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The Auction, Part III

The storm had passed by before morning, leaving the world sodden, with clouds still scudding menacingly overhead. Watery gray light seeped into the tent and birds began chirping in the trees. The drift of feather-light fingertips along his arm drew Jim from sleep, and he shifted under the unaccustomed weight covering his body – and then woke fully, realizing Blair was still lying on him, their legs entangled. He felt a sense of peace infuse him, and he tightened his embrace around his partner's shoulders and back.

"Well, Toto," Blair murmured, his breath warm against Jim's throat, "I guess we're not in Kansas anymore."

Surprised into a small smile by the words, Jim's gaze searched the roof of the tent. "No, I guess we're not," he replied with gentle, if wry, amusement.

Sighing, Blair stirred and lifted his head. "We can't let anyone know," he said somberly. "Not that I wouldn't really like to take out a full page ad, but with everything else going on right now ... well, people don't need anymore ammunition."

"A lot of people think we've been doing this for years," Jim countered, more for the sake of argument than because he disagreed.

"Thinking isn't knowing," his partner returned. "Maybe someday, if –"

"If?" Jim interjected with a frown, challenge in his tone. "What 'if', Chief?"

Blair's gaze fell away, his eyes hooded by his long lashes and his mouth tightened. "If you decide this is ... is what you really want. If this isn't just a sometimes thing. If ... if you decide that, well, that this is for good."

"If I decide?" he countered, lifting fingers to comb through the wild, unruly curls. When Blair continued to avoid his gaze, but simply nodded slowly to confirm that the decision about where and how far they went on this new road was his alone, his expression softened. The message was pretty clear. Blair had walked away from everything else in his life for him. Blair had told him he loved him; that he was in it 'for the long haul'. Blair had already made his commitment to their partnership abundantly clear. "You proposing to me, Chief?" he asked whimsically, but his gut tightened as he waited for the answer.

A smile lifted the corner of Blair's mouth as his eyes met Jim's. "Yeah, I guess I am," he admitted, searching Jim's eyes. "I can't imagine a life without you. I don't want to imagine that kind of life," he went on, his tone low and poignant. "I want to grow old with you."

His throat constricted with sharp emotion, and he had to blink hard to shed the moisture that swiftly glazed his eyes. Unable to speak for a moment, Jim sniffed and nodded slowly, swallowing convulsively before clearing his throat. Finally, he rasped hoarsely, "I want that, too, Blair. More than anything. I want that, too."

A serene smile illuminated Blair's face and eyes, and his whole body seemed to relax, as if something that had been coiled tightly inside could finally be let loose. He caressed Jim's stubbled cheek with infinite tenderness and then traced a fingertip over Jim's lips, the delicacy of his touch mesmerizing. Then, taking his weight on his hands and knees, he shifted up to look down on Jim's face. Lowering his head, his lips brushed Jim's mouth and then he whispered compellingly, "Make love to me, Jim."

Desire flared, as instantaneous as a flame on a struck match, and as hot. Gripping his partner's shoulders tightly, Jim drew Blair down beside him and then rolled to cover him, taking his generous mouth in a deep, searing kiss. Time lost all meaning and there was only the 'now' as he mapped his partner – his lover – with hands and tongue, touching, tasting, seeing, hearing, scenting the familiar with a new, passionate intimacy. Blair's hands and mouth explored him, as well, with equally focused intensity, and he murmured endearments and encouragement, and low moans of exquisite pleasure, until Jim had him writhing with need and want. Jim fumbled in a pack and, using the olive oil they'd brought for cooking, he brought Blair to the edge of completion before lifting Blair's heels to his shoulders. Then, rearing up onto his knees, he opened Blair's cheeks and thrust slowly into him.

"Oh, God," Blair gasped, arching his pelvis up to meet him, desperate in his want of him, taking him, all of him. Moving in harmony, as if dancing together to an age-old melody instead of a movement as new as the dawn, Jim grasped his partner's hips firmly while Blair fisted his own engorged penis; stroking together, their passion mounted into sublime urgency. As Jim thrust deeply for the final time and spilled his seed, Blair's orgasm burst, and they grunted simultaneously, inarticulate with the sheer blinding pleasure of their union and the overwhelming physical relief of its completion.

Blair's feet fell to the ground on either side of Jim's body, and he lay panting for breath, glistening with sweat and flushed with love; his impassioned eyes sparkling up into Jim's steady gaze. Struggling to find his own breath, Jim eased down and drew Blair into a tender embrace. Nuzzling his ear, he murmured, "Next time, it's my turn."

"Ah, man, I don't know," Blair panted softly, with warm affection as his arms encircled Jim's body. "It's, uh, pretty intense. With your senses, I'm not sure you could handle it."

"We'll find out, won't we?" he insisted, but there was laughter in his voice.

Smiling, Blair nodded. "Yeah. I guess we will." They lay quietly in each other's arms for long moments, and then Blair said quietly, "But we still can't tell anyone."

"I know," Jim agreed. "Not yet."

Blair drew in a deep breath at the implicit promise and then kissed Jim's cheek. "Not yet," he echoed contentedly. "Maybe not ever," he added drowsily. "Don't want to screw up things at work just 'cause there're rules about life partners being on the job together."

A quizzical expression flitted over Jim's face. He hadn't gotten as far in his thinking about the implications, but he nodded. Blair was right. Even if their friends had no trouble with thinking about them as a couple, they couldn't put Simon in such a difficult position. The guy kept enough secrets for them as it was. Sated, drowsy, they dozed until hunger roused them to the new day.

When they woke, they did a little affectionate necking, but growling stomachs soon sorted out their priorities. Rising, they quickly dressed against the damp chill of the light wind and, since the heavy rain had left all the deadfall in the area too wet for a natural fire, Jim retrieved their small, portable, propane grill from the truck. Though they were both conscious of a new awareness of one another, they both also felt an easing of a tension between them that had been building as their unacknowledged feelings for one another had grown. There was no embarrassment over their new intimacy, just a kind of unspoken but palpable joy, a settled contentment that things were now clear, their path of a lifetime together assured. For the first time, they both really knew where they stood with the other.

Squatting by the grill, scrambling eggs for their breakfast while Jim measured out the coffee for the pot, Blair glanced up at his partner. "Jim?" he asked. "You haven't seemed to be feeling that antsiness out here. Like we're being watched?"

Ellison paused and thought about it. "No," he agreed. "I don't."

"So, maybe it is just the general atmosphere at work," Blair postulated.

"Maybe," he replied slowly, but he didn't sound convinced. Frowning, he tried to grasp the tickle in his mind but it was too fleeting.

Sandburg studied him for a moment and chewed on his lip. "You want to try some focused meditation or light hypnosis, to see if we can tease it out?"

Shaking his head, Jim poured water into the pot and set it on the grill over the fire. "Nah, not today. Let's just enjoy being here, okay?"

"Sure, man," Blair agreed readily, and then dished out the eggs. He swiftly sliced a tomato onto both plates and then handed one to Jim.

After they'd eaten and cleaned up the campsite, they once again donned their waders and headed to the river, planning to fish for the rest of the morning, and then pack up their gear after lunch. There'd be time for another hike, if the weather held, before they had to return to the city. And once they were home, well, that big bed in the upper loft was waiting for them.

But they'd only been fishing for little more than an hour when Jim heard the distinctive brill of his cell phone, up in the tent. Cursing under his breath, figuring that nobody would be chasing them down with good news, he slogged out of the river and jogged up the slope. He caught the call on the last ring, just before it tripped over to messaging. "Ellison," he barked, definitely not happy to have their weekend interrupted.

"Jim? Simon," Banks said, his tone grim. "Where are you?"

"We're about two hours out of town, fishing," he replied. "Why? What's up?"

"I just got word that Kincaid is on the loose."

"What? How did that happen? When?"

"Nearly two weeks ago," Simon told him. "They were transporting him to Sheridan, when the van went off the road – no witnesses. The vehicle exploded and all the remains were badly charred. The body count was right – but Forensics has just determined that Kincaid wasn't one of them. The Warden called me as soon as he was informed."

"Shit," Jim cursed and rubbed his forehead as he looked down at Blair, who was making his way out of the river to see what was going on. "Okay, we'll head back right away. We'll meet you at the station."

"What's happening?" Blair asked, frowning in concern at the expression on Jim's face.

"Kincaid has been on the loose for two weeks," Jim reported tersely. "C'mon, let's get things packed up. Simon will meet us at the office."

"Oh, man," Sandburg groaned as he squirmed out of his waders. Giving his partner a meaningful look, he ventured, "I'll bet that antsy feeling is back."

"You got that right, Chief," he agreed grimly. As they hastily packed up the camp, and loaded their gear in the truck, he told Blair as much as he knew about what had happened – which wasn't a great deal.

"You think he's in Cascade, don't you," Blair stated as he climbed into the truck and buckled the seat belt. "Somehow, you've been sensing him."

"Maybe," he grunted as he turned the ignition switch and put the vehicle in gear. "Not sure."

"Nah, you heard or saw something – not him personally, maybe, but something twigged your radar," Sandburg insisted. Staring out at the passing trees as Jim gunned the truck along the rutted road, he braced himself with one hand on the dash. "He told us, man," he grated. "When they hauled him off after the trial, he told us he'd make us pay."

"Yeah, well, he's not the first guy to make that vow," Jim returned phlegmatically. "Goes with the territory." He gave Blair a wry glance and then asked, "You still glad you accepted that badge, Chief?"

Blair turned to face him, and lifted steely eyes to meet his own. "Oh, yeah," he said firmly. "I'll be very glad to officially help put that headcase back behind bars where he belongs." The truck lurched and rocked violently, and he scrambled to keep from banging into the doorframe. "Geez, Jim," he complained, eyes flashing, "would you slow down! We can't catch him if we're dead!"

Ellison quirked a brow and his jaw tightened as his foot pressed down harder on the accelerator. Blair groaned theatrically as he rolled his eyes and shook his head, but he broke into helpless laughter at the wild ride while he concentrated on holding on, and missed the smile that ghosted over Jim's lips before he settled down and focused on his driving.

* * * * * * * * * *

Just under two hours later, both detectives strode purposefully through the bullpen and into Simon's office. The Captain looked up as they entered and waved them to the chairs in front of his desk. Holding up a paper-thin file, he said disgustedly, "We've got nothing." Irritably, he slapped it back down on the desk and growled, "There was no real investigation of the 'accident' two weeks ago. The wreck was taken at face value – the van appeared to have taken a mountain curve too fast, slid off the edge of the embankment, rolled and burst into flames. The fact that it apparently happened in the middle of the day with no known witnesses on a generally busy highway didn't raise any flags in the prison system. When the transfer vehicle didn't show up as expected, and failed to respond when called, a team went out to trace the route. Smoke was still curling from the wreck and a cluster of state police and rescue vehicles were at the scene when they arrived. Turns out, an anonymous caller tipped off the local state authorities to 'a bad wreck on the highway'. There were the remains of three bodies that were assumed to be the driver, guard and Kincaid. So ... nobody thought it was urgent to give us the news that Kincaid was apparently dead. The corpses were so badly burned that they needed to do DNA testing in order to release them to the appropriate families for burial. The guard and the driver tested out, but whoever the third guy was, he wasn't Kincaid."

"Kincaid's men hijacked the van, substituted a body and, then, at some appropriate place along the highway, they crashed and burned the vehicle," Jim summarized tightly.

Nodding, Banks agreed. "Yeah, probably, but where did they hijack the transport? Who knows? Could have happened right after they left Seatac Prison. There's an isolated strip of road between the institution and the main highway that can't be seen from the guard towers."

"And he's been on the loose for two weeks," Sandburg muttered irritably. "Man, that's twice he's escaped custody in the past year!"

Simon gazed at him balefully but evidently didn't deem the observation of the obvious worth commenting upon. Shifting his focus to Jim, he said flatly, "Kincaid could be anywhere. There's no reason to believe he's in Cascade."

Jim snorted and rolled his eyes. "Right," he rasped dryly. "The only surprise is that we haven't heard from him yet." Standing, he restlessly paced to the window and stared out at the street below. "Is there anything on his contacts while he was inside? Phone calls? Visitors? Who knew he was being transferred and when?" he asked, and then turned to face Banks.

"The Warden is getting the information on visitors and calls compiled," Simon sighed as he wearily pushed up his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "As to who was the informant?" He shrugged. "Could be almost anybody inside either one of the prisons. You know how the system works as well as I do. Model prisoners get a certain degree of latitude and are assigned clerical duties – and then peddle the information they scrounge to the highest bidder. A guard who sympathizes with Kincaid's 'cause' and who was informed the transfer was going to take place could have been the leak. Kincaid's troops could have threatened a secretary and coerced the information. Finding out how he got out isn't going to tell us where he is."

"We know he's here," Blair interjected heatedly. When Banks glared at him, and growled, "And you know that exactly how?" he retorted, "Oh, come on, Simon! We all know he can't stand to lose – and the three of us have been instrumental in taking him down twice. He's got too much pride to let that go. You need to make sure Darryl is safe and –"

Simon held up a hand to stop the tirade. "Darryl, thank God, is visiting his mother on the East Coast. I've already called the authorities there to ensure they're taken to a safe house," he grated. "But Kincaid's power base has always been here in the west, so I don't think they're in immediate danger."

Sandburg subsided, and sank back into his chair. "So, what is he waiting for? Why hasn't he made a move yet?" he asked, looking from Banks to his partner.

"He's playing with us," Jim replied hollowly. "Setting it up, whatever 'it' is."

Silence fell as the three men considered the situation and what they knew about their adversary. "He can't have much of an army left," Simon mused, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "Most of them are still locked up."

"So another grand gesture, like taking over the PD or the stadium, is probably unfeasible," Blair added.

Jim nodded as he ambled back to his chair and sat down. "He's more likely to either try to pick us off when we're not looking ... or ... or bring us to him, somehow. Using a lure."

Banks frowned. "If he was going to pick us off, he's had two weeks to do it. Nah, I think he wants to make us suffer, grovel maybe."

"That would sure appeal to his ego," Blair muttered.

Looking from one to the other, Simon said conversationally, "You know, standard procedure would suggest that the two of you should be placed in a safe house."

Jim snorted and looked away; Blair laughed humorlessly. "And the same SOP would suggest you should be right there with us," he drawled.

"Okay, now that we've agreed that's not going to happen," Simon returned wryly, "let's get our act in gear. We need to trace his potential supporters in town, follow up on men who were probably in his organization but not part of his last two operations. Friends, relatives, known associates. We should have the visitor and recent contact information from the Warden by tomorrow. Gentlemen, we have our work cut out for us."

"Then I guess we'd better get started," Jim agreed dryly as he stood.

Pushing himself to his feet, Blair muttered, "Well, it was a fun weekend while it lasted."

"The fishing was good, huh?" Simon observed archly as he leaned back in his chair.

Pausing in the doorway, Jim said nonchalantly over his shoulder, "Yeah, real good."

"Hummph," Banks muttered, aggrieved. "Nice of you to invite your friends."

"Ah, hey, Simon," Blair apologized with a stricken expression, unaware of the slight blush that rose on his cheeks. "We only decided to go at the last minute and, uh, we only have a two person tent, you know?"

"I do have my own tent, Sandburg," he rumbled, patently unappeased. "A simple phone call was all that it would have taken."

When Blair looked utterly crestfallen, Simon burst out laughing. Waving them on their way, Banks chuckled, "You're too easy, Sandburg. Way too easy."

Unable to help himself at the unintentional double entendre, Jim also started to laugh. "Simon could be right about that, Chief," he snickered, the light of affectionate teasing in his eyes.

Belatedly realizing they were both yanking his chain but good – albeit in different ways – he gave both of them stern looks, and wagged a finger at each of them as he threatened, "I'll get you for that – and it won't be pretty."

"Yeah, yeah," Simon smirked. Pleased to have lightened their mood, he growled with playful ferocity, "Go on, get to work!"

Flipping him mock salutes, they headed purposefully to their desks.

* * * * * * * * * *

Day after long frustrating day passed as they chased down promising leads and got nowhere fast. Oh, they tracked down a dozen probable members of the Sunrise Patriots, but none of them were still at their last known addresses, nobody knew where they'd gone, and they'd dropped totally out of sight. Not even their most reliable snitches had anything for them. Two weeks – now going on three – had been more than enough time for Kincaid to get his ducks in line and, more than once, they cursed the fact that they'd not known he could be at large until it was too late to get a handle on his activities.

"He's got to be holed up somewhere, either in the city or close," Blair muttered in frustration as he searched through recent real estate and rental records. "Somebody's got to be buying food for them."

His palms pressed together, fingertips at his lips, Jim scowled as he thought about that. They'd papered the city with wanted notices and posters and every cop on patrol had been thoroughly briefed on the men to keep a lookout for, as well as the vehicles registered to those men. Nothing. Not a whisper.

"He's gotta have a front person," he said flatly. "Someone nobody is noticing."

Tapping a pen on his desk blotter, Blair looked over at his partner. "Somebody who seems innocuous. Innocent. But, man, that sure doesn't fit the usual Aryan hunter profile of his recruits."

Jim licked his lips and nodded, his head cocked slightly to the side as if straining to hear something.

"What?" Blair asked, his voice pitched low as he looked around the bullpen. "You hearing something?"

"Huh?" Ellison grunted, looking up and appearing distracted until he blinked and focused, though he rubbed absently at one ear. "No. No. It's just that ... that I feel like I'm missing something."

"Something you heard," Blair postulated, squinting as he thought about the implications of Jim's evidently unconscious mannerisms that linked to his hearing.

Grimacing with frustration, Jim threw up his hands. "I don't know!" he growled.

"Okay, okay. Relax ... let it go," Sandburg soothed. "It'll surface. Just needs the right trigger. When we get home tonight, if you want, we can try some focused meditation."

The muscle in Jim's jaw rippled as he gazed at his partner. He didn't enjoy meditation like Sandburg did – relinquishing even that margin of control always left him feeling uncomfortably vulnerable. Reluctantly, he nodded. There wasn't much choice.

But, later, when they settled in the living room after dinner, the attempt proved to be an exercise in futility because they didn't know what might have alerted Jim subliminally, or where, or when. So there was no point to use as a reference for enhanced concentration and memory retrieval.

"I'm sorry, man," Blair sighed after having tried various generic promptings, like whether Jim remembered a scent or seeing someone that had left him wary or uncomfortable. When he'd asked in his low, mellow tones if Jim had heard anything that had triggered concerns, Jim opened one eye and arched a wry brow, and then they both snorted and shook their heads. Jim had scarcely been hearing anything else. It was all just too vague.

Jim looked away, discouraged but not wanting Blair to feel responsible for his failure to grasp the itch in his head, to make sense of it. "Nah, that's okay," he replied quietly. "You were right in the first place, I guess. If I stop worrying at it and just relax, the right situation or trigger will probably bring it back." Standing, he drew Blair up to hug him and then lead him upstairs as he had every night since their return from the fishing trip. Nominally, Blair retained his bedroom under the stairs and kept his clothing and personal possessions there as a necessary part of the deception – when their colleagues from work were visiting – that nothing had changed between them. But they cherished their time together alone in the loft, most especially in their bed – there, for a little while at least, they could forget about Kincaid and the threats that abounded in their lives, and simply be together, and love one another freely.

* * * * * * * * * *

The next morning, Blair emerged from his room wearing a snowy white shirt, his blue tapestried vest, and well-worn, skin-tight jeans. He was inserting a second small gold hoop in his earlobe and his hair was still damp and tightly curled from the shower. Jim observed the vest and the earrings with some surprise as, in his mind, the attire would always shout 'student' to him. "You haven't worn that in a while, Chief."

Looking up, Blair grinned. "Student grunge, man. The ladies love it and the hair. Gives me an aura of perpetual youth ... and energy."

"Ladies?" Jim echoed, giving his lover a quizzical look.

"Hey, c'mon, you remember," Sandburg insisted cheerfully as he poured himself coffee. "The charity auction is this afternoon. I thought these clothes might, um, enhance the product."

Assessing his appearance sardonically, teasingly suggesting there wasn't much that was ever going to enhance that particular product, Jim carried two plates of scrambled eggs to the table. "Chief, we're in the middle of trying to find Kincaid and you know we're both probably targets. I'm not sure wasting time making a spectacle of yourself on stage this afternoon is the best idea. In fact, I think it's a stupid idea."

"Oh, hold on a minute," Blair protested, his tone congenial but with an edge of vehemence. "First of all, anything we can do to benefit homeless and underprivileged kids is a good thing, Jim – maybe save ourselves some trouble in the future if a few more of them don't end up choosing crime as a career. And second, every cop who isn't on duty will be at the auction so it's probably the safest place in the city to be. And third," he went on, ticking off his fingers, "this is a great way to obfuscate, misdirecting all those who think we're sexually involved into believing that I'm really only interested in the ladies. I don't understand what your problem is with this auction, man." Sliding into his chair and picking up his fork to stab at some egg fragments, he went on, "We've been trying to find Kincaid for a week with no luck. So, you know what? I think taking a couple hours off for a good cause isn't a bad thing to do."

Jim picked up a small glass of orange juice and looked pointedly at Blair's vest and earrings. "And that get-up is going to go a long way to winning the respect and confidence of all those other cops in the hall," he said sarcastically.

All trace of light-hearted animation seeped from Sandburg's face, and his shoulders sagged a bit, as if suddenly weary. He picked at his food and said hollowly, "Yeah, well, I could get a crew cut and be this year's uniformed poster-boy but I don't think that would change anyone's opinion." He flicked a quick look at Jim before focusing back on the food he wasn't eating. "I have to be me, man. I can do the job and be a good cop, but I have to be me." Shrugging, he muttered, "Besides, I'd fit right in with the Vice crowd."

"Not hardly," Jim grunted, but his tone had lightened, held a teasing quality. "You a little too wholesome to hang around with that bunch."

Blair looked up through his lashes and quirked a brow seductively. "Wholesome?" he laughed.

Jim grinned and nodded. "Yeah. With that baby-face, you look like you could be doing that old commercial; you know the one with the kid who says, 'Ever since I was little, I've loved blueberries'."

"Oh, how to shoot a guy down," Blair groaned dramatically, but the sparkle was back in his eyes. "I'm going for sexy, here, you know? To get those bids up? Not prepubescent."

Jim just smirked and shook his head doubtfully before giving attention to his food. But he grinned to himself when he heard the soft snickering from the other end of the table, and was glad to note that Blair had evidently regained his appetite.

But the levity bled out of his face when he thought again about the auction. He didn't know why, couldn't explain it, but he felt almost furious dread every time he thought about Blair taking part in it. What was it about the damned auction that had him so on edge? Especially now, when he knew beyond any shadow of doubt that neither Cindy Lou nor any other woman was ever going to tempt Sandburg away from his side or out of his life.

* * * * * * * * * *

The ground floor auditorium of the Cascade PD, more often used for training sessions, large media briefings and force-wide dissemination of urgent information, was packed with uniformed and civilian staff a half hour before the day shift ended and the evening shift began, to give everyone who chose a chance to participate. Arts and crafts booths, along with those selling homemade jams, jellies, sauces and baked goods crowded the corners below the stage and ranged along the back of the hall. Eager shoppers crowded the open floor space between the stage and the first row of seats and milled around the booths in the back. When the MCU crowd arrived just before the auction was scheduled to begin, they found nearly all the seats filled and, unlike church, there were only a few in the last rows that weren't occupied. It was noisy, filled with laughing voices and people calling and waving to one another, and Jim winced before hastily ratcheting down his sense of hearing.

"Told ya," Sandburg chuckled, elbowing him gently. "Every cop who can be here is here, just like every year. And so is just about everyone else who works for the PD."

Ellison nodded grudgingly, still vastly uncomfortable with the idea of his partner mounting the stage to be auctioned off that afternoon. But he couldn't argue with the cause. For the last seven years, Cascade PD had proudly presented tens of thousands of dollars to the local charities concerned with the welfare of children, and the big money maker had always been the auction of members of the police force who volunteered to take the winner to dinner in the restaurant of their choice. Though most winners were conscious that cops weren't paid in gold ducats, some took full advantage of the win and chose the most exclusive restaurants in town – so the volunteers never knew if they'd get off lightly or end up having to contribute more than a week's pay for the good of the cause.

Typically, it was the junior, single, and better looking members of the force who entered the auction. But the senior officers also did their bit as, often, younger, ambitious staff chose the opportunity of the promised dinner to obtain some coaching or mentoring advice, or simply to become known to their superiors. For the most part, it was men who took the stage, but in the last few years, as more and more women joined the force and attained higher ranks, they, too, did their bit by coming under the spotlight to strut or clown around until the hammer fell and the winner claimed them. By tradition, the promised dinner occurred on the following evening, unless the cop in question was on duty. The mood was always lighthearted, the atmosphere alive with amusement and sense of fun. And there was always some speculation on who bid on whom, for it wasn't unheard of for an auction win to lead to a marriage later in the year.

Sandburg ambled over to the table in the corner where he was assigned his number for the auction, and he was surprised that he wasn't allocated the expected number seven. Rhonda, who was sitting behind the table doing the registration noted his startled expression and grinned. "We thought we should save the best for last," she crooned with a wink.

Snickering, he chided, "So you say, but you know and I know that I won't go for much. You're just protecting my dignity because everyone will have spent all their money and most of the crowd will have left by the time my turn comes along." Looking around, his expression almost wistful, he added quietly, "Besides, given the current environment, bidding on me isn't exactly a way to win respect or a high approval rating in the department."

"Hmm, we'll see," she replied cryptically, and then turned to the next guy who was waiting to sign in for his number. "Head backstage about three numbers before yours comes up, to be ready," she told him over her shoulder as he was moving away. He waved to show he understood and then rejoined his colleagues, taking the seat on the aisle that they'd held for him.

Shortly after, the Police Chief took the podium, calling the crowd to order, welcoming everyone and encouraging their generosity toward a great cause. Once the applause had died down, a hush settled over the auditorium and the auction began.

The bidding was fast and good-humoured, and the buyers were generous, with bids ranging upward to a peak of five hundred and forty dollars, though most topped out around the three hundred level. Though some of the crowd left when the shift change occurred, it seemed that even more surged in after the day shift ended, until there was standing room only. Looking around, Jim figured that every woman in the department was in the room, with the very few exceptions of on-duty female officers and Dispatch staff. He was interested to note that Cindy Lou, from Records, was surrounded by her whole team, and they all seemed to be vibrating with excitement as they craned their necks to see his partner and, giggling, pointed him out to one another. His gaze narrowed as he scanned the group, and the unsettled feeling in his gut got worse. Looking away, he told himself it was ridiculous. He knew most of them, at least to nod at in the corridors. They were file clerks, there to see their supervisor win a date with Blair, eager to cheer her on and tease her – they were scarcely any threat. Glancing at Sandburg, he could see that his partner was well aware of their excited scrutiny, and a slight blush had crept up his throat and over his cheeks. Telling himself that his uneasiness had no basis and he should just be damned glad that at least one unit in the PD seemed to hold only positive feelings about his partner, he leaned over to nudge Sandburg with his elbow and to whisper, "Your fan club seems to be out in force."

Blair snorted in embarrassment and shook his head, but grinned at him happily.

When the auction got to the nineteenth entry, Blair pushed himself up, waving off the low hoots and teasing from his comrades as he began to make his way to the front. Jim's grin faded when he picked up on less congenial low mutterings as others noticed him moving forward and the fact that he was carrying one of the numbered squares.

"Take it easy," Simon murmured beside him, having noted his sudden tension. "Nobody's going to make trouble here." He paused and then said quietly, "I give the kid credit for having the guts to do this, to get up there when he knows there's a lot of animosity in some quarters about his appointment."

"Yeah," Jim grunted in response and did his best to relax. But his gaze continued to range over the crowd, noting those who seemed the most disgruntled about Blair's presence in their fraternity. As if alerted by some sixth sense, one or two of the worst grumblers seemed to feel his animosity flowing over them and looked up and around, a startled look in their eyes when they found him staring daggers at them. And he could see speculation flare in their eyes before their gaze fell away, thinking about what they'd just been saying and perhaps wondering ... wondering just how good his hearing might really be. He knew he was daring them to figure out the truth and he didn't care.

Finally, the penultimate auction was concluded with raucous cheers, and number twenty-two was called for the final event of the afternoon. The Major Crimes gang whistled and clapped as Blair strutted toward the centre of the stage, but their enthusiastic support was all but drowned out by the roar of high-pitched cheers and applause by the women in the crowd. Surprised, they straightened up and looked at one another, and then slow grins spread over their faces as they realized that this auction might be a tad more interesting than they'd expected.

The bid began at fifty dollars but Cindy Lou, eager to establish her claim, shouted out, "Two-fifty!"

Her bid was immediately met by a woman from Forensics, who yelled, "Three hundred."

And then the action really got started, with bids jumping fifty and a hundred dollars being shouted from all around the auditorium. In less than a minute, the bidding was up to a thousand dollars and Blair had stopped posing and grinning brightly, and was frankly gaping at the audience. Cindy Lou upped the ante, jumping by five hundred to fifteen hundred, but Rhonda took it to two thousand.

With each bid, the woman shouting out didn't look toward the stage but focused on one or another of the worst offenders in the Blair-bashing brigade, until it became abundantly, if uncomfortably for some, clear that a message was being given, loudly and emphatically. Several of the men targeted flushed angrily, and low, aggrieved mutters became louder, and then Sheila Irwin, the new Captain in Internal Affairs stood to yell her bid of twenty-five hundred as she glared around at several of nastier individuals in the crowd – and that seemed to give them pause. But the bidding was continuing, the numbers ranging higher and higher, though the increments gradually dropped back to one or two hundred, and finally to fifty dollar raises.

Jim could see that Blair's initial flush of embarrassment had faded, and now he stood pale under the bright lights. He'd begun waving his hands, as if to deny the lofty heights of the bidding, calling out, "Oh, hey, come on – this is too much! You can't afford this!"

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But the women took no note of his chagrin, except to call out, "You're worth it!"

He raised a hand to cover his mouth, and Jim could see him blinking away the glittering moisture in his eyes. The bidding had just cleared four thousand, and he hoped it would end soon. The point had been made and Blair was dying up there. He'd been right when he'd sensed that something was going to happen at this auction, but he settled back in his seat and crossed his arms, smiling with a grim satisfaction that he'd been wrong to think it would be something bad. The annoying itch in his mind was silenced and he relaxed fully, even basking a little, with the pleasure of witnessing the magnificent gesture of support being accorded his partner by those in the department who typically held powerless roles – united in this, they were an awesome force. Glancing at Cindy Lou, he wondered how much longer the auction could go on. Even with all the women in Records pooling their resources to back up her bids, there had to be a limit to what clerks could afford. He saw a young winsome blond he didn't recognize lean toward her supervisor, but he thought her voice was vaguely familiar as she urged, "Go for it. What are credit cards for, anyway?" and he grinned with appreciation.

"Four thousand, seven hundred," Rhonda called.

"Four thousand, eight hundred!" Cindy Lou shouted immediately after, and she turned to Rhonda, her most avid contender and arched a brow.

"Four thousand, nine hundred," the intrepid Rhonda returned.

"Five thousand!" Cindy Lou cried, her smug expression saying she was good for another five, if need be.

Rhonda started to laugh, and bowed to Cindy Lou before shaking her head at the Chief to signal she was done and would go no higher.

"Five thousand is the bid!" Chief Winters called out. "Going once! Going twice! Going ... going ... gone! Detective Blair Sandburg goes to Cindy Lou Makins for five thousand dollars!" He turned away from the podium and clapped a very stunned Blair Sandburg on the shoulder and then shook his hand, very evidently thrilled with the funds raised for the charity.

The auditorium erupted in cheers and wild applause as people called out and stamped their feet in riotous approbation.

"Ten times," Henri laughed in awe, applauding vigorously. "Hairboy went for nearly ten times the next closest high bid! Imagine that!"

"Well, hot damn!" Simon cheered as he surged to his feet along with many others in the crowd. Laughing, he turned to Jim. "The women must've set this up and good for them! Guess it's one way of making the point that the kid is a valued new member of the force!"

"I guess it is," Jim smiled back as he clapped enthusiastically. Turning to look at the very excited Cindy Lou, whose back was being pummeled by slaps of congratulation by her team, he sketched a salute and bowed his head in gratitude. But then he stopped clapping and sighed. "You know, he's not going to like being tailed on his 'date'."

Banks shrugged philosophically. "We all have to get used to things in life we don't like. Joel hasn't complained, but I think he'll be glad when this is all over and he can stop crashing at my place every night. You were right, earlier today, when we discussed shadowing him; with Kincaid on the loose, we can't take any chances." His gaze on Cindy Lou, who was nearing the front of the auditorium, he gave a long suffering sigh and rumbled, "Let's just hope she doesn't want to go to the most expensive place in town. I doubt the Chief would be amused by those kinds of meal costs on the expense forms. He's already wondering about the cost of the extra uniform patrols parked outside your place and mine every damned night. The tab is beginning to add up – and we still don't have anything to show that Kincaid is within five hundred miles of Cascade."

"He's here, Simon," Jim asserted tightly.

Rubbing the back of his neck, Banks nodded. "I'm not arguing with you. I just wish the hell we knew what he's waiting for – or, even better, that we could get a lead on him." Jim's lips thinned and he nodded.

At the front of the hall, pushing through the tide of people flowing toward the exit, Cindy Lou danced the last few steps down the aisle to the front, and Blair jumped off the stage to meet her, drawing her into a huge bear hug.

"You're crazy, you know that?" he chided her. "It's too much, way too much!"

"Oh, pshaw, it's for a good cause, an' we all chipped in!" she retorted with a huge grin. "Besides, some of us've been waiting years to see you up on that stage! We're just so glad you decided to join the force. Place wouldn't've been the same without you, darlin'."

He looked out at the still cheering and applauding crowd, his smile tremulous as he mastered his emotions. "Thank you, Cindy Lou," he said huskily, turning his face to look down at her, his eyes bright with gratitude. "Dinner and dancing, wherever you want – tomorrow night, if that works for you."

"Ah, we got the arrangements covered, sweetie pie," she drawled and looked over her shoulder to wave jubilantly at her team, drawing them forward. Turning back to him as the seventeen women ranging in age from eighteen to fifty crowded closer, surrounding them, she added hurriedly, "But don't you worry none, sugah! You don't have to buy dinner for all of us! Just the first round of drinks and promise to dance with all of us afterward, an' we'll all be real happy! We've already made the reservations at Tarantino's Roadhouse! We'll all meet up there right after work."

"Oh, hey, I promise! It will definitely be my pleasure!" he replied enthusiastically, as he favoured each with a wide smile. "And Tarantino's tomorrow is great. But – you made the reservations already?"

"Why, so'nuff," she chimed with a wink. "No way were we about to lose this auction! It was, as they say, a done deal!"

"You guys are great, you know that?" he enthused, doing his best to give them each a warm hug, though in the confusion, he was afraid he might have missed one or two. Looking up, he saw Jim and the rest of the gang approaching. "Hey, Jim, Captain – everyone! These lovely ladies are my dates for tomorrow night!"

The older men laughed indulgently and manfully refrained from making any comments about harems ... at least while the women were present.

* * * * * * * * * *

"Man, that was something else," Blair sighed as he fastened his seat belt. "I was like, stunned, when the bids kept going into the stratosphere!"

"I know, I could tell," Jim replied indulgently. Switching on the ignition, he backed out of the parking space and turned toward the exit of the garage. "They made quite a statement."

"The women? Yeah, I noticed," he replied, surprise still resonant in his voice. "Even Sheila. And Rhonda! My God. What would she have done if she'd've won?"

"Oh, I don't think there was any danger of that," Jim chuckled. "I get the feeling the women have had this planned for some time, and knew exactly what they were doing and what impact they'd have." The corner of his mouth twitched in amusement as he glanced at his partner. "Although, I don't think Cindy Lou expected it to go quite so high. I overheard a comment about credit cards."

"Ah, geez," Sandburg groaned and scrubbed his face with his palms. "I don't want anyone going into debt just to do me a good turn, you know?"

"Well, like the lady said when you protested, it's all for a good cause."

"You heard that?"


Blair was quiet for a long moment, watching the passing street as they headed home, and then he asked, "What else did you hear?"

Knowing what his partner meant, Jim shrugged. "At the beginning, the usual sort of garbage. But, you know, I don't think I'll be hearing quite as much of it in the future. The women of the PD threw down a gauntlet tonight. They won't put up with the crap that's been dished out any longer."

"Why would they do that, Jim?" Blair asked, turning to gaze at his friend, seemingly honestly mystified.

With a slow smile, he answered, "Didn't you hear them when you protested that they should stop? Quite a few shouted, 'You're worth it'. And they were right. You are."

Blair's gaze dropped and he turned his face away. He blew a ragged breath and sniffed, swiped at his eyes.

Reaching out to grip his shoulder, Jim said gently, "You've made a lot of friends over the years, Chief. The way you've treated people regardless of their rank or job. A lot of friends, who are really glad you're officially part of the organization."

Nodding, Blair sniffed again. "Yeah, I guess. Cindy Lou said something like that. About being glad I was on the force." He nodded a little to himself. "They're really good people, Jim. They sure blew me away, that's for sure. Never expected anything like that."

"Well, enjoy it, kid," Jim returned sardonically. "Cause tomorrow, you'll pay the price of popularity. Those women are going to dance you into an early grave."

Bubbling with laughter, Blair nodded in helpless agreement. "You got that right." Looking across the cab at his partner, he asked, "You want to come along? Lend a hand?"

"Uh uh, Romeo, no way," Jim chuckled. "Tomorrow night, at least with the ladies, you are on your own."

Blair's smile froze and faded as his gaze narrowed. "At least with the ladies?" he echoed. "What does that mean?"

"Just what you think it means, Einstein," Jim returned with a flashing glance. "You didn't seriously think that you could wander off on your own with Kincaid lurking in the wings?"

Leaning back against his seat, Sandburg sighed. "You know, for a few minutes there, I actually forgot about him." Shaking his head dejectedly, he grimaced. "So, you and Simon?"

"And Joel," Jim added. "We'll be having dinner at a nearby table. And our uniformed watchdogs will be sitting out front and covering the back."

"You don't seriously think Kincaid is going to take over a restaurant, do you?" Blair asked incredulously. "I thought we'd agreed that he probably doesn't have enough storm-troopers left to stage another invasion."

"Big difference between a roadhouse and a stadium, Chief," Jim returned grimly. "Big difference."

"Oh, man," Blair groaned, and pushed his hair behind his ears. "Maybe dinner tomorrow night isn't such a great idea. I don't want to put those women in any danger, you know? Or anyone else, for that matter. Maybe we should just postpone it."

Shrugging, Jim turned into the apartment's parking lot. "Frankly," he said, "with cops clearly guarding the approaches to the restaurant, I don't think he'll risk a public confrontation." Scratching his cheek, he frowned as he looked out at the night, his senses scanning the area. "But whatever he's got planned, it's gotta go down soon." As certain as he could be that there was no threat in the immediate area, he got out of the truck and waited as Blair came around the hood to join him for the short walk into the building.

"What do you think he's waiting for?" Sandburg asked as they ambled along the pavement.

"Good question, Chief," Jim rasped in frustration, his gaze searching the night. He turned in a full circle, watching, listening, but all was as quiet as it ever was in the city. He waved at the patrol car that pulled up at the curb, and then followed his partner into the building.

But, once they were inside and away from prying eyes, he drew Blair close to his side and murmured into his ear, "I meant it, Chief. You're worth every dime and more that you raised today, and nobody is happier than I am that you're finally my 'official' partner."

Blair grinned as he rested a possessive hand on Jim's butt. "Oh, I don't know about that, man," he replied, his voice low and sensual. "I'm pretty damned happy myself about the way it's all worked out."

* * * * * * * * * *

Part IV: http://caarianna.livejournal.com/20923.html#cutid1



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