EVERLASTING


 

Jim scowled and flipped through the channels. Again. For the fifth time in as many minutes. Finally he gave up and turned the TV off.

 

For one thing, he was more than a little peeved. It had been Sandburg’s turn to cook dinner, but Jim had come home to a message on the answering machine, announcing that Blair was going to “help a few students with their study group.” Jim had opened a can of beef stew – the “prepackaged, overprocessed, artery-clogging chemical warfare project” Blair hated for him to eat – but somehow got no satisfaction from eating it.

 

That and the fact that Sandburg knew they were on an early shift tomorrow, and a stakeout tomorrow afternoon, and here it was one a.m. and he wasn’t home yet.

 

Which, of course, was nothing new lately. When he didn’t have classes, Sandburg had office hours. When he didn’t have office hours, he had dates. When he didn’t have a date, he was tutoring someone, or doing research in the university library. Jim was beginning to get the disturbing feeling that Sandburg was avoiding him. Which made no sense. Jim was Sandburg’s thesis project, his partner, his friend.

 

Had Jim somehow gotten Blair pissed off? He didn’t think so. He couldn’t remember any arguments, not even any real recent disagreements. Things had actually been going great lately. At least until a few weeks ago when Blair suddenly, and for no reason Jim could discern, became scarcer than doughnuts in the Major Crimes break room. Ever since the picnic –

 

Jim froze, his heart sinking.

 

Dear God, was that it?

 

The picnic. Where Jim had almost given himself away – almost – but he’d caught himself in time. He was positive he had.

 

The annual precinct picnic at the park. Uncharacteristically beautiful weather for Cascade, no torrential rain, no knock-you-on-your-ass heat. Hot dogs, hamburgers, mediocre coleslaw, the typically inedible potato salad, chips, beer. Frisbees flying, the Jags game on numerous radios scattered over the area, kids screaming in the playground, a few of the guys trying to pretend they could actually play volleyball.

 

Jim hadn’t been interested in the activities; he’d just come off a double shift and was worn out, so he parked a lawn chair in the shade and collapsed with a beer and a loaded plate. Sandburg, whose schedule had conflicted with Jim’s and was therefore much better rested, gave the volleyball game a wistful glance but, to Jim’s surprise, plopped down on the grass beside the lawn chair instead of joining in.

 

“Go play if you want to, Chief,” Jim had said a little awkwardly, because he did want Blair’s company.

 

“Nah,” Blair said, shrugging. “Relaxing in the shade is good.”

 

Jim snorted.

 

“You sick, Chief? I mean, I am talking to Blair Sandburg, who leaves the Energizer bunny panting in a cloud of dust.”

 

Blair grinned sheepishly but made no explanation, leaning comfortably against the lawn chair, one elbow up on it so that his forearm lay parallel to Jim’s leg. Simon had pulled up another chair and they chatted comfortably – about the Jags’ last win, about the failing transmission in Blair’s latest jalopy, about the lousy potato salad and the cheap beer; anything but work.

 

Sometime during the conversation Jim felt a pressure against his leg and became suddenly aware that Blair’s arm was no longer parallel to his leg; now it was lying against his leg. An everyday accidental touch, except it was Blair Sandburg touching Jim’s bare leg. An electric bolt of arousal shot from his calf straight up to his cock, forcing Jim to strategically position his plate so he could apply the cold beer can to the spot. He thought his chill treatment was beginning to work when Blair casually shifted, laying his head down against his arm, his hair spilling over Jim’s leg in curly waves. Before Jim even realized what he was doing, his hand went down involuntarily to stroke the silky mass – then Blair had made some soft surprised sound and Jim realized what he was doing and jerked his hand back quickly.

 

Thought fast.

 

“Jeez, Chief, hold still,” he said hurriedly, grabbing his napkin and using it to tug at Blair’s hair as if pulling something out of it.

 

“What? What is it?” Blair held perfectly still, tensing.

 

Jim chuckled and wadded up the napkin.

 

“Just a bug,” he said. “For a second I thought it was a bee.”

 

“Oh.” Blair sat up, combing through his hair with his fingers, giving Jim an unreadable glance. “Well – uh – thanks.”

 

The conversation had picked up where it left off, and Jim thought he’d gotten away with it, secret still intact. Or so Jim had thought. But Blair had started making himself scarce at the loft right after that. Maybe Jim hadn’t managed to keep his secret after all.

 

But it wasn’t like Blair to just avoid Jim. No, if Mister Let’s-Talk-About-It Sandburg had the faintest inkling that Jim was seriously in – that Jim very badly wanted to jump his bones, he’d simply have confronted Jim with it, sat down, and demanded they talk it out until they both went comatose. That was how Blair dealt with things, as if talk could solve every problem.

 

Well, it couldn’t solve this one, apparently. Either Blair was absenting himself for some other reason, which seemed unlikely given the timing, or his realization of Jim’s attraction to him had seriously, seriously spooked him. Which also seemed unlikely. All of Blair’s dates, at least the ones Jim saw, heard about, or smelled, were women, but Blair was no bigot; he had plenty of gay and bisexual friends. The revelation that Jim (a) was bisexual and (b) had the hots for him might throw Blair off balance, but Jim really couldn’t imagine the shock destroying their friendship.

 

But maybe in some part of his mind that was what he thought. Otherwise why hadn’t he ever told Blair? Or why hadn’t he simply sat Blair down when the absences started, talked to him about it, cleared the air?

 

Ah, that was the question, wasn’t it? Because in some part of his mind, Jim knew that while dropping that little emotional bomb on Blair might not destroy their friendship or their working relationship, it would change some things irrevocably. Things like walking out of the bathroom with or without a towel, things like sitting around in the summer heat in boxers or cutoff sweats, things like rubbing Jim’s shoulders and neck when he got a headache. Blair was a good friend, he was open-minded…but he was also human.

 

Jim was startled out of his reverie by a knock on the door.

 

Knock on the door?

 

Car accident, he’s dead, kidnapped, explosion, mugged, shot….

 

Jim jerked the door open to confront a very startled teenager – Todd, wasn’t it? Yeah, one of Blair’s friends from campus.

 

“Uh, hi, Jim,” Todd said, stepping back a pace from the intensity of Jim’s expression.

 

“Where’s Sandburg?” Jim demanded. “Is he all right? What happened?”

 

“Blair? He’s fine.” Todd flushed. “I mean, he’s kind of – uh – out of it. I was kind of hoping you could help me get him out of the elevator?”

 

Out of it?

 

Jim followed Todd to the elevator; Todd had apparently pushed the emergency stop button. Blair was in the elevator, slumped in the corner, muttering to himself. Even from a distance Jim could smell margaritas, peanuts, nachos, cigarette smoke, some strange chemical odor like – paint? Mostly margaritas.

 

Jim sighed and grabbed Blair around the waist.

 

“Jesus, Chief, you put in a pretty hard night’s ‘studying’,” he said resignedly.

 

Blair chuckled tiredly but said nothing.

 

“He went out with Gary and some of the guys from the Philosophy department,” Todd apologized, supporting Blair’s other side and carrying his backpack. “I don’t know where all they went, but I was working late when they dropped him off back at his car on campus, so I brought him home.”

 

Jim shook his head irritably.

 

“Thanks, Todd,” he said. “I appreciate it. Listen, why don’t you go on, I’ll put him to bed.”

 

“Thanks, man,” Todd said relievedly. “Uh – Jim?” He hesitated. “Something’s really eating at him lately, I don’t know what, but… I just thought you should know.”

 

Jim nodded shortly, saying nothing. When Todd was gone, he steered Blair to his room and sat him down on the edge of the bed, pulling off his shoes.

 

“How you doing there, Chief?” he said.

 

“Fine. Just fine,” Blair mumbled, then contradicted himself by falling backwards onto the bed, snoring as soon as he hit the covers.

 

Jim sighed and pulled Blair the rest of the way up onto the bed and with some difficulty stripped off Blair’s shirt and jeans, leaving him in his boxers. He covered Blair warmly and turned out the lights. He hesitated for a long moment, then couldn’t resist the impulse to bend down and brush a light kiss on Blair’s temple.

 

“Good night, Chief,” he whispered.

 

             

 

By the time Blair woke the next morning, Jim, already dressed and ready to leave as soon as he finished eating, had Blair’s “hangover tea” brewed and waiting, together with a light breakfast of toast, juice and fresh strawberries. Blair came stumbling out, looking endearingly mussed, rubbing his eyes.

 

“Please, God, Jim,” he muttered. “No lectures, no scolding, just let me brew a cup of – “

 

“Tea?” Jim offered, putting the cup in his hand. “Watch it, it’s hot.”

 

“Oh, Jim, man, thank you, you’re the greatest,” Blair groaned happily, sipping the tea cautiously. “Hey, you’re dressed and – “ He grimaced. “Oh, shit. I forgot, we have an early shift. Shit, I’ll get a shower and – “

 

“Slow down, Chief, slow down,” Jim said mildly. “I made you breakfast, you’ve got your tea. Take your time, go back to bed if you want. There’s nothing much on at the station today as far as I know, so come in later for the stakeout if you want, don’t if you don’t, okay?”

 

“Oh, man, bless you,” Blair groaned, forcing down another sip of tea and sitting down at the table. “Oh, man, thank you so – “

 

Then as his ass made contact with the chair, he winced visibly and his eyes flew open wide.

 

“Oh, no,” he whispered.

 

Jim put down his coffee.

 

“What’s the matter?” he said quickly.

 

Blair ignored him completely, putting his tea down on the table and dashing for the bathroom as though somebody had set him on fire. Jim listened, waiting to hear the sound of Blair vomiting, but what he heard was something else entirely.

 

Rustle of cloth against skin.

 

“Oh, God, no,” Blair moaned. “Oh, shit, I can’t believe I really did it. Oh, man, please let this be a hallucination, tell me I didn’t really do it – “

 

Drunk. Winced when he sat down. “Tell me I didn’t really do it.”

 

Jim’s heart dropped into his shoes.

 

He slept with a man. Some man fucked my Blair last night, and Blair let him. Blair held him close and moaned his name instead of mine.

 

Jim felt sick, tired. Lost.

 

Blair wandered out of the bathroom and sat down again, more slowly this time. He didn’t look exactly hale and hearty either. In fact he looked a combination of totally miserable and totally embarrassed.

 

“Uh – Jim, did you put me to bed last night?” he mumbled, not raising his eyes.

 

“Uh-huh.”

 

Blair swallowed.

 

“Thanks, man,” he said in a small voice. “Uh, you didn’t – uh – take my boxers off or anything, did you?”

 

Jim swallowed a bitter laugh. Some drunken pickup was good enough to fuck, but he was worried that Jim had seen him naked.

 

“No. Of course not.”

 

“Oh.” Blair sighed with relief. An awkward silence ensued.

 

Jim stirred his coffee listlessly.

 

“So who was it?” he asked quietly.

 

Blair shrugged absently.

 

“Some guy with a shop next to Spokes,” he said, picking up his tea. “We were drinking there, and I saw the sign and I guess it seemed like a good idea at – “ Blair glanced up sharply, fear flashing through his eyes. “I thought you said – “

 

“I mean, what’s his name?” Jim said, more sharply than he’d intended.

 

“Man, I don’t know his name,” Blair said impatiently. “Look, Jim, I just want to know if – “

 

“Jesus, Sandburg,” Jim said disgustedly. “That’s got to be a new low even for you. You let some guy fuck you and you didn’t even find out his name?” He regretted the words as soon as they came out of his mouth, hating himself instantly.

 

Blair’s jaw dropped and his face drained of all color.

 

“You think – “ he gasped. “You think I – “

 

Then his face flooded with color, an angry red flush.

 

“Jesus, Jim,” he said coldly. “I knew you think I’m, like, a major slut, but I didn’t know you ranked me right down there with the pond scum.”

 

Jim swallowed. He’d overreached himself, that was for sure.

 

“Look, I – “

 

“Not that it’s any of your business,” Blair said between clenched teeth, “but no, I didn’t let some guy fuck me. Nor did I fuck some guy. In fact, no fucking of any sort went on with me last night.”

 

Jim didn’t stop to think; if he stopped to think, he’d talk himself into retreating. He sat down at the table and reached over, laying his hand on Blair’s arm.

 

“I’m sorry,” he said humbly. “Chief, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that. No, I guess I meant to say it. But it was a shitty thing to say, and I am so, so sorry. Please. I’m sorry. I just – “ Love you? Need you so much I can hardly bear it? Want you so badly that it hurts? Got incredibly jealous? “ – worry about you sometimes,” Jim finished awkwardly.

 

Blair just nodded, not looking up.

 

“Look, I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions,” Jim said softly. “It’s just – sore ass, got falling-down drunk last night, and then you were saying, ‘Oh, God, I can’t believe I did it’ and talking about some guy next door to Spokes – “

 

Blair didn’t look up, but the corner of his mouth twitched in what looked suspiciously like a grin. Then he chuckled softly.

 

“Yeah, I can see how that conclusion might have appeared within jumping range,” he admitted with a sigh. “And I admit that my past love life might give you a push in that direction, too.” Then he looked up, met Jim’s eyes with his own rather bloodshot ones. “But nothing went on last night – nothing like that, anyway. Just a bunch of drunken grad students carrying on like idiots.”

 

Jim swallowed.

 

“Uh, Chief?” he said softly. “Are you aware that Spokes is a gay bar?”

 

Blair nodded.

 

“Yeah, Gary and Chad are gay, and they had their dates with them,” he said. “Since they had dates, they wanted to go somewhere where they could dance…“ Blair looked up at Jim. “You thought I was cruising there or something?”

 

Jim felt his own face heat.

 

“Uh. Not really. I doubt you ever have to go cruising. I mean, women seem to throw themselves at your feet. I’m sure guys probably would too.” I know I would. I’d give a year off my life to suck those toes, nibble those perfect ankles –

 

Blair chuckled a little sadly.

 

“Yeah, well, Casanovas like us, the ones who throw themselves at our feet aren’t generally the ones we wish would,” he said. “Look, Jim, do you suppose I could just quietly nurse my hangover here for a while without any further major recriminations?”

 

“Oh, yeah, sure,” Jim said quickly, relieved beyond measure that Blair seemed to forgive him. Then, “Uh – Chief?”

 

“Hmmm.”

 

“Can I ask – “ Jim hesitated. “What was all that about, then? The wincing, the trip to the bathroom, that stuff?”

 

Blair’s face colored again.

 

“Uh – nothing important, okay? Just a stupid squabble and I got kicked in the ass, and it left a bruise. That’s all.”

 

Lying. Blair was lying. Jim could hear it in his heartbeat, see it in his muscle tension. But he hadn’t smelled anything to concern him – drugs, pot smoke, anything like that; he knew Blair better than that anyway. Come to think of it, Jim hadn’t smelled semen either, just that funny chemical odor, which made his outburst this morning doubly unforgivable.

 

God, this was going to drive him crazy.

 

Blair called just before lunch, saying that his car wouldn’t start and asking Jim if he could pick Blair up. They could have lunch together and Blair would come in for the afternoon stakeout. Jim agreed, glad for the company on the boring stakeout detail, and a thought occurred to him as he pulled the truck out of the parking lot. With a little creative detour, he could drive past Spokes on the way to the loft. He didn’t know what the shop next to the bar had to do with Sandburg’s mysterious morning crisis, but a clue would be nice.

 

Jim remembered Spokes well – during his Vice days he’d done undercover at the bar, and he’d occasionally raided it for admitting juveniles, but he’d never paid much attention to the ever-changing small businesses in the strip around it. Today he looked. South of the bar was a gas station, and north was –

 

Everlasting Love Body Art.

 

Sore ass. Drunk. “I can’t believe I really did it.” The guy in the shop next to Spokes did it. Chemical odor.

 

Sandburg got a tattoo on his butt.

 

Jesus Christ, I got insanely jealous over a fucking tattoo.

 

Jim chuckled, then laughed, then guffawed, bordering on hysteria. No wonder Blair had been so embarrassed.

 

Got in a fight and got kicked in the ass. Riiiiiight.

 

Then he paused.

 

What kind of tattoo got a man with a nipple ring that embarrassed?

 

“I saw the sign and it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

 

Everlasting Love Body Art.

 

“I saw the sign.”

 

Everlasting Love.

 

Jim groaned, his heart dropping. A lover’s name. Sandburg was in love, and he’d had that girl’s name tattooed on his body. Everlasting love.

 

Suddenly, no matter how much it hurt, he had to know. He had to know who had killed his last futile hope. Who had murdered his soul.

 

Jim pulled the truck into a parking space and locked it, walking into the tattoo parlor. A young black man was meticulously cleaning the electric needle with alcohol.

 

Well, at least Sandburg probably won’t get some horrible infection.

 

The young man glanced up at Jim’s entrance and put the needle down.

 

“Afternoon,” he said comfortably. “Looking for a tattoo, or maybe a ring?”

 

“Neither,” Jim said. He pulled out his badge, showed it. “A young man, probably very drunk, came in last night for a tattoo. I need to find out what that tattoo was. Were you working then?”

 

The young man nodded.

 

“Yeah, Officer,” he said. “But I had about five customers last night. Want to get a little more specific?"

 

“You wouldn’t forget this one,” Jim said. “Short, wire-rimmed glasses, long curly hair.”

 

“Oh, yeah, him,” the man grinned. “Yeah, he’s unforgettable, all right. If I swung that way, man, my mouth would be watering. I mean, a guy like that can seriously make a fellow rethink his religion, know what I mean?”

 

Oh, do I ever.

 

“The tattoo?” Jim prompted.

 

“Oh, sure.” The young man nodded. “We worked on the preliminary drawing together because it was a custom job. It’s a beauty, man, if I do say so myself. A real work of art. Hang on a minute.”

 

He shuffled through several sheets of paper in a wicker basket on his desk, then found the one he was looking for, handing it to Jim. Jim took the paper, his heart pounding, afraid to look.

 

Is it Samantha? Or – who was the last one? Kristy? Crystal?

 

He looked down at the paper, and his heart stopped. It wasn’t a girl’s name. In fact, it wasn’t a name at all. Nevertheless, the meaning was perfectly plain.

 

It was a panther, exquisitely detailed, poised as if ready to spring. The panther was drawn over the background of a red gothic letter “J”.

 

Jim’s heart went from his shoes to his mouth in one gigantic leap.

 

Me? Blair – loves – me? God, I can’t believe it! How can it be true? How can it not be true?

 

“Thank you,” Jim said, handing the picture back. “You’ve been a big help.”

 

“You bet,” the young man said easily, giving Jim a wink.

 

Jim drove home, his heart soaring and absurdly light. When some asshole in a sports car cut out dangerously close in front of Jim, he only grinned. Who cared? Sandburg loved him. Loved him.

 

Then a dose of reality drenched Jim like a dash of cold water. Whatever Blair felt about Jim, he could only acknowledge it when he was dead drunk. When he was sober it was a source of embarrassment and denial. Whatever Blair felt, he wasn’t ready to act on it.

 

Then Jim smiled.

 

But maybe with a little, careful push in the right direction…

 

“Man, you’re late,” Sandburg said with open astonishment as Jim opened the door. “You’re never late. I was just about to call your cell phone. Is everything okay? You didn’t, like, zone or something on the way home, did you?”

 

“No, no, Chief, I’m fine,” Jim said, grinning. “I know, I know, I used up most of lunch. Look, we’ll call ahead to the Thai Garden, grab some carryout and eat it at the stakeout, okay? We’ll get enough for dinner, too. My treat.”

 

“Wow,” Blair said, even more surprised. “Cool. Deal, man.”

 

“I really acted like an ass this morning,” Jim apologized. “So consider this atonement. I’ll even throw in a couple sensory tests if you want. It’ll pass the time while we’re sitting there watching the dust gather. This is going to be the world’s most boring stakeout, and probably for nothing, too.”

 

Blair’s eyes widened.

 

“Man, are you serious? What’s with you today? Are you, like, sick or something? You’re late, you’re treating for dinner, we’re eating my favorite food, you’re volunteering for tests – “ His eyes narrowed suspiciously. “You’re about to draft me for some real shit undercover thing, aren’t you?”

 

“No, no, I promise,” Jim said quickly. “Nothing. No shit work, nothing. I’m just sorry for the way I acted this morning, and – you know, you haven’t been around much lately, and I was afraid something was wrong. That you were mad at me or something. So I thought, we’d be at this boring stakeout all night, it’s a good time for me to make some of it up to you, maybe talk. That’s all. I promise.”

 

“Oh.” Blair deflated slightly, flushing. “Okay. I’m sorry, Jim. I mean, I haven’t been mad or anything.” His blush deepened. “There’s just been a few things on my mind, you know, and as Naomi would say, I’ve been processing.”

 

A few things on your mind? I hope it’s just one thing. Just me.

 

“Well, tonight we won’t have anything to do but keep an ear on the bugs and the phone tap,” Jim said. “So we can do all the processing you want.”

 

“Oh, man, you offering to talk? You are, like, seriously spooking me here,” Blair said, shaking his head. “This is looking worse all the time.”

 

He frowned at Jim suspiciously.

 

“I get it. You’re about to go on some dangerous job and you’re going to try to talk me out of going with you. I’m telling you, man, it won’t work.”

 

Jim sighed.

 

“No. No dangerous job, no shit assignments, no eviction notice, no rogue Sentinels, no sensory crises, no nasty surprises whatsoever.” I hope you don’t consider it a nasty surprise. “Okay? Satisfactory?”

 

Blair grinned, that thousand-watt smile that always left Jim weak in the knees.

 

“Cool, man,” he said. “In that case I’m prepared to take full advantage of your apologetic generosity and milk the occasion for all it’s worth.”

 

Oh, Chief, you don’t know how much I hope you will.

 

They picked up two grocery bags and a cooler’s worth of Thai food, snacks and soft drinks, and checked with Rafe and Brown before pulling in the front entrance of the building’s parking garage. The status was much as Jim had expected – Shelburn wasn’t home, and the chances of him showing up anytime in the near future were slim to none. Simon still expected to nail the distributor at his girlfriend’s house.

 

“Have a good evening,” Rafe snickered. “There’s a National Geo special on PBS.”

 

Brown rolled his eyes, nodding in agreement.

 

“No cable,” he groaned. “Have fun. Oh – there’s some leftover pizza in the kitchen.” Then he sniffed, his eyes lighting up. “Hey, you brought Thai. Got enough to share?”

 

“Hey, you can share the food if you want to share the shift,” Blair laughed, clapping the two men on the back as he herded them out the door.

 

When the two detectives were gone, Blair inspected the pizza.

 

“Oh, man, I’m gonna puke,” he said. “You’re not going to believe this.”

 

Jim sniffed and grimaced.

 

“Anchovies, mushrooms and pineapple, right?” he said. “Jesus. Chief, would you mind hauling that out of the apartment so I don’t have to smell it all night?”

 

“My pleasure, man,” Blair agreed, bagging up the remains and taking it out.

 

They settled in for the evening, spreading the cartons of Thai food out on the table. Blair raised his eyebrows as Jim sat down at the table with him.

 

“Don’t you need to watch across the street?” he said, glancing at the telescope in the window.

 

James chuckled.

 

“Go look through it, tell me what you see.”

 

Blair glanced through the eyepiece of the telescope and chuckled ruefully.

 

“Blinds,” he said.

 

“Exactly,” Jim said, nodding. “And curtains inside the blinds. Shelburn’s paranoid as hell. That telescope’s a ‘just in case’. Maybe he’ll open the blinds and curtains if he comes home tonight, which is a big if.”

 

“Couldn’t you get any cameras inside?” Blair asked, surprised.

 

Jim grinned wryly.

 

“Not a chance,” he said. “That place is locked up and wired like Fort Knox. We were lucky to get one informant in there to make a buy, and damned lucky he managed to plant the two bugs. The maintenance man in the lobby or the watchman in the parking garage will buzz me if Shelburn shows up. So in the meantime, all we can do is sit here, monitor the bugs and the phone tap – either of which I’ll hear if they emit the faintest peep – and eat our dinner.”

 

“And do a few tests,” Blair added quickly. “You promised.”

 

Jim rolled his eyes in mock dismay.

 

“Yeah, yeah, I remember,” he said as resignedly as he could manage. “Apology, atonement, I get it. What the hell, it beats National Geographic.”

 

“Bite your tongue,” Blair chuckled.

 

I’d rather bite yours.

 

“All right, all right, tests,” Jim sighed. He knew he hadn’t given Blair time to make anything up in advance, so this played perfectly into his plans. “What did you have in mind?”

 

“Well, we’ll have to see what I can invent,” Blair said a little sheepishly. “I didn’t have much of a chance to come up with anything before we left. I can pull one out of my sleeve, though – “

 

I’d rather you pulled it out of your pants.

 

“Your panang curry there,” Blair said, gesturing to the container Jim was eating out of. “I told the chef to add just a little of a spice that doesn’t usually go into that particular dish. What is it?”

 

Jim shrugged.

 

“Easy,” he said. “Nutmeg. He went a little heavy on the fish sauce, too.”

 

Blair grinned and pulled out his notebook, scribbling notes.

 

“Great,” he said. “Now for my other surprise.” He pulled two small squares of folded-up Kleenex from his left and right back pockets. “When I slapped Rafe and Brown on the back, I had one of these squares in each hand. I want you to tell me which is which.”

 

Jim fought to keep from cracking a grin; Blair had just set himself up perfectly. He sniffed one square, then the other.

 

“This one’s Brown,” he said, tossing the square aside and wrinkling his nose. “Gaaah. Somebody should tell that man not to let his nephew pick his aftershave. This one’s Rafe – huh?”

 

He sniffed again, wrinkling his forehead.

 

“Betadine ointment and – what’s that? I smelled that in the loft this morning, didn’t recognize it, but it’s kind of familiar – “

 

Blair’s face flushed bright red.

 

“Uh, Jim, that’s good, I think we can call that a successful – “

 

“Now, where have I smelled that before?” Jim mused. “Seems like it goes back to my days in Vice when… hmmm…“

 

“That’s fine, Jim,” Blair said hurriedly. “Now let’s move on to – “

 

“That’s it!” Jim smacked his hand on the table triumphantly. “Ink. Tattoo ink, to be precise. And since Rafe hasn’t been in the loft for almost a month, it had to be – “ His eyebrows shot up. “A tattoo? Is that what all the shit about your ass was? You got a tattoo?”

 

Blair groaned, burying his face in his folded arms.

 

“Oh, shit, oh, shit, oh, shit,” he muttered. “Now I’m never going to hear the end of it. Never. Jim, man – “ He raised his head, his eyes pleading. “Look. I will call this morning a draw, man, everything’s forgiven and forgotten, if you will just please, please, please not tell anybody else about it.”

 

Jim sat back thoughtfully.

 

“Mmmm, I don’t know, Chief,” he said, smiling slowly. “This is almost too good a chance to pass up.”

 

“Oh, man, come on,” Blair pleaded. “I already get it morning, noon and night at the station about the hair, about my height, my glasses, my car, my love life, what I eat, how I talk – come on, man, leave me one, just one little shred of dignity. Please?”

 

Blair was giving Jim his best puppy-dog eyes, and Jim could never, ever resist that expression. Still – he was about to hold out until Blair threw in no tests for a month, until he realized that that offer, which he could see ready to drop from Blair’s lips, would completely ruin his own plans for the evening.

 

“Okay, okay,” Jim said with feigned reluctance. “I won’t tell anyone. I won’t even hint. But in return

– “

 

“Anything, man,” Blair said hastily. “I’ll clean the bathroom every day for a month, I’ll wash your truck, no more te- -- “

 

“ – I want to see it,” Jim said wickedly.

 

All the color drained out of Blair’s face. He swallowed hard, dropping his eyes.

 

“No.”

 

“No?” Jim was a little taken aback. “Just like that? No? You’re willing to clean the bathroom every night for a month but you won’t let me see which girlfriend is memorialized forever on your skin?”

 

This time the puppy-dog eyes were down to an art form.

 

“Jim, man, ask something else, anything else,” Blair pleaded. “Look, I just can’t. I can’t.”

 

Jim rolled his eyes.

 

“All right,” he said. “I’ll tell you what – I’ll make you a deal. Remember the last test we did on touch, the one where you made me try to read type off a page with my fingers?”

 

Blair consulted his notebook.

 

“Yeah, you could read the heat differential between the black and white,” he said. “You did it pretty easily, too. What about it?”

 

“Let me try to read the tattoo off your skin,” Jim suggested slyly. When Blair’s eyebrows shot up, he added hastily, “It’s a harder test, isn’t it? With no light touching it, and with the warmth of your skin under the ink, and less contrast between different colors, it should be much more difficult.”

 

“That wouldn’t be difficult,” Blair chuckled despite his embarrassment. “That would be impossible.”

 

“Well, I think I can do it,” Jim said smugly. “So. If I can’t figure out what the tattoo is – you can even give me a time limit, say ten seconds? – then I’ll never even mention it again, no teasing, nothing. But if I can figure it out, you have to show it to me. And I still will never tell anybody, either way. Deal?”

 

Blair bit his lip, his turmoil showing plainly, and Jim knew he had his Guide right where he wanted him. The risk was small enough, the gain incalculable in terms of pride. It was, after all, an impossible test.

 

“Well – “ Blair blushed. “Uh, Jim, you do realize where this tattoo is? I mean, you wouldn’t want to reconsider?”

 

Jim chuckled.

 

“Sorry, Chief, but my spirit animal is a big cat, and he’s about to die of curiosity. Is it a deal?”

 

Blair sighed miserably.

 

“Okay,” he said. “It’s a deal. Ten seconds.” He swallowed heavily. “Uh – would you mind washing your hands first?”

 

Jim laughed.

 

“Wouldn’t I more generally be expected to wash my hands afterwards?” he teased.

 

Blair grimaced.

 

“Come on, man,” he said. “Freshly tattooed butt cheek, as in sore and irritated skin? Thai food, as in hot peppers? Am I getting through here?”

 

Jim grinned sympathetically.

 

“I see your point, Chief.” He made a show of scrubbing his hands thoroughly. “Ready?”

 

Blair swallowed, pulling his t-shirt out of his sweat pants. His entire face and neck was crimson with embarrassment.

 

“I hope you realize this is blackmail,” he muttered.

 

“’Blackmail’ is such an ugly word, Chief,” Jim chuckled softly. “Come on. Either way, it goes no further than us, so what’s the big deal?”

 

Blair swallowed heavily.

 

“It’s a bigger deal than you think,” he whispered. “Come on, let’s get this over with, okay?”

 

Blair’s utter misery sent a pang through Jim’s heart; he almost decided to call the whole thing off.

 

No, oh, no, he thought. This is too important. I’m sorry, Chief. This is our future we’re talking about here. It’s worth a little embarrassment and a little trickery.

 

“You want to give me like a target area here, Chief?” Jim asked softly. “Unless you’d rather I slide my hand all over your bare ass looking for it, that is.”

 

Blair swallowed again, and this time Jim smelled something that wasn’t ink, wasn’t aftershave or Betadine or the cedar balls that Rafe kept in his closet, something that told Jim it was going to be all right after all. The first faint musky scent of Blair’s arousal.

 

“Right – “ Blair’s voice was shaking; he steadied it. “Here.” He pointed to an area just behind and below his left hipbone.

 

“Okay.” Thankfully Jim had slightly better control of his voice. He gently pulled the waistband of Blair’s sweatpants and his boxers away from his skin. “Tell me if I’m hurting, Chief.”

 

Blair’s heart rate went through the roof as Jim’s fingertips slid slowly under Blair’s boxers, down the fevered skin of his hip (furnace hot, inflammation, irritation, desire?). Blair was trembling hard, his eyes locked on Jim’s as if to make sure he didn’t cheat and look, but Jim could smell the musk of Blair’s desire increase, and if he looked down he knew there would be more to see in the front of Blair’s sweatpants than behind. Jim easily found the greater warmth of the irritation from the tattoo and kept his touch very light; he took pity on Blair, closing his eyes. Have to make it a fair test, after all.

 

“It’s not a name,” Jim murmured with fake surprise. “I thought it would be some girl’s name. No, wait, there’s a letter, but there’s something over it.”


GO TO PART 2