair said, a plastic smile on his face. “Water under the bridge.” But his eyes were as flat and dark as coal.

And then Mark found himself out in the hallway, the door closed quietly but firmly in his face. He sighed and swung himself towards the elevator, wondering, not for the first time, just what the relationship between Blair Sandburg and James Ellison had been.

***

Blair rested his forehead against the closed door, taking deep, even breaths, his hands shaking slightly. Get a grip, Sandburg, he told himself. He listened to Mark stump down the hallway, listened to the ping of the elevator as it arrived, the rumble of the doors opening.

After a while, emotions in check, he straightened and returned to his desk, picking up the paper he’d been grading when Mark had arrived. After twenty minutes of staring at the same sentence, though, he had to admit defeat. There was no way he was going to be able to concentrate on student papers with Mark’s offer bouncing around in his head, bumping in to all sorts of things he’d rather not think about.

He stood and jammed the remaining papers in his backpack, then left his office, heading for the bike racks at the rear of the building. The mechanics of maneuvering his bicycle through traffic occupied his brain for the better part of forty minutes, but, once he’d entered the tiny rented bungalow he called home and hung up his coat, he felt the gloom start to descend again.

Maybe some music, he thought desperately, and went over to the CD rack, dusty with disuse. He picked out something at random and pushed it into the slot, pressing the play button, then going into the kitchen to brew some tea. The sound of drums, rhythmic and strong, filled the air, and he heard Jim’s chuckle in his head, Earth music. He nearly took a header over his own feet as he frantically stumbled back across the room to turn it off.

Trembling, heart thumping, he decided more physical exertion was what he needed. Exhaust his body and quiet his mind in the process. He hurried into the bedroom and stripped, pulling on a t-shirt and shorts and lacing up his running shoes.

He took the long route, the seven-mile one, which looped around campus and went out to the beach and back. As with the bike ride, he was able to lose himself in activity, in the repetitive slap of his sneakers on asphalt, the cadence of his breathing.

That fragile peace lasted through showering and pulling together a simple meal of rice and steamed vegetables. But after a few mouthfuls, his eyes lit on his backpack, and his appetite vanished as he recalled the conversation that afternoon.

Giving up, he pushed away from the table and scraped his uneaten dinner into the trash. Grimly he took a glass from the cabinet overhead and pulled a bottle of wine from the fridge.

If repression wouldn’t work, maybe wallowing would serve.

In the bedroom, he pulled the shoebox from underneath the bed, placing it on the coverlet with care. The box was tattered and dusty, although the corners had been neatly patched with duct tape. He poured a glass of wine, taking a big gulp as he opened the box and started to sift through the newspaper clippings inside, letting memory take him back....

***

May, 1999

Blair paced nervously in the small room adjacent to the press suite, reading over the notes that he clutched in one sweaty hand. It’s going to be all right, he told himself. this will get them off your back; more importantly, get them off Jim’s back so he can do his job. He tried not to think about what options there were going to be afterwards for a self-confessed fraud and failed academic. That’s not important. What’s important is fixing this, and proving to Jim that he means more to you than this damned dissertation.

He’d done a lot of thinking over the past few days, and that had led to the realization of just how much Jim Ellison meant to him, and in what manner. He hoped that there would be a time, later, when they could talk about that. But not now; now his only aim was to stop this media circus and get Jim’s life – their lives – back on track.

There was a soft knock on the door, and Edwards’ secretary poked her head in. “It’s time, Blair,” she said quietly.

“Thanks, Cheryl,” he said. He took a deep breath, smoothing the page he held, and followed her out of the suite.

The curious murmurs from the reporters rose and formed a kind of background hum as he strode to the podium. He could hear snatches of words and phrases. “Sentinel”, “Ellison”, “come clean”, “whole story”, “just how heightened?”

He climbed the steps and took his place behind the lectern, adjusting the microphone and placing his notes down carefully. Tension formed a tight ball in his stomach; his throat tightened and he sent up a brief prayer that he would be able to get through this without breaking down. About the only thing worse than declaring yourself a fraud on national television would be crying like a wuss during it.

“Hi. Thank you all for coming,” he said, his voice slightly hoarse. He cleared his throat, hearing the ring of a cell phone somewhere in the back of the room. “I just have a short speech prepared....”

The single cell phone was now joined by others, ringing insistently, and the soft murmur of voices as the reporters answered. Blair stood at the podium, nonplussed, as the information moved through the crowd like a breeze. “There’s a situation down at the docks... an anonymous call... some say it’s that guy, Zeller, who tried to kill Bartley....”

Blair’s own phone started ringing and he answered it, turning away from the microphones. “Jim? What’s up, man?”

“Sandburg.” It was Simon, his voice taut and clipped. “I need you down here. Zeller’s been seen at a warehouse down at the docks and Jim’s going in.”

“Did he tell you to call me?”

There was a pause. “He doesn’t have to tell me,” Simon snapped, “I’m the Captain and I get to make that decision all on my own. Now get down here!”

“Sir, yes, sir,” he replied wearily, thumbing the phone off. Great. He’d hoped to have his little disclosure done and over with before he saw Jim again, in part because he’d wanted to have something that would temper Jim’s anger with him.

Oh, well. He rapped sharply on the lectern, drawing the attention of the crowd. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I’m going to have to cancel the press conference, temporarily. We’ll let you know when it is rescheduled.” With an apologetic glance at Cheryl, he left the podium, making a beeline for the parking lot.

In spite of his attempt at being circumspect and brief, he was trailed down to the docks by at least four of the reporters, who had correctly surmised that Blair’s swift departure might have something to do with “that Sentinel business”. It seemed like the cordon Simon had set up around the area caught them effectively, though. In any event, Blair decided he couldn’t worry about it right now. Jim needed him – or at least Simon thought Jim needed him – and that was all that mattered at the moment.

He found Simon with two SWAT teams on the east side of one of the warehouses. He was wearing a headset and silently handed its twin to Blair. “Jim, what do you see?” Simon asked.

“He’s in already?” Blair mouthed, eyebrows rising.

Simon rolled his eyes and nodded. Covering the microphone with his hand, he said, “He insisted on going in and getting a look before anyone else.”

Blair pulled the headset on, and immediately heard Jim saying, “...in the hallway. I’m going to take a look in the main warehouse area.”

“Don’t forget about that gum, Jim,” he added quickly, adjusting the mike. “The scent might give you an edge locating him.”

“Sandburg?” Jim’s voice through the headset fairly crackled with tension. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“I called him in, Detective,” Simon broke in hastily, but with flat authority. “Like it or not, he’s the resident expert if something goes wrong with... uh, goes wrong.”

“Just make sure he hasn’t brought his little press entourage,” Jim snarled, and Blair’s heart sank. He’d hoped that a little time and thought might have soothed Jim’s ire, but that didn’t seem to be the case.

“No worries on that score,” Simon replied crisply, flashing an apologetic look at Blair. “Now... what do you see?”

There were a few moments of silence; Blair could hear the faint hollow echoes of Jim’s steps as he headed onto the main floor. “It’s dark; the windows are blacked out,” Jim said, “give me a sec,” and even with all the bad feelings between them lately, Blair couldn’t help but feel that thrill of awe and pride that he got whenever Jim used his senses.

Then Jim was shouting. “Simon, it’s a trap, get everyone clear, NOW!”

He hadn’t realized he’d started towards the warehouse until he felt Simon’s hand clamp like a vice on his shoulder. “Sandburg, everyone means you, too,” Simon growled. Blair turned, opened his mouth to argue.

And the warehouse exploded in a blast of light and fire.

The world was chaos. Alarms were going off in the nearby buildings, people were shouting, someone was screaming, and the roar and snap of the fire was deafening. He was trying to move forward, go to Jim, at least he thought his legs were moving, but there was something across his chest and he couldn’t get free, no matter how much he fought.

It took him a few minutes to realize that what was holding him back was Simon’s arm, and that he was the one screaming.

“NO!” he howled, over and over, “NO! NO! NO!”

“Blair.” Simon’s voice sounded so calm, so normal, that he stopped struggling and turned to look at him in astonishment. “We have to get back, let the fire crews get in.”

“Simon, I have to get in there, I have to help him.”

And although Simon’s face held no expression, his eyes as they met Blair’s were filled with an awful sorrow.

“No!” he shouted, pushing Simon away from him. “He’s alive, he’s fine. This is Jim we’re talking about here. You know how he is.”

“Blair, there’s no way....” Simon’s voice cracked.

He turned his back on Simon, denying Simon’s words, denying the fear rising slowly inside him. He faced the blazing warehouse, fists clenched at his sides. “He’s fine. I’m not leaving until I see him.”

Silence. He didn’t even hear Simon walk away. All his focus was on the warehouse and Jim.

And so he stood there, watching, waiting, as the firemen came in with their hoses and doused the flames with water and foam. Waiting, as the minutes turned to hours, as the flames became smoldering ruins, as the crews moved through carefully, gathering evidence, salvaging what was left. And he watched, and waited, because hadn’t he seen Jim walk out of fire before? Hadn’t Jim lived through a helicopter crash, and eighteen months in the jungle, and being shot, being drugged, being kidnapped? Jim was a survivor; there was no one more worthy of the term. So he watched, and waited for Jim to show up, and amaze them all with yet another story of how he escaped from certain death.

Until Simon, ash graying his hair, his face heavily creased with grief and exhaustion, placed the charred remains of Jim’s wristwatch into Blair’s hands.

***

August, 2004

He sat, tailor-fashion, on the bed and, taking another gulp of wine, fingered the watch he had pulled out of the shoebox.

The crystal was cracked and smoky, the face inside warped by the heat. Charred remnants of the band dangled from either end.

He set the wineglass down and brushed the back of his hand across his face roughly, wiping the tears away. It wasn’t that he had anything against crying; he didn’t – Naomi had taught him better than that. It was just that it never seemed to make anything better. Five long years, and it never seemed to get any easier at all.

The weeks following Jim’s death had passed in a blur. He went to the funeral, but had no memory of what had been said or done. He thought he’d been silent, mostly. He knew he hadn’t cried.

He’d been floored to learn that Jim had left him the loft. He couldn’t stay there, of course; he’d set foot in it once, to get some of his clothes, and the stark emptiness of it and the reminders of Jim all around drove him to spend the night in his office at Rainier. Stephen, who was Jim’s executor, had offered him a nice sum of money, but it felt like betrayal to sell it, even though he couldn’t bear to be inside it. So he hired a management company to put everything in storage and rent it out.

He hadn’t rescheduled the press conference, of course – there hadn’t been any need to, at that point. Jim was gone and so there was no reason to lie, no reason to trash his career to protect him. In fact, he’d been encouraged – strongly encouraged – to finish, to the point where his committee practically scheduled his defense themselves. He remembered it like he remembered Jim’s funeral; in bits and flashes. He knew he’d responded to questions relatively coherently, but he felt they had gone easy on him out of pity. Nevertheless, two short months after Jim’s death he was Blair Sandburg, Ph.D.

A change of scenery was definitely needed, and he’d taken the first job he’d been offered – an assistant professorship at this small liberal arts college in Maine. He’d fled Cascade as soon as he could, and now he’d been here five years. The problem was, he’d lost all his energy, all his interest in anthropology, in what made people and cultures tick. He taught, desultorily, and received middling ratings on his teacher evaluations. “Lacks enthusiasm for subject matter” seemed to be the most frequent comment from his students.

The thing of it was, he wasn’t even sure he wanted tenure. Oh, to the extent that it would mean he didn’t have to look for a new job, he was on board. But the research part, the publishing part, that he was having problems getting behind. He’d flatly refused all requests for interviews about “The Sentinel”. The interview at Richardson had been cobbled together from old notes and memories. He’d sat down and tried to write things out a few times, but it always ended with him drinking and staring out the window morosely, lost in old memories.

It was just too hard. Everything reminded him of Jim, of what he’d lost, of the cost of his degree and his career. It was as if his heart had been sown with salt; nothing could take root there, nothing could flourish.

He scrubbed his hand over his face again, then gathered up the detritus of his former life and placed it gently back in the shoebox, put the shoebox back in its place under the bed. Heading into the bathroom, he splashed some water on his face and wiped it dry.

The face that confronted him in the mirror was haggard and pale, eyes red from crying, several days worth of growth on its cheeks. You can’t go on like this, a small voice said, some last-gasp avatar of self-preservation. You’ve got to snap out of it.

He smiled humorlessly, but the voice was right. He had to try something.

Before he could change his mind, he picked up the phone and dialed Mark’s number.

***

Two months later

The intercom buzzed. “Senator Kelley, your two o’clock appointment is here.”

He reached over and pressed the button. “Send him in, please.”

The man who entered was tall and lean, but powerfully built. He was dressed immaculately in a dark gray suit that was completely nondescript, yet managed to avoid screaming “cheap” like that of most Federal agents. His hair was cut short, military style, and was shot through with gray.

Kelley stood, extending a hand towards his visitor. “Richard Kelley. Pleased to meet you.”

The man shook his hand, but said nothing in response.

Suddenly uncomfortable, Kelley motioned for him to sit in the chair in front of his desk. “Can I get you some coffee or tea?” he asked.

“No, thank you,” the man replied coolly. “I understand you have a job for me?”

He hesitated. “I’ve been assured that you’re very discreet... I’m up for re-election next year, you understand; it wouldn’t do....” He trailed off.

The man sat quietly, a faint smile on his face. His eyes were the most piercing shade of blue Kelley had ever seen; reminiscent of polar ice, clear and utterly cold.

“Of course you are.” He cleared his throat nervously and pulled a file out of a drawer in his desk. “My daughter, Casey, she’s a junior at Richardson College, in Maine...”

The man watched him, simply listening, not moving a muscle.

“She was taken hostage a few days ago, in Honduras. She was on an expedition... drug runners, I think... God knows how they found out who she is....” He wiped a trembling hand across his forehead. “They’ve contacted me, told me I have until next week to get ten million dollars, for the ransom.” He looked up at the man, who remained expressionless, unmoving. “I... I don’t have that kind of money! And if this gets out, if the media finds out....”

“You want me to rescue your daughter.”

“Yes,” Kelley breathed. He took a picture out of the file. “This is her passport photo.” He pulled out four other pictures, laying them side by side in a row on the desk. “These are the other students in the group. And this is the professor leading the expedition.”

Something moved across the man’s face – surprise, shock? – too quickly for Kelley to identify. His fingers rested lightly on the last picture. For a brief second, Kelley thought he saw a haunting, terrible anguish in his eyes. “Is there a problem?” he asked.

The man closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, the cold gaze was back. “No,” he said shortly. “there’s no problem.” He gathered up the photos. “I’ll need these,” he told Kelley, “and all the information you have on the expedition, where it was going, when she was last seen.”

“Of course,” Kelley stammered. He picked up the file, extended it towards the man, who took it. “Here’s all that I have right now. I have some... inquiries... being made on my behalf....”

“Contact me when you get that information,” the man said. “Call the number you called to set up this meeting. Someone will return your call.”

Kelley exhaled in sudden relief. “I can’t thank you enough, Mr?....”

“No names,” the man replied sharply. “We’ll be in touch when your daughter is safe.” And he was gone.

Kelley slumped down into his chair. His public displays of piety were more for show than actual effect, but, finding himself as an atheist in a foxhole, he put his hands together and prayed that his tall, laconic visitor would bring his daughter safely home.

***

Blair struggled out of the light doze he’d finally fallen into, aware that the kids were huddled together on the other side of the hut, whispering. Their voices were soft, but held that unmistakable tension that was characteristic of young people trying to pull one over on the old guy.

“Hey,” he started. His throat was so dry it came out as a faint rasp. He coughed and tried again. “Hey, guys. It’s not nice to talk about someone behind his back.”

It was Casey who came over to him, holding out one of their canteens in a peace offering. “Sorry, Professor,” she said, her eyes huge in her pale, dirty face, her blond hair lank and stringy. Their captors hadn’t exactly been extravagant with their accommodations; none of them had had a bath or a shower since they’d been kidnapped.

He forced himself to sit up, wrapping the rough blanket around his aching body, even though it wouldn’t ward off the chills shaking him. “Now, now, Casey, what have I told you? It’s Blair, not Professor.” He surreptitiously shook the canteen she’d handed him, estimating the amount of water within. A little less than half full. “I think being taken hostage together means we can dispense with the formalities.”

She smiled shyly, the dimples in her cheeks deepening.

His throat was burning and he was thirsty as hell, but he tipped the canteen up carefully, making it look like he’d taken a swallow while being sure to use only enough water to wet his lips. They had to conserve; there was no telling how much longer they’d have to endure this.

“Simon and Janice and I have been talking,” Casey said, the smile gone from her face now. “We think one of us should try and make a break for it, go get help.”

“Like I told you before, I’m just not sure—”

“You’re sick,” Casey interrupted him flatly. “And Raj....” She trailed off, looking sorrowfully over at the young man stretched out on a pallet, covered with one of the blankets.

The banditos had subdued them with little fuss, especially after Raj had tried to overpower one of the sentries and had gotten a rifle stock to the head for his trouble. That had been eight hours ago. He hadn’t regained consciousness yet.

Guilt sat cold and hard in Blair’s stomach. Even though he hadn’t been in favor of Raj’s plan, he was the leader of the expedition and the one responsible for these kids’ welfare. Nice job, Sandburg he told himself bitterly. This’ll look great on your resume. You should have stayed home. “How’s he doing?” he asked Casey quietly, motioning at Raj.

“About the same,” she said, her features solemn and drawn. “His skin is clammy; his breathing is shallow, but regular.” She turned a frank look on Blair. “He needs medical attention. And so do you. Don’t try to deny it. I can feel your fever from here.”

Blair exhaled heavily, mentally cursing the kind of liberal-arts education that produced smart, thoughtful college students like these. “Look, it’s too risky. Let me try to talk to them one more time.”

Casey nodded, but she looked doubtful. And why shouldn’t she? All his other attempts to get food, water, and some rudimentary medical supplies from their captors had been met with derisive laughter and a burst of invective-laden gutter Spanish.

He had to try, though. He couldn’t let one of them - another one of them – risk his or her life when it was his duty to protect them.

A wave of dizziness passed over him as he levered himself to his feet, leaving him weakly clutching the pole in the center of the hut for balance. He managed a feeble smile for Casey, and another one for Simon and Janice, sitting back by Raj’s makeshift bed. They gazed at him, concern plain in their eyes.

Pulling the blanket around himself, he forced his aching body forward a few steps, toward the man who stood sentry at the entrance to the hut. “Por favor, senor?” he said, trying to imbue his hoarse and shaking voice with as much authority as he could muster, “Necesitamos el alimento, agua, suministros médicos. Dañan a una persona en mi grupo. Por favor?” Please, sir? We need food, water, medical supplies. A person in my group is injured. Please?

The bandito turned, stepping into the doorway of the hut, his grip on the automatic weapon slung across his chest deceptively relaxed. He was only slightly taller than Blair, but heavily muscled. A thick mustache covered his upper lip. The fatigues he wore were stained and torn, and in place of boots, he wore rope sandals.

His beady, dark eyes flicked up and down Blair contemptuously, then veered over to where the two girls huddled together. His mouth split in an insolent leer. “Trueqúele para ellos?” he sneered, gesturing at the girls. “O negocíele?” Barter you for them? Or trade?

Fury pulsed through Blair, hotter than the fever, lending him sudden energy. “Go to hell,” he snarled, in English.

The bandito must have understood better than he’d let on, because his eyes narrowed and his hand tightened on the grip of his weapon. He didn’t move away from the entrance to the hut.

Blair’s heart sank and a cold knot formed in his stomach, sapping him of his anger-born vigor. Great. That little stunt hadn’t intimidated their captor at all, and had probably only made it blindingly clear that, as sick and desperate as he was, there was very little Blair could do to prevent the man from just taking what he wanted. Wise move, Sandburg, he berated himself. Nothing like handing your opponent ALL the cards, huh?

He realized he was still holding the canteen Casey had given him, and he wrapped the end of it around his hand a few times, as unobtrusively as possible under his blanket. Widening his stance slightly, he braced himself. There was no way he was letting this pig get at the girls without a fight.

A spatter of gunfire rang out at the other end of the compound and their guard turned to look in the direction of the noise, brows drawn in confusion.

Blair could hear shouting, and the pounding of feet as several of the banditos ran towards the disturbance. He tried to swallow over the sudden surge of fear in his throat. What the hell was going on now?

The guard muttered something in Spanish under his breath and took a few steps into the hut, waving his gun between Casey and a pile of rope. “Impliqúelos!” he shouted, Tie them up!, and Casey hurried to obey, shooting a terrified look at Blair in the process.

Seizing his chance, Blair exploded from underneath the blanket, swinging the canteen up in an arc, and striking the bandito squarely under the jaw. The thug wavered for a moment, then his eyes rolled up in his head and he collapsed to the ground like a sack of grain.

The kids cheered, and Casey made as if to fling her arms around his neck, but Blair held her off with an upraised hand. “We’re not out of the woods yet, guys,” he rasped.

And now they could hear it, too: gunfire and shouting and panicked screams in Spanish. The smell of cordite hung heavy in the air, and Blair ran a sweaty hand through his hair, trying to reason out what their next move should be. Chills swept over him, and he stumbled and nearly fell; his limbs were shaking so hard.

A dark, shadowy figure appeared in the doorway. Blair motioned Casey and the others behind him, and renewed his grip on the canteen strap.

His stomach lurched and sweat broke out on his forehead as the world spun around him and the ground tilted under his feet. His vision narrowed, tunnel-like, and the last thing he saw was the ground as it flew up at him.

***

“Professor?”

God, he was so tired. Couldn’t he just rest for a little bit?

“Professor?”

It was Casey’s voice, strained and tearful, and he tried to force his lids open, if for no other reason than to remind her to call him Blair. But it was so hard. His eyes didn’t want to open, they felt like they had lead weights attached to them.

And he was warm, and free from aches and chills, and couldn’t he just sit and enjoy that for a little while?

“ProFESsor!”

Casey’s voice was so insistent that he dutifully cracked his eyes open.

It was night, and there was a fire flickering somewhere beyond his feet. He could see the light from it reflected on Casey’s face, limning the tear tracks down her cheeks. He tried to speak, to reassure her, but his lips felt cracked and swollen.

A shadow moved over his face, and he flinched, but it was just a rag, heavy with water. Someone was sitting at his head, and they dripped water slowly into his mouth. He almost gasped with the relief of it, licking his lips. If he could have spoken, he’d have begged for more, but his throat was like fiberglass; rough and dry and painful.

There were other voices, male voices, arguing heatedly in Spanish over his head, but he was too weak to concentrate on what they were saying. He caught a few words – “water”, “doctor”, “far” – but the majority of it went by him in a meaningless stream of babble.

Casey was crying, and he blinked a few times, trying to focus his vision. A brown-skinned man, dressed all in black, had her by the elbow and was pulling her backwards, away from the fire.

Blair felt leaden despair clutch his heart. They hadn’t been rescued, after all. In fact, it looked like they’d just gone out of the frying pan and into the fire, and whoever had liberated them from the banditos had equally malevolent intentions.

He tried to rouse himself, tried to fight against the hands that held him down, now, but it was too late. His life force was slipping away, and he didn’t have the strength to resist. Not this time.

It was such a familiar feeling, almost like going back in time to that day at the fountain. He could even imagine that he heard Jim’s voice, yelling at him, as everything went black.

***

He was in a bathtub, naked and waist-deep in ice-cold water, and he was burning up.

The bathtub was the old-fashioned kind, free-standing, deep, and enameled in blinding white. Something cold and refreshing moved across his chest and neck and he sighed with pleasure. It was an odd kind of Heaven, but he wasn’t going to complain.

Except that, he thought, blinking distractedly, he had two sets of legs. His own, short and sturdy, and then another pair, next to them, long and pale.

He frowned in confusion. Was there a reason he had two sets of legs in Heaven?

The blessed coolness moved across his chest and head again and he leaned back, relaxing against the side of the tub. Only whatever he was resting against clearly wasn’t the tub. It was warm, and smooth, and slightly supple. He turned, trying to see what it was.

And looked up into the face of Jim Ellison.

“Oh,” he whispered, tears springing to his eyes even as a smile spread across his face. “You came to get me.”

“Shhhh, Sandburg, just relax,” Jim replied, sluicing water across his chest with a washcloth.

Blair obeyed, closed his eyes in relief. Everything made sense now. He was dead, and Jim had come to accompany him over to the other side, or the afterlife, or whatever it was. But why was he so hot?

Sorrow clutched at his gut as the answer came to him.

This wasn’t for him. Jim might be in Heaven, but he wasn’t going to get to stay there with him. He’d screwed things up, and he was going to Hell.

And he knew why. Because it was his fault that Jim was dead. If he’d only called the press conference sooner... Jim wouldn’t have been under so much pressure; being hounded by reporters, asked about his senses. He would have been able to focus on finding Zeller. He would have had all his attention on his job, and he wouldn’t have walked into that trap.

His breath caught on a sob as hot tears trickled down his face. “It’s all my fault,” he gasped, “I’m so sorry, Jim.”

“Chief, hush,” Jim said. Water cascaded over Blair’s head and neck.

But he couldn’t feel it. He was on fire, so hot he felt like he was going to explode. His chest ached from holding back his grief. “I was gonna fix it; I was trying to fix it,” he insisted. “I was gonna tell them the diss was all a fake, that I was a fraud, that I made it all up. Then they would have left you alone.” His breath hitched again. “But I was too slow. And you... you....”

“Blair, calm down.” Jim poured more water over him, his voice faintly distressed. “You’ve got a fever; you’re burning up. You need to take it easy.”

He didn’t understand what Jim was saying. Of course he was burning up. That was the whole point. He was roasting in eternal hellfire, paying for his sins.

“I would have done it, too,” he said, adamantly, clutching Jim’s forearm, trying to make Jim listen to him. Things were starting to fade and get dim, and he didn’t think he had much time left to make his peace. Not that it would matter in the end. “The dissertation, publishing a book about Sentinels, the money, all of that, none of it mattered, none of it... none of it mattered to me as much as you did, because....” he choked back a sob, “I loved you, man. I did. You have no idea how much. It started out being about the Sentinel stuff, but by that time, it was so much more. I... I was going to tell you... when things calmed down... but they never did... because I’m such a fuckup....”

He knew he was babbling, but he couldn’t stop talking, he couldn’t stop crying, and he couldn’t hear what Jim was saying anymore, just the low murmur of his voice... and then everything faded away to black and he felt himself floating out, away from Jim, off into a dark, quiet place, all alone.

Because that really was the worst punishment of all, wasn’t it?

***

Blair woke with a start in an unfamiliar bedroom.

He sat up, scratching his scalp, and looked around. The room was bare, except for the bed, a chest at the foot, and a chair against the wall. There were no pictures, no knick-knacks or photos. The walls were smooth, white adobe, completely empty, and the floor was tile. The bed was made up with plain, white bedding, although luxurious and soft.

Panic seized him, and his heart started thumping erratically. Where the hell was he?

The last thing he remembered – well, remembered clearly – was some kind of fight breaking out at the camp of the men who had kidnapped them. After that it was just a jumble of confused impressions; flickering firelight, people arguing, Casey crying.

Icy fingers crawled up his spine. Shit, Casey and the others! What had happened to them? He vaguely remembered realizing that whoever had rescued them was not American. Were the kids here? If so, where? And were they all right?

He took a whiff of the t-shirt he was wearing and made a face. Whew. He was pretty rank. It smelled like he’d been sick. Grimacing, he scratched his scalp again. His hair felt limp and oily, like it hadn’t been washed in a few days.

These were his t-shirt and boxers that he was wearing, though, so wherever he was, his belongings – or at least some of them – had made the trip with him.

He pushed the covers aside and started to slide out of bed, but froze when the door opened. A short, round Hispanic woman entered, carrying a tray. She smiled hugely when she saw him.

“Senor Sandburg!” she exclaimed, a musical lilt to her voice, “so good, you are awake!”

He gaped at her in confusion. “Wh-who are you?”

“Ah, si,” she said, nodding her head, a knowing look on her face. “You do not remember.” She placed the tray on the foot of the bed and placed a hand on her chest. “I am Carmen, Senor Jimenez’ housekeeper. You have been very ill, senor. We have been quite worried for you.”

“Where is Senor Jimenez?”

Carmen smiled and lifted the tray, moving it closer to where Blair sat on the bed. “Later, senor. Now, you must eat. Eat, and regain your strength.”

The aroma of eggs and – oh, my God, was that pitcher full of coffee? – made his stomach rumble, cutting off his reply. He realized that he was ravenous. Pulling the tray towards him, he dug in.

Eggs, tortillas, black beans, and the best-tasting coffee he’d ever had. “Thank you,” he mumbled through a full mouth. “This is fantastic.”

Smiling, Carmen turned for the door. “I will return for the tray in a little while,” she said.

It was as though he hadn’t eaten in days. For a few short moments, Blair ate with gusto. But once his immediate pangs of hunger were satisfied, his mind turned back to wondering just exactly what he’d gotten into here. Who the hell was Senor Jimenez? Why was he nursing a sick American? And how sick had he been? He felt his heart lurch as he realized that he didn’t even know what day today was.

Pouring himself another cup of coffee, he pushed the tray to the end of the bed and slid out from under the covers to stand on the cool tile floor. The muscles of his legs were stiff and he walked around the room slowly, occasionally bending his knees and stretching up onto his toes to work out the kinks.

He wandered over to the chest at the foot of the bed and lifted the lid carefully. His clothes, cleaned and folded neatly, lay inside. And now that he was out of bed, he could see that his backpack was leaning against the far end of the chest. Squatting, he rifled through it quickly. His journal was intact, as well as the maps to the site of the ruins, but his passport was missing, as was his Swiss Army knife.

Grimly, he stood and swept the room with his gaze. He had no doubt, now, that he was a prisoner. Why else would someone take his passport but leave all his other papers intact?

He noticed a door on the far end of the room, behind the bed. Stealthily he crept over there and, turning the knob slowly, cracked the door open a sliver, then pushed it open wider.

A small bathroom lay beyond, with a sink and a toilet and a narrow shower stall. Several towels were stacked on the counter next to the sink.

About that time the coffee started to make its presence felt, and Blair realized he needed to take a leak. The shower beckoned invitingly; he could practically feel his scalp crawling, his hair was so filthy.

He had a sudden flash of memory; a bathtub, deep and white, filled with cold water. Then it was gone, as fast as it had come.

Returning to the bedroom, he refreshed his coffee, then dug in the chest for clean underwear. He left the bathroom door cracked open, so he could try and keep an ear on what was going on out there, and turned to making his ablutions.

The hot water felt utterly fantastic on his skin. One thing he could say about his putative host; the guest accommodations might be small, but they were well-stocked. There were small bottles of organic shampoo and conditioner, with a light, pleasant herbal fragrance, and soap – homemade, by the feel of it. He wondered if that was part of Carmen’s job as housekeeper.

There was a toothbrush and toothpaste laid out on the sink next to the towels, as well as deodorant. It seemed his unknown benefactor had thought of everything he might need, and Blair’s heart sank as he brushed his teeth. He was beginning to think that, in trying to escape from the little fish that had captured them, he’d only gotten them eaten by a bigger fish. And there was no telling what this fish might want.

He pulled on his boxers, draping the towel around his shoulders, and headed back into the bedroom, making a beeline for the chest and clean clothes.

The door opened and a tall, stooped man with gray hair entered the room, a satchel in one hand.

Blair lurched backwards, startled, clutching the shirt he’d just pulled from the chest. “S-senor Jimenez?” he stuttered nervously.

The man’s grave visage split into a warm, welcoming smile. “No, senor,” he said, chuckling, “I am Doctor Villanueva, Senor Jimenez’ personal physician. I have been in charge of your care since you came to the house.”

“Oh.” Blair stood there, nonplussed, shirt forgotten in his hand. “How long have I been here?”

“About a week, senor.”

The room tilted and Blair felt a twisting vertigo. A week? He’d lost a week?

And then Villanueva’s hand was on his elbow, firm and commanding, guiding him towards the chair against the wall. “Sit, please, senor. You are too soon recuperated to be exerting yourself like this.”

He let himself be pushed into sitting, then grabbed the man’s arm before he could withdraw. “What... what was wrong with me?”

Villanueva’s expression was somber. “You had malaria, senor.”

Frowning, Blair shook his head. “That can’t be. I took antimalarial drugs prophylactically, for at least two weeks before I left the States. ”

Nodding, Villanueva replied, “We have been seeing an increase in drug-resistant strains in the area.” He motioned to his bag. “If I may examine you, senor?”

“Yeah, sure,” Blair said absently, still turning the information over in his mind. Malaria. He’d probably had a high fever; no wonder he couldn’t remember stuff.

There was something about that that niggled at him, but he couldn’t figure out what it was.

“My companions,” he said abruptly, looking up at Villanueva, who was listening to his heart and lungs with a stethoscope. “Do you know where they are?”

Villanueva looked confused as he put the stethoscope away and took out a reflex hammer. “Companions, senor? I do not know who you mean. You are the only person here, aside from Senor Jimenez and the house staff.”

Fear gnawed at him while Villanueva continued his examination. What the hell had happened to Casey and the others? How was he going to find them? And why, in God’s name, had Jimenez brought him here? What did he want from him?

A light touch on his shoulder brought him out of his musings. “You seem much recovered, Senor Sandburg,” Villanueva said, pulling something out of his satchel. He handed Blair a small plastic bottle. “However, I would keep taking these antimalarial pills, for a while. And you should not try to do too much. Try to – how do you Americans say? – ‘take it easy’. I will return in a week.” He smiled, and with a pat on Blair’s shoulder, closed his satchel and left.

A week, huh? Blair mulled that over as he watched Villanueva walk off. So he’d be here for a while, yet. Despite everybody’s kindness so far, he was still a virtual prisoner; recuperating from illness, his passport missing, unsure of where he was.

Resolutely, he stood and started to dress. Ruminating wasn’t going to provide him with any answers. He needed to be ready to ask some pointed questions of Senor Jimenez when he saw him.

But, two days later, he still hadn’t met the man.

He’d started taking his meals in the kitchen, with Carmen, both to give him a reason to get out of bed and to pump her for information about Jimenez. She couldn’t provide much, though; she waxed poetic about the contributions he’d made to the local clinics and schools, purchasing needed supplies for the region, but she was unable to tell Blair what he did for a living. He was simply “gone on business”, but would meet with the young Americano when he returned.

All of which simply cemented Blair’s opinion that he’d fallen in with another group of drug runners – higher class, maybe, than the rough-and-tumble banditos who had initially kidnapped him and the others, but probably eager to use him to achieve the same ends. He shuddered to think what price he was going to have to pay for this rescue.

And the question of what had happened to Simon and Casey and the others – especially Raj, who’d been injured – continued to worry him.

Carmen had told him that Senor Jimenez was gone “on business”, but had passed on the invitation for Blair to make himself at home. Blair had taken the opportunity to thoroughly case the joint. But it hadn’t paid off. All the rooms he’d been in – and there were only two that he couldn’t get into, because they were locked – were bare of everything except a few pieces of furniture and some rugs. No art on the walls, no pictures of friends or family, nothing that personalized the space at all. The books in the library were mostly military history and strategy, with a few biographies – military leaders, of course. No fiction at all, and no magazines or other tradecraft publications. No television, no radio, and no newspapers. Nothing, in short, that would give him any insight at all into who this man was and why he was holding Blair captive.

After two days of waiting for Jimenez to return, he was ready to start making some moves of his own. He was grateful for the care he’d received, and he’d do his best to reimburse the man, but he wanted out. Carmen simply shrugged when he asked how long until Jimenez returned. And he wasn’t willing to wait any longer.

Based on what Carmen had told him, he was still in the eastern rainforest of Honduras, about a day’s drive from the town of San Esteban. If he could find his passport, he could hotwire one of Jimenez’ cars and be far away before anyone knew he was gone. Once in San Esteban, it wouldn’t be hard to get transport to the US Embassy in Catacamas, or even Tegucigalpa.

Which was why he was standing here, using a fish boning knife to pick the lock on the door that Carmen had said led to “Senor Jimenez’ office”. When she’d gone out to do the shopping, he’d grabbed his chance, figuring that the office was as likely a place as any for Jimenez to be keeping his passport in.

The last tumbler clicked into place, and he slowly turned the knob and pushed the door open. Slipping quietly into the room, he closed the door behind him.

The office was as barren as the rest of the house. A large desk, made of heavy, dark wood, dominated one wall. Sliding glass doors opened onto a tiled patio. There was a fireplace across from the desk; an armchair in front of it. The mantel of the fireplace was bare; no objet d’art, no pictures, nothing. The desk held supplies – pencil cup, stapler, blotter. And just like every other room, no art on the walls, nothing that made the space look warm, lived-in.

Blair felt faintly disappointed. He’d hoped that Jimenez’ personal spaces, clearly off-limits given the lock, would have more of the man about them. He wanted his passport, he wanted to be gone, but he was also curious. He wanted to understand why he was here, what had led Jimenez to bring him back to his house, get his personal physician to attend him.

He slid into the leather chair behind the desk and tugged experimentally on the center drawer. Locked. Big surprise. One thing he could tell about Jimenez was that he clearly didn’t trust people very much. Although he guessed that made a lot of sense when one was employed in the drug-running profession.

The boning knife made short work of the cheap desk lock, and with a sense of satisfaction he pulled the drawer open to find his passport and knife resting on a dark, plush liner. With a triumphant chuckle, he pulled them out, placing them on top of the desk blotter.

Pausing, his eyes rested on the revolver gleaming darkly from inside the drawer. He considered taking it for a moment – the road to San Esteban was long and there was no telling whom he might meet out there – but quickly discarded the thought. He was no thief, nor a killer.

As he pushed the drawer closed, his gaze traveled down the left side of the desk, noting the extra lock on the bottom drawer. Thief he might not be, but nosy he was. Something had to be pretty important – or pretty precious to you – to keep it under two sets of locks.

Part of his brain was telling him to just take his stuff and go, flee, get the hell out of there, but the other part wanted to know what the hell was going on.

He pulled open the center drawer again. It was empty.

On a hunch, he slid his fingers along the edges of the liner. He felt it lift slightly at one corner; sliding the boning knife underneath that spot, he levered it up to find a small silver key underneath. “Bingo,” he whispered. Grinning, he picked up the key and unlocked the bottom drawer.

It held a thick black album, leather-bound. Blair lifted it out and, settling it on his lap, opened it.

What he found made his blood run cold. The album contained clipping after clipping about... him. It started with a piece the Cascade Times had run following the explosion and Jim’s death, and went through his hiring at Richardson. There was a small article on his successful defense and graduation and a longer one where the reporter, having clearly read Blair’s dissertation, speculated on some of Jim’s more famous cases and exploits. There was even the welcome article that had been run about him in Richardson’s local paper.

And there were pictures. Pictures of him at Jim’s funeral, pale and grim. A picture of him in his gown and hood, accepting his diploma. Him outside Hargrove Hall, carrying a box to his car. Bicycling through the early morning traffic to Richardson. Standing outside his tiny bungalow.

Apprehension wound around his stomach like a spring. What the fuck was this? Why was this guy keeping tabs on him – from the looks of it, had been keeping tabs on him for the last five years? What did he want?

He glanced down and noticed something else in the drawer. Reaching down, he pulled out a cheap plastic frame and flipped it over.

The shock jolted through him from his head to his toes. It was a picture of the sentinel from Burton’s monograph.

He took a deep breath, trying to slow his racing heart. That wasn’t really all that unusual, he told himself. Reprints of Burton’s monograph were readily available now, since the media furor surrounding him and Jim. Clearly Jimenez had known about his dissertation; it was pretty much all laid out in those newspaper articles. Maybe he was interested in Sentinels for some reason. Maybe he thought he was one, or thought someone he knew was. Maybe that was why he’d brought Blair here.

Actually, his reaction had more to do with the picture than with Jimenez having it. One day, shortly after his defense, when he’d been in a particularly maudlin frame of mind, he’d pulled out the monograph, wanting to look at the picture, wanting to remember Jim; his strength, his steadfast sense of honor, his fierce drive to protect his territory and those within it.

Only to find that the picture had been ripped out of the book.

He had no idea when it had happened; it had been months since he’d last looked at the monograph. Really, he hadn’t since Sierra Verde. He could only assume some disrespectful student had torn it out as a memento, maybe when he’d been passing it around in class, maybe one of the times he’d been copying something, preparing for his defense, and he’d left his office door open. It angered and disgusted him that someone would think it was okay to deface a book in that manner.

Sighing, he traced a fingertip over the warrior’s proud form. In truth, he hadn’t needed the picture. The image had been graven on his heart ever since he’d started watching Jim use his senses. But the loss of the picture had just been a recapitulation for him of how he’d lost his own Sentinel. How he’d lost Jim.

He squinted as his finger neared the bottom of the frame. The paper looked discolored here; a small strip from the bottom left corner slightly darker than the rest.

His heart pounded a little as he looked closer. The paper wasn’t discolored; the darker part was actually the cardboard backing. The picture was torn.

Torn in the exact same way the picture from his monograph – the original monograph – had been torn.

This was his picture.

The picture that had been stolen from his office.

Jimenez had been in his office. Had stolen his picture.

He flung the picture on to the desk and lurched to his feet, heart thumping erratically, breath wheezing through a throat that suddenly seemed too tight. Jesus Christ! Who was this madman? How long had Jimenez been stalking him?

The door flew open with a bang. A tall, shadowed figure stood in the opening.

Blair yanked the drawer open and scrabbled for the gun, raising it in shaking hands and pointing it towards the menacing form. “W-who the fuck are you?” he stuttered. “What the hell do you want with me?”

“That’s a strange way to thank someone for saving your life, Sandburg.”

The low voice rang through him like a bell. Time stopped. He struggled to draw air; it felt as if his heart had stopped beating.

Jim Ellison stepped from the doorway into the light.

His knees buckled and he sat down hard in the chair, his mouth gaping open in shock, the gun tumbling out of suddenly numb fingers, falling to the floor. “Jim,” he breathed, “you... you’re alive.”

Jim’s face was like stone, his expression cold and distant. He crossed his arms over his chest and regarded Blair with disdain. “I didn’t want you to find out, but you couldn’t leave well enough alone. You always were a nosy fuck.”

The words hit him like a punch to the gut. “You... you faked... but why?” he asked.

Shrugging one shoulder, Jim replied, “I was sick of it, sick of the senses, sick of the whole damn thing. I’d had enough. I was tired of being the CPD attack dog, tired of busting my ass and endangering my life for people who wouldn’t give me the time of day. And tired of being under your fucking microscope. So I left.”

“But... but you had family... friends....”

Jim’s mouth twisted in a bitter smile. “Right. My dear dad and loving brother. Bitching about how hard it was living with the freak. And all my colleagues, who could hardly wait to make fun of me.” He snorted. “Who the hell needs that?”

“But I... I....”

“Oh, bullshit,” Jim snarled. “I saw the dollar signs going off in your eyes the minute you got that call. No, wait, I forgot, you were playing hard-to-get, making them up the ante. How high were they up to? One million? Three million? What did you eventually settle for?”

He felt dizzy, rootless. “Nothing....” he whispered. “I didn’t... I couldn’t....”

But Jim ignored him, continuing as if he hadn’t said anything. “Not that I blame you, Sandburg,” he said, voice dripping with sarcasm. “I mean, you were always clearly in it for the fame and the cash. Which is understandable, you know? Go ahead and grab that brass ring, just like I told you. What does it matter who you fuck over to get there?” He gave Blair a mocking grin. “Just too bad for you my faked death ruined your little coming out party.”

Anger was suddenly clawing at his insides, as if a flash-bang grenade had gone off in his chest. “Fuck you!” he yelled. “That’s not at all how it was!”

Jim rolled his eyes and mimed talking with one hand. “Whatever, Sandburg. Blah blah blah. I don’t want to hear it, understand? I’m not interested.”

“Then why the fuck are you keeping me here?”

Brows knitting, Jim’s expression was equal parts incredulity and fury. “Keeping you here? Why the hell would I want to do that?”

Fuming, he could barely get the words out. “You lock up my passport, you have your minions standing guard over me....”

“Jesus Christ, Sandburg! I let you stay in my home while you’re recuperating from malaria, I get my personal doctor to treat you – free of charge, I might add – and I do my best to keep your belongings safe, and this is the thanks I get? You accuse me of holding you hostage? You’re an inconsiderate little prick!”

He was shaking with rage and hurt. It was a good thing he’d dropped the gun, otherwise he’d be sorely tempted to shoot Jim with it. “So I can leave anytime I want?”

“Go right ahead.”

“Like right now?”

“Be my fucking guest. I can’t wait to get rid of you.” Jim dug in his jeans pocket and flung a ring of keys at Blair, nearly hitting him in the face. “Take the Jeep. There’s a storm coming and I don’t want to have any reason to see your face again.”

“No problem,” he spat. “I’m outta here.” He shoved his way past Jim and headed for the guest bedroom to get his things.

***

Jim stood rigidly in the middle of his study, arms still crossed, listening to the growl of the Jeep’s engine as it sped away from his house. A rumble of thunder in the distance distracted him, and when he sought for the Jeep again it was gone.

His chest felt tight and his stomach churned. The things he’d said to Blair echoed in his ears, harsh and abrasive. His stance shifted, his hands sliding to cup his elbows, hugging his arms to his body.

Take it easy, he told himself, keep cool. It’s for the best. You did what you had to do.

But somehow that didn’t quiet the ache in his gut.

He needed some air. Moving to the sliding glass doors, he pushed them aside and stepped out onto the patio.

Thunder sounded again, nearer this time. He could smell the burgeoning rain in the air. A pang went through him at the thought of Blair driving along the rutted, muddy road.

You know it had to be this way. There was no way he could stay.

Reaching out, he gripped the top of one of the chairs, the cold, hard metal biting into his skin. The sensation helped him focus, helped him push the feelings away. He had to stay in control. Inhaling deeply, he blew his breath out slowly.

You made this decision a long time ago. There’s no going back now.

It felt like he had a nest of red-hot vipers writhing in his stomach. He took another deep breath and held it, his hands tightening on the chair. He had to rein this in; he couldn’t let this get the better of him.

Fat raindrops splattered on the tile, slowly at first, and then more numerous as the storm broke.

He bent his head and let the rain batter him. It’s your own goddamned fault, he told himself viciously. You should have refused the job the minute Kelley showed you his picture. And you should never have brought him back here. What the hell were you thinking?

But he knew what he’d been thinking. From the moment he’d realized who was leading the expedition, he’d had this fantasy, this delusion, that he could have Blair back in his life, even if it was just for a few days.

Well, you did, he thought bitterly. And look what it got you.

His chest felt like it was being crushed in a vise. The roil in his belly was expanding. He clamped his jaw shut, so hard he could hear his molars creak, against the emotions that wanted to spill out of him.

He had to hang on. It would pass, it always did.

The smell of the rain lessened sharply. He couldn’t feel the raindrops against his skin anymore; nor the chair he was gripping so tightly. The sound of the storm receded, as if his ears were stuffed with cotton. His vision grew dim. One by one, his senses diminished, leaving him with nothing but the turmoil raging inside him. He felt as if he was hanging off a precipice, clinging to the bare edge of control with his fingernails.

And then the cliff gave way.

***

Blair jammed the clutch in and jerked the Jeep into third gear, then stomped on the accelerator. The storm that had been threatening all day had finally broken, and it was turning the road into a slippery torrent of mud and rocks that was requiring some serious skill and concentration to negotiate.

And it didn’t help that he was still so furious that he couldn’t see straight. Furious and hurt and shocked and just about any other words you could think of that could be used to express anger and surprise.

He couldn’t wrap his mind around it. Jim had faked his death. Jim had pretended to die in a fiery inferno, causing his family and friends untold amounts of grief and pain, not because he was being coerced, but because he was bored and wanted out.

The Jeep slid to the side and his attention snapped back to the present. Frantically he turned the wheel into the direction of the skid and gained control over the Jeep’s momentum, then managed to straighten the vehicle out and continue on his way.

His stomach clenched as he realized the road was rising, climbing into the mountains. The road was going to get much more treacherous. But he’d have to cross these to get to San Esteban. He should have waited for the storm to pass and the roads to dry a little, but he’d been too shocked and disgusted by Jim’s words to stay in that house any longer.

How could Jim think that of him? After all they had been through together, how could Jim think he was just in it for the money? He’d given up opportunities for Jim, burned the candle at both ends so as not to shirk his obligations, willingly risked life and limb – Jesus, he’d come back from the beyond for the man! How could Jim think he was that shallow and avaricious?

The road was narrower now, and full of switchbacks and tight curves. He downshifted and prayed the Jeep would be able to keep traction. He thought for a moment about going back, then Jim’s words rang in his mind - I don’t want any reason to see your face again - and, fury blooming in his heart, he stamped down on the accelerator. The Jeep lurched forward.

That wasn’t the Jim Ellison he had known. Apparently he’d never known the real Jim Ellison. The Jim Ellison he’d known would never have said those things. Jim had gotten angry before, sure, and he had a sharp tongue and a dry, sarcastic sense of humor, but he’d never have said things to purposely, maliciously wound someone. He would never have been that callous about others’ feelings.

The Jim Ellison he’d known would have done anything for someone he considered a friend. Hell, the man he’d known had risked his life for strangers. For a friend, Jim would have given them the shirt off his back, gone to the mat for them, sacrificed anything, even his own life if it was what was needed....

He slammed on the Jeep’s brakes. The back end fishtailed wildly in the mud, and then the vehicle came to a shuddering stop.

Son of a bitch.

He wouldn’t have. Would he?

On the other hand, Jim knew exactly what to say to rile him up, and how to say it. Jim knew what pushed his buttons, and Jim knew that he tended to take off when he was upset.

“You self-destructive, self-defeating, arrogant asshole,” he breathed as the realization hit him. “You knew exactly what you were doing. You played me like a fucking violin. But why?”

Grimly he got the Jeep moving again. He was going back. And this time he was going to get answers.

But it took him more than twenty minutes before he found a place that was wide enough to allow him to turn the Jeep around, and even then it took several tries. The rain was coming down so hard he could barely see the road in front of him. At one point he was sure the Jeep was going to get stuck and he was going to have to walk back through the jungle to Jim’s house. Because there was no way he was not going to have this reckoning now.

He pulled up in front of the house and jumped out, heading for the front door, bracing himself for the confrontation with Jim. But he was distracted by a sound, barely discernible under the rush of the falling rain. A low, guttural wail; the keen of an animal in pain.

Drawn to find the source, his feet moving almost automatically, he went around the corner of the house towards the back patio. He froze when he reached it, jolted by what he saw.

The source of the sound was Jim. He was on his knees, his arms wrapped tightly around his middle, his head and shoulders bowed, and he was crying; deep, racking sobs that shook his whole body.

There was such despair and loss in his voice that Blair felt his own throat tighten. Tears sprung to his eyes as, without a conscious decision, he moved forward and went to his knees facing Jim, wrapping his arms around the shaking shoulders. “Shhhh,” he murmured, his voice rough, “it’s okay. I’m right here.” He didn’t ask himself how he knew that that would help.

Jim was soaked through and shivering, his skin cool to the touch. Blair held him close, keeping up a constant stream of soft reassurances, trying to impart some of his body heat. He was fast becoming as drenched as Jim, though; the rain was still pouring down.

It seemed as if they knelt there for hours, but gradually Jim’s sobs lessened, and then ceased entirely, giving way to harsh gasps. He clutched at Blair’s waist, his fingers knotting in the fabric of Blair’s shirt. Pushing his face into the crease between Blair’s shoulder and his neck, Jim inhaled deeply, his body shuddering.

“It’s okay, I’ve got you,” Blair said soothingly, stroking his hand up and down Jim’s back. Jim raised his head slightly and inhaled again, scenting along Blair’s neck, his breath warm and moist on Blair’s skin. Desire, sweet and heavy, twisted in Blair’s belly, and he took a shaky breath of his own.

“Blair,” Jim sighed, almost imperceptibly, his hands now caressing Blair’s sides under his shirt.

Blair bit back a groan at how good the touch felt. “Yeah, it’s me. Come on, buddy, we need to get you inside, get you dry and warm.”

He rose, pulling Jim with him, and maneuvered them both back into the house and then through the study and through the guest room into the small bathroom. Jim was compliant, but once in the bathroom he stood mute and motionless, dripping on the tile floor. His eyes were open, but unfocused; his face devoid of expression.

Worried, Blair checked him over for some kind of injury, but found none. “Okay, man, get those wet clothes off,” he ordered. “We’ll get you in a nice warm shower.”

Jim didn’t move, didn’t give any sign he’d heard Blair’s commands. Then he raised his hand and placed it on Blair’s chest, the long fingers gently splayed across Blair’s pecs. He cocked his head to the side, as if he was listening to something.

Blair sighed. “You know,” he muttered, half to himself, half to whatever gods were listening, “when I prayed for a chance to undress my roommate, this was not exactly what I had in mind.” Moving quickly, he stripped Jim’s clothes off and turned the shower on, adjusting the water temperature to the proper level.

Jim went along with him peaceably, until Blair tried to urge him into the waiting shower. Then his hand wrapped tightly around Blair’s wrist and he wouldn’t let go.

Blowing out his breath in exasperation, Blair started to strip his own wet clothes off, one-handed. “Okay, okay,” he grumbled, “I’m coming in, too. Never mind that this is the epitome of all my wet dreams combined.” It would be funny, he thought, if it wasn’t something he’d wanted so desperately for so long.

Once they were both in the shower, he managed to get Jim under the warm spray, soaking his hair, and trying to get him warmed up.

Jim, for his part, seemed pretty warmed up. He wouldn’t stop touching Blair, his hands roaming over Blair’s naked body. Blair shivered, more with need than with cold. He was half-hard and aching, and this just wasn’t fair.

Leaning close, Jim scented him again, sniffing along the line of his neck to just under his ear. Blair clenched his teeth against a moan, feeling himself growing harder. God, how he longed to touch Jim’s body, run his hands over the smooth, flawless skin, feeling the muscles bunch and flex underneath it. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, gathering his resolve.

And then Jim kissed him.

His mouth was warm and gentle on Blair’s, his hands cupping Blair’s shoulders. Blair’s lips parted in shock, and Jim’s tongue slipped into his mouth, lazily stroking, tasting him. His hands slid up to cup Blair’s cheeks, his thumbs softly caressing Blair’s face.

With a huge effort of will, Blair clamped down on the rush of lust that surged through him and broke the kiss, pushing Jim away, holding him at arm’s length, his breath harsh and fast. He felt a gentle bump at his hip and looked down to see that Jim was just as aroused as he was, his pale cock curving upwards towards his belly, dusky and glistening.

For a second, his determination wavered, and he considered giving in. Clearly Jim’s body was okay with this. And, God knew, hisbody was totally okay with it, too. What would be the problem?

But when he looked into Jim’s face he knew something wasn’t right. Jim could see him, he could tell – it wasn’t like when he’d been blinded by Golden. But his expression was blank, almost as if he – or a part of him – was absent. There was something missing. Whether it was stress or trauma or some kind of weird instinctual Sentinel thing, he didn’t know, but the fact remained that Jim Ellison was not compos mentis right now, and he was not going to take advantage of that fact.

“Fuck, Ellison,” he groaned, “you are so going to owe me for this.” Reaching behind Jim, he shut the water off and reached for a couple of towels.

He got Jim dried off and hustled him into the guest bed. Assumedly, Jim’s bedroom was the other door that had been locked, but at this point it didn’t seem worth it to truck through the dark house and pick the lock just to get Jim into his own bed.

Jim must have been tired, because he dropped right off to sleep. Blair eyed the bed longingly, then decided that that was just too much temptation, and settled himself in the chair instead. Anyway, he had some thinking to do before he fell asleep.

***

Jim woke, momentarily confused by the unfamiliar angle of light in the room. When he realized where he was, he lay still for a moment, staring at the ceiling, and tried to recall how he had ended up in his own guest bedroom.

He remembered returning home, remembered starting the fight with Blair, remembered Blair storming out. He remembered trying to maintain control of his emotions, and failing utterly. After that it was just fragments, memory and feeling splintering. Lost in chaos, drowning in pain. Then Blair’s touch, Blair’s voice, like a lifeline; his scent, his taste, pulling him from the cacophony.

It doesn’t mean anything, he told himself firmly. Nothing’s changed. He felt drained and dull.

Turning his head, he caught sight of Blair sitting cross-legged in the chair, a mug of coffee cradled in his hands, watching Jim with a solemn expression on his face. “Tell me the truth,” he said quietly.

Jim pushed himself up to lean back against the headboard, noting his unclothed state under the sheets with a raised eyebrow as he did so.

Blair shrugged one shoulder. “I didn’t know where to find you dry clothes,” he said.

“Got some of that for me?” Jim asked, pointing at the coffee.

Putting his own cup on the ground, Blair picked up a second one and a thermos and poured Jim a cup of coffee, handing it to him. Jim was careful to avoid touching Blair’s fingers as he took the cup. “Thanks,” he said, blowing lightly on the steaming liquid and taking a sip.

Blair warmed up his own cup, then looked expectantly at Jim. “Well?”

Jim exhaled heavily, and ran a hand through his hair. He might as well tell Blair everything. It couldn’t make any difference now. “Naomi called me, in a panic,” he started. “She said you and she had talked about the whole dissertation mess, and you’d told her you decided to call a press conference for the following day. She was frantic, convinced you were going to do something impulsive that was going to ruin your career. She begged me to stop you.”

“And, naturally, you immediately thought of faking your own death as the best way to do that.”

He shot Blair a trenchant look. “Do you think we could lay off a little on the sarcasm, Chief?”

Blair held up a hand, his lips clamped together in a thin line. “Sorry. You’re right.” He rolled his hand in a circling motion. “Go ahead.”

“I had an idea what you were planning to do. To be honest, I’ve been expecting something like this since Brackett found out about me. I’d contacted an old friend of mine from my covert ops days about a year earlier, just in case, and we’d made some plans. It just took a call from me to set things in motion.” He took another sip of coffee, hoping the heat would ease the tightness in his throat. “I thought it would go down a little differently, thought things would happen while you were still with the press. I didn’t mean for you to actually be there when the warehouse blew.”

“Oh, that’s comforting,” Blair sniped.

“Look,” he said sharply, feeling his temper rise, “it’s not like I thought it was going to be easy, Sandburg, but I figured, in time, you’d get over it.”

“What I don’t understand,” Blair said, “was why you did something so drastic. Why couldn’t you just come talk to me? We could have worked something out.”

He sat up, hitching the sheet around his waist with one hand, feeling naked and exposed. “If you’ll recall, talking wasn’t my strong suit at the time,” he retorted.

“Oh, I recall, believe me.”

Jim sighed. Five years and they were still at each others’ throats. He rubbed a hand wearily over his face. It was over and done with, but he really should try to explain himself. He owed Blair that, at least. “Blair, it wasn’t going to work out. No matter what we would’ve come up with, there was only one way it was going to end. They were never going to leave us alone, not until one of us was finished. Either you had to give up who you were or I had to give up who I was.” He paused, swallowing hard, wrapping his hands tightly around the coffee mug. “And I... I just thought you’d given up too much for me already.”

“And so you decided to throw away your whole life for me?” The sarcasm was gone now; Blair’s voice was open and naked.

He met Blair’s gaze evenly. “Wasn’t that what you were planning to do?”

Blair seemed taken aback. “Well, yeah, but that was different. That was because I....” He trailed off as a look of comprehension swept over his features.

“Yeah, well....” Jim said quietly, turning his attention back to his coffee. He felt unnerved, and chided himself for it. What did it matter if Sandburg knew how he felt about him now? It wasn’t like it was going to change anything.

There was a long silence. Jim drank his coffee and tried not to look at Blair, who was staring at the floor, his expression grave, clearly lost in thought.

Finally, Blair spoke. “So... you went back to work in covert ops?”

Jim nodded. “It was something I knew. And I owed them – that deal with the warehouse was expensive.” He picked aimlessly at the sheet. “I’m kind of a troubleshooter, now. Usually get called in when there’s a problem.” But that had reminded him of something. “Your kids are okay, by the way. I just arranged for the last one – Raj, the kid that was injured – to get shipped back Stateside.”

The look of relief on Blair’s face was satisfying, at least. “Oh, thank God. He’s okay?”

“Yeah,” Jim replied. “Things were a little shaky at first, but he’s made a full recovery.”

Silence fell again, awkward and strained between them. Usually Sandburg was the first to crack, but Jim forced himself to break it. Taking a deep breath, he said, “The roads should be passable by noon. You can take the Jeep; leave it in San Esteban and Carmen will get one of the village boys to drive it back.”

“No,” replied Blair.

Jim just stared at him, sure he hadn’t heard correctly. “What?”

“I said no. I lusted after you for four years and mourned you for five. I’m not doing either of those things any more. I’m not leaving.”

“Sandburg, you can’t stay here!”

“Why not?” Blair’s chin was up, his jaw hard and defiant.

“You... you’ve got a life to go back to. Friends, family, a job...”

“What if I told you it’s not much of a life without you?”

“I’d say you were fucking nuts!” Jim snapped. “What about Naomi? You really want to never see her again?”

Blair’s expression wavered a little, but then he recovered. “If that’s the price, then so be it.”

He glared at Blair in exasperation. What could he say that would make him change his mind? “So what I did, it was all for nothing, then, eh, Chief?” he said, in a low voice, hating himself bitterly. It was dirty pool, but if that was what worked.... “Thanks a bunch, that’s good to know.”

For a moment, Blair’s face was white with shock, his eyes huge, his mouth open in a round “O”. A look of anger crossed over his face and he took a deep breath. Then, suddenly, he exhaled, a crafty smile curving the corner of his mouth. “Oh, no, no, no,” he said softly. “You won’t get me that way again. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice....” He got up from the chair and came over and sat on the edge of the bed. “Point taken, though. Okay. I won’t give up my blissful academic life in the wilds of Maine, scintillating as it is. But I’m not losing you again.”

Desperate, Jim reached for the one remaining tactic he had. “And if I say I don’t want you?”

Blair leaned in close, his hands resting on the headboard on either side of Jim’s head. “I’d say you’re a damn liar.” Then he bent forward and kissed Jim.

Sweet. So sweet. And warm. He had wanted this so much; had dreamt about it, had craved it, was starved for it. It was security and strength and love and promise and irrevocability and future, all wrapped up in one simple, enticing package, that tasted faintly of coffee, and he wanted to do nothing more than glut himself on it, fill all his senses, bask forever in its light.

When Blair pulled back, Jim realized, bemusedly, that his hands were cradling Blair’s head, his fingers twined in his hair, the tug and rasp of the silken strands against his skin almost consuming him. Blair was straddling him, his eyes gleaming, his skin flushed, his fingers busily unbuttoning his shirt. “This time I am going to follow through, Ellison, make no mistake about that,” Blair muttered, his breathing short and fast.

He untangled one of his hands from Blair’s mane and trailed his thumb slowly down Blair’s cheek and over his full, generous lips, lingering for just a second on the small scar at the corner. Blair groaned and closed his eyes, his head turning into the caress, placing a tender kiss on Jim’s palm.

In that moment, Jim surrendered. He didn’t know how they were going to manage it, but he knew that, like Blair, he couldn’t lose this. And as soon as that thought crossed his mind, his heart soared, like a balloon released into the clear summer sky.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, framing Blair’s face with his palm, “what I said last night – I didn’t mean it.”

“I know,” Blair said softly.

“And what I said about my family, the guys at Major Crimes... I didn’t mean that. I was just trying to make you mad.”

“No shit, Sherlock, I think I figured that out.” The smile on Blair’s face took the sting out of his words. “Good thing for you one of us has a clear head.”

Chuckling, Jim slid his hand around to the back of Blair’s neck and pulled him close, angling for that fantastic mouth.

A soft knock sounded and Blair groaned again, this time in frustration, and bumped his forehead lightly against Jim’s.

“Don’t answer it,” Jim murmured.

“Are you kidding me?” Blair replied, shooting him an amused look. “Carmen would have my balls. She’s been cooking all morning.” He sat up and buttoned his shirt swiftly, then slid off Jim and flopped down to sit next to him on the bed, his back against the headboard. He pulled a pillow from behind his back and laid it over Jim’s lap, patting it gently. “You keep that there,” he said, crossing his legs out in front of him and adjusting his own pants. “Come on in,” he called.

The door opened and Carmen swept in, bearing a huge tray laden with food: eggs and cheese wrapped in homemade tortillas, tamales, chorizo and black beans, sliced fruit, and a fresh thermos of coffee.

“Oh, man, Carmen, that smells fantastic,” Blair said, leaning forward as she placed the tray at the end of the bed.

It did smell good, Jim had to admit, and his stomach rumbled, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten dinner last night. “Thank you, Carmen,” he said.

She smiled, the dimples deepening in her cheeks. Her mouth opened, as if she was about to say something, but then she closed it and smiled again. Blushing, she left the room.

Blair had loaded up a plate with food. He handed it to Jim, and then turned back to fill his own. “To be honest, I don’t think she would have let me leave,” he said cheerfully, piling eggs on his plate. “I went down to get coffee this morning, before you woke up, and all she could talk about was how glad she was that you were back, and how you’d been different since you brought me home.” He sat back against the headboard, scooping up a mouthful of beans and eggs on his fork, and gave Jim an amused sideways glance. “I think she thinks I’m good for you.”

“You are.” He put the plate down on his lap and slid an arm around Blair’s waist, pulling him close. Blair snuggled into his side, chewing contentedly.

A wave of love and gratitude, deep and profound, swept through him. He leaned his head against Blair’s, breathing in the clean scent of his hair, wishing he could find the words to express the feelings that filled his heart.

“I love you, too, Jim,” Blair said, chuckling softly. “Now eat something.”

***

Two years later

“Congratulations, Dr. Sandburg.” Mara Williamson, the Dean of the Anthropology Department, stood and extended her hand towards Blair. “The faculty has voted unanimously to grant you tenure.”

Blair beamed. “Thank you, Dr. Williamson. I really appreciate the vote of confidence. I know I got kind of a late start here.”

“Well, I won’t deny that some of us were worried about your lack of production initially, but the work you’ve done the last two years has been extraordinary. Especially the work you did in Honduras. We’re looking forward to your next expedition.”

“Thank you. I’m just waiting to hear about funding, and then I’ll be ready to set it up.”

“Well, my congratulations, again. Now, I’m sure you’ve got some folks outside eager to hear from you.” Dean Williamson turned back to her desk and started gathering some papers.

Dismissed, Blair let himself out of the office to find Mark and Casey waiting for him in the hallway. “Well?” Mark asked.

Grinning, Blair gave him two thumbs up. Casey gave a cheer as Mark pumped his hand vigorously and slapped him on the back. “Way to go, man!” he said.

“Congratulations, Blair, I’m so happy for you!” Casey bubbled.

“Well, I definitely could not have done it without you two. Dean Williamson specifically said the faculty were impressed with my work in Honduras.”

Casey grinned. “Hey, does this mean you’ll cut me some slack on my master’s thesis?”

Blair laughed. “No way! In fact, I’m going to expect even more from you, now that you’re my graduate student.”

“I warned you, Casey,” Mark said, chuckling. “You should have come and worked for me.” He glanced at his watch. “Oops, gotta run. Got a meeting.” He gripped Blair’s shoulder, pulled him in for a hug. “I’ll see the two of you tonight, right? Casey, you too?”

Returning the embrace, Blair nodded. “You know it. We’ll be there.”

“I’ve got to go, too, Blair,” Casey said, apologetically. “But we can catch up tonight.”

“Sounds good,” Blair replied, giving her a hug.

Mark and Casey left, and he went back to his office to gather up some files, then shouldered his backpack and got on his bike to go home. He smiled with fond nostalgia as he passed the place where he used to turn off for his rented bungalow.

The house they’d bought was in a funky little neighborhood on the outskirts of downtown. It was a compact two-story that was roomier than it looked on the inside, but the major selling point had been a backyard that butted up against a wooded park, complete with a spacious garage that they had converted into a workout space for Jim.

He was in there now, lifting weights, and as Blair coasted up the driveway he felt his heart flip over. Two years, and he had never completely gotten over the thrill of joy he felt at seeing Jim here, with him, in his space.

Jim had let his hair grow out a little, and with the tan he’d acquired from living in Honduras, and the mustache, no one ever connected James Martinez, the quiet South American exporter who had saved Blair’s life in Honduras, with James Ellison, the Cascade policeman who had lost his life seven years ago in a warehouse fire. Of course, they were careful to stay out of the news and away from Cascade.

As he parked his bike, Jim racked the dumbbells he was using and came over to greet him. “Well?” he asked, one eyebrow raised.

“You are looking at the newest fully-tenured faculty member of Richardson College, my friend,” he replied, trying to hide his glee and failing.

Jim’s face split in a huge smile as he wrapped his arms around Blair. “Congratulations, babe,” he murmured, his breath whispering softly across Blair’s ear. “Or should I say, Professor?”

Blair chuckled. “Just Associate Professor, for now. I’ll probably try for a promotion in a few years.” He tilted his face up and Jim, obligingly, kissed him.

The touch of Jim’s mouth on his made shivers run down his spine. His toes curled and he felt goosebumps break out on his arms and legs.

Jim pulled back slightly, cradling Blair’s face with his hand. “Sorry, babe,” he said, with a rueful smile. “I’m probably pretty ripe.”

“Was I complaining?” Blair murmured. “I’m pretty sure I wasn’t complaining. But I’d be glad to help you get rid of the smell. We’ve got a few hours before the party.”

Chuckling, Jim slung an arm around his shoulders and guided him into the house. “Oh, that reminds me,” he said. “We’ve got a job.”

“Tonight?” Blair looked alarmed. “Do I need to call Mark and cancel?”

“Nope, we don’t leave until tomorrow morning, late,” Jim replied. He headed into the first-floor bedroom, stripping his shirt off as he went.

Blair followed him, appreciating the way Jim’s muscles slid and bunched under his tanned, slick skin. He caught a brief flash of Jim’s pale ass as his sweats landed on the bed and he went around the corner into the bathroom. Grinning, he jumped up on the bed, stretching his legs out, and watched Jim as he bent and turned the shower on, then straightened up and reached for his razor. “What’s the job?” he asked.

“I don’t have too much information at this point,” Jim said, lathering his cheeks. “There’s been some interference with a non-profit group that’s trying to distribute vaccines in Nicaragua – the Nicaraguan government wants us to go in and protect the relief workers.” He pulled the skin on one side of his face taut and scraped the razor over his cheek.

“Hm.” Blair chewed at his bottom lip, thinking. “There are a few tribes in the eastern rainforest, but most of the indigenous population was assimilated quite some time ago.”

“They think it might be a rebel faction, protesting US involvement in the country.”

Blair nodded sagely. “We could try to set up a meeting, maybe convince them the vaccines are important. I’ll have a better plan once we get more intel.”

“I know you will,” Jim replied, smiling at him fondly. “That’s why they pay us the big bucks.”

“This is good,” Blair said. “I could use some new data, and Casey will need a master’s project. Something in the Nicaraguan rainforest would be perfect.” He sat up and slid his legs off the side of the bed. “I should go do some research, see if I’ve got the references we’ll need.”

Jim glanced over at him, one eyebrow raised in a naughty leer. “I thought you were going to help me get clean?”

“Research? Did I say research?” he said, unbuttoning his shirt and shimmying out of his jeans. “I don’t know what I was thinking. Don’t pay any attention to me.”

He left his clothes on the bed and went into the bathroom. Jim was already in the shower, and he pulled the curtain aside and slipped in, sliding his hands along Jim’s slick, hard body. “That better?”

“Much better,” murmured Jim, turning and pulling Blair into his arms. “Much better.”

The end

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Acknowledgments: A huge thank you to my beta, Skye, for her excellent (and speedy!) work. All mistakes herein are my own. Thank you to Patt for the cover and Ankaree for the interior art.