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Moonridge Story: Tough Love

Hey, this is the third slash story that I offered in the auction ... and it was posted just under the wire with only about three days before the auction ended. Janet, who gave me the story concept, bless her, also won it with a terrific bid of something like $126! She's read it already and asked me to share it with everyone.

And I guess this is a good time to also let you know that my TS slash site has come down because Max, my wonderful webmaster, has too many wonderful and exciting things going on in his life to maintain his fannish sites. So, Ari's Aerie is gone. I'll have a new site but it may be awhile. For now, I'll post new stories here. Oh, and I also need to tell you that StarWatcher hasn't had a chance to beta this yet, but I think it's in reasonable shape. I'll post it in three parts.

On to the story!

TOUGH LOVE

by Arianna

Inspired by Janet, this story takes place after Night Shift, but before Sentinel, Too.

And dedicated to Janet for her truly incredible generosity in encouraging my work by winning this second story in the Friends of Garett Moonridge Online Auction 2006

**


“Smart-ass kids. They’re playing with us, Chief. ‘Bodies for Hire’; yeah, right,” Jim snarled with contemptuous frustration as he slammed the truck’s door and jammed his key into the ignition. Glaring disdainfully out the windshield at the small, storefront student employment office they’d just left, his jaw clenched angrily. “I’m going to nail them.”

Blair flicked a surprised look at his partner and shook his head at the vehemence as he fastened his seatbelt. “Chill out, man,” he recommended and threw up his hands in a calming gesture when Jim transferred the icy glare to him. “Look,” he sighed, eminently reasonable, “there’s nothing to suggest this operation is anything other than what they claim to be – an agency run by students to help other students find part-time work.”

“Give me a break,” Ellison growled with a sharp gesture toward the sign. “With a name like that? It’s blatant pimping for prostitution.”

Sandburg snorted and then grinned whimsically, “Actually, I think it’s kinda catchy.”

“You would,” he retorted nastily.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Blair challenged, sounding offended.

“You’re a smart guy; you figure it out,” Jim grated, as he abruptly pulled into the traffic lane, eliciting a honk from behind.

“Geez, Jim, watch it!” Blair exclaimed as he clutched at the dash for balance and grimaced at the near collision. “Man, what is your problem?”

“My problem is there is a major new prostitution ring in play that’s using students, a lot of them probably under-aged and all of them at risk,” he rasped harshly. “How so many supposedly smart college kids could be so criminally stupid as to get mixed up in this is the real mystery here.”

“Stupid?” Blair echoed, his gaze narrowing.

“Yes, stupid,” he insisted in disgust. “These aren’t street kids hustling for food, Sandburg, prostituting themselves to survive. These college kids are probably doing it for kicks. Think it’s ‘cool’ or some dumb-assed thing – or they’re just plain greedy, trying to make a big score.” He seethed for a moment in silence and then continued furiously, “And those other kids back there, running the place, pretending to be so keen and innocent are pimping their peers – selling them – and no doubt getting rich doing it.” Cutting a hard look at his partner, he vowed, “I’m gonna bring them down.”

“Sounding a little like a vigilante here, big guy,” Blair observed bitingly. “Aren’t you taking this just a bit too personally?”

“What?” Jim exploded, wheeling the truck to the curb and turning furiously on his partner. “Vigilante? Too personally? Where the hell do you get off? In case you haven’t noticed in the last three years, it’s my job to arrest law-breakers.”

Blair’s eyes flashed angrily at the patronizing and heavily sarcastic tone. “I know that,” he retorted. “Of course I know that. My point here is that these are students trying to pay some bills and there’s nothing –”

“Just on hold on,” Jim cut in harshly. “You sound like you think what they’re doing is okay. What planet do you live on? Yeah, they’re students – and they should be studying, or writing papers, or maybe even out having fun with other students, figuring out how to be grown-ups because they sure as hell don’t have a clue about responsibility or about making some kind of contribution. These kids have got it so damned good. But do they appreciate that, huh? Oh, no, no – they have to go out and break the law, thumbing their noses at us all the way. They’re gloating, Sandburg. Think they’re smarter than dumb cops. Think they have some right to do whatever the hell they want, regardless of consequences. Just to make a few bucks and have a few thrills.”

Blair stared at him, his expression flattening as he listened to the rant. His lips pressed together, as if holding back a flood of words, and then he deliberately looked away, staring out at the street. Jim gave a tight shake of his head and then pulled back into traffic. When Blair didn’t say anything after half a mile, Jim gave him another quick, derisive glance. “What?” he demanded impatiently, spoiling for a fight.

He’d been furious when Simon had dumped this piss-ant case on him, just because the Mayor had her panties in a twist over prostitution in the city. This case belonged to Vice, pure and simple. Major Crime detectives were supposed to go after major criminals, not small-time hustlers like this operation. But what the Mayor wanted the Mayor got, and she wanted him on this case. Well, fine. Then he’d do his thing and wrap it up and get back to real work. The fact that the perps were probably university students who should know better was only icing on the cake, tipping his irritation at the abuse of power into real anger.

When Sandburg ignored him with the studied patience of a parent dealing with a tantrum, he transferred his aggravation onto his partner, prodding sarcastically, “You want to believe that they’re what they claim to be, don’t you? Or even if I’m right, you want to think that these kids are just experimenting or whatever with sex. But they’re not like you, Sandburg; there’s no such thing as free love any more. Everything comes with a price tag.”

Wincing at the cutting tone, Blair swallowed more words and closed his eyes briefly as he very evidently struggled to bring his temper under control. When he did speak, his tone was carefully level, deliberately non-provocative. “Okay, okay. You’re right. Prostitution is not only illegal, it’s dangerous. And, while it would be nice if you just said so, I’m guessing that in the absence of any evidence whatsoever you’re so positive of their guilt because you picked up something while we were questioning them. You could sense they were lying, right?”

“You got it,” Jim affirmed with almost feral satisfaction, marginally appeased that Blair was finally taking him seriously. “Heart rate, respirations, sweat … lying like a rug. Now we just have to prove it.”

“Right,” Blair sighed with a stiff, shallow nod. “Phone records to match against legitimate employers looking for workers versus calls from individuals to look for patterns; stakeouts and tailing to see where the students go when they report for work … and we’ll probably see them trot off to the local mini-mart or donut shop to work the counter, or bar to wait tables, or docks to unload cargo. And let me make another wild guess – you want me to sniff around at Rainier, don’t you? To see if I can pick up any gossip or get students talking about the joys of getting rich by sleeping around. God, like I don’t have enough to do already.” Raking his hair back with taut fingers, he muttered, “We’d need an army to put this case together.”

Jim rolled his eyes at the whining. Sandburg was his partner. If he was stuck with this stupid case, so was Blair, and the sooner it was resolved the better. “You seem to be lacking in enthusiasm, Sandburg.” When Blair didn’t answer but turned his face away to stare out the side window, Jim studied him speculatively for a moment and then jibed, “You’re thinking about Amber, aren’t you? Getting all bent out of shape about how sorry you felt for her, even though you hated the idea of her hooking. Don’t think I don’t know that it didn’t bug you that she was turning tricks. You knew then and you know now that she knew what she was doing was against the law and made her choices, just exactly like these kids are doing. They don’t care and they’re too arrogant to think they’ll get caught.”

Blair’s lips compressed and he crossed his arms. “Give it a rest,” he said hollowly. “I get it already. They’re breaking the law. And some of them are probably under-age, and I agree that if only for that reason alone, it’s got to be stopped.”

Jim quirked a brow at the tone but shrugged. Sandburg obviously wasn’t going to satisfy him with a fight, but he took some comfort from the fact that now they were both irritated with this case assignment. If Sandburg wanted to sulk because he pretty much considered prostitution a victimless crime, or because it was the oldest profession, or whatever, that was no skin off his nose. They rode in silence for the rest of the way back to the PD. However, once they got there and headed upstairs, Blair seemed to get over his snit and he did what he could for the rest of the afternoon to help Jim troll through phone records to try to find something that might give them a lead.

At the end of the day when they returned to the parking garage and were heading to their respective vehicles, Blair said he had some stuff to do at Rainier before going home, adding he’d see if he could pick up on anything that would help. As he got into the Volvo, he called casually, “Depending on how it goes, I might be late. I’ll grab something to eat at the Student Union cafeteria; don’t wait up.”

“Happy hunting,” Jim replied sardonically, gratified that Blair really did seem to have decided to do as much as he could to help break the case. “Just don’t stay out all night.” Sandburg gave him a wry smile as he started up the car and pulled out.

Still, late that evening when it was time to hit the sack, Jim wasn’t happy to go to bed alone. In the last year, he’d gotten used to having Sandburg curl up against him on the nights Blair didn’t have to slave over his computer doing research or writing lectures, or over stacks of papers or exams to meet grading deadlines. He missed the kid when he wasn’t there. Grimacing as he rolled on his side and punched his pillow into a more comfortable shape, he had to admit, he also missed the sex. Sandburg was a man in his sexual prime and was pretty much insatiable; most nights when they retired together they enjoyed a very satisfying romp before the lights went out.

However, he could hardly complain when Blair was out chasing down leads on his behalf.

Closing his eyes, he consoled himself with the thought that his partner would be half-sprawled over him when he woke up, and he went to sleep smiling in anticipation of starting the day in his favourite way.

**

Blair tossed the green marking pen down on his desk blotter and wearily leaned back in his chair. Raking his hair off his face, he cast a dyspeptic eye over the stack of papers that still required grading.

But it wasn’t the school work that had him feeling tense and out of sorts.

He rolled his shoulders, stretched his arms over his head and swiveled to put some energizing music into the player behind him. Best thing about working late was that he didn’t have to worry about listening at whatever volume he chose. His body subtly moving to the thrumming beat, he rifled in the desk drawer for a granola bar, and then poured another mug of coffee from the maker behind him. Standing, he wandered to the window to look out at the darkness as he munched and sipped. He didn’t know what time it was exactly, only that it was late. His lips thinned as he thought about the hours he’d spent at the Student Union building earlier that evening, hours that would cost him a good part of the night to catch up with his own work. But he shrugged philosophically and ambled back to the desk, moving with unconscious grace in time with the music. Hopefully, if the ideas that had occurred to him while he’d chatted up grad students and a few still working on their first degree panned out, those hours wouldn’t have been wasted.

Sitting down, he tossed the empty wrapper in the trash and topped up his mug. For a moment, he let his mind drift … and, as usual, when left on its own, his mind drifted to Jim. He smiled, but wistfully, sadness in his eyes. He wanted to help Jim any way he could but … but he had mixed feelings about trolling for clues amongst other students at the university. He always felt like a bit of a spy or traitor or something. Police work wasn’t his job, but he could rationalize what he did, sort of, as an exercise in citizenship. In not standing aside where crimes were being committed when he could do something to help stop them.

But … another but … he knew what it was to be scrambling for money, trying to make ends meet for years and years. Knew what it felt like to run short and wonder how he was going to eat for a few days and, sometimes, where he was going to sleep. Shaking his head, he recalled Jim’s vehemence earlier that day, his determination to go after these kids, whoever they were.

And he wondered if Jim had a fine clue about how hard it was for some people to survive in college.

Frankly, he very much doubted it.

And he hoped he was right, he really did. He didn’t like to think about Jim being that scared, not that he could easily imagine someone so self-sufficient being afraid about something as simple as affording enough to eat. But, man, sometimes Jim’s confidence and assurance seemed arrogant and cold; sometimes his sanctimonious certainty was hard to swallow. Recalling his irritation at his partner’s ire that afternoon, he scraped his palms over his face and thought briefly of the fear he’d seen spark in Jim’s eyes the first day they’d met, here in the office. Rubbing his arms, remembering Jim’s rough grip that day, he swallowed and sighed. Jim had suffered a lot in other ways – more than enough, more than most – without having had to go hungry.

Forcing his thoughts back to the stack of exams on his desk, he returned to work. Hours later, finally finished, stiff from hunching over the papers for so long, he stood and stretched, cracking the bones in his spine. Briefly, he thought about going home, but he had an early class. He needed at least four hours of sleep to function and, if he stayed in the office overnight, that was about as much as he was going to get.
The drive to the loft and then getting up early enough to drive right back again would eat up nearly an hour of time he just couldn’t afford to lose.

Grimacing regretfully, profoundly wishing he was home with Jim, he slumped onto the ancient, battered couch, drew a knitted afghan over his body and, clutching its edge under his chin, was asleep in seconds.

**

Jim woke with a frown, aware that he was alone before he was even fully conscious, and not at all happy about that fact. Glancing at the pillow beside him, he grimaced to see its pristine surface. No head heavy with curls had rested upon it last night. Listening, he could easily tell that Blair was nowhere in the apartment.

With a low, inarticulate grunt, he glanced at his watch and was shaking his head in annoyance when he reached for the phone, punching in the number that was more familiar than his own.

He listened to several rings before the receiver was fumbled, and a groggy, sleep-hoarse voice mumbled, “Jim? Hey, man – what time izit?

Listening to a massive yawn, Jim rolled his eyes and reported, “Seven-thirty A.M.”

“Oh, man, thanks for waking me,” Blair replied, sounding slightly more awake. Jim could hear a palm rubbing a stubbled cheek, and then the click of the distant coffee maker being turned on, as his partner continued, “I’ve got an eight o’clock class. Good thing I’ve got my notes all ready for it – I just barely have time for a shower and shave.”

“Why didn’t you make it home?” he asked then, trying not to sound aggrieved just, er, curious.

“Well,” Blair replied through another yawn, “I did some asking around and listening for a good part of last evening, trying to run down some possible leads. An’ I think I’ve got a couple ideas, Jim. But I still had to grade those papers and get the results transcribed for posting. Didn’t finish until after three A.M. Didn’t seem like much point in goin’ home just to turn around’n come back, ya know?”

Nodding to himself, regret flaring that Blair had given so much time he couldn’t really spare just to help him out, he replied morosely, “I guess.” He paused and then probed, “Possible leads?”

“Yeah, or at least a place to start looking – or rather people to start watching,” Sandburg replied, but his voice was distant as if his attention was elsewhere. “Look, Jim, sorry, man, but I have got to run if I’m going to make my class. I’ll get to your office by 10:30 and I’ll run my ideas by you then, okay?”

“Guess it’ll have to be,” he replied, knowing he sounded churlish and regretting it. “It’ll be fine,” he added to soften the impatient words and tone.

“‘Kay, Jim,” Blair agreed, sounding harried. “See ya soon. Love ya.”

And then he was gone, no doubt rushing for the showers at the gym on his way to the lecture theatre.

Jim sighed as he hung up and rubbed the last of sleep out of his eyes. Moodily, he rose and went in search of his own shower and coffee, the easy, reflexive, “Love ya,” still echoing in his ears … and heart. They’d been lovers, sort of, since they’d gotten home from the Cyclops oil rig a year ago. He’d still been quaking inside about how close it had come – like the year before, when he’d believed the elevator in the Wilkinson Tower had blown – too close. Both times. Too damned close. And there had been other close calls, other memories that he flinched away from, not wanting to deal with, let alone examine, how those memories, those moments, made him feel.

But there was something about Blair’s insistence upon ensuring every micro-drop of oil had been removed from every inch of skin, without leaving any rash or irritation behind, combined with his abject relief that Sandburg hadn’t blown up that night, that had tripped them over some kind of invisible line. Before they knew it, their touches were more intimate, then more demanding, their breathing heavy, arousal clear – and they just kinda became, uh, bosom buddies. Jim’s lips twisted at the euphemism, but he hated the alternative, ‘fuck buddies’. They were more than that – they were firm friends, and loyal – if unofficial – partners in every way before they’d been caught in a heat that overwhelmed them both.

But they hadn’t talked much about it and they hadn’t made it exclusive. Nor had they made it public. Blair still kept all his gear in the little room under the stairs. He even slept there sometimes, if not often, when he worked late over papers or his computer and, most pointedly, when calling it an early night before the weekly poker game was quite over. They’d mutually decided to keep the truth of their relationship a secret to save them both a lot of complications Jim just didn’t need at work.

Or, as if there wasn’t somewhere more comfortable for him to spend the night, he ostensibly traded the futon for the sofa on the rare occasions that Naomi was visiting – to protect his mother from the knowledge that he was sleeping on a pretty regular basis with a pig.

Or, uh, when Jim brought other company home … but then Blair tended to disappear for the night.

No, they’d not talked about any of it.

Oh, Sandburg probably would have been willing to talk – that kid could talk at the drop of a hat or sideways look. But Jim wasn’t ready to talk. Wasn’t really sure what he wanted to say. Didn’t know if he trusted what had happened, what was happening between them.

Didn’t know if he believed the easy way Blair said, “Love ya.”

Hadn’t said those words yet himself.

But feel them? Oh, well, now that was a whole other matter.

Which was why he figured he had to be careful, very careful, to keep it all … casual. No big deal.

Because if he admitted how he felt, how exclusive he wanted their relationship to be, he’d be leaving himself wide open. He could just imagine the gaping look of appalled amazement on his buddy’s face that would reveal, once and for all, that from Blair’s perspective their liaison was fun and great an’all – but it was only a passing thing, right? A temporary convenience. Nothing real. Not really real. Nothing forever.

Nothing was ever forever. Nothing. Most especially love.

Jim signed as he lathered his face, and asked himself the same question he’d been asking himself for a long time now: why on God’s green earth would Sandburg want to stay with an aging cop for the rest of his life? And gave himself the same answer: once Blair had exhausted his fascination with ‘the sentinel’, he’d be on his way – and who could blame him?

But, God, he didn’t want to blow what they had. Didn’t want to hear that it wasn’t real, wasn’t forever. He wanted to enjoy it as long as he could, and didn’t want to jinx it with a lot of pointless talk that would take them down a road to a fork that he didn’t want to see. Inevitably, they’d get there soon enough when Blair finally wrote his damned paper and they shook hands and went their separate ways.

**

During his drive downtown, Blair mulled over his idea about the kids most likely to be involved in the student prostitution ring – if there even was such a ring and the information Jim had been given when he’d been assigned the case was accurate. Sighing, he grimaced and shook his head. He really, really did not like the idea of pointing a finger at kids who might not be doing anything wrong – but then he tried to console himself that if they were doing nothing wrong, then there’d be nothing to find out about them.

Except they’d be invading the students’ privacy by searching school, tax and bank records and tailing them.

But if they were breaking the law ….

His thoughts went round and round and round, going nowhere fast.

Tapping his fingertips on the steering wheel while he waited for a light to change from red to green, he tried to quell his roiling emotions. But it wasn’t just the whole student thing. That was just the latest … irritation? Anxiety? Potential source of conflict with Jim? Distraction from what really bothered him, right down to the core of his soul?

Which was, he sighed despondently, that he loved Jim with every fiber of his being but Jim didn’t love him back, not the same way. Or at least he was pretty sure it wasn’t the same way. His lips tightened as he thought about Lila and that pretty veterinarian up at Clayton Falls. Not to mention a woman who was married to the mob, a Russian emigrant, and a Fish and Wildlife Agent. Oh, sure, he’d gone on dates, too, and he winced as he thought of Iris and frowned when he thought about Katie and her daughter, Rachel. He’d tried to convince himself that he might be able to make a life with them but, when they’d had to relocate under the Witness Protection Program, he hadn’t mourned their loss as he would have if he’d really cared deeply. Still, he wondered if Jim had noticed that he hadn’t actually slept with anyone else since … well, since their first time, when they’d gotten home from the Cyclops Oil rig.

God, he felt like such a fool when he remembered that fateful night. He’d thought that … that it was more than it had evidently – obviously – been. He’d been deliriously happy; had thought that Jim was showing him that he loved him as much as he loved Jim. Wanted to be with him as much, for, like, ever. His eyes burned and he blinked furiously to clear them. He’d been such an idiot. As he’d realized the first time Jim had … well, no point in going there. But it all boiled down to the fact that he was … well, he didn’t know what he was, exactly, in Jim’s life. More than a friend, less than a beloved life partner. Somewhere uncomfortably in-between.

For going on two years now, he’d told himself he shouldn’t be surprised. After all, why would Jim want to hook up with a ‘neo-hippie, witchdoctor punk’ for the rest of his life? And he’d told himself just to be damned glad and grateful that he had as much as he did with Jim. Those memories, when it was all over and done, would have to keep him warm for the rest of his life.

But he could tell himself to buck-up and get over it and be an adult, for God’s sake, until he was blue in the face. It didn’t change anything. Didn’t take away the hurt when Jim brought someone else home – or didn’t come home at all because he was with ‘her’, whichever ‘her’ it was. Didn’t diminish the bone deep sorrow of knowing it all had to end and, probably, as each day passed, sooner now rather than later. The signs were there, clear to see. Jim was getting tired of him. The trip to Clayton Falls. The way he was working now more closely with Megan, for all his purported annoyance with her, than Jim worked with him anymore. Jim’s furious hostility around the first chapter of his dissertation – however much his friend had tried to whitewash it the next morning.

Man, he did not know what to do about that paper. They were hounding him at Rainier to get it done, already … but when it was done, then what reason would he have to keep hanging around? He’d been stringing his review board along, and still was, for as long as he possibly could. Hell. He didn’t care if he ever finished it, so long as it meant he could stay with Jim, and keep working with him. But … he couldn’t keep putting it off forever, especially not now, when he knew, just knew, Jim wanted him to be moving on.

Truth be told, he chided himself bitterly, that was part of his guilt over the students, wasn’t it? He was prepared to point fingers at possibly totally innocent people just because he was glad Jim wanted his help, and he hoped he’d be the one Jim would take on the stakeouts. Just so he could be useful again because, God knew, Jim was handling his senses just fine and there wasn’t much reason for him to still be hanging around. He was using the possibility that these kids might be doing something illegal, as much as he hated himself for it, just to spend more time with Jim, when time was fast running out.

God, he was so pathetic.

**

Knowing he was later than he’d promised, Blair dashed off the elevator and loped into the Major Crime Unit. Pasting on the smile and light-hearted demeanor he’d perfected long ago, long before he’d met Jim, actually, to hide thoughts and feelings he had to keep to himself, he skidded to a halt in front of Ellison’s desk. “Hey, man,” he panted, as he let the backpack slip off his shoulder, “sorry I’m late, but students lined up after class to talk to me, and then the traffic was –”

“Save it,” Jim cut in, irritably waving off the usual excuses, “I don’t want to hear it. So what’s this ‘lead’ you’re so hot to share with me?” Glancing at his watch, he added, “I hope it’s worth the time I’ve been waiting to hear it.” When Blair’s animated, cheerful expression immediately morphed into sorrowful uncertainty, he felt like a jerk. Why the hell did he persist in taking out his dissatisfaction with their relationship on the kid, especially when Sandburg was trying so hard – and losing sleep – to help him? Sighing, he rubbed his hands over his face and waved to the chair next to his desk. “Sorry, Chief,” he muttered wearily. “That was uncalled for. It’s just this case is really bugging me – it’s not like this is a major crime situation and Vice should be handling it, so we could be working on more important stuff. But the Mayor wants me on it, so the sooner we solve it, the better. I just want it done.”

“Yeah, I understand,” Blair replied as he slipped into the chair and let the backpack fall to the floor beside him. He raked his hair back and then got started on what he’d figured out the night before, as a starting point, anyway. “Okay. Well, I was thinking about who might be engaged in these illicit activities because they really need the money, you know?”

“Oh, come on – you’re not still on the poor, impoverished student bit, are you?” Jim snorted, his tone scathing.

Blair’s jaw tightened, but he pushed his reaction aside. “Just bear with me, okay?” he cajoled. When Jim nodded skeptically, he continued, “There are some students who need money more than others – the bright ones who rely on scholarships. The ones who are doing really well as undergrads, or working their butts off in grad school but, even though they get tuition and book money, don’t have enough to pay the rent or buy food or cover all the other bills unless they get a job. Traditional ways of making money – waiting tables or working a bar, pick-up part-time work in offices or as lowly attendants at hospitals, even working as teaching assistants, and so on – take a lot of time to make enough money, time they need for studying or research to keep up their grades.”

“So you think they might be looking for opportunities to pick up a fast, good buck?” Jim mused, his eyes narrowing as he considered the idea.

“Exactly,” Blair agreed, spreading out his hands like a magician who’d just conjured doves from a top hat.

“And there’s a way to find out who these allegedly practically starving brain trusts are?” Jim probed, still not convinced.

“Yes, I think so, from the Admin records, tying grades to scholarships in high-priced and really competitive programs, like pre-med, law, engineering and dentistry. And narrowing it down to students who aren’t living at home or in expensive frat or sorority houses, but have to spring for their own accommodation – their addresses on the records will give us that,” he replied earnestly, and then gave a slight grimace. “But … you’ll need a warrant to get the information. And we may need another one, once we’ve got some names, to check bank balances and tax records, to check employers and incomes. Oh, and Administration also has student ID photos on file, so we can do a check to see who might fit the, uh, profile of possible high-priced prostitutes.”

Jim scratched his cheek as he thought about it. “It’s worth a try,” he allowed. “Put together the paperwork to make a convincing case on the probability that this information will lead us to the perps, and I’ll run it by Simon.”

“Okay,” Blair readily agreed, pushing the wheeled chair away from Jim’s desk and rolling over to the next one that wasn’t being used by other detectives. “It’ll take me about half an hour,” he added, as he fired up the computer.

“It’s a good idea, Chief,” Jim acknowledged with solid approval, and was pleased to win a wide, bright sparkling smile in return. So taken was he with the smile that he didn’t notice the wistful gratitude mingled with poignant relief that clouded Blair’s quickly averted eyes.

**

Armed with the first warrant, they made tracks to Rainier, where Blair applied all of his charm and winsomeness to soothing the ruffled feathers of the tall, thin, gray-haired senior administrator who was not happy about having to open student records for such specific searches within the most prestigious faculties. “You can’t be serious!” she exclaimed, gaping at him and glaring at Jim, who was doing his bad cop impersonation with the looming presence and cold stare. “What interest could the police possibly have in some of our best students?”

“It may be nothing,” Blair soothed her, with a quelling glance at his partner. “But Detective Ellison has reason to believe that some nefarious individuals might be misleading these kids – or some of them, anyway – luring them into activities that are of, er, questionable legality by preying on their commitment to good grades and academic achievement.”

Jim sighed. One brow quirked as he looked impatiently down at Blair, and he stuck his tongue firmly in his cheek to keep from biting it or saying anything.

She narrowed her eyes as she studied him and cocked her head before snapping, “Nefarious individuals? Young man, you’ve been watching too many melodramatic movies.”

Jim snorted.

Blair flicked him a ‘give me a break’ look and then grinned at the harridan as he shrugged disarmingly. “Yeah, you could be right about that,” he agreed cheerfully, and then sobered. “But this is serious, Mrs. Shaughnessy. These kids could be in trouble. Better for us to find out now before any of them get seriously hurt. And, uh, well, as I’m sure you know, Detective Ellison’s warrant means that he has a legal right to search the records. You can trust him not to abuse the privilege.”

“And by what right do you, a teaching fellow in this institution, also expect to see these records?” she demanded haughtily.

“Mr. Sandburg is aiding the police in this investigation,” Jim stated repressively. Hard-pressed to keep from snickering, Blair shoved his hands in the front pockets of his jeans, and went back to looking winsome.

She harrumphed and her thin lips twisted, but then she sighed in defeat, and waved them deeper into her domain. Within minutes, Blair had input the search criteria into a computer and was sitting back, waiting for the results to fill the screen. When the names, photographs, grades, scholarship and grant information, and basic tombstone data flashed up, Jim leaned intently over his shoulder as he scrolled down through the pages. One by one, they deleted those living with their next of kin at addresses in the better suburbs, but Jim decided he wanted to retain the ones in fraternity and sorority houses.

“I still think these might be smart-assed kids looking for a thrill and a way to screw the system,” he muttered, sotto voce. Blair shook his head but, conscious of the clerks and Mrs. Shaughnessy watching them like hawks, didn’t waste time arguing in the less than private open office space.

Once they’d also eliminated the students that didn’t have the physical appearance to fit the profile – which were only the really obvious geeks, as most enjoyed the healthy glow of youth coupled with the innate vibrancy of confidence – Jim said, “Print it.”

While they waited for the pages to print out, Jim frowned as he mulled over what they had. “Sixty-two possibles – that’s a good start and we’ll narrow it down further with the financial checks. There could be as many as twenty involved in this racket so, with luck, this will lead us to quite a few, who will lead us to others or, as a minimum, give us enough to shut down the operation.” He paused and pondered a moment more before adding, “None of them are under-aged.”

“Yeah, well, given our search parameters, that’s not surprising,” Blair replied, not having really expected to find any. “Jim, there are very, very few students who start university young enough to still be under eighteen when they’re in their last year of undergrad work, let alone already in graduate school.”

“You were, weren’t you?” he challenged. “And that kid, what was his name? Alex?”

“Yes, but there are only a couple students every few years or so who show that kind of academic promise,” Blair explained with a shrug. “And some, like Alex, decide that they aren’t socially ready and leave for a couple years to go back home, to grow up a little, to have fun with people their own age; and others, like me, are the geeks we eliminated because they didn’t make the attractiveness profile.”

A smile quirked Jim’s lips. “Geek, huh?” When Blair just rolled his eyes, he patted Sandburg’s shoulder as he continued teasingly, “Guess you must’ve slowed down some, huh, from such a ‘promising start’? I mean, to still be working on your doctorate after, what? Thirteen, nearly fourteen years?”

“Slowed down some?” Blair echoed, as he turned away to retrieve the pages from the printer. Nodding slowly, shallowly, he allowed, “Yeah, I guess you could say that.” Quickly slipping the pages into his backpack, he hoisted it over his shoulder and led the way out of the office, calling, “Thank you, Mrs. Shaughnessy. You’ve been very helpful, and we appreciate it.”

A quizzical expression flitted over Jim’s face as he followed his partner into the hallway, wondering at the un-inflected tone and Blair’s failure to joke back. His partner kept up a swift pace, striding a half-step ahead of him along the busy corridor filled with students, to the exit, where he skipped rapidly down the stone steps. But Jim caught him by the arm when they hit the sidewalk, to slow him down. “Chief, I didn’t mean anything back there. I mean about you being in school so long. I know you’ve been stringing out your dissertation to … well, to keep helping me. And I appreciate that.”

“S’okay, Jim,” he returned, his gaze lifting to Jim’s face, though he didn’t quite make eye contact. Glancing away, looking over the campus, he added distantly, “I was a geek when I first got here. And it has been nearly fourteen years.” He shook himself and flashed a smile. “But I know you were just pulling my chain. C’mon, we’ve got to run these financial records before I have to be back here for my evening study group.”

A small frown furrowed Jim’s brow. He felt as if he was missing something in the exchange, but he wasn’t sure what. Letting it go, he briefly slipped his arm around Blair’s shoulder for the first few steps toward the truck, parked at the curb, before giving his lover a light-hearted slap on the back and hastening ahead. Blair was right; running the employment, income and banking checks would take at least the rest of the day.

**

By five PM, they’d run over forty of the kids’ records, and found twenty-three who listed ‘Body for Hire’ as their part-time employer. Blair glanced up at the clock and then logged out of the computer. Jumping to his feet, he hastily inserted his notes into file folders, one for each student. “I gotta go, man,” he said with an apologetic glance at Jim. “I’ve got to do some last minute prep for the study group that starts at six-thirty.”

Standing to take the files Sandburg had been working, to add them to the stack on his own desk, Jim said, “No problem, Chief. We’ve made great progress today – your idea is really panning out.”

“Yeah, well, we might discover they’re all waiting tables or washing windows, man,” Blair cautioned as he hauled on his jacket and hefted his backpack over his shoulder.

“You’re too old to be this innocent, Sandburg,” Jim chided. “Besides, running these kids was your idea.”

“Yeah, I know,” he replied as stoically as he could manage. As he headed past Jim, his partner reached out to catch his arm lightly, staying him for a moment.

“You’ll come home tonight, right?” he asked. His gaze flitting around the office, his voice lowering to more intimate tones, he added, “You could do with a night in a real bed, Chief.”

His gaze sweeping seductively up Jim’s body to meet his lover’s meaningful gaze, Blair couldn’t resist smiling. Didn’t matter that he knew it was all just … convenient. When Jim looked at him like that, made it clear he wanted Blair in his bed, an irrepressible spark of joy flared in his chest and he just felt happy. “That’s the plan, man. Keep a light burning for me.”

Ruffling his curls affectionately, Jim returned the wide smile with one of his own. “Don’t stay out too late, Darwin – this burning the candle at both ends will wear even you out eventually.”

Snickering, Blair ducked away. “Oh, I’m sure you can still remember how it is to be young, Jim. There’s always energy to spare for the really important things in life.”

As he turned to hurry on his way, he grinned at the low sound of Jim’s sardonic chuckle rippling in the air behind him.

**

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