Loss of Contact

by Jane Davitt


A/N This is the sequel to Point of Contact. Many thanks to the Moonridge bidders for their generous donations and to T Verano for her usual stellar job of beta reading.


"This is my desk," Jim said, which brought home to him just exactly how on edge he was, because a desk was hard to mistake for anything else and didn't really need introducing.

"It's a nice desk," Blair said politely. "It's very, uh, polished."

"I don't use it much," Jim said, following Blair's gaze. The desk, cherry wood, the color rich and dense, was empty of paperwork. A phone, a blotter, and a metal tray broke up a surface that was, as Blair had pointed out, polished. "I usually -- out there, I sit… out there." Giving up on his attempts to be coherent, he kicked his office door closed with his heel and sighed, impatient with himself.

Blair grinned at him. "You're freaking out over me being here, aren't you?"

"I'd ask if it was that noticeable, but what's the point?" Jim walked over to Blair and put his arms around him, which took the smile off Blair's face, because Blair chose to kiss him rather than carry on grinning. The muted bustle of the shift change going on in the main office faded and all that Jim could hear was the sound of their lips meeting and the bitten-off gasp from Blair as Jim's hand cupped his ass. "Still a little tender, are we?" Jim whispered against Blair's hair, nuzzling through it to capture Blair's earlobe between his teeth.

"Yeah," Blair told him and tried to escape the gentle pressure of Jim's hand -- or maybe distract him -- by moving forward so that the small space between their bodies disappeared. Blair rubbed against Jim in a way that made Jim think of the desk less as a place to work and more as a surface he could bend Blair over.

"I work here," he said, a reminder directed more at himself than Blair.

Blair chuckled. "So do I now. Is that a problem?"

Jim drew back after giving Blair's ass a final, regretful squeeze. "You don't work for me," he said firmly. "If you did, what just happened between us -- which isn't going to happen again -- would have been --"

"Very, very wrong." Blair nodded. "And I don't?"

"No." Simon had been clear about that. "You're an observer. Not on the payroll and you don't have any access to confidential files."

"I know that," Blair said. "And you know that I don't want to make life difficult for you, but you just have to look at me and I want to...God, I want to do so much, Jim." His eyes pleaded with Jim to understand, and Jim did, but it didn't change anything. He might run an escort agency with a sideline in providing sex, but it was a business like any other, and normal people didn't get blow jobs in their office from men with sinfully lush mouths and eager hands.

Well, some of his clients did, regularly, but Jim didn't really think of them as role models.

"This is the way it has to be, Chief." Jim gave into temptation and patted Blair's face, the brief contact almost enough to undo his resolve as Blair leaned into the touch, so responsive, always. From what Jim had gathered, Blair's mother had hugged him plenty, but she wasn't around much and when she was traveling, Blair had probably gone weeks without getting touched, holed up in his room writing.

Blair got touched now; Jim couldn't keep his hands off him."A couple of weeks so that you can get a feel for the way it all works, and then you can get back to writing and I can get back to --"

"Working without a shadow?"

"Something like that." Jim took a deep breath. "Right. You've seen my office. This is where I bring new clients, or ones with a problem. Not often; we don't really encourage clients to come here; a low profile is key and I don't like people seeing behind the curtain."

Blair nodded, clearly getting it. The agency was well-equipped, spacious and exuded good taste when it came to the décor, but it was still an office. People buying fantasies didn't want to see computers manned by ordinary people and boxes of donuts by the coffee machine in the break room. Didn't want to see Rhonda's photographs of her new granddaughter on her desk, or Simon's collection of figurines on his.

And there was something to be said for anonymity. The IRS and the cops knew the address of the agency and as far as Jim was concerned, that was a regrettable necessity; clients could damn well be seen in hotels, on neutral territory.

Sometimes, though, he had no choice.

"Through there," Jim continued, nodding at the door, "is where the real work goes on. You can stick close to me for this shift --"

"Works for me," Blair said and pressed up against Jim again.

Jim batted at him with his hand, exasperated and amused at the same time. "Blair, no."

Fucking Blair before they left the loft had seemed like a good idea; get the simmering lust cooled down so that they could behave themselves in public. It might have worked if Jim hadn't given into temptation -- given into Blair -- and spanked him first. That generally guaranteed a wild ride for both of them, but it left Blair crackling with arousal and Jim hadn't had the time to bring him down, one slow hour after another, until Blair was quiet again, a contented smile fighting a smug grin.

Blair rolled his eyes. "You just grabbed my ass," he pointed out. "And you can't see yourself. You're looking at me as if you want to do me right here, right now, hard enough to make me scream for you, and I don't know what you want me to pay attention to; your eyes or your voice."

Promising himself that one day he'd do that and more to Blair, leaving the mirror-shiny surface of the desk smudged by sweaty hands and gasping breaths, Jim nodded. "Mixed signals. Got it." He put some certainty into his voice and drew on years of self-control to make it stay there. "I want you to behave. Or this ride ends here."

Blair's tongue flickered across his lips, damping them, making them look soft and shiny. He didn't speak, but Jim got the message: ordering Blair to do anything was oil on the fire right now.

"Please," Jim added quietly, begging for what he couldn't order Blair to give him.

That did it; Blair sighed and the tension disappeared like air from a popped balloon.

"Tell me about the billing system," Blair said and took some carefully casual steps away, putting distance between them. "Mostly credit cards? Or do you find people prefer cash so it's less traceable?"

Jim gave him a grateful smile. "Well, it depends," he began. "Regulars usually --"

A perfunctory tap on the door followed by Simon's entrance a moment later interrupted Jim before he could go into details and he made a mental note to give Blair the information later. Maybe with Blair tied up and squirming under the slow, steady beat of Jim's hand, and test him later to see how much had sunk in.

Simon glanced from Jim to Blair and snorted. "At least you're dressed," he muttered.

Jim rolled his eyes. "I'm working, Simon; I don't usually do that in the nude. Not since I retired, anyway."

For some reason, that restored Simon's good humor. Or maybe it was the fact that Blair was standing out of reach of Jim and neither of them looked at all guilty.

"True. I just wanted to check in with you before I leave." Simon glanced at Blair, his expression not unfriendly. "This is the busy shift, six to two in the morning; going to be able to stay awake?"

Blair shrugged. "I don't see why not. I'm used to writing until late and we both took a nap earlier, Daddy."

Jim winced at the challenge in Blair's voice, but Simon let that one pass. "Just don't drink too much coffee or you'll never get to sleep when you go home." He gestured around. "Jim's given you the tour?"

"He showed me the coffeemaker and the bathroom," Blair said brightly. "There's more?"

Simon chuckled. "Sounds like he hit the high spots." His eyes narrowed. "Jim explained that I'm only agreeing to this if you behave?"

Blair raised his eyebrows. "Hey, chill, Simon. I'm here as an observer and I know that, and besides…" He winked. "Jim's threatened me with a night on the couch if I misbehave."

"Now, see, that's just the sort of attitude --"

"Simon," Jim said wearily. "Blair's yanking your chain because he thinks you're treating him like a kid. He's a professional writer doing research for his book. When he's here in that capacity, our relationship isn't relevant." He turned his head and gave Blair a meaningful look. "Ready, Mr. Sandburg?"

"Lead the way, Mr. Ellison," Blair said with a smile just a shade too charming to be genuine.

Jim would have bet a month's salary that Simon's hand was itching to land a solid crack across Blair's ass as it passed by. He knew his was.

By the time eleven o'clock was approaching, Jim was beginning to relax. The phones were quiet after a busy spell and Vera was catching up nicely on the paperwork he'd dumped on her desk with an apologetic smile. Blair had settled himself at an empty desk and was making notes on his laptop. Jim tried not to glance over at Blair too often. He couldn't quite get used to Blair being here at the agency. It was jarring, and at the same time pleasant, and the conflicting emotions made him feel restless.

Time for him to work. With a stern look at the phone, daring it to ring again, he reached for the first item in his in-tray, as he'd done twice before, only to be interrupted, and dropped it onto the desk. Before he flipped the folder open, his eye was caught by what had lain underneath it. He pursed his lips in irritation.

"Vera?"

"Yes?"

Jim waved the narrow envelope at her. "Test results go immediately to whoever's in charge; they don't get buried under requisition orders on my desk!"

Vera flushed. "I know that."

"Then why wasn't this given to Simon or Rhonda, depending on when it arrived?"

"New guy," Vera said briefly. "It's addressed to you, so he put it on your desk." She shrugged, her plain, pleasant face showing no trace of apology. "I didn't train him," she said pointedly, "and I came on duty at the same time you did."

"Sorry," Jim said with a sigh and tore the envelope open. "It's just --"

"I know," Vera said, tolerant of his shortcomings as always. "They're important."

Blair had stopped typing and was watching them with a bright interest. Jim tried not to feel like a zoo animal and took the folded paper out. "Blood work," he said to Blair, who nodded. "Just routine. My people are all clean and…" His voice faded as he scanned the results. "Shit."

Vera turned around, her eyebrows raised. "Problem?"

Jim read the result for Thompson, Cody again. "You could say that." He reached for the mouse to call up the appointments schedule on his computer and then paused. Quicker to just ask Vera; she had every detail in her head, always did. "Is Cody working tonight?"

Vera nodded. "One of his regulars over at the Garrison Suites." She checked her watch. "He's due there in thirty minutes."

Jim blew out a frustrated breath. "A regular? Shit. And that doesn't give me any time to --"

"Rustle up someone else?" Vera said archly.

Jim grunted an acknowledgment of a joke he didn't find amusing and Blair cleared his throat. "Am I missing something?"

"Cody's working name used to be Cowboy," Jim said without going into any more detail than that. "Okay, get hold of him, Vera, and tell him his appointment has been canceled and I want to see him here at nine sharp in the morning, okay?"

Vera shook her head. "Too late; he's been seeing this client for a while and I know that they usually meet up for a drink in the hotel bar before going up to --" She paused, glancing at Blair. "Uh, the client's room. It's off the clock in a way, but…" She shrugged and Jim took her meaning. Cody wouldn't be buying any of the drinks and if he followed the agency's rules, he'd stick to a soft drink or something well-watered. It wasn't in any way a date; just an extension of the appointment, with Cody gambling that thirty minutes or so of his time given freely would be reflected in his tip.

Jim chewed at his bottom lip. The Garrison was fifteen minutes away and this late, the bar would be reasonably quiet, but in some ways that would make extracting Cody more difficult. "What room?" he asked.

Vera turned to her computer for that detail and after a moment said, "220. What are you going to do?"

Jim stood. "Take care of it in person." He gestured around the office. "Will you be okay on your own for an hour or so?"

Vera nodded, her gaze on Blair, who was looking expectant, like a puppy hoping for a walk.

"You can come with me, Blair, but you stay in the car, okay?" Blair opened his mouth and Jim cut off the protest he knew was imminent with a curt, "I mean it."

"Fine," Blair muttered. "I'll stay in the car and research from there. Piece of cake. I do it all the time."

Jim sighed. Blair's sarcasm wasn't subtle, but it didn't need to be. "We'll discuss it on the way."

He waited until they were in the elevator to continue the discussion and then tapped Blair's chin reprovingly. "Why are you so easy to control in bed and so much trouble out of it?"

"Wishful thinking on your part," Blair replied. "Combined with incomplete recall. I'm just as much trouble naked, and you know it." He was standing too close again, which just made Jim want to pull him closer. "Is that really a problem for you?"

Jim stared down into eyes that held a trace of anxiety and relented. "No. I can handle you just fine wherever we are." The elevator doors opened at the parking lot under the building before he could follow that up with a reassuring kiss, which was probably just as well. He needed a clear head.

"So I get that this Cody failed his blood test," Blair said when they'd been driving for a minute or two, "but you seem pissed, not sorry for him, so I'm guessing it's not…"

"No," Jim said. "It's not that. He isn't sick, he's been using." He wrenched the wheel around and took a corner too fast, anger making him careless. "I'm going to kick his ass for this."

"I don't get it," Blair said. "So he's been doing drugs --"

"Coke."

"But not enough that you noticed --"

Jim frowned and tried to remember when he'd last spoken to Cody. Tuesday, yeah…but not for long -- and in a way, that was a warning sign right there, because Cody had a thing for him and always flirted, maple syrup sweet smile and wicked eyes, all lean muscle and drawl. Jim hadn't been tempted to break his rule about sex with employees; Cody was appealing, sure, or he wouldn't be where he was, but the dark brown eyes were too watchful and the smile he gave his clients turned to a sneer when they'd left. Jim knew that respect for a client wasn't always easy to hold onto, but Cody didn't even try. He'd been on probation before the test result, though Jim hadn't told him that.

"He smelled wrong," he said finally after failing to shape a remembered cloud of vague impressions into a fact-based accusation. Blair gave an interested, inquiring murmur and Jim shook his head. "It doesn't matter. He's not seeing one of my clients with his head buzzed on coke."

"He might not be high tonight," Blair pointed out.

"It doesn't matter," Jim said, the harshness in his voice all directed at the absent Cody. "He's broken my rules. He's history. That's one rule with no exceptions, ever. I'd pull him out of there if he was balls-deep in the client and he knows it." Jim struck the steering wheel with the flat of his hand, the jarring pain worth it for the opportunity to release some of his anger. "Goddamned idiot --"

Blair gave him a worried look and murmured a dutiful agreement, but then mercifully subsided into a silence that was only broken when Jim had parked the car. "I'm not waiting out here."

He hadn't known Blair long, but Jim knew the man well. With a jerk of his head, he accepted the inevitable and walked into the hotel bar with Blair a step behind him.

They took seats at the bar, their arrival creating no ripple of interest in the close to empty room, the background music loud enough to cover conversation. Jim ordered them both a beer, already well aware of Cody's presence.

Cody was in a discreetly tucked away booth at the back of the room, his client, Gerry Matthews, sitting far enough away from him on the semi-circular bench seat that they could pass for no more than friends or business acquaintances to a casual onlooker. Jim saw more clearly; Gerry's face was flushed, his eyes bright, and every time Cody spoke or smiled, he leaned in eagerly.

Cody loved it, Jim could tell. Jerk.

When the men rose from their table, Jim tossed some money on the bar to cover his tab and turned, drawing Cody's attention without even trying. He didn't need to say anything. Cody rolled his eyes when Jim gave him a cool, steady look and then touched Matthews' arm, his voice lowered as he came up with an excuse to delay following Matthews up to his room. Jim spared a moment to wonder what it was; a phone call Cody had to make, a forgotten message he needed to pass on... He didn't doubt Cody's ability to come up with a convincing lie, smoothly delivered and plausible.

Matthews wasn't buying it, though. The eagerness was replaced by petulance at being forced to wait, even though, strictly speaking, Cody wouldn't be on the clock for a few more minutes. Jim waited until it was clear that Cody wasn't going to be able to shake his client and then, with a muttered command for Blair to stay where he was that Blair had damned well better obey, he walked over to the couple.

Matthews frowned at him, annoyance twisting a face that defined average and forgettable, and Jim smiled at him, all professional courtesy. "I'm sorry to interrupt," he said, keeping his voice discreetly low but not making the mistake of whispering, which always drew attention. "I'm this man's employer and I'm afraid something's come up that prevents him from keeping his appointment with you."

"You have got to be kidding me," Cody said under his breath, frustration twisting his expression into something ugly. "Look, Jim, can't this wait?"

The use of his name and the lack of respect sealed Cody's fate -- not that there had been any doubt in Jim's mind about terminating Cody's contract, but he had been considering giving him a small payoff in recognition of the business he'd brought in over the years.

"Yes," Matthews chimed in, his tone exasperated, "whatever it is can wait an hour, surely?"

Jim drew in a deep breath. Idiots, both of them. "Unfortunately, it can't. As of this moment, he no longer works for the agency and I can't give you any guarantees about his health or your safety."

Matthews blinked, a wary look replacing his former irritation. "His health? Look, I see him every month; if you're telling me that he's --"

"No," Jim said before Cody, whose face was flushed, his eyes narrowed, could speak. "Nothing like that. He's clean; all my employees are."

"Then what's the problem?" Matthews gestured impatiently. "Just spit it out."

"I'm afraid that's confidential," Jim said, less out of loyalty to Cody than a rising antipathy toward Matthews. The bar was too public a place to be talking about drugs, too, although they weren't getting many looks. Just three men chatting...even if it did sound like the set-up for a joke given who they were. A hooker, a pimp and a john walked into a bar... "You'll be reimbursed any charges related to tonight, of course, and I'll see that your next, uh, three appointments are on us."

"And what about me?" Cody demanded, his voice rising in volume. "What do I get, Mr. fucking Ellison?"

Jim met Cody's eyes and didn't trouble to hide his contempt. "Call by the agency in the morning and you can pick up your belongings. Any later than nine and don't bother; they'll be in the trash."

Cody stepped forward, his mouth working, his fists clenched. Jim shook his head. "Don't," he said. "A broken nose and a black eye aren't going to help you when you're job hunting, and that's the least of what I'll do if you throw a punch."

Matthews caught his breath. "You -- not here," he said, his voice low, forceful. "You can't fight here."

There was something in his voice that told Jim that Matthews wouldn't have minded them fighting somewhere more private, but he didn't take his gaze off Cody, forcing the man to back down. It didn't take much; Cody was all mouth.

"Tomorrow," Cody said softly. "I'll be there for what's owed me." He glanced at Matthews and gave him a charmingly crooked grin. "You were fun, darlin'. Thanks for the ride."

Jim watched Cody saunter off, relieved that it had all gone relatively smoothly, his mind already busy with thoughts of the reorganization they'd need to do to cover for Cody's absence. Maybe give Luke a shot...he was inexperienced, but his clients loved him and he might be ready to move onto something more demanding than a straightforward fuck. Jim wasn't selling bodies, but dreams, fantasies and not everyone had more to offer than their body.

"And where does that leave me?" Matthews said. He grabbed Jim by the arm and then released him when Jim gave him an unfriendly look. "I -- tonight is the only time -- Are you going to arrange for someone else?"

Jim shook his head. "We're fully booked," he said, with a distinct feeling of déjà vu. "Tomorrow, we should be able to accommodate you easily."

"Too late," Matthews said, his eyes bleak. "My wife comes home tomorrow and it's going to be difficult to get away -- " Jim made sure that his expression stayed neutral; it wasn't like he had any moral high ground here, but Matthews flushed as if his conscience had administered a slap. "I know how it looks, what you must think of me, but I need this. Your agency has saved my sanity -- yes, I know how that sounds, but it has -- and I was counting on tonight to -- to tide me over." He gave Jim a despairing glance, vulnerable, beseeching. "Isn't there anyone?"

Jim closed his eyes for a moment, aware of Blair's gaze on him, some awareness telling him that Blair was watching him closely, waiting for him to return.

"There's me," he said with a smothered sigh. "I own the agency, but I also see certain clients from time to time and I'm subject to the same health checks that they are. If you'd like to confirm my identity and credentials by calling the agency, go right ahead."

"You?" Matthews said, his voice rising to a squeak. He swallowed. "Oh."

"You don't have to agree to it if I'm not what you were looking for," Jim said, his feelings not at all hurt by the shock on Matthews' face. He knew from the file what Matthews usually wanted and he knew that he could deliver it as well as Cody, if not better. "I could make some calls with other agencies, ask around..."

"You'll do just fine," Matthews said, the stunned look in his eyes fading to a wary hope that Jim didn't quite understand. "Can -- can we go to my room now? Please?"

Jim nodded. "I just have to tell my colleague what's happened. He works for the agency, too," he added when Matthews glanced at Blair, a frown puckering his forehead. "It's policy to always have a witness when a contract's terminated this way."

That was pure fiction, but it seemed to work. Matthews nodded and walked over to a rack of newspapers by the door. Jim waited until he'd picked one up and then joined Blair at the bar.

"You got rid of Cody really fast," Blair said. "I was expecting, I don't know, a fight or something." He'd shredded the receipt that had been left on the bar for Jim, turning the paper into a heap of confetti. "I was psyching myself up to throw a punch or two."

Jim snorted. "The day I need help dealing with someone like him...but thanks for the concern."

"So can we go now? I'd buy you another drink, but technically you're still on duty, right?"

"Right," Jim agreed, a heaviness pressing down on him that showed in his voice. "And there's a client over there waiting for attention."

It took only a moment for Blair to get it. "And there's no one else, so you're going to do it?" Jim nodded and Blair licked his lips nervously. "Oh. That's, uh, that's kind of funny, isn't it?" He chuckled, the sound wavering and at odds with the blankness in his eyes. "It's how we met." He clutched at Jim's arm, his voice sharpening. "Jim, if you fall in love with him, too --"

There was no one around to overhear them, but even if there had been, Jim would still have answered the way he did. "When we get home, I'm going to show you exactly who I'm in love with, and trust me, your ass is going to regret that comment."

Blair smiled at him, relief plain on his face. "Okay. Just checking. So go off and do your thing and I'll, uh, I guess I'll wait here."

"No," Jim said, more harshly than he'd intended. "Go home. I'll see you in the morning." There was no way that he was walking over to Blair reeking of another man, his body lax and replete from a climax Blair had had no part in -- or with his skin crawling with revulsion, every muscle tense. He wasn't sure which outcome he dreaded most.

"Jim," Blair said calmly, "I'm being really understanding about this and I swear I won't give you grief about it later, but if you think I'm going home without you, forget it. I'll call the agency and explain what's happened -- and your client's looking this way and he doesn't look happy."

"Damn," Jim muttered. He gave Blair one final look, searching his face for any signs of distress, and finding none, turned on his heel and walked toward Matthews, who was already smiling.

***

Blair watched Jim out of sight, his ears buzzing, his heart pounding. Okay, this wasn't as easy as he'd thought it would be -- and he had thought about it. Jim had always made it clear that he had that handful of special clients he dealt with personally from time to time, though in the months Blair had known him, Jim hadn't seen them. Or at least Blair didn't think that Jim had. They weren't with each other every minute of the day, after all.

No; Jim would have told him, Blair was sure of that. The existence of that group with access to Jim's body and a hold on his affections was a source of some soul-searching for Blair, but he'd just about gotten his head around the idea of sharing. It wasn't as if he had much choice, after all, and he'd known what Jim's job was from the start.

Tonight was different. Jim wasn't supposed to be stripping for a stranger, making himself available for a fantasy to played out on him, as if his skin was a silver screen, empty and bare, waiting for the projector to splash it with gaudy, lurid images.

Jim was supposed to be with him at the agency, showing him the ropes. They'd joked about that phrase, until Jim had picked up on the curiosity in Blair's voice and made the ropes actual. Jim had tied Blair to one of the support pillars in his loft with a slow, unhurried care and concentration, leaving Blair hard and dry-mouthed, reduced to pleading with Jim to hurry with his eyes, because his mouth was bound as comprehensively as his hands.

Blair clutched at his glass to stop his hand from shaking, the melting ice inside it making the surface cool and slippery so that he needed to bring his other hand up to steady it. He could have used something cool that night, too, after Jim's hand had dealt out a swift fusillade of slaps to his ass and thighs. Blair remembered the oily smell of the varnished wood as he'd rubbed against it, writhing frantically, sobbing out broken words that the gag soaked up along with his spit.

It was surreal to be spanked in view of the supper table, littered with dishes, and with the TV murmuring in the background. Surrounded by normality; just an apartment shared by two guys, nothing to see here, move along... and in the center of the room, himself, naked, his dick drooling as much as his gagged mouth, as he jerked and squirmed under the insistent beat of Jim's right hand.

He'd come, not from the spanking, but the fierce press of Jim's hungry mouth against his when the gag had been untied, Jim's cool, unused hand cupping the scorching skin of Blair's ass, because Jim had wanted to feel that heat for himself.

Good times. Blair, after some initial misgivings and doubts, had plunged into the giddying, exciting new world of being someone's actual, official, steady boyfriend without regret. The years of living alone (Naomi's presence being too fleeting to really count), years of knowing himself unwanted, unattractive, a total loser, were already fading, the sharp cutting edges of their memory blunted by every touch of Jim's hands, every verbal assurance that Blair was wanted.

Tonight could be a setback, but Blair was damned if he was going to let it be. What he had with Jim was too precious to break with one tap, one knock. He'd wait for Jim patiently, not thinking about what was going on in a room overhead, and when Jim came back down those stairs, Blair would be so totally cool about it that Jim would see he'd made the right choice.

Before he forgot, he took out his phone and called Vera, taking care to keep his voice low and his phrasing discreet.

"He's taking care of it himself?" Vera asked, interrupting him. "Okay, I'll make a note of it. Thanks. Tell him not to bother coming back afterwards; I can handle the phones for what's left of his shift. Bye."

She hung up without giving Blair a single word of sympathy of praise, which left him feeling resentful and edgy. Not that he'd needed either -- and nor would Jim -- but, still. Even so. That was his lover up there getting naked, getting fucked, and that earned Blair a consoling pat or two, right?

Apparently not.

He ordered another drink since the barman was giving him some pointed looks, and made it a double bourbon, for no reason other than the fact that the bottle was the first one that caught his eye. Downing it in one gulp wasn't practical, but he didn't linger over it, either.

It had just occurred to him that he knew which room Jim was in. He wasn't going to listen, no, of course, not, but Jim might be in trouble....might need someone nearby...

Common sense, and the memory of Jim's muscles and training, made the idea of Matthews beating Jim up a ludicrous one, but Blair ignored the jeering voice in his head telling him that he was jealous. He wasn't. He was just being...supportive.

Supportive apparently entailed sauntering casually into an elevator, heart hammering, and then walking out of it a few moments later in the hushed quiet of a hallway. Matthews' room was tucked away at the very end, a corner room. Blair found himself approaching the door on tiptoe, and made himself stop. There was a window at the end of the hallway that provided a reason for him to loiter and he pretended to look out of it at the lit-up city, all his attention on the blank door to his left.

The hotel had been built at a time when craftsmanship meant something; the carpet was faded along the middle, where countless footsteps had fallen, but it had been a good quality carpet when it was fitted and the wear made it look dignified. In the same way, the doors to the rooms were snug and thick, even if the brass numbers were showing signs of age; Blair couldn't hear anything from his vantage point, try though he might.

No one was around; Blair stepped closer to the door and put his ear almost against the wood, listening. Nothing. He pictured the two men in there, naked by now, on the bed, Jim's body, lithe and powerful, moving over, under Matthews, giving his client pleasure and release.

Blair's cock hardened, thickened as he remembered his first time with Jim and how well Jim had played him. Jim was good at what he did, no question about it. Blair preferred the man to the professional, but he couldn't deny that there was something about having Jim look at him as a client that aroused him. It made him feel safe. Jim would take care of a client without hesitation or reservation, use his experience to provide the perfect sensual experience. Jim was really good at this and inside that room, Matthews was finding that out firsthand.

Shame caught at Blair, making his face flame hot and the skin on the back of his neck prickle damply. God, what was he doing? Matthews didn't deserve to be spied on and neither did Jim. With quick, hasty steps, Blair took off down the hallway and back to the elevator, his breath coming in uneven gasps as if he'd been running for hours.

The elevator took a while to arrive at his floor and Blair couldn't stop himself from casting anxious glances down the hallway. If Jim came out and saw him... His watch told him that it was unlikely; Jim had been with Matthews for barely twenty minutes and the agency didn't go for quick fucks in alleys, usually booking clients for an hour.

"We chat," Jim had told him, "unless the client's specified that they want something impersonal. Maybe share a drink -- soft drink for the worker -- and let the mood settle into something a bit less businesslike. Not a seduction, not exactly, just...friendly." Jim's mouth had twisted wryly. "With some of my clients, though, friendly wasn't what they were paying for. I've been face down on a bed, my pants around my ankles, thirty seconds after walking in."

Twenty minutes...more than long enough for the chit-chat to be over and the bump and grind in progress.

Blair beat his fist against the wall, hard, and welcomed the dull pain radiating out from his hand.

Stop thinking. Just stop. Accept it. Be Zen. Be there for Jim and get the hell off this floor -- where the fuck is the elevator?

It arrived just as he'd stepped away from the door, looking around for the stairwell, and he rolled his eyes at the universe's timing and made way for a couple getting out, clearly drunk, who were holding each other up, their eyes glassy, their mouths giggling.

Blair grimaced at them in lieu of a smile and choked on his next breath as the elevator door closed behind him. It reeked of sex and sweat. God, had they really gone for it in this cramped, public space? He stabbed at the button for the lobby and felt resentment at their lack of consideration build. It turned into disgust when he saw a scrap of lilac lace in a corner, a thong, damp and wrapped around something that looked like a used condom.

Blair averted his eyes, breathed shallowly, and once out of the elevator headed back to the bar. He didn't want anything else to drink, but he really needed to sit down and get himself under control before Jim saw him.

By the time Jim appeared, framed in the doorway, Blair's head was drooping over the club soda he'd been sipping. Jim summoned Blair over -- there really was something imperious about that flick of his fingers -- and turned on his heel before Blair had reached his side. Forced to scamper to catch up with Jim, Blair fought down a flash of irritation and reminded himself that what had just happened must've been tough on Jim, too.

They returned to Jim's car in a silence that grew harder to shatter with every passing moment. Once they were driving, Blair cleared his throat nervously, snuck a look at Jim's forbidding profile, jaw tight, mouth grim, and ventured, "Uh, Vera said you didn't need to go back to the agency."

"There's another hour left of my shift," Jim said, the words clipped and cool. "And last time I looked, Vera works for me, not the other way around. If you want to go back to my place, you can get a cab."

"Huh? No, if you don't want -- I mean, that's cool. Anything you want," Blair said, uneasily aware that he was babbling. He licked his lips and blurted out, "So how did it go? With --"

Jim stamped on the brakes for no reason that Blair could see, and Blair shot forward, the seatbelt cutting into his chest. "Hey! What gives, Jim?"

The car shuddered and growled, reflecting Jim's mood. "I heard you," Jim snarled and took a corner with a vicious twist of the wheel. "Outside the fucking door. Listening. How did it go? Not so well after that. I might get off on being watched, but spied on? Not so much."

Denial should have been an option; Jim didn't have X-ray vision, after all, but Blair didn't even consider lying. "Oh, man. I'm sorry. I wasn't snooping, I swear."

"No?" The glance Jim gave him wasn't icy; it burned, a fierce laser beam of a glare. "Then enlighten me, Blair; just what the hell were you doing?"

"I was worried about you," Blair said meekly, aware of how ridiculous it sounded. "I wanted to be there in case...in case..."

"He was in the mood for a threesome?" Jim inquired acidly.

Blair took a few deep breaths, cleansing his system of a build-up of tension; in theory, anyway. There was a band of tightness around his chest that made the slow inhale and exhale difficult to accomplish. God, he hated arguments. He walked away from confrontations, always had. "Dial back on the hostility, Jim. I didn't mean any harm and I didn't hear a thing, if that's what's worrying you." He frowned. "Anyway, how did you know it was me? If it comes to that, how did you know that is was anyone? I was really quiet."

"I heard footsteps and breathing and who the hell else would it be?"

Jim's conclusion was reasonable, but the rest of it wasn't. Blair opened his mouth to question Jim further, but closed it again when Jim, a dangerous edge to his voice, said, "You like being spanked, don't you?"

"You know I do," Blair said, wondering where this was going. He was pleased that he didn't feel inclined to blush over the admission; he'd come a long way. "So?"

"You might want to reconsider pissing me off given I'm the one who dishes them out."

The implications of that held Blair speechless for a moment, but anger freed his voice. "Thanks, but I'm not into the 'I've been a naughty boy' scene. I don't want to be punished, I want to --" He faltered, unable, even now, to fully articulate just what he got out of the scenes Jim led him through. Release, yes, and pleasure intense enough to make every fantasy he'd ever had seem drab by comparison, but here, driving through the dark city, with a thoroughly annoyed Jim scowling at him, Blair didn't feel like raving about Jim's virtues as a lover.

"Oh, I wouldn't dream of punishing you with a spanking," Jim said, all silky menace. "I told you that I'd never go into a scene drunk or angry and I meant it. No, until I get over wanting to pound some manners into you, your ass is off-limits."

"Nice," Blair said flatly, hating the faint, triumphant smile Jim gave him. Asshole. "Way to go, Jim. In case you didn't realize it, you're still using my kink to punish me -- and you're forgetting something."

"What's that?" Jim asked as he pulled into the agency's parking lot and his reserved spot.

Blair took off his seatbelt and opened the door. He gave Jim a direct look, refusing to drop his eyes, even though Jim in this mood was intimidating as hell. "You get off on it as much as I do."

That struck home; he saw the tiny flinch Jim gave, but Jim just shook his head, the fight visibly draining out of him. "Go home, Blair," he said tiredly. "I'll see you in the morning."

Blair got out and then hesitated. Jim really did look exhausted. "Jim?" he asked tentatively. "He didn't do anything that you, uh, didn't want to do, did he? He didn't hurt you?"

Jim's mouth tightened. "If he did, I wouldn't tell you. Client confidentiality is something we take seriously here." Jim gave him a pointed look. "You know that."

"I'm not asking for the lurid details," Blair protested. "I'm your partner; I sleep with you; if you're hurt, physically or emotionally, I need to know so that I don't make it worse."

"And again, you're trying to make nosing into my business look like taking care of me," Jim said flatly. "I don't need nursing or a bodyguard, thanks."

"Looks like you don't need me for anything," Blair said and slammed the truck door before Jim could agree with him and break his heart into even smaller pieces.

***

 Jim got home at three in the morning and turned on a lamp, not the main lights, in case Blair was asleep upstairs, but he knew within moments that he was alone. The room echoed emptily around him and he shivered, stress and tiredness sapping what was left of his energy.

One look at the bathroom told him that Blair had returned to the loft, if only briefly; Blair's toothbrush was missing. Enough of Blair's belongings were scattered around the loft to reassure Jim that Blair hadn't moved out -- not yet, anyway.


Jim brushed his own teeth with a care the mundane task didn't merit and then poured himself a shot of whiskey just for the hell of it and sat down on the couch. He'd expected to find Blair asleep on the couch, or pretending to sleep, his back stiff, his face averted. Or a pile of blankets and a pillow set out on the couch for Jim to use -- except that Jim was sure Blair didn't feel at home enough to claim their bed as his own and kick Jim out of it. Not that Jim would have taken the hint and slept downstairs, but it would have shown that Blair had settled down, which would've been nice.

The whiskey tasted foul in his mint-scrubbed mouth and he swilled it around like mouthwash, grimacing as he swallowed. Hell of a night. Servicing a client out of the blue like that, with no chance to prepare mentally or physically, hadn't been easy and what Matthews had wanted... Jim's hand clenched on the arm of the couch, the memory of Matthews' control shredding as fresh as warm blood in his head. He'd showered back at the agency, but when he'd stepped out to towel off, he'd seen himself in the steamy mirror and thought that he could see handprints all over him from where he'd been touched. The illusion had vanished between one blink and the next, but when he'd turned to look at his back, the spatter of bruised, red skin across his ass had been real enough.

His first thought had been of Blair's reaction to the marks; would Blair be horrified or resentful? Jim wasn't sure. Hiding the marks wasn't practical given how casual Jim usually was about his body. If he started to cover up after a shower or turn the lights out before undressing, Blair wouldn't just notice, he'd start asking questions, lots of them.

Of course, if Blair had decided to end their relationship, it wouldn't be an issue, but Jim wasn't too concerned about that possibility. They'd had an argument, yes, both of them tired and stressed, but nothing had been said that meant it was all over. Jim was prepared, now he'd calmed down, to listen to what Blair had to say and more inclined to accept that Blair had been concerned, not jealous or voyeuristic.

Jim could understand the last motivation after all, though he didn't condone it when it involved one of his clients. Watching people screw was a turn-on, whether done openly or from a discreet, unseen vantage point; Jim knew that, and if it was something that got Blair off, Jim could have arranged to scratch that itch easily enough. The club had rooms with one-way glass where people who liked to be watched put on a show. The thought of sitting in a private viewing room with a blindfolded Blair kneeling naked at his side listening, frustrated, aroused, to the gasps and whimpers of the people fucking was a pleasant one. Jim could almost hear Blair begging to be allowed to watch the action, pressing fervent, imploring kisses against Jim's hand as it caressed his flushed face. Blair's dick would be up and hard, pleading in its own way for a treat...and Jim could bend Blair over, his face up against the glass, take off the blindfold and fuck Blair slowly, slowly, ignoring the view through the glass in favor of watching the taut bow of Blair's body bend and curve, undulating rhythmically as Blair took everything Jim gave him.

Jim smiled. Yeah, they could do that...but something told him that Blair hadn't been in the hallway for that reason. Possessiveness? Maybe. Blair had been surprisingly ready to accept that Jim had to work, but it didn't mean that he was entirely sincere. Jim had to admit that if the situation had been reversed, he wouldn't have been happy about Blair going off with another man or woman and he might have done exactly what Blair had done, come to think of it.

So why had he been so furious when he'd known, beyond doubt, that Blair wasn't in the bar, out of earshot, but a few feet away, listening to Jim yield to the urge to punish and hurt of a man who'd been damaged himself? And how in God's name had he known with such certainty that it had been Blair?

Jim sighed and finished his drink. It was too late for this. He had to be back at his desk in a few hours to handle Cody's departure and if he was going to do it without losing his temper, he needed to get some sleep. He would have liked to have checked up on Blair, who'd probably gone back to Naomi's, but it was too late to call him.

It could wait until they'd slept. It could all wait.

Leaving his glass on the table, Jim walked upstairs to bed, stripping his clothes off without looking where they fell. The bed was big and cold and empty, but it was a bed and he was tired. Sleep ambushed him as he prepared the perfect words to get Blair back where he belonged, dragging him into hours of chaotic dreams, punctuated by times when he woke, certain that Blair had returned, only to find himself still alone.

***

"Sweetie?" Naomi's sunrise bright smile hurt Blair's eyes. Not too much alcohol; just not enough sleep. "I didn't hear you come in; what a lovely surprise!"

"That's because you came home after I did," Blair told her austerely. "Which was about two in the morning, so you're grounded."

Naomi dimpled. "I am?"

"Totally. And no TV for a week, young lady."

His attempt at humor felt forced and flat, but Naomi didn't seem to notice as she whisked around the kitchen, humming to herself. She only asked him where to find two items -- coffee filters and the organic honey -- which meant she'd been back for a few days at least.

Blair was prepared to fend off questions, but Naomi, though far from silent, confined her conversation to her most recent trip. It had only been to the wedding of a friend's daughter a mere fifty miles away, so it didn't take long for her to bring Blair up to speed, but as his breakfast consisted of a cup of black coffee, it was long enough.

The world had turned drab and gray while he slept; it was difficult to get worked up over the shocking choice of foie gras as an appetizer.

Blair refused the offer of a second cup and stood, his head aching dully. Maybe he'd just go back to bed. Crawl between sheets that didn't smell of Jim and try to pretend that they did so that he could sleep.

"Blair?" He turned his head. Naomi was giving him a gentle, curious look that he knew well enough to be wary of; her Torquemada stare. "Why are you back?"

Lying to his mother was something Blair had gotten good at over the years. "Jim had to work late -- all night, actually -- and I realized how long it'd been since I saw you, so..." He shrugged and gave her his most charming smile. "This is still my home, right? I don't need an invitation and you're not planning on changing the locks?"

"You're always welcome," Naomi said and spread her hands in an all-encompassing sweep that came close to toppling a vase of flowers. "This is your home, absolutely, but I can sense that there's something you're not telling me and that hurts. I thought we didn't have secrets from each other."

Blair couldn't recall a time when he hadn't had secrets from his mother; it was safe to tell her that he'd gotten a D on a pop quiz, sure, but sharing anything personal was risky. He'd told Naomi that he was in love with a girl two grades above him once when he was eight. The memory of Suzie taunting him at school two days later about his crazy mom calling to invite her over was one that could still make Blair's chest tighten. Naomi's good intentions were the kind that started wars.

He threw Naomi a bone. "Yeah, well, I am stressed out over the book, so you could be picking up on that, I guess. I'm not making much progress and Jim's, well, he's distracting. In a good way." Blair tried for a knowing look and hoped that he'd pulled it off.

"Mm-hmm," Naomi said, clearly unconvinced. "When are you going to bring him over so that I can really get to know him? Dinner this week, maybe?"

"Sure," Blair said immediately, insincerely. "I can't finalize a date until I've spoken to Jim, so don't start planning a menu, but that'd be great."

Naomi's eyes narrowed. "Maybe I could call Jim myself."

"Not a good idea," Blair said with a bright smile. "He's working some really weird hours and I'd hate for you to wake him up."

"You never did tell me exactly what he does."

Naomi rapping out questions in a tight voice, a smile stretched across her face, was intimidating as hell. It was like playing tennis with an octopus, fielding a flurry of balls aimed at the head.

"Sure I did. Ex-army, went into business --"

"Doing what?"

Blair shrugged with elaborate casualness. "Not sure. We don't talk about it much; Jim's more into keeping work and play separate and I'm definitely play." His leer needed work, too. "They're suppliers."

Of hot, illegal, kinky sex.

"What's the name of his company?"

"Jesus, Naomi, let it go," Blair snapped. "I don't know, okay? I don't need to know every detail about him to know that I love him." Oh, God, I do and shit, what have I done? Spying on him...shit, shit...

"Love means knowing someone as well as you know yourself."

"The important stuff, yeah, but what Jim deals in isn't important; his job doesn't define him. He's good at it, he's successful, and he's happy; that's all that matters."

"You know all that, but you still don't know what he does?"

Blair sucked in an infuriated breath, ready to lose it and release some of the unhappiness he felt in a tirade he'd regret immediately after, and was saved by his cell phone ringing.

"Hold that thought," he said to Naomi and then turned and walked away, tugging the phone out of the pocket of his jeans. "Hi."

"You left your laptop here." Jim sounded cool, but not unfriendly exactly. Just busy. Too busy for the drawled 'hello' that always sent a pleasant shiver through Blair for what it promised. "Do you need it?"

"I did? Oh, shit, yes, of course, I did. Uh..." Blair thought frantically. Go and get it now and try to talk to Jim in the middle of the office with the phones going crazy? Not a good idea, but he wanted to see Jim badly enough that it still appealed. "I could..."

"Do you need it right now?"

"Not right this second, no," Blair said, trying to work out what Jim wanted him to say. "Do you want me to --"

Another question got cut in half by Jim's curt voice. "I want to meet you for lunch. I'll give it to you then."

"Okay," Blair said. "Where do you --"

Jim interrupted him again, which was getting annoying. "One o'clock. Zigzag."

When he'd moved in with Jim, Blair had left only a few items of clothing at Naomi's house, none of them suitable for Zigzag, and he didn't feel comfortable about going to the loft without Jim there. He'd gotten used to eating out, and Roberto didn't scare him these days, but he'd changed since that first meal when he'd stood out for all the wrong reasons. Now, he enjoyed dressing up to eat there, and with Jim's blunt advice to guide him, he'd expanded and refined his wardrobe considerably without sacrificing his own style.

A closet of plaid and ripped jeans to choose from wasn't the reason that he spoke up, though; Jim needed to be reminded that Blair got off on being ordered around in bed, but not out of it. "One works for me, but let's make it a sandwich at the Sprouts of Wrath. I'm not in the mood for being fussed over by Roberto and half a dozen waiters."

"That vegetarian dump on Sussex?" Jim sounded outraged by the mere suggestion. "You know I don't like tofu."

"It thinks you're an asshole too, but the mung beans are dying to meet you," Blair said with enough snap, crackle and pop in his voice to warn Jim that on this he wasn't going to compromise. "I'll see you at one."

He ended the call before Jim could reply and turned to see Naomi watching him with a speculative gleam in her eyes. "Lunch with Jim? That's nice."

Too tired of defending his secrets to care if he was tactless, Blair held up his hand to ward off any more questions. "Don't go there, Mom, okay? Let me handle this."

Naomi nodded, the copper of her hair catching the light. "Sure, sweetie. You know I never interfere."

The ironic thing was that if she'd been Pinocchio, her nose wouldn't have grown an inch; she really believed that she gave him space to grow and independence. Blair sometimes wondered if there was anything he was that deluded about and hoped and prayed that there wasn't.

"I'm going to meditate," he said. He wasn't, but it would keep Naomi out of his hair for a few hours. "Clear my head."

"I've got a tape of Tibetan wind chimes that's perfect for centering your thoughts," Naomi said eagerly. "Let me get it."

"I prefer to meditate in silence," Blair said.

"Oh, but music is a wonderful way to focus one's energies and tap into the earth's natural rhythms," Naomi said and swayed on the spot, her eyes dreamy. "Silence is so...so..."

"Restful," Blair said with finality and walked away before Naomi could inflict any more of her brand of non-interference on him.

***

Jim was already at the cafe when Blair arrived, sitting at a table in the corner, his back to the wall. Had to be a soldier thing, because Jim always did that, space allowing. Eyes on the door, back guarded, escape routes plotted.

It seemed like overkill here at the Sprouts, where the tables, hand painted in a rainbow of colors and designs, were filled with students, bickering amicably and solving the problems of the world through a mouthful of pita and hummus.

Jim looked out of place; too old, too polished, wearing a suit... Nice suit, though; Blair approved of the dark wool of the jacket against the vanilla ice cream of the shirt, and loved the bitter chocolate tie...okay, he was reducing Jim to something edible and that was even before he focused on Jim's mouth, the well-shaped lips parted in a greeting that Blair hadn't heard.

"Uh, hi," he said awkwardly and sat down across from Jim. His laptop was in its case on another chair pulled up to the small table, crowding their legs. Blair reached over and patted it. "Thanks."

Jim nodded, his gaze traveling slowly over Blair in a way that made Blair feel breathless and just a little too warm. "Are we done?"

Air. No air. And the sun must have gone behind a cloud because it was dark now and Blair couldn't see, couldn't breathe, couldn't -- Jim's hand gripped his, and shook it slightly. "Blair! Breathe, damn it. Put your head down."

"I'm fine," Blair managed to grit out. "Jesus, I thought you said you weren't a sadist; you couldn't lead up to dumping me? Break it to me gently?"

Jim jerked his hand free and brought it up to grip Blair's chin, tilting it up so that Blair had no choice but to stare into Jim's angry eyes. Jim's thumb and knuckle were digging in hard, but Blair held still. Jim had taught him to do that, to let pain and discomfort become known, accepted -- useful, even. This pain was minor, barely there, but it resonated with Blair because for once, he didn't think that it was deliberate. Jim was always so careful...each stroke placed with precision, every second that Blair spent kneeling, bound, clamped, cuffed, chained, hurting, hard, monitored by a watchful Jim.

"Are we done fighting," Jim said, enunciating each word clearly. "That's what I wanted to know, Blair. Nothing else. It never even occurred to me that you'd --"

"Can I take your order?"

Jim's fingers didn't move and neither did his head. "Go away."

"Uh, sir..."

Blair jerked his chin away, released as soon as he began to move. He gave the waiter, a skinny teenager with a shaved head and a lot of metal adorning his face, an apologetic look. "I'll have the roasted pepper salad on rye to go and he'll have.. Jim? What looks good? "

"I'm not hungry." Jim folded his arms across his chest, giving a good impression of a toddler in a tantrum.

"He'll have the farmhouse cheddar with the peach chutney on brown," Blair said and kicked Jim's leg under the table when Jim began to protest. Jim glowered at him and relapsed into a silence that was only broken when they were outside.

"I'm not going to eat that."

"You should," Blair told him. "You're like my uncle; you don't eat and you get grumpy. Blood sugar. But if you want to act like a five-year-old, go ahead and I'll eat them both; I skipped breakfast, so I'm starving."

Jim sighed and looked around them. "Fine, we'll eat on a bench somewhere and get mobbed by pigeons."

The street they were on was close to the waterfront, close enough that the air was tangy with salt, a few gulls wheeling overhead, lazily circling. They walked for a few minutes and found a bench looking out at the ocean. The rundown warehouses around them and a cool, damp breeze made the setting somewhat less than ideal, but Blair didn't mind given that they were arguing, not breaking up. It scared him how much the idea of losing Jim mattered to him. Life without Jim, when contemplated, seemed to be a vast, echoing void of nothingness. It was reassuring to remember how Jim's voice had cracked when he'd explained what he'd meant, as if the idea scared him as well.

"You really thought I wanted out?" Jim asked, after taking a huge bite of the roasted pepper sandwich. Blair had surrendered it with a token glare, allowing Jim the small victory. "Over one argument?"

"It wasn't the argument," Blair said and licked a dollop of chutney off his finger. "It was what I did. I screwed up and you didn't want me around, which I totally get. I always do that, and I never get a second chance." He shot Jim a sidelong glance and discovered that Jim was staring out at a yacht, its sails white against a gray sky. "I'm sorry. Did I say that last night? Because I am. I told myself I was worried about you, and I was, but we both know there was more going on. You were with someone else and I didn't -- I didn't handle it as well as I thought I would." Jim's profile wasn't telling him much. "I get it if you're angry. I let you down."

"You're not going to be able to handle it any better next time, are you?" Jim said, the words soft, reflective. "It's going to eat away at you and we're going to argue again."

"No!" Blair protested. His food tasted stale and he wrapped it up in the paper bag and set it beside him on the bench, wary of the gulls. "Next time -- if there is a next time, because last night wasn't planned, right?"

"It happens more than you'd think," Jim said, his voice dull. "I told you that I still see clients but last night, me stepping in for someone...it happens. It happened with you, remember? The client last night liked me. Liked me a lot. He wanted me to say that I'd take over from Cody, be his regular."

Blair's hand curled into a fist and he forced himself to relax it before Jim noticed. "Did you -- did you say yes?"

Jim shook his head. "I told him I wasn't available. He wasn't happy, but he won't be needing us for a while and by the time he calls again, I'll have found a replacement for Cody." Jim's lips twisted in a grimace. "Now that I know what he wants, I can make him happy."

That sounded ominous. Mindful of Jim's reaction to questions the night before, Blair said hesitantly, "Didn't Cody write reports? I mean, with me, you, uh, you knew...Sam told you..." He faltered, still not entirely at ease with the idea of his reactions during his brief session with Sam being monitored, his kinks reduced to black letters on white paper.

"What he got from Cody wasn't what he got from me," Jim said, his shoulders hunched, his attention still on that distant sail. "We went...deeper." He turned his head and Blair felt his breath catch in his throat. Jim looked so damn lost, so helpless. "I'm good at what I do. Last night maybe I was too successful. I left him somewhere and I don't know if he can find his way back from there. I don't know if what I did was too much or not enough. Shit." Jim shook his head. "Maybe I can't just walk away from him after all."

"You're not a fucking therapist," Blair blurted out, distantly horrified by the harsh words, even as he said them. "You don't need to hold his hand as well as his --"

Jim didn't look lost now; his jaw was set and his lips a thin slash in a pale face. "How the hell do you know what he wants, what he needs? You were outside, trying to hear; I was there with him, holding him, letting him --" Jim broke off, the anger dying from his face. "This isn't working."

"I want it to," Blair said desperately. "Jim -- I don't want to lose you over this, over anything. You're asking me to share you and I can't -- it's not easy, but I'll try, I just -- give me the chance to process this. Don't tell me and expect me to nod and smile and agree right away, because I can't."

"You said you would," Jim reminded him. "You've always known what I was. You knew that this would happen."

"Sure! In theory! It's just different when it's real." Blair gestured at Jim. "Tonight, when we go to bed, what am I going to see on you? Did he leave marks? If we'd gone home together, would you have freaked out if I touched you, or would I have been the one to turn away? I don't know, because we didn't find out, but we have to, Jim. And we have to try and make this work because I can't stand the thought of losing you."

"You can always book me for a night if you miss me," Jim said with a cruelty that took Blair's breath away.

"Fuck you," he said distinctly. "I'm not walking away this time, Jim."

"Then come back with me and I'll show you what he did to me," Jim said with a heavy, resigned sigh. "And you can tell me if you can live with it, because you're going to have to if you stick around. If I don't see Matthews again -- and I'm still thinking about that -- there'll be others." He stood, staring down at Blair, his expression bleak. "This is why I don't date."

"No," Blair said, and got to his feet. "This is why you need to date someone like me."

"Someone like you?" Jim queried, a frown appearing.

"Too desperate to be choosy," Blair answered and was rewarded with a flickering smile and a light, affectionate cuff to the back of his head that broke his heart because he didn't want just friendship from Jim. God, no. He wanted so much more.

***

Jim stripped, so deep into the mindset of working again that he had to make a conscious effort to do it matter-of-factly, a simple matter of removing clothing from his body and setting it aside. Blair watched him, eyes wide, lips getting chewed and licked. Distracting, even when it was a sign of tension, not arousal. Blair's mouth was what Jim looked at to gauge Blair's mood, far more than his eyes. Blair was good at keeping them innocently blank.

Once naked, he sighed as a puzzled look crossed Blair's face. Yeah, there wasn't much showing from the front, was there... He walked over to the bed and lay down on his stomach, his arms folded under his chin and let Blair see everything. The bitten-off gasp had his eyes screwing tightly shut for a moment, glad that he couldn't see Blair's face now.

The bed dipped as Blair sat down on it, his hand coming to rest on Jim's shoulder, squeezing it tentatively. Jim turned his head toward Blair, but didn't crane to meet his gaze. Blair's hand moved, a slow glide across Jim's shoulders and down to where it all got messy, skin blotched and bruised, crossed with reminders of what had happened to him.

Just short of Jim's ass, Blair raised his hand and lifted it away from Jim's body, leaving him shivering, bereft. Jim could almost feel Blair's hand move to hover over his ass and he murmured, "You can touch if you want," hoping that Blair would hear how much he wanted that to happen.

A long moment later, he felt the tips of Blair's fingers brush across his ass, tracing the lines with an anxious precision as if Blair thought that he could erase them. Only time could do that, but the caress did feel as if it were leaching some of the stiffness out of the taut skin and Jim relaxed, trusting Blair not to add to his discomfort.

"I don't get it," Blair said, his voice a soft murmur. "I saw that guy and I saw Cody. No way was Cody going to let him do this. It just didn't feel like that between them."

"Good call," Jim said. "It wasn't. I guess I brought it out in him."

"Tell me," Blair said. "Jim, trust me with this. I need to know what he did."

"I'm showing you," Jim said, a vast drowsiness sweeping over him. In bed, with Blair beside him...not a dream, not this time. "Can't hide it, so I don't have a choice about that, but the rest...Work it out if you can, but I'm not telling you what we did."

"Work -- okay, fine, I will." Blair breathed in, a deep, noisy breath and exhaled, stirring the still air of the room. "Okay." The palm of his hand settled down on Jim's ass, cupping a cheek, a weightless slap that sent a shiver of...something through Jim. No apprehension, not with Blair, and no arousal, because Jim's butt hurt and he didn't get off on that and never had...but Blair touching him worked, no matter where Blair's hand was. He gave an acquiescent grunt, and felt his hips rise an inch or two, and nudge against that possessive palm.

"He was a sub," Blair said, certainty deepening his voice. "Takes one to know one, and I saw him around Cody and I guess I saw some of me in him. He wanted to please Cody and he liked it when he got those approving smiles, even when he had to know he'd bought them and they weren't real."

"They're real when I smile at you," Jim said. Talking took a lot out of him; his lips felt numb and shaping them to form words was difficult, but he didn't want there to be any doubt about that. "Always. From the start. Never lied to you, Blair."

"I know. I can always tell. So...a sub who ended up whaling on you. Huh. That's weird, definitely, because he had to know that you could've given him a good time. You give the best spankings, you know that? You're really, really good at them."

"Blair."

"Yeah, I know. Focus. But you do. So why would he pass on that? Why not ask you to make him happy? Because hitting you...I can't see why that would work for him. It wouldn't for me. It'd freak me out, man. Just...I couldn't do it."

"You're making the mistake of assuming that all clients are honest. They're not."

"That's stupid," Blair said with conviction. "You've got a fantasy and you hire someone to give it to you and then tell them you want the exact opposite? What's the point?"

Jim roused from his fatigued stupor enough to answer with more than a grunt. "For some people -- men, mostly, but women, too -- image is more important than getting off. They don't want to admit to anyone that they like being dominated or humiliated. Or they don't want to share something intimate, a secret they've kept all their lives, with a hooker, a stranger, someone they despise because of what they do."

"You know, that's really interesting," Blair began. "And so sad, too."

"Whatever," Jim said and yawned widely enough to make his jaw crack. "I'm falling asleep here, so get your little gray cells working, Poirot; the window's closing."

"He hasn't done this before," Blair mused. "My ass never looks like this when you've finished with it. This is...untidy. Uneven. He's hit too hard here and here...over and over in the same place. That's just mean."

"I do that to you sometimes," Jim pointed out. God, he was tired. Blair's voice, quiet, contemplative was like a lullaby.

Blair leaned closer, the bed creaking as he shifted position, and Jim gasped softly, startled, as Blair's tongue followed the track Matthew's belt had left. Over and over...Yeah, that was just what had happened, until he'd flinched and said something, he couldn't remember what, an inarticulate protest, and Matthews's breath had hissed out and the next stroke had been so fucking hard, but somewhere else -- his thigh, yeah, and it had stung, hot as fire, but Jim had still said 'thank you' on a sobbed out moan.

That moan had been perfect. Jim had felt a flicker of satisfaction even as it'd slipped past his lips. Broken, anguished, pitiful...Matthews had loved it, had tossed the belt aside and turned Jim over, a feral grin on his face, his eyes glazed over.

Jim had met that gaze with a calculated shiver and closed his eyes as Matthews' fingers had driven into him, short, stabbing thrusts that he had to will his body to accept. It had helped that Jim knew Matthews would come quickly once his cock was where his fingers were, and he was relieved that Matthews had automatically used a condom and lube, even lost in dark memories as the man was. If Matthews had tried to fuck Jim bare, it might have gotten painful. Jim knew plenty of ways to get a man's attention, no matter how out of it he was, but they all relied on inflicting a sharp burst of agony and that rarely resulted in a satisfied customer. He'd needed to break one man's finger once just to get the message over that bareback wasn't an option, years ago, when he'd been an employee of the agency, not a co-owner. Jack, who had his own methods of enforcing his rules, had quietly blacklisted the jerk after sending him a bouquet of roses by way of an apology, a mixed, but effective message.

"When you do it, I love it," Blair said and blew cool air over wet skin. "You do it to make me come when I'm struggling and can't get there on my own." He laughed, a soft chuckle. "A helping hand." The amusement left his voice. "You didn't enjoy him doing this to you. Any of it. I wish..."

Jim knew just what Blair wished had happened. "The client gets what he wants. What he needs."

"So why did a sub need to do this to you?" It was a question, but Jim knew that it wasn't addressed to him. "It's a punishment, but you hadn't done anything to him. Unless he resented losing Cody? Maybe. You took his toy away and he made you play for it?"

Nice if it'd been that simple.

"But he could've insisted on keeping Cody and made it a private arrangement between the two of them; you couldn't have stopped them. He seemed happy enough to have you instead -- God, it was his lucky night!"

"My number one fan," Jim murmured.

"Always," Blair said fervently and kissed the small of Jim's back, a slow, luscious smooch that made Jim grin, unseen.

"So I just don't get why he'd do something that verged on abuse -- oh. Oh, shit. He wasn't inventing a scene and doing it badly because he was inexperienced, was he?"

Jim closed his eyes. He'd known this would happen. Through all the talking, all the kissing, Blair's brain had been busily adding and subtracting, deftly assembling every fact, every clue into a theory. Blair was too intuitive not to guess the truth.

"He was acting out something that happened to him, and putting himself in the other role. He was hurt and he wanted to see it from the other side. Jim. Jim --"

Jim rolled to his back and met Blair's look with the blankest expression he could muster. It wasn't enough. Faced with the anguish in Blair's face, he gave in and nodded, resigned. Blair huddled close, his arms going around Jim, giving and seeking comfort, as he muttered fragments of curses and endearments.

Jim didn't think that he was the one who needed pitying, but with Blair in this mood he didn't intend to point out who the real victim was. It wasn't him, that was for sure. He'd gone into Matthews' room prepared for fairly standard sex, but what it had turned into hadn't been unprecedented and nowhere near the most physically intense session he'd endured. Matthews had asked permission first, his voice shaking as he stumbled over an explanation that had left enough unsaid for Jim to worry. The man needed therapy, or failing that, a friendly ear. In the short time they'd been together, Jim had managed to divine a deeper need under the blustered commands, something he'd done so often that it didn't really register with him as out of the ordinary. He'd assumed that Matthews wanted to be topped -- and that was essentially the case -- but whoever had ruined Matthews' first attempt to sub had left a mass of anger and hurt behind. It was blocking Matthews from ever reaching anything approaching Blair's equable acceptance of his kinks.

Jim had taken the abuse, the blows, and the rough, selfish sex that followed without a single genuine complaint. Matthews hadn't got it in him to truly mimic the sadist who'd worked him over and it had been unpleasant but bearable. Jim's whimpers and pleas had been voiced to prove to Matthews that there was no shame in begging for an ordeal to end.

He didn't delude himself into thinking that Matthews had walked away cured, his issues laid to rest, but he'd seen a measure of relief in the man's eyes when it was over and Jim had paused on the way out to smile at him.

Seeing Matthews again was so very tempting. Jim had stayed in business for clients like him, but he could see how little Blair liked the idea. Help a client or hurt Blair...it wasn't a choice that he wanted to make and it wasn't a clear-cut one by any means.

"What are you thinking about?" Blair asked, breaking off his running commentary on something that he didn't know as much about as he thought he did. "You're so quiet."

"You're talking enough for both of us," Jim said dryly. He yawned, not faking it. "I'm going to take a nap. Going to be another late night."

"Ah, yeah, about that," Blair said with a return to the awkward diffidence that Jim had thought they'd conquered between them. Blair hesitant, cringing as if he expected a blow, made Jim want to find everyone responsible for that attitude and inform them of the error of their ways. Which made him one of them, as Blair was more than capable of taking care of himself. "I can't join you tonight, if that's okay."

"Sure," Jim said after a moment of trying to decide how he felt about that. He'd get more work done without the distraction and temptation of Blair a few feet away, chewing thoughtfully on his lip or a pen, but he liked having Blair beside him. Piqued, he added, "I told you it wouldn't be much fun, but I thought you'd last longer than one night."

"Fun? It's work," Blair said blankly. "For both of us. It's not supposed to be fun. You're running a business and I'm researching a book. And I haven't lost interest. I'll be there with you tomorrow, but tonight I promised my mom that I'd see her. I don't know how long I'll be there but I won't be in the mood to work when I leave. She, uh, when I spent the night there..."

"She thought we'd broken up?" Jim guessed.

Blair nodded. "She wants us to come to dinner this week, but I sort of put her off."

"Why?" Jim stretched, ignoring the twinges, and gave Blair's neck an absentminded kiss since it was right there. Jim liked kissing it and watching Blair shiver, his body readying itself for more of whatever Jim chose to give. Blair probably didn't even know that he was doing that, but Jim could see the way Blair leaned in, his breath quickening, his lips parted. Jim had trained Blair to kneel, to suck him off just the way he liked it, and to hold still for something that would hurt more if Blair moved, but he hadn't trained Blair to respond that way to a kiss on his throat. That was all Blair. "We have to eat. Choose a day and I'll pick up a bottle of wine. What does she like? Red, white, bubbles?"

"I don't want to," Blair said, a mutinous pout very much to the fore. "Jim, she's pushing me about what you do and if you're there, face to face, she'll get it out of you. Naomi's very good at pushing."

"And I'm good at blocking, but you can tell her, if you like," Jim said. "She's going to find out eventually, so you may as well get it over with. Or wait until I'm with you for backup."

"Just like that?"

"No," Jim said patiently. Sleep. He just wanted to sleep, damn it. "I know what I do isn't up there with being a lawyer or a doctor, but your mom's not all that conventional herself, right? And you're too old for her to feel that she's got any say in who you date, so --"

Blair laughed, a hollow, ironic chuckle. "You're joking, right? First, Naomi doesn't recognize my age as a factor. She's hands off in theory, not so much in practice. Second, I'm never going to be too old for her to think she doesn't have a say in who I date. And she's not going to like what you do."

"So we don't tell her until after we eat, and we make a quick getaway if things get awkward. She'll probably tell you not to see me again and you can tell her.." Jim paused and raised his eyebrows. "I don't know how much her approval means to you. Is this something I should be worried about?"

"No," Blair said without giving it much thought, as far as Jim could see, an instinctive answer. "She can lecture me and give me sorrowful looks all she likes; I'm not walking away from you. I don't think I could and I don't want to."

"I don't want you to, either," Jim murmured, absurdly touched by Blair's vehemence. He brushed the back of his hand over Blair's cheek. "Are we good here? Because I really am dead on my feet."

"Sleep," Blair said. "I'm not going anywhere, I promise. Maybe downstairs to check my e-mail. And we're low on milk."

"If I had more energy, I'd tie you to the bed and make sure you'd be there when I wake up," Jim said, punctuating his words with another yawn. He'd done that a week ago, letting Blair sleep wearing wrist cuffs lined with sheepskin, not toys, but comfortable, a length of plastic-coated chain attached to them and twisted around a strut the headboard. Blair had been disappointed by the amount of freedom he had, and rolled from side to side to demonstrate. Jim had smiled and waited for Blair to discover that he couldn't reach his dick -- or scratch his ankle -- and then watched Blair's arousal ignite as he tugged at the chain and started to fight it.

Blair always needed that initial struggle to reach any kind of peace in submission; that was something that Jim was trying to change. The mouthing off, the endless questions; sometimes, a physical and very literal fight; they wasted energy that could have been better spent. Jim, who sometimes felt that he was learning as much as Blair, longed for the day where a word from him or a gesture would bring Blair to his knees in silence, a smooth transition, Blair's submission natural and willingly given. It was difficult to understand why Blair was so rebellious when he wanted to give in, but Jim suspected that Blair had been fighting himself for too long to see it as a problem.

Jim saw the memory of that night flash over Blair's face, warming the skin to rose. Blair had struggled, panting, sweaty, cursing, his traitorous dick hard and glistening wetly. Made the bed creak and broken his voice. Got Jim rock-hard just watching him.

And then between one breath and the next, Blair had stopped running in place and moved forward, his body quiescent, his expression serene, and Jim had sighed with pleasure and relief and begun to touch him.

"I wish you'd do that every night," Blair said, his hand stroking Jim's back with slow, gentle touches.

"Can't hug you when I wake up at three in the morning."

"Yes, you can."

"Can't get hugged back," Jim amended briefly. Words were in short supply now as his exhausted body hung a 'come back later' sign in the window. Had he slept at all in the night? He remembered waking up, so he supposed that he must have, but it didn't feel that way.

"You've convinced me it's a bad idea for every night; happy?" Blair didn't wait for Jim to nod. "Okay, your yawns are contagious; I'm going to join you for that nap."

 Blair got off the bed and stripped with commendable speed, his clothes falling like autumn leaves to the floor, messy and scattered.

Jim kept his eyes open long enough to take a look at a naked Blair. He'd have to be dead to pass up on that view. The unadorned cinnamon brown nipples reminded him that they really needed to follow through on the plan to get Blair's nipples -- and his ear -- pierced by Lisa at the club. Blair had mentioned it once and then dropped the subject in the flurry of planning his stint at the agency, but as far as Jim knew, it was still something that Blair wanted to do. Jim wanted it, too; the rings would open up all sorts of possibilities for making Blair writhe, teeth gritted, eyes screwed shut, ecstatic.

He made room for Blair on the bed and sighed with unvoiced contentment as Blair fitted his body to the length of Jim's and settled down.

Now, he could sleep.

***

Blair snuck a look at his watch. Ten o'clock and Naomi had been on her best behavior all night. There had been a couple with her for drinks when he'd arrived at eight; two men he'd known for years and liked in a mild way. It wasn't unusual for Naomi to invite Carl and Peter over, but Blair had still been wary until an hour had gone by without the conversation ever touching on his relationship with Jim.

He regretted relaxing his guard when Naomi excused herself to answer the phone and Carl turned to him, a teasing gleam in his eye.

"So, what's this your mother's been telling us about you moving out?"

"Moving in," Peter corrected him, grinning. He ran his hand through a head of hair that at fifty was still thick and dark. "And with a hunk, if what Naomi says is true. Is he?"

Blair felt the walls close in on him. Oh, God, he couldn't do this. "He's...uh, yes, I guess he is. I only just met him -" No, wait, that was the wrong thing to say, given that he'd abandoned his home and moved into Jim's loft without a backward glance. "It's working out fine. So, tell me about your trip to Tunisia in the spring; how did that go?"

"Hot, and Peter kept flirting with the barman," Carl said and waved his hand dismissively as Peter protested. "Oh, I flirted with him, too! But that's beside the point; we're talking about Blair and his mysterious young man."

"Not so young, it seems," Peter said and raised his eyebrows. "If I'd known you went for the experienced type -- hell, if I'd known you went for men, period..."

The look Carl gave him was fond, but exasperated. "Honey, we don't hit on men we've known since they graduated. We do have some standards." Carl overrode Peter's attempt to respond in kind, much to Blair's relief. The couple had been together for so long that their double act was too practiced to be really amusing and he knew that the flirting was all talk; they were devoted to each other. "Seriously, Blair, this has to be a little new to you. If there's anything you want to talk about..."

Where the hell was Naomi? Glumly, Blair realized that his mother was deliberately staying out of the way in order to allow this conversation to take place; no way would she leave her guests this long under normal circumstances.

"Thanks, guys, but really, I'm fine," Blair said. He spread his hands wide. "Don't I look it?"

They studied him in silence.

"There's a glow..." Peter said.

"And a hickey," Carl added. Blair's hand flew up to his neck and Carl smirked. "Caught you."

Blair gritted his teeth and gave them both a tight smile. "I should be leaving. Got to get back to my hot older man before he finds another toyboy; you know how it is."

"Blair, we didn't mean --" Carl began, a genuinely upset look crossing his face. "Look, I was serious about asking us anything. We can introduce you to people, take you to a few clubs..."

The idea of being shepherded around and introduced by men old enough to be his father was enough to make Blair's annoyance rise to the point of being expressed verbally, but he controlled himself with an effort. "I go to plenty of places with Jim, thanks."

"Such as?" Peter challenged. "Where did he take you on your first date -- and don't say back to his place, because, please, how tacky is that?"

Not as tacky as paying for sex, but Blair didn't tell them that.

"We went to Zigzag for lunch. Jim knows Roberto."

That got their attention. Blair was still only vaguely appreciative of just many people Jim knew, and he still thought that the food at Zigzag's was over-priced, but it was amusing to see the envious gleam in Carl's eyes. "Zigzag? Just like that? The waiting list there is...well, put it this way, our anniversary is in May and when I tried to book us a meal in April, the words 'late fall' got mentioned."

Blair waved his hand airily. "Like I said: Jim knows Roberto. We eat there a lot."

"I see," Carl said and made it sound ominous. "Your Jim must be quite the catch."

"He suits me," Blair replied, meeting Carl's gaze with an equanimity that he achieved by picturing Jim in one of his Italian suits, mussed up and creased, because he hadn't bothered to take it off before hauling Blair down to the couch for a long session of kissing. Jim liked to kiss until Blair's lips were numb and tingling and his balls were one tight, needy ache. It wasn't a habit Blair tried to break him of; too much fun for both of them.

Jim. At the office now, but he'd be home in the early hours, sliding into bed, his hands, cool from the night air, brushing against Blair's naked body and making him shiver without flinching away. He'd kiss Jim without fully waking and in the morning...oh, in the morning...

"You're thinking about him now, aren't you?" Peter asked shrewdly. "I can tell."

"I think about him a lot," Blair said and smiled at them both, free of blushes now, because really, this little session was nothing. He'd knelt half-naked in a club; this didn't compare.

On cue, suspiciously so, Naomi swept back into the room, all fluttering hands and apologies. Blair watched a mildly thwarted Carl and Peter make their excuses, and rise to leave. Courtesy made him go with Naomi to the door to see the couple out and he was surprised to get kissed on the cheek by both men as they said goodbye, something that they'd never done before.

After weeks of sleeping with Jim, it was odd to have those two casual kisses mean so much, but they did. They said 'welcome to the club', they signaled acceptance, an acknowledgement of the choice he'd made and an unspoken approval.

It -- almost -- made up for their teasing.

"Well, wasn't that nice?" Naomi said brightly after closing the door. "So relaxing to be with old friends and I'm sure they would have loved to meet Jim."

"Another time, Mom."

Naomi nodded, her expression serene. "Why don't you have a nightcap before you go? I've got some organic fruit liqueur -- non-alcoholic -- that's delicious."

"I'll pass," Blair said. "And, yes, it was really nice until you staged the intervention."

Naomi pursed her lips. "I just wanted to give you the opportunity to --"

"To what?" Blair demanded, his voice rising. "Ask their advice on what brand of lube I should be using?"

"Blair!" Naomi shook her head in reproof. "That's not like you. And, no, of course not. Unless you need to know? Because I'm sure that they wouldn't mind if you asked them."

Blair felt a blush crawl over his face, his earlier composure lost. "No! I don't need to ask them anything. I know what goes where and -- you know, I'm really uncomfortable with this conversation."

Naomi led him back into the large front room by the simple, but effective method of walking away and leaving Blair nothing to do but follow her or yell at her back.

"I'm simply concerned about you, sweetie. Not coming out -- you know that doesn't bother me --"

"I know," Blair said and patted her face gently. "I know, Mom. But you're still bothered by the idea of me moving in with Jim and I get that because it did happen fast, but it's not a big deal."

"You can always come back," she agreed.

If Blair left Jim, it would be to move into a place of his own, but he didn't share that with his mother. It was academic, anyway; he wasn't leaving Jim unless Jim kicked his ass out.

"And he wanted to come tonight, he really did." Blair smiled. "More than I wanted him too; I was scared you'd grill him and you would've done just that, wouldn't you?"

"I would have gotten to know him," Naomi corrected. "There's nothing wrong with that. If he's important to you, then he's important to me."

"I guess," Blair said dubiously.

"So why didn't he come?"

"He had to work late," Blair said without thinking and felt the jaws of the trap she'd set snap around him, metal teeth grinding into skin and bone.

Naomi's forehead wrinkled as she frowned. "You didn't tell me what he does, but I got the impression that it was office work, nine to five?"

Jim had said that Blair could tell Naomi what he did, but Blair still felt that it would be betraying a confidence. Lois Lane hadn't gone around blabbing to all and sundry that Clark Kent was Superman and to Blair, Jim made Superman look like a wannabee. Maybe he could tell some of the truth, but not all of it.

"Let's sit down."

"Of course," Naomi said and maneuvered them to the couch so that Blair had no choice but to sit close enough that his mother could read every twitch of his lips. "So are you going to stop being so secretive and just tell me?"

"You won't like it," Blair warned her. "It's legal, though, and Jim's really, really careful --"

"Blair." Naomi rarely yelled, but she could put a crisp snap into Blair's name that reminded him, disturbingly, of a slap from Jim's hand. The same flat, uncompromising delivery; the same authority behind it.

Ouch.

"He and Simon, they run an escort agency," Blair said, giving into the habit of years and satisfying Naomi's curiosity. "It's perfectly respectable, like I said and there's nothing else going on with it." Not entirely a lie... "Jim's really strict about that. He fires employees who cross the line and blacklists clients who push for sex. His people get hired to be companions for events or parties, attractive, intelligent people who can carry on a conversation, not just eye candy --"

Blair was surprised that he'd managed to speak for so long without being interrupted, but really, it wasn't a good sign. Naomi's wide, generous mouth was parted in an 'oh' and her eyes were wide and stunned. When she spoke, it wasn't to condemn Jim's choice of work, though.

"Blair -- are you -- are you working for him? Doing that?"

He laughed, unable to help himself. "Me? Mom, come on! Who'd pay to have me on their arm at some event? I'd have to pay them!"

"Don't talk like that," Naomi said automatically. "You're someone any woman -- or man -- would be honored to have as their partner." She gave him a shrewd look. "That meeting with Jim in a hotel wasn't the accident you made it out to be, was it? He's running an escort agency; you're writing a book about prostitution...it's not hard to see a connection there. Is he a source?"

"I'm incorporating elements of what Jim does into my book, but I swear to you that meeting Jim that night was a total surprise. Like I said, I'd gone there to meet someone else who didn't show. And falling in love with him has nothing to do with the book. It just happened."

Blair couldn't bring himself to say that it had nothing to do with Jim's job. It had everything to do with Jim being open to indulging him, skilled at settling a client's nerves. Sometimes, he wondered if Jim would ever lose the protectiveness toward him that came from Blair being a former client.

Naomi nodded. "I hear you," she said with a smile whose sweetness made Blair think of catching flies with honey. "Well, I'm not happy about this, but after all, you'll be finished soon, won't you?"

"Finished?" Blair echoed. "Finished with what?"

"The book," Naomi said smoothly. "Your book, of course."

Blair met her eyes, understanding only too well what she meant. "The book, yeah. Jim, no. I want that understood, Naomi. Jim's for keeps, okay? I know all about him and he's a good man."

"And when I get to know him as well as you do, I'm sure I'll agree."

"I sleep with him, so I don't think you can" Blair muttered and watched Naomi's mouth form a genuine, enchantingly wicked smile. "Mom! You flirt with Jim and I'll --"

"As if he'd be interested in me," Naomi said with an airy toss of her head.

"They're always interested in you," Blair said glumly. Unfortunately, that was one trait he hadn't inherited.

***

Jim brought his hand down hard on Blair's ass and felt Blair jerk away, not into, the slap. It was starting to hurt in that one spot, then. Fair enough. Jim placed his next blow slightly lower, overlapping the last point of contact by no more than the width of a finger. Blair sighed out a whimper that might have been meant as a plea for mercy, but sounded an awful lot like 'more'.

Jim obliged, spanking Blair around the hot spot until Blair was squirming, panting out each breath, his hair a wild tangle. Blair was fighting to stay in position over Jim's knee, a battle Jim hoped for Blair's sake that he won. Using his safeword to get the spanking to stop was permitted; getting up without permission wasn't, and Jim was good at dreaming up suitably inventive punishments.

He could tell from the breathy moans Blair was making that Blair was close to climaxing, something neither of them wanted to happen. This was the first night they'd had free for a week and Jim had plans. The meal he'd cooked Blair had been a success, the earlier visit to an art gallery entertaining less for the display on the walls than Blair's acerbic, sometimes too audible commentary, but this was what Jim had looked forward to the most.

He laid a pattering rain of light, sharp slaps against the place that hurt the most and heard the moans ripped from Blair's throat deepen to a husky howl.

"Yes. Just like that, Blair," Jim murmured, unsure if Blair could even hear him, lost in sensation as he was, but needing to say it. "Take it, all of it. God, yes."

One final set of slaps and Jim stopped, placing his hand back on Blair's ass immediately. The cessation of contact could be jarring and he wanted this to be perfect for Blair. He held his hand still, a light pressure that wouldn't have popped a soap bubble. To Blair, it would feel solid enough.

Blair's ragged breathing slowly evened out and then he sighed. "God, that was incredible. Thank you."

"You're welcome," Jim said, his voice as soft as Blair's had been. "It did a lot for me, too, so I guess the thanks go both ways."

Blair twisted around and peered up at him. "You mean that?"

"Sure." Jim patted the bed. "You can move now. Make yourself comfortable while I decide what I want to do next."

Blair's idea of comfortable was, not surprisingly, flat on his stomach, his cherry-red ass bared to the air. "I know you like it, but I'm still not sure that you get as much out of it as I do."

Jim shrugged. "How can you measure it? I'm hard, if that's what you mean, and I've been looking forward to doing it all day."

"But if I'd said I wasn't in the mood and could we just have sex, you wouldn't have tried to talk me out of it?"

"No." Jim lay down beside Blair, stretched out on his side, and leaned in to kiss Blair's shoulder. "Probably not. I take it you would if it'd been me wanting a rain check?"

"Oh, yeah," Blair said readily. "I'd have pouted and begged and if that didn't work, I'd have been obnoxious."

Jim chuckled, picturing all of it with ease. "You wouldn't enjoy being punished for behaving like a brat."

"I would," Blair said with a sigh. "Even if I didn't like the punishment itself, I'd get off on you doing it to me."

"The novelty hasn't worn off yet, I see."

"Don't want it to." Bair wiggled his ass, not seductively, but it still drew Jim's gaze south. "So as I wasn't a brat and you are in the mood, what did you have planned for this for the rest of the night, oh Lord and Master?"

"I --" Jim paused. 'Master'. Matthews had made him say that. It hadn't been the first time that Jim had used the word to a client, but it had been a long time since he'd subbed for anyone and the word had tasted bitter in his mouth. He'd spat it out and been punished for it; said it again quietly, respectfully -- and been punished again. Matthews hadn't been interested in rewarding obedience, but Jim hadn't really expected a pat on the head during the session. The memory of that night made Jim's gut twist queasily, not because of what Matthews had done, but because of the audience they'd had. Blair outside, listening to him grunt with pain and mewl helplessly as his body was used, filled, taken...

The arousal he'd felt spanking Blair had faded to nothing. Shit.

"Jim?" Blair turned to his side and then placed his hand tentatively on Jim's arm. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing." Jim smiled, a bare twitch of his lips. "Nothing," he repeated more strongly as Blair looked unconvinced.

'Nothing' was right. Nothing going on between his legs and a blank emptiness inside his head instead of a pleasant buzz of anticipation and gently lustful thoughts. The world had turned gray. The feeling of being cut off, drifting, grew and Jim heard himself snarl out something pleading, panicked as the room dimmed, Blair's face the last clear image he saw before the fog engulfed him.

***

The last time that Blair had experienced a panic attack, it had been Jim who'd brought him out of it. That wasn't going to happen now, not with Jim being the cause of the attack and also the one in need of comfort. Blair gulped air like water and fought to bring his emotions under control, pushing himself toward a calmer state of mind by telling himself that Jim needed him. His meltdown felt as if it'd lasted for hours, but in reality, only a few minutes had trickled by since Jim had passed out. If he had. Jim was curled into the classic fetal position, his eyes wide and glazed over. A thin line of saliva trailed down from the corner of his mouth, wetting the pillow and Blair wiped it away with his thumb, hating to see Jim look so helpless and vulnerable.

Jim was dressed; a pair of black dress pants and a deceptively casual shirt in cranberry silk. Blair had expected Jim to change when they got home after the viewing at the gallery, but Jim had shrugged and pointed out that the clothes would be going to the dry cleaner, so what was the big deal if they got stained or rumpled?

They were getting creased now, but that was the least of Blair's worries. He grabbed a throw from the bottom of the bed, heavy and soft, all muted colors, and tucked it around Jim, talking to him all the time in a low, urgent voice. The words were nothing more than pleas for Jim to wake up, say something, anything, but it helped Blair to say them.

He curled up around Jim, kissing his face, clumsy, desperate kisses. If Jim didn't snap out of it soon, he'd have to call 911, but something held him back. Jim's color was fine, his breathing even, and he wasn't clammy to the touch. Maybe he could call Simon; this might have happened before and Simon would know what to do.

The only problem with that idea was that although there was a phone by the bed, Blair couldn't remember Simon's number or the agency's. Right then, he wasn't even sure he could have dialed his own number; his brain was fried.

"Jim. Jim! I need you, man! Wherever you are, come back to me, okay? Please, Jim? Please? I -- I'm begging you here. Jim, you're scaring me. Red light, okay? This is a red light and I want it to stop --"

Jim's eyelids lowered and then fluttered back up, his dazed eyes regaining focus. "Blair?" he muttered thickly. "Shit, what happened?"

"Oh, thank God." Blair burrowed in closer and let his forehead rest on Jim's shoulder for a moment, taking comfort from the way Jim automatically put an arm around him. "You -- I don't know what happened, but you went away. Blanked out. It was kind of scary."

"I couldn't see," Jim said slowly.

"But you can now, right?" Blair pulled back and held his hand up in front of Jim's face. 'You can see my hand?"

Jim cracked a wan smile. "You're naked; I can see a whole lot more than that."

Blair exhaled, relieved of some, if not all, of his concerns. "You were out for about three minutes. Maybe five. I -- I kind of spaced out with you. No; freaked out. I didn't know what to do. Is this something that happens often? Because, hey, not to go all me, me, me on you, but suppose I'd been tied up? Shit!" He got to his knees on the bed, and glared down at Jim, the need to yell at someone to get rid of the last of the panic overwhelming. "You have to tell me about stuff like this!"

"Calm down, tiger," Jim said surprisingly mildly. "It's never happened before, so there's no way I could've told you. I don't know why I lost it like that. I was...thinking about something and then everything went fuzzy on me. I feel fine now."

"Thinking about what?" Blair said, snatching at possible clues like a gull at a discarded sandwich. "Tell me, Jim; it might be connected."

"I don't see how." Jim sat up, pushing the pillows into a heap to lie back against. "If you really want to know, I was thinking about Matthews."

"You were about to have sex with me and you were thinking about him?" Blair demanded. Resentment wiped out sympathy. He knew that he was acting like a self-centered asshole, and he was intuitive enough to guess that it was rooted in worry, payback for the fright, but he couldn't seem to help it. "Gee, thanks, Jim. Way to make me feel inadequate."

He found himself on his back a moment later, Jim's hand wrapped around his throat and Jim's breath warm on his face. Being pinned down under Jim when they were making love gave Blair a feeling of security that was somewhat lacking in the current situation. Jim's eyes glittered with anger and hurt, the skin over his cheekbones so tight that pale lines of bone showed through the skin.

"You called me 'Master'," Jim said, his voice harsh. "Would you like to learn what it's like to be a slave, Blair? One whose master isn't pleased with him? I could show you, but you wouldn't be good for much when I'd finished with you. You'd be hurting for days and the marks wouldn't fade by morning the way they usually do, hell, no. Want that? Want to get tied up and whipped, spill some blood on the sheets? Want to see how much you can take before you break and beg and feel me push you just a little bit further because you're my slave and I can do anything I want to you, anything at all?"

This went beyond any game they'd ever played, into Blair's darkest fantasies, the ones he used to get off on sometimes, without ever wanting them to come true. He knew his limits.

Love and shame, not fear, because Jim knew them too, and Blair trusted him, made him whisper, "I'm sorry. Please, Jim..."

The hand on his throat tightened a fraction and Blair forced himself to lie still. Fight or flight...the latter was impossible and the first really wouldn't help the situation. Odd how being a submissive didn't make this particular submission any easier to deal with. There was a difference between being dominated and being bullied and this came too close to the latter for Blair not to want to lash out.

He concentrated on breathing. Simple. Easy. In...out....in...out -- with Jim looming over him, blocking out the light and air. Jim's hand...oh God, it was like a collar around Blair's neck, a living reminder of how much Blair wanted to belong to Jim, claimed and treasured. He swallowed with an effort that he knew Jim would feel as Blair's throat rippled under his palm and whined, a conciliatory, animalistic whimper, his eyes begging Jim to forgive him.

He was hard. God, he was so fucking turned on by this and he didn't know why it excited him. The threat of danger? He wasn't in any; Jim would never hurt him, never go too far. Everything they did together was founded on Blair's conviction that with Jim he was in safe hands and he couldn't lose that belief without losing part of himself. His hands were free and he moved them, bringing them up, over his head, and crossing them at the wrists as if he were tied, offering himself up.

Jim blinked and some of the anger seeped away from his expression. He narrowed his eyes, studying Blair with a speculative gaze that made Blair's body feel hot all over, lust and love combining to make a lethal cocktail.

"Who am I thinking about now?" Jim asked, his voice deceptively mild, the perfect pressure of his hand unchanging, a constant reminder to Blair of Jim's hold over him, literal and emotional. "Tell me, Blair. Tell me if you think that there could ever be anyone but you in my head, because I'm just not seeing it. You stood in that hotel room, shaking, hungry, so fucking raw and innocent and I just wanted to -- oh God, I wanted to show you everything and I couldn't stop thinking about you."

Blair licked at his lips, words beyond him. He remembered that room, too, and the doors Jim had opened, doors Jim had guided him through.

"And now I've got you," Jim whispered, and the truth of that sent a shiver through Blair, because yes, Jim had. He was Jim's, totally, completely. "And you're pissing me off tonight, and you're making me feel --" Jim rolled his head restlessly, the muscles in his shoulders and powerful arms flexing through his shirt. "I don't know how I feel, but I want more from you than I did an hour ago. You're going to have to give me everything you've got and find a little extra, because I plan on showing you just who I'm focused on and it isn't a client, or anyone I've fucked and forgotten in the past. It's you, Blair." Jim stroked his thumb slowly up and down the side of Blair's neck, making Blair's skin prickle with sensation. "It's always you. You mess with my head more than anyone ever has. You're a pain in the ass and I love you too much to forgive you for doubting me, but I will because you're being so good right now, aren't you? Lying there like that, your eyes telling me I can do anything I want, and your mouth giving me all kinds of ideas."

Jim's voice had thickened, roughened and Blair was ready for the kiss that followed, attuned enough to Jim that the dip of Jim's head as he took Blair's mouth in a kiss that was first cousin to a bite wasn't unexpected. The force of the kiss still took his breath away, though, and it didn't help that Jim's hand hadn't moved. Blair was going to have bruises on his neck in the morning, dappled shadows against his skin. He had been so careful not to struggle, but he was damned if he was just going to accept what Jim's mouth was doing to him. Blair didn't bite the lips moving against his, or the tongue thrusting into his mouth, but he made sure Jim knew that he was participating, not passive, determined to meet the kiss with as much passion as Jim was showing.

Jim's free hand moved to circle Blair's crossed wrists, gripping tightly enough to hurt, the difference between that hold and the controlled. light pressure at Blair's throat another source of arousal. Pain and pleasure, danger and safety; it was all about the balance and Jim was rock steady, while Blair was flying, sure of a net to catch him.

The kiss was bruising Blair's mouth and the bites were making it swell and throb, but Jim was being careful and Blair couldn't taste the salt-sting of blood from a cut lip. The care should have lessened the kick he was getting out of this, but it didn't. Jim in control, totally, utterly, riding the fine line between dominance and aggression, was more of a turn-on than a mindless force of nature battering at Blair's body and demanding in.

Jim didn't feel as if he was treating Blair like a client, either; Blair knew that glossy, perfect Jim and this wasn't it. This was Jim managing, somehow, to channel his chaotic emotions into a controlled conquest of the man who'd churned them up and even if Blair suspected some clients would've paid big bucks to get this Jim in their bed, he knew Jim would never have shown them this side of him.

It was all for him.

Assuming he survived it, he'd remember to thank Jim later.

With an abruptness that left Blair jarred out of the fog of arousal surrounding him, Jim released him and got off the bed. Bereft, acutely aware of his aching throat and throbbing dick, Blair followed Jim with his gaze as Jim moved around the room, gathering supplies from cupboards and drawers with no more than a single glance back at Blair and a predatory, promissory smile.

Blair stayed where he was, holding the position he'd placed himself in, though his arms were beginning to protest being over his head, the muscles in his shoulders cramping. Jim would've looked like a centerfold, naked and posed like this, but as the seconds ticked by, Blair had to quell the feeling that he looked ridiculous. Maybe he should move...

He separated his hands, with a small sigh of relief and was about to bring them down to deal with an itch on his leg and the strain in his shoulders when Jim turned his head and stared at him without speaking, his disapproval plain.

"I just -- I was --" Blair gave Jim a sheepish smile. "My leg itches."

Jim arched an eyebrow. His "So?" couldn't have been clearer if it'd been painted on the wall in letters a foot high. Blair put his hands back where they had been under Jim's watchful eyes and felt the itch and the ache intensify.

He didn't feel ridiculous anymore, though. Jim clearly wanted him like this and that was enough to make Blair feel good about being spread out on the bed, a tasty morsel waiting for the wolf to come and eat him. His shifts in position as Jim continued to prowl around the room were subtle ones, designed to make himself look more tempting, not more comfortable. Judging by the gleam in Jim's eyes when he finally came back over to the bed, he'd been successful.

"Nice," Jim said casually and deposited an assortment of items on the bed, too close to its foot for Blair to be able to see them without craning his neck. He didn't need to see them, though; by now, he knew exactly what Jim kept in this room and he felt his mouth go dry with anticipation. They might have veered off track, but it looked as if they were back on the road again.

"You were worried about being tied up," Jim said out of nowhere, and began to unbutton his shirt.

Blair blinked at him. "Well, yeah, but I was just...I mean, if you want to..." Damn. He'd hurled that at Jim without really thinking it through. He loved being in bondage and he didn't want to give that up.

"I want you to be safe," Jim said flatly, dropping his shirt onto the chair by the bed. "We can work out ways to make sure you are. A phone where you can reach it or the key to your cuffs close by."

"Jim, I'm sure it won't happen again," Blair protested.

"Do you know why it happened this time?" Jim asked. "No? Then you can't be sure and neither can I."

Blair had butted his head against the wall of Jim's stubbornness before. When it came to Blair's well-being, Jim wouldn't budge without a lot of shoving and persuasion. Setting aside the problem to be dealt with later, Blair nodded and pasted a bright smile on his face. "So get inventive. Cuff me so that I feel tied up without actually, you know, tying me to something."

Jim nodded at the foot of the bed. "Way ahead of you, Chief."

Blair grinned, relieved. "So we're good then? Because I'm really sorry that I --"

"We're good," Jim interrupted him. "Leave it. I don't need an inquest on what just happened. I need..." He bit down on his lower lip and let it slide free slowly, a calculated move that Blair doubted he could've pulled off, but which Jim made look sexy as hell. "I need to deal with you. You're supposed to be learning how to be the perfect sub." A sardonic twist of Jim's lips gave Blair the impression that Jim wasn't sure that goal was achievable. Maybe not. Blair knew he wasn't ready for anything 24/7 and he wasn't even sure he needed cuffs and spankings every time he and Jim made love, but he knew he needed them sometimes. Often.

"So train me," Blair suggested. "Teach me something new."

"When you haven't even gotten the basics down yet?" Jim shook his head and then stepped back from the bed. He snapped his fingers, a crisp, flat click, and pointed at the floor. "I want you kneeling in front of me. Now."

Surprise held Blair in place or long enough that Jim began to frown, his displeasure plain enough that it spurred Blair into action. He scrambled awkwardly off the bed and fell to his knees with a thud, then glanced up at Jim expectantly.

The frown was still there.

"What the hell was that?" Jim inquired. "Get back on the bed, exactly as you were, and let's try that again, huh? And this time, move your ass the second I give you an order and make it look good. You're a sub kneeling in front of his Dom, not a puppy chasing a Frisbee."

Insulted, Blair glared up at him. "I was trying to hurry!"

"Do it properly," Jim said tersely and snapped his fingers again. "Back on the bed."

Getting to his feet and returning to lie on the bed, his arms over his head, was humiliating and not in a nicely kinky way. Blair did it, but his teeth were gritted, and his cheeks flaming. His dick couldn't make up its mind and hung, half-hard, making displaying himself for Jim an effort. Showing off an erection was one thing, but this....Blair felt abject, pathetic. He held the pose for a long minute or so and then Jim snapped his fingers -- Blair was contemplating buying him a whistle to use instead -- and said, "Kneel," his finger stabbing in the direction of the floor.

Blair took a quick breath and slid off the bed, trying for grace and managing it to a certain extent. When he was conscious of what he was doing with his body it brought home to him how out of condition he was. He walked and meditated, but the yoga sessions that Naomi had encouraged him to begin and the New Year's resolution to join a gym had both stayed in the limbo of 'one day'. Jim's body, sleek, powerful, toned, wasn't helpful as a motivational example; Blair knew that he couldn't match Jim's muscles and so why bother trying?

The yoga might have helped with balance and coordination, though. Maybe he really should --

"Again," Jim said curtly.

Blair bit his lip. Okay, so his attention had wandered at the end there, but it hadn't been that bad. Hoping that it would be third time lucky, he repeated his actions, his embarrassment lessened by a small tingle of arousal. There was something about the way Jim was standing there, stern and, yes, okay, masterful, that was getting to Blair. He concentrated on that tingle and fanned the flicker to a flame, allowing it to warm him and put him into the right head space. The next time Jim snapped his fingers, Blair moved with a fluid, relaxed ease and stood still for a moment in front of Jim before lowering his eyes submissively and sinking slowly, perfectly to his knees, bowing his head once he was in position and feeling the stretch in the muscles at the back of his neck. His breathing steadied and he waited patiently for Jim to tell him what to do next.

"I want to make you do that again." Jim said.

Blair couldn't help the small jerk of surprise he gave. If that hadn't been good enough, he was in deep shit, because it'd been the best he'd got to offer.

Jim must have seen Blair's reaction, because he chuckled and Blair felt Jim's hand caress his head briefly. "Not because you screwed it up, but because you did it so well."

"Oh," Blair said and tilted his head back to smile up at Jim. "That's great because I --"

Jim laid a finger across Blair's lips, a gesture familiar enough that Blair automatically shut up. "Stop talking," Jim said, gently enough that it didn't feel like a rebuke. "That's what got you into trouble, remember?"

Blair didn't risk even nodding, but he pushed his lips out, kissing the silencing finger and getting an approving tap on his pursed lips in reply.

"Good. Now let me talk," Jim said." He walked behind Blair and, from the sound of it, began to rummage through the items on the bed. "You need to put some work in on all this, Blair. You don't want to do this full-time, and neither do I, but when you want to play, or when I do, we need to be able to slip into the right headspace for it and your body needs to be used to what's expected of it, or neither of us is going to get much out of it."

Jim was standing behind him now; Blair could feel him, as if Jim's shadow had weight.

"I might take a week off work and spend it training you. A crash course. Maybe get some pointers off Sam or Simon --" Jim chuckled as Blair made an involuntary sound of protest, vehement and negative. "Yeah, I knew you'd react like that, but the fact that you did, when you'd been told to be quiet..."

Blair rolled his shoulders, restless and frustrated by the virtual gag. He wanted to argue with Jim; point out that he hadn't actually said anything and that he agreed with Jim on some points and not others; ask questions, get clarification, set limits...

"Keeping quiet is killing you, isn't it?" Jim crouched down behind Blair and put his hand across Blair's mouth. "Don't worry, sweetheart. If I wanted you speechless for a long time, I'd have gagged you. I just want to say something without being interrupted. When I'm done, you can ask all the questions you like."

Curiosity made silence easier to bear for some reason. Blair sighed against Jim's palm and licked it, which made Jim slip two fingers into Blair's mouth for him to suck on. Blair did his best to mimic a blow job in the hope that it would encourage Jim to get the talking over and done with. Lick and nibble, suck and kiss...it was doing plenty for him and he hoped that the same was true for Jim.

"You don't want this all the time," Jim repeated, "but -- and don't take this the wrong way -- I've got too much, uh, professional pride to do this half-assed. We're not bored suburbanites looking to spice things up every other Saturday night. We do this and when we're in a scene, like now, I want you fully committed. You'd be my sub and I'd be in control of what we do, with your trust and agreement to back it up." Jim sighed. "I don't know if it's workable. Maybe it'll bleed over into the rest of the time too much, or maybe we won't be able to do this the way it should be done, but we can sure as hell try."

He pulled his fingers out of Blair's mouth, wet with saliva and reddened, and wiped them dry on Blair's arm, a casual use of him that had Blair shivering. "You can talk now," Jim said into his ear, managing to be close without actually touching Blair.

Blair opened his mouth and closed it again, his thoughts jumbled. Finally, when he'd realized that Jim was giving him as much time as he needed, he said, "Sure. All of it sounds good to me. What I saw when you took me to the club -- people taking it seriously -- that's what I want. I don't know if we can turn it on and off, either, but I want to do it right."

"Well, okay then," Jim said and walked around in front of Blair, a glint of metal showing in one hand and Blair's collar in the other. Jim's collar originally... Blair could've asked for a new one, but he liked the idea of wearing Jim's and Jim didn't seem to mind. The pieces of metal -- clamps, had to be -- were tucked in Jim's pocket and the collar held up. "So let's get started." Jim's mouth twitched with dry amusement. "Again."

"Just don't spank me again," Blair said without thinking. "My ass is burning."

"What a shame," Jim said. "Because I was looking at it a minute ago and thinking that it looked nicely warmed up, ready for whatever else I decided to do to it."

Blair groaned. "Jim --"

"I'd advise you to phrase whatever you're about to say very carefully."

Blair closed his eyes at the warning, that sounded sincerely meant. Don't blow it. Not when things are fragile as hell between us right now, no matter how much Jim's acting like they're not.

He opened his eyes, glanced up at Jim quickly, and then bowed his head. "Thank you for warming my ass up, Jim," he said and matched Jim's warning for sincerity. "I'm ready for whatever you want to do to it and me."

"I want to put my collar on you," Jim said. "Something I should've done when we started. You're not the only one who needs training."

"If you ask Sam for help --" Blair bit off his indignant words and swallowed. "I'm sorry, Jim."

"Is Simon on your prohibited list?" Jim asked, his voice neutral.

"I like Simon," Blair said cautiously, refusing to commit himself.

"Well, right now, it's just us," Jim said, "so let's do the best we can, huh?"

Jim held the strip of leather to Blair's lips and he kissed it, the scent stirring memories of Jim buckling it around his neck at the club. It seemed like a long time ago, which measured in days and weeks, it wasn't, but in terms of personal growth, acorns and saplings came to mind. When the collar was in place, Blair felt the shift in his attitude as if the weight of it was pushing him deeper into sub-space. He felt glad that Jim was going to let him wear it at the start of every session; it helped. A lot.

"Love seeing it on you," Jim said. "From the first time I put it on you, it felt right. I guess that should have told me something." He crouched down and adjusted it so that it fit Blair perfectly and then nodded to himself.

Next came the clamps. Blair winced as they were attached to his nipples, Jim's fingers deft. Their bite was cruel enough to make him hold his breath, though it didn't help.

"They look good, too," Jim said, getting to his feet. "I want you to keep them on for a while; how do they feel?"

"Hurt," Blair said, his voice as tight as the pinch of the clamps. He made himself accept the pain and felt it go from a scald to a simmer as his mind diverted the agony into different channels, using it to fuel his arousal. It didn't work if he stubbed his toe, but it was getting easier with pain endured in this context. "Okay, that's better now."

"Sam would tighten them if you told her that," Jim said idly.

"She doesn't know me the way you do," Blair said and didn't care if it was speaking out of turn.

"No, she doesn't. She'd push you too hard in some ways and miss the chance to really make you sweat because she doesn't think outside the box." Jim patted Blair's cheek. "You're better off with me."

"I know that," Blair said. He knew water was wet, too, but he didn't bother pointing that out.

"Stand up," Jim said and pointed at the bed. "On there."

It took ten minutes for Blair to wonder what was going on in Jim's head. Ten minutes of crying out in pain and ecstasy as Jim used a strap, a paddle, and the vicious, hated (adored) crop on an ass that was already hot and sore, never going too far, but coming close enough to Blair's limits that he seriously contemplated gasping out a 'yellow' and getting a short time out at least twice. Jim seemed to know when he was at that point and eased back, swapping implements or spending a minute or two stroking Blair's ass, which hurt, too, but a mellow, golden kind of hurt, well worth it for the pleasure of being petted and soothed.

Jim had gotten around the issue of bondage by simply attaching the fleece-lined Velcro cuffs to Blair's wrists and ankles. They weren't linked to anything, but just feeling them on him made Blair feel restrained and held, which worked well enough. And the black against his skin looked good; Jim had given an approving grunt when he'd fastened the last one, his gaze traveling slowly from collar to cuffs.

For all of that, though, Jim didn't feel present somehow. Blair couldn't work out why. It wasn't because he was naked and Jim was still wearing his pants; Jim often stayed fully dressed during most of a session, a not-so-subtle way to emphasize Blair's submission. He puzzled over it as Jim dimmed the lights, making the room seem surrounded by darkness, floating in it, with the bed the only solid point of reference.

"Stay like that and close your eyes," Jim said. Blair obeyed and heard the soft sound of fabric on skin. So Jim was undressing? Good. Blair wanted to come, wanted it desperately, his cock rock hard and his hands shaking from the intense high of the spanking. It wouldn't take much to bring him to a climax he devoutly hoped that Jim would allow soon. Waiting could be a turn on, but not tonight. Blair needed Jim to complete his conquest of Blair's body with more than his hand on Blair's ass, punishing it so carefully. Needed Jim's cock, driven home hard. He moaned, anticipating that first nudging thrust, and felt the bed dip under Jim's returning weight.

Something square and thin was pushed into his hand and he opened his eyes before he remembered that he'd been told to close them. Condom. Huh? Hazy memories of porn films with men putting condoms onto other men using just their mouths surfaced. God, he hoped that wasn't what Jim had in mind. It would take forever for Blair to get the hang of it and he loathed the taste of latex.

"I want you to fuck me," Jim said, sounding distant and distracted. He was lying on his stomach, a pillow under his hips, that perfect ass of his up and ready. "You know what to do."

"What? No! I can't do that, Jim." Blair clutched the condom tightly and got up to his knees. The clamps were making his nipples ache with a dull, dreary drag now, and he wanted to take them off, but that could wait until he'd dealt with this. "I've never done it and I'm not sure that I even want to. Why can't you just --"

"Blair. You're my sub. You're here to please me and if I want you to top me, then that's what you do. It's my choice." Jim sounded tired, not like a man hungry for sex, which confused Blair even more.

"Yeah, I get that if you're giving the orders, it doesn't matter who's on top, but, Jim, this is just so out of nowhere. We haven't discussed it. I'm not ready --"

Jim twisted around and stared down at Blair's dick, still very much in the moment. "You've got an erection, which means you are. Suit up, lube up, and put your dick in my ass, Blair."

"Jim --"

"Or get the hell off the bed and go and take care of yourself in the bathroom."

Blair pressed his lips together tightly to hold back a flood of words that wouldn't be reasonable and calm. "Fine. I'll fuck you. And if I screw it up and hurt you, don't blame me."

"I'll walk you through it."

"Damn straight you will," Blair snapped. He tapped his chest. "Can these come off? Because they're killing me."

Jim gave the clamps an indifferent look. "They'll hurt more when they do, but sure, if you like."

Blair waited for Jim to sit up and take care of their removal, waited to be held through that first shocking rush of agony, for his nipples to be rubbed and soothed, licked wet and cooled off, but Jim turned away and put his head back down on his crossed arms.

Fine. He gritted his teeth and took both clamps off at once, tossing them aside so that he could reach up to scrub frantically at the throb and scream of his tortured nipples. God, that hurt. Sweat beaded on his back and he swallowed hard, then moaned, a low howl that didn't come close to expressing his feelings. Jim's shoulders twitched and he tensed, but he didn't glance back.

When Blair's hands had stopped trembling, he rolled on the condom and retrieved the lube from the bottom of the bed. Okay, so what did Jim do first? A finger, gently inserted, his other hand warm on Blair's body, Jim murmuring encouragement in a muted rumble of words...

Jim wouldn't need the words, but his ass was like everyone else's, so he'd need the gentleness. Blair squeezed out a glob of lube, translucent and drippy, and edged between Jim's legs. Jim tilted his ass up and spread his legs wider, which made Blair's mouth go dry with panic.


"Just do it," Jim said, a thread of amusement in his voice, which was an improvement on the weariness. "Finger in, get things nice and slippery. It'll make it easier for both of us."

"A gallon of it wouldn't make this any easier," Blair muttered. He took a deep breath and poked his finger uncertainly in the general direction of Jim's asshole, missing it by a crucial half inch and drawing an annoyed grunt from Jim.

"Sorry," Blair whispered and then cleared his throat, impatient with himself. "Sorry," he repeated in a louder voice.

A finger felt good, Blair knew it did. All those nerve endings waking up and buzzing happily, little zings of pleasure firing haphazardly though the body, nothing but a mild, faint burn as muscles were eased and teased... He could give Jim that.

Watching his finger slide into Jim's ass was unexpectedly, overwhelmingly erotic. Empowering. Jim was letting him do this, encouraging him with small, subtle shifts of his body, accepting the intrusion with so more willingness that it became something else entirely. Blair sighed, a long, luxurious exhalation, and worked his finger deeper into the tight, hot clench, moving it in an out without really thinking about it, copying what his body remembered being done to it.

By the time his cock was pushed up against the furled, slippery hole, barely inside, he was only keyed up due to his arousal, all apprehension fled. Jim was making exquisitely hot little whimpers, murmuring Blair's name, his breath erratic, his body straining, beautiful, God, so beautiful...

"Do I look like this?" Blair asked, not sure if Jim would answer, or even if there was an answer. "God, Jim, you're just so --"

Jim rose to his hands and knees, somehow managing to keep the tip of Blair's cock inside him, and pushed back. Blair cried out, shocked, delighted and closed his eyes as he shuddered, close to coming already. That wasn't going to happen, though. He might be new at this, but he wasn't going to shoot like a teenager.

Blair put his hands on Jim's ass, caressed it lovingly, possessively, and sank as deep into that ass as he could, conscious of the fact that Jim didn't do this often and acutely aware of the need to find the right angle, no, no, oh, yeah, like that, right there, look at Jim sweat and buck and writhe, so fucking hot, so fucking tight this merciless, welcoming channel of flesh, so fucking good...

He came with a cry of triumph and pride, the hot rush of come an added sensation as it filled the condom and bathed the head of his cock. Okay, he needed to pull out carefully here, before things got messy. It was easier than he'd expected, with Jim's silent cooperation, and he bundled the condom into a handful of tissues snagged from the box beside the bed and took another handful to be split between himself and Jim.

Blair dropped a few tissues by Jim's hand and wiped his dick down with a cheerful lack of concern about the places he'd missed. They'd shower together and that would take care of that.

Jim hadn't moved and Blair wondered if maybe it was up to him to wipe Jim's ass down. He didn't mind; filled with a tenderness that verged on sentimentality, he even thought he'd like taking care of Jim that way. It was a courtesy Jim had shown him in the past when he'd been too shattered by what Jim had done to be capable of even the smallest exertion. With exaggerated care, he ran a tissue over the glistening, damp crack and patted Jim's behind.

"Roll over, Jim; you're lying in the wet spot." Laundry could wait until the morning; Blair felt too euphoric to care if they slept under sheets that were less than pristine.

Jim rolled off the bed and strode down the stairs, his face averted and his hands clenched. Blair gaped after him, and heard the bathroom door slam closed. What the hell?

He turned to look at where Jim had lain and frowned, passing his hand over the covers. Dry. And from the glimpse he'd had as Jim had walked away, Jim's dick had been soft, lying against the dark thatch of hair surrounding his balls, as if they'd been doing nothing in bed but talk.

All that, and Jim hadn't been hard? Hadn't wanted it, any of it? Blair punched Jim's pillow, his body shaking with frustration and confusion. Punched it until his knuckles were sore and then tidied up the room and switched off the lights so that he could pretend to be asleep when Jim came back from the longest shower ever.

***

"Jim? Got a minute?" Simon had the door to Jim's office closed before Jim could reply, probably because Simon knew damn well what the answer would be.

Jim hung a polite smile on his face out of habit and lost it a moment later. This was Simon; he didn't need to pretend or be polite. Never had. "Kind of busy."

"No, you're not," Simon said, his affability as fake as Jim's smile had been. "You never get any work done when you hole up in here and we both know it. And we might not share shifts, but from what I hear, it's been two weeks of you acting like an asshole and that's too long, even for you." He pointed at the couch. "Pour us both a drink, sit down, and tell me what's going on. Don't make me get it out of Blair."

Jim felt his mouth tighten at the thought of Simon grilling Blair. "Leave Blair out of this."

"If you sob on my shoulder like a good boy, I won't need to involve him at all."

Debating how serious Simon was about this interrogation would have been a waste of time; Jim knew that Simon wouldn't leave until he'd been given some explanation and Jim was stressed out enough to be willing to cooperate at least partially. Telling Simon was as close as it came to talking to himself, anyway; he didn't have many secrets his partner didn't know.

With a resigned, half-relieved sigh, Jim got them both a generous measure of whiskey and sat beside Simon on the couch.

"I thought it would take more persuasion to get you talking," Simon observed after taking an appreciative swallow of single malt. "Things pretty bad, huh?"

"It's nothing I can't handle," Jim said automatically and then grimaced as Simon raised his eyebrows skeptically. "Forget I said that. It's not that easy spilling my guts, even to you. Not when it involves Blair."

Simon set his glass down on the coffee table and leaned in, his forehead creased. "Blair? What's the matter with him? I spoke to him here a few days ago and he didn't say anything. Quieter than usual, but he was tapping away on that laptop of his, so I just assumed he was busy."

"Yeah, he is," Jim said. A few days ago...Tuesday, when Blair had drifted out of the loft, murmuring something about research? Or Monday, when Blair had been gone all day, with no explanation at all? "I didn't know he'd been here, though. The plan was that he'd share my shifts, but it didn't really work out."

"Distracted you?" Simon asked knowingly.

Jim smiled briefly, wishing it'd been that simple. "A little, but I can keep it in my pants, Simon. No; he said he'd get more out of people if he interviewed them without the boss looming and I guess he was right."

"So if he's here when you're not, when do you see each other?"

"He's not here all the time and neither am I," Jim protested. "We see plenty of each other. It's not that."

He fell silent, staring down at the carpet, wondering how much to say and how to say it. Simon reached over and put his hand on Jim's face, tilting it up so that their eyes met. "Just tell me," Simon said. His hand slid around the back of Jim's neck and he gave it a comforting squeeze before reaching for his drink again.

Just tell him. Even when it was Simon, this wasn't something that was easy to say, but Jim had always ripped off Band Aids with a sharp tug.

"I'm having trouble uh, performing," Jim said and timed it deliberately with Simon's sip of whiskey. Simon didn't choke on it, but he did take another sip immediately after swallowing, his gaze locked on Jim's face. "Yeah. That. And before you ask, it's not a physical problem; I can jerk off just fine, and it's all I have been doing the last two weeks. Get me in bed with Blair, though and I just -- I want to, I want him, but I can't get it up."

"Why not?" Simon asked bluntly. "I've seen the way you two are around each other and there's plenty of heat. Even if there wasn't, you know ways to get yourself interested. What's holding you back?"

"I know ways, sure, but Blair's not stupid; I start using drugs to help and he'll know and when I'm with him, I can't think about someone else, because he's the only one I want these days."

Simon nodded. "Mm-hmm. So when did this start? Two weeks ago? Couldn't have anything to do with you taking on Cody's client, could it?"

Jim took his first drink, needing the smooth, sweet burn before he replied. "It's connected, yes."

"Did Blair give you grief over it?"

"Not exactly," Jim said, hedging his answer. "He didn't like the fact that I got hurt, but he wasn't kicking up a fuss. He knows it's something I have to do from time to time."

"No, you don't," Simon said. "You could've gotten out of it with that client, found him someone else. Yeah, I know; he had a sob story, but don't they all?"

"It wasn't a sob story," Jim said quietly. "You saw the star on the file? Did you read the eyes only report yet?"

"At the end of my shift this morning," Simon said. "Why do you think I'm here? Jim, we're not therapists -- and you didn't know he'd been raped when you agreed to take him on, so don't try and tell me that's why you agreed." He cleared his throat and then said, "Do you miss it? Seeing clients? You were always good at it, but that doesn't mean you enjoyed it."

"Enjoy? No. Some of it made me feel sick to my stomach and some of it left me feeling dirty. Used." Jim didn't hold back the shudder as some particular memories came back to him, men and women who'd shown him just how far people would go to get their needs met. "But for every client I wanted to walk away from -- or punch out -- there were a dozen who were just lonely or looking for something they couldn't get from the people they loved. I gave them that and there was...you could feel a connection. I miss that."

"Enough to want to come out of retirement?"

Jim laughed. "If someone my age came looking for work, we'd both tell him he was too old and you know it."

"No, I don't." Simon shook his head firmly. "You know as well as I do that not everyone's looking for a pretty young thing and you're only what, thirty-seven? It doesn't matter, though; every reason you had for stepping back from the field still applies and Blair gives you a new one. No one expects you to see clients when you've got someone in your life. Falling in love and this line of work don't go together too well."

"Yes, but --"

"And you're avoiding the subject, Jim. What happened with Matthews that's left your dick limper than week-old celery?"

"Now that you've guaranteed I won't eat salad again --"

"Tell me."

Jim cradled his glass in his hands, the crystal pressing against his palms, cool bumps that dug in. "I was in bed with Blair, all systems go, and something -- I don't know what happened exactly, but he tells me I just -- went away. Conscious, but totally out of it for a few minutes. I lost the hard-on at the same time and I couldn't get it back. Not with Blair, anyway. I touch him and I want him more than I've ever wanted anyone, but I just can't get past wondering if I'm going to do that again and it scares the shit out of me."

He took a deep breath and tried to still the shake in his hands. "We were arguing over Matthews, yeah, but I don't think it's connected. I --"

"Of course, it's connected," Simon said brusquely. "It wasn't one of your regular clients and you're not used to dealing with random strangers these days. There's as much mental preparation as physical needed in this job and you didn't have time for that. You weren't ready and it was intense, traumatic -- hell, you need therapy as much as he does!"

Jim chopped at the air with his hand. "I'm fine, damn it. Don't even think about referring me to anyone." He considered what Simon had said and nodded. "Okay, that makes sense, I guess, but losing it like that..."

"It's happened before," Simon said.

"What? No, it hasn't!" Jim stared at Simon, confused and irritated. The conversation was helping, but not as much as he'd hoped it would."I think I'd know if I'd turned into a drooling zombie. That kind of sticks with you."

"I don't know if it was the first time and we didn't talk about it afterward because you weren't in any state to discuss it, but it happened at the hospital in Peru," Simon said, his words precise and measured. "You found out you'd been played by that little shit, Lee, and you didn't talk to me or respond for about ten minutes. Two more, and I'd have called in a doctor, but I didn't want you to come out of it and say anything they could use against you."

"Shit, Simon, why didn't you ever say anything?"

"I did. Just not to you. I found a friendly ear on the medical staff a few weeks after you'd been discharged and put it to her hypothetically. She said it was a survival mechanism some people use at times of stress and not to worry about it." Simon rubbed the back of his neck reflectively. "I've never shaken the feeling that she didn't understand just how deep you went, but it made sense and I've never seen you do it since."

"I can't remember," Jim said, frowning as he tried to review the memory. "You told me about Lee, yeah, and I was pissed as hell, but it's all kind of fuzzy." He gave up searching for the elusive memory and shrugged. "Hell, Simon, it was years ago and I was on meds. I don't remember."

"What about this time?"

Something that happened two weeks ago should have been easier to recall, but in some ways, it was equally as vague, as impossible to describe as a dream-fragment. "I remember sliding down into all this...fog and then coming back up. Like diving into water; you're in it and then you're rising, fast. It didn't feel as if I'd passed out for long, but Blair says it was a few minutes or more. It scared him, but he held it together."

"And what happened next?"

Jim shrugged. "We went back to what we were doing, except there was only one of us in the game. I hid it from Blair, but it's hard to fake an orgasm for a guy and when it was over, it didn't take him long to realize what I'd done."

Simon winced. "Didn't go down well, huh? Knowing the kid, I suppose he's being sympathetic and driving you mad telling you it happens to everyone?"

Jim finished his drink in a gulp. "He's not sympathizing with me for what you think. He feels sorry for me because I'm stuck with a boyfriend I don't have the hots for anymore."

"You have got to be kidding me," Simon said after a long pause. "Blair thinks you don't want him? There's no way he could believe that."

Jim nodded. "I go home expecting to find a space where his stuff was and a Dear Jim letter. I told him that if he even tried moving out I'd chase him down, drag his ass back, and cuff him to the bed for a week, but I think he knows I wouldn't really do that, so it's not likely to slow him down once he makes his mind up to be a self-sacrificing, noble little shit."

"How in God's name could he get an idea like that?" Simon demanded, the incredulity in his voice balm to Jim's stressed nerves. If Simon felt that way, then it wasn't just Jim who thought that his feelings for Blair were painfully obvious. "Do you know what the staff call your place?"

"Uh, the loft?" Jim hazarded.

"The fortress," Simon replied tersely. "Because none of your dates ever get inside it for longer than it takes to bang them. How long had you known the kid before you moved him in? A week? And you thought you'd never play at the club again, thought it wasn't your scene -- which you were dead wrong about, and I told you so -- but you went there for him. He's got you wrapped around his finger. Or his dick."

"So tell him that, because he won't listen when I do," Jim snapped. "If you piled up his issues and insecurities, you'd have people leaving flags at the top of the mountain, he's got that many."

"He's not the only one," Simon pointed out, "but it's one hell of a leap from you losing interest in sex after passing out to you losing interest in him. I don't get it."

"If it'd been just that one time -- but it isn't. And it's not --" Jim blew out a frustrated breath. "Okay, I'll spell it out for you. He hasn't said much, but he doesn't need to; I can tell what he's thinking. We're in the moment, both of us, then the mood gets ruined by me going off into a world of my own. I should've just called it quits, but I'd spanked him and he was still juiced up from it, I could tell. It didn't seem fair to leave him hanging, so I just..." Jim shrugged. "Played some more with him. Little bit of training, got his ass three shades redder; you know."

"Sure," Simon said, his expression unreadable. "Business as usual, right?"

Jim nodded, glad that he didn't have to explain every little thing to Simon. "Except Blair was the only one hard. I still had my pants on, so he didn't notice; too busy begging me not to stop."

"Would have liked to have seen that," Simon murmured and had the grace to look sheepish when Jim glared at him. "Okay, so when did he notice?"

"He didn't. Not then. I made him close his eyes, stripped down, lay on my stomach, and told him to fuck me. He'd never done it, so it distracted him enough that I got away with faking it, but afterward... do I need to draw you a picture?"

"No," Simon said. "I get it. The kid thinks he made a mess of it? Maybe even hurt you and that's why you weren't enjoying it?"

"Both of those things," Jim said. "I keep telling him that he didn't, keep trying to explain that I want him, but I can't -- I can't reach him, Simon, any more than I can get hard. It's this thick glass wall between us and I can't break through."

"Want me to talk to him?" Simon offered. "Tell him that if he moves out, I'll hunt him down?"

Jim gave him a sour smile, picturing Simon striding into the loft, a wildly wriggling Blair in his arms. "Yeah, because taking away his right to choose if he stays will make him feel like he can trust us both so much."

"You told him you were going to do that," Simon said indignantly.

Jim patted Simon's shoulder. "Yeah, but I wasn't serious; something tells me you'd actually go ahead and do it and leave me to deal with the fallout."

Simon stood up. "I've got work to do," he said. "And so do you. Make an appointment with someone who can help, Jim. Someone qualified to deal with this who knows about what you do; plenty of therapists on the club membership list."

Jim got to his feet. "Maybe, but I'd prefer to deal with this by myself."

"Some things don't change."

"I told you," Jim said as Simon turned away. "Spilled my guts when you told me to. That hasn't changed."

Simon paused and then came back to where Jim stood. Without a word, he pulled Jim into a hug, his large, powerful body giving Jim something to hold onto for a few moments, a shoulder to lean against.

"Don't let it ever change," Simon said into his ear. "You hear me, Jim? I've got your back and you won't lose your boy over this. He's got more sense than you give him credit for."

Jim tightened his arms around Simon and then released him and stepped back. "I'll tell him you said that."

Simon chuckled and shook his head. "Don't bother. He already knows."

Jim stared at Simon, his suspicions aroused. "Just how much of Blair have you seen recently?"

"Enough," Simon said succinctly. "Now finish your shift at your desk out there, where you belong, and get some work done. We're running a business here, Jim, and I need you firing on all cylinders." He glanced down pointedly at Jim's groin. "All of them. So work it out, and when you have, take a few days off and spend them in bed showing Blair just how wrong he is."

It sounded good, all of it, but as Jim settled down at his cluttered desk in the outer office, fending off the concerned looks of his staff with a fake smile, he knew he was no closer to getting Blair back than he had been before he spoke to Simon.

Which meant that he'd told Simon he couldn't get it up -- and Simon was going to have fun with that admission later -- for nothing. Great.

***

Blair walked into the loft at nine, his hair damp from the rain that had made the long day as dark as his mood. He left his shoes by the door and hung up his jacket. Jim was lying on the couch, desultorily channel-surfing with a tense look on his face that didn't match his relaxed pose. When Blair smiled tentatively at him, the remote was tossed aside and Jim stood, walking over to kiss Blair with a flattering eagerness Blair wished that he could trust to be sincere.

Could he trust anything Jim said or did anymore?

Jim pulled back to study him, picking up on Blair's mood without much difficulty since Blair knew that he was broadcasting his doubts on every frequency. "Blair?"

Blair put his arms around Jim, trying for normal, and kissed Jim's cheek, freshly shaved and smelling faintly of cologne. The loft itself was redolent with the stronger odor of a rich, garlic-laden pasta sauce, though there was nothing simmering on the stove. It looked like Jim had cooked for them both and then eaten alone once he'd realized that Blair wasn't coming back any time soon. Years of cooking for himself and eating alone made Blair feel guilt, gratitude, and sympathy, in equal proportions.

"I grabbed a sandwich," he said, an apology and explanation in one. "Something smells good, though; did you save me any?"

"Sure," Jim said. "Plenty left, but the pasta's on the soggy side. I thought you'd be back earlier than this; my mistake."

"I should have called," Blair said.

"I'm not your mother," Jim said with an edge to his voice. "You don't have to check in."

"I know, but..." Blair hesitated. "Are we going to spend another night pretending everything's fine or do you want to tell me it's time I left?"

Bit the bullet, lay it out there, get this over with... All guaranteed to leave him lonely and with a Jim-shaped hole in his life that nothing else could fill.

Jim made an impatient noise, first cousin to a growl. "I want to tell you that it's time you got over your insecurities and actually believe me when I say you leaving is the last thing I want."

"How can I?" Blair asked bluntly and went for the root cause of his tension. "If you can pretend you've come when you haven't instead of being honest and saying I suck in bed --"

"Blair, I love you, but you have got to be the most self-centered --" Jim took a deep breath, visibly striving for calm. "That wasn't about you. It was about me and what had just happened. And, yeah, it was embarrassing not being able to get it up for you on one level and kind of worrying too, but that wasn't the reason I did something deeply stupid and faked it as long as I could. I was enjoying what we did, I just wasn't reacting to it physically and you were. Big time. I didn't want to leave you hanging. It's not what I'm..."

Jim trailed off, leaving Blair to fill in the gaps. "Not what you're used to when you're with a client, right?" It came out sounding like an accusation. "Because it's more important that they come than anything else, even if you have just gone into the Twilight Zone or something. Even if you are still traumatized by a session with a guy recreating his own fucking rape -- and how sick is that, anyway? How could you let him use you like that? Don't you care about how people treat you? You say I've got self-esteem issues and yeah, maybe I do, but compared to you, compared to you, Jim, I'm the poster child for normal, you know that?"

He was yelling by the end, his voice hoarse with anger, practically snarling the words at Jim who'd recoiled, his eyes wide with shock.

"I'm not a client, now!" Still yelling. It felt good, in a destructive way, as if pumping up the volume made his words a weapon, when everyone knew that it didn't work that way. Words could hurt just as much -- more -- if they were whispered. Blair knew that for a fact. He'd heard the behind their hands talk of the girls at high school discussing him and his crush on one of them, their faint pity and scorn eroding his confidence like acid. He'd told himself that it would stop hurting in time and look, fifteen years later, and it still left him feeling flayed, exposed.

"I know that, Blair." Jim's voice was soothing. "You're my partner. My boyfriend. Call it what you like, but you're mine and I want it that way. Always will."

"No, you won't." Blair shook his head, his damp hair sticking to his face. "The novelty of pity-fucking the freak is going to wear off soon. God, what am I saying? It already has, right?"

Weird that most of him knew that he was talking bullshit but he still couldn't stop saying these horrible things to Jim.

Frustration tightened Jim's face, making him look older and tired. "No. Wrong. Blair, can we talk about this without yelling? Just work out what it is we're arguing about, because so help me, I don't know what's wrong. This is more than me not telling you I wasn't hard."

Jim stepped forward, one hand rising, and Blair knew that if Jim touched him, pulled him into an embrace, he'd crack and snivel like a baby on Jim's shoulder. Two weeks of barely sleeping and dragging himself from one hour to the next on caffeine and sugar had left him jittery and apathetic at one and the same time.

He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. Four hundred-dollar bills were in there, cash he'd drawn out earlier in the week to give to Jim for rent, except there'd never been a time when he could. Blair took the bills, tucked his wallet away, and then, as Jim's face shut down, he waved the bills in the air, made them flutter.

"Four hundred, Jim. Not quite enough for an hour, but you're a pro; you can make me happy in thirty minutes, can't you? Sure, you can!"

"Don't do this." Jim's voice was cool but edged, as if the calm had scraped off in places. "Let's sit down and talk --"

"Talk? Not my thing, man." Blair walked closer to Jim and took a deep, sick satisfaction out of the way Jim gave ground, stumbling back until his ass hit the edge of the countertop in the kitchen area, Blair matching him step for step.

Blair crowded close and held the money between them, right under Jim's chin. "No, I like being spanked. Wow, kind of embarrassing to admit it, but I guess I can tell you. I mean, you've heard worse, right?"

"Much worse," Jim said, the words bitten off. He was ghost-pale, his eyes glittering, but he was holding it together. Blair was, too, but with an effort that he knew had to show, his head about ready to explode with the pressure of keeping all the words he wanted to say inside, the loving, pleading ones, while these cruel, vicious ones were allowed to run out and play.

"Yeah, that's my thing. Spanking. And bondage. Tie me up -- or down; any direction's good -- and I'm a happy camper. Make me kneel, make me beg, tell me what a sweet, submissive little slut I am and I'll probably kiss your boots and come on the spot."

"Want me to tell you what you can kiss?" Jim interrupted him to ask and Blair caught his breath.

Jim was angry now, hell, Jim was pissed, a flush of warmth rising in his cheeks, his jaw clenched. He looked scary and intimidating, but most of all, thank God, finally, he looked here, not floating off in some place that was invitation-only, a party for one.

"Sure," Blair said. "Tell me. Order me to kiss it and I'll --"

That was as far as he got before Jim snatched the dollar bills from his hand and tore them up, creating wastepaper from what had been enough money to buy Blair three complete outfits and Jim maybe a shirt and tie.

Blair didn't get the chance to protest because the countertop was against his back now, the edge of it grinding into his spine, and the hands that had grabbed his shirt and spun him around were still holding on tightly.

"I'm not for sale," Jim told him, driving his words into Blair's face, his space, spitting them out. "You can't buy me. Anyone else in this city can, but not you. You get me for free, sweetheart."

It all got hazy for a few minutes then. Jim was kissing him, that much he remembered, a kiss that left Blair's mouth feeling numb and hot as if he'd had a shot of painkiller for a cavity. Jim had gone to town with that kiss, his tongue making itself at home in Blair's mouth while his hands deftly, efficiently, stripped Blair of everything he was wearing above the waist.

His belt and zipper were undone one-handed, with Jim's other hand busy pinching one of Blair's nipples, his mouth on the other, a feat of multi-tasking that Blair was too drowned in lust to appreciate properly. God, the clamps hurt; hurt so much that he'd developed a love/hate relationship with them, but they didn't compare to the sensations Jim could give with finger and thumb, mouth, and teeth. Which nipple was throbbing the most? Which one did he wish that Jim would stop tormenting -- no, neither of them, please don't stop, feels so good -- please

He'd said it aloud, he realized, but Jim didn't acknowledge the gasped out, husky words with anything but the continued attentions. Blair's pants were around his ankles now, and he kicked them off, then tried to shimmy his shorts down, hissing with impatience because they remained around his hips and Jim wasn't helping now, his thumb hooked in the short's waistband, yes, but his hand splayed out across Blair's ass.

Blair closed his eyes and sobbed out another pointless 'please.'

The fingers were pinching, not with soft pads, but nails, bright, deep digs of pain, the pressure so strong that when Jim twisted the caught, captured spike of flesh, Blair had to arch up into the pain, not striving to lessen it, but wanting to get closer to the man giving it to him with such generosity. The sucked, bitten nipple was enduring a more varied torment; the sucking felt good, but Jim didn't do that much once Blair's nipple was pebble-hard. Jim was biting, tugging, worrying the small morsel with his teeth until Blair wasn't sure how much of the wetness painting his skin was spit and how much blood.

Jim pulled back, panting, his face scarlet, his chest heaving as if he'd been running. Blair didn't want to look away, but he had to see -- Oh. Oh, God. No blood, but his nipples were bruise-colored and swollen, the skin around them dark and wet.

He keened, far back in his throat, desperate for more of whatever Jim had in store for him, but aware, even in his need that there was something he had to ask.

"Not doing this if you're not hard," he said, the words difficult to say. Screaming was easier than talking; he could've screamed so easily, with joy and pain. "Are you?"

Jim grinned, wild and savage, and then some of the feral left his eyes. He took his belt out of the loops with a hiss of leather and tossed it onto the counter, then unbuttoned his pants and pulled the zipper down.

Blair swallowed and glanced down, but before he had time to process what he could see, his hand was grabbed and forced down inside Jim's shorts, black silk under a pair of expensive black woolen pants. His fingers curled around a hot thrust of cock, the head slippery, the shaft solid as rock. Yes, Jim was hard. Blair worked Jim for a moment or two, glorying in the way Jim responded with a groan, his hips jerking forward, and then paused. He wanted Jim to tell him what came next.

Jim caught his breath and gently eased Blair's hand out. "Turn around," he told Blair, his voice quiet, intimate. "Hands on the counter, legs apart."

Blair nodded because he needed Jim to know that he was down with this, all of it, but he was too aroused to talk. His nipples ached and his dick was telling him that it was ready, anytime, just say the word...

Jim pulled Blair's shorts down with one sweep of his hand, and let Blair kick them off. Naked, except for his socks, Blair stood bent over, braced, and waited.

"I'm going upstairs," Jim said into his ear. "You're going to wait here and not move, not an inch, got it?"

Upstairs? Oh, right. Condoms, lube. Blair didn't want Jim to move even a yard away, because left alone, he'd start to feel stupid positioned like this, but the thought of being fucked over the counter, like a scene from a porn film, was enough to make him nod again.

"And just to make sure..." Jim reached over and took two tangerines from the fruit bowl. Blair watched, bemused, as they were placed on the back of his hands, cool and surprisingly heavy, the dimpled orange skin a vivid splash of color, their scent rising to meet him.

Jim disappeared, not hurrying up the stairs, seemingly back in control, and Blair frowned at the tangerines. No way to move; if they fell off, he could replace one, but not the other. He was trapped, and the belt beside his right hand, a question mark curve of black leather, was a hint of what the penalty for disobeying might be.

Blair closed his eyes. Okay, so Jim was over his mental block and back in the game. That was good. And Jim was being pretty convincing about wanting him -- but Blair wanted to believe that so much that he didn't trust himself to be objective. Still, all good, all of it -- but Jim was furious, no doubt about that, operating in the grip of outrage and insult after Blair had tried to buy him. It hadn't been meant seriously, but it'd still rubbed in how their relationship had begun.

Blair shivered, making the tangerines rock slightly. Okay, he liked Jim taking a walk on the wild side, but how wild would he get?

Upstairs, he could hear Jim undressing and a drawer being opened. Jim would be back soon... It occurred to him that he still had his socks on. He risked a glance down and yes, it looked as ridiculous as he'd thought it would. He'd been too depressed to do something as mundane as laundry and he'd found himself down to a single pair of socks that morning, lime-green and hideous. He'd bought them on sale years ago, rarely worn them and never bothered to throw them out. No way was he getting fucked wearing them.

With his lower lip caught between his teeth as he concentrated, Blair tried to work his socks off using his feet, a complicated procedure of friction and fruitless attempts to hook sock-covered toes inside tightly clinging material.

He got one sock off at the cost of a tangerine, rolling slowly, inexorably off his hand and thudding to the floor.

Fuck.

Jim chose that moment to walk down the stairs, wearing skin like Armani, utterly at ease with his nudity, and why the hell not, with a body like that? Blair allowed himself an admiring look, still incredulous that he had the right to touch that body, snuggle up close to it at night... God, let Jim mean it when he said that he wasn't bored of Blair, when he said he loved him.

The tangerine rolled to Jim's feet and stopped, obedient as Blair hadn't been. Jim stooped and scooped it up, then raised an eyebrow.

"I wasn't moving," Blair said. "I was trying to get my socks off."

"Why?" Jim sounded interested, not angry, as if the few minutes upstairs had taken him out of the red zone.

"They're neon," Blair said. "Not sexy."

Jim walked over to him and placed the fruit, a strip of condoms, a bottle of lube and Blair's collar on the counter where Blair could see them. "I know what color they are and if it'd been an issue, I'd have taken them off you. They weren't, and you're standing on a cold wooden floor, so I left them on."

"Oh," Blair said flatly, inadequately. The way that Jim took care of him even at a time when Jim had every right to be annoyed was something that Blair couldn't get used to and doubted he ever would.

"So let's put them back on, hmm?" Jim bent down and Blair meekly allowed his foot to be eased back inside the discarded sock and the other one pulled up neatly.

"I didn't move," he said again. "Not really."

"If you'd stayed still, this wouldn't be in my hand," Jim said, picking up the tangerine. "You moved."

"Okay, so I moved a little," Blair admitted grudgingly. He glanced sidelong at Jim's belt and then up at Jim, who grinned.

"You read my mind."

"Shit," Blair muttered.

Jim picked up the collar. "Would it make it easier, if you were wearing this?"

It was more difficult to tell the truth than it should have been, given that they both knew the answer.

"Yes," Blair said eventually. That confessed, it was easier to continue. "It makes everything mean more. It makes it have a reason. Does that make sense?"

"Yeah," Jim said. "It does. But you're going to have to take this without it." He put the collar down and picked up his belt. "That's the penalty for moving, in case you were wondering; no collar. You were always going to get whipped."

Blair's dick felt heavy, as if a hand were on it, dragging it down. God, he was so close to begging Jim to let him wear his collar, not because it would make the belt sting less, but because Blair needed the assurance that he was Jim's. Knowing that begging was pointless once Jim had make up his mind, he bit his lip again and stayed silent.

Jim didn't seem in a hurry to start. He replaced the tangerine on Blair's hand and said casually, "If they roll off when I'm using the belt on you, I'll add another ten strokes for every time I have to replace them."

Blair's position wasn't uncomfortable exactly, but it wasn't one that he could hold indefinitely without moving and once the belt lashed down, he knew that he'd react. Sweat popped up on his forehead and back as he tried to work out how long it would take before Jim got tired of replacing the fruit or whipping him.

"We'll set a maximum," Jim said. "You move three times and I let you take the rest of the punishment without them and work out an alternative. You won't enjoy it, though, so I'd advise you to try real hard to keep them in place."

Thirty plus however many Jim planned to give him...that was a lot. Blair could move away, make it stop with his safeword, end it all right now, before a single stroke had fallen.

He just didn't want to. A dark excitement was filling him, warming him like a shot of whiskey. He focused on the fruit, spreading his fingers to make the back of his hands as flat as possible, and shifted his feet apart a few inches too, ass up and ready.

And still Jim waited, running the belt through his hands idly as he watched Blair. When Blair was moments away from speaking, spilling out a plea for Jim to start, to do something other than stare at him, Jim set the belt down and took another tangerine from the bowl. He peeled it in one strip and tossed the hollow shell of skin down. The smell, sweet and tangy, was strong enough to make Blair's nose itch. Jim dug his thumb into the middle and split of a segment, orange and white, plump with juice. He held it to Blair's lips and Blair, wondering, obediently opened his mouth. Jim fed him three segments, taking his time, and then patted Blair's face gently and ate the rest himself, his gaze never leaving Blair's face.

It was a relief when Jim picked up his belt, wound the buckle end around his hand, and walked behind Blair. No more waiting.

The first stroke was expected and still shocked a gasp out of Blair. It had landed not on his ass, but the back of his thighs, leaving a stripe of heat and a lingering smart. He wanted to enjoy it; the physical sensations and the emotional response to being disciplined, but he couldn't, not entirely, not when any loss of concentration set the fruit balanced on the back of his hands wobbling.

It shouldn't have mattered; if they fell off, he got more of these perfect slaps of leather on flesh, more of Jim's attentions, but it did matter. Jim wanted them to stay in place and Blair wanted to succeed and please Jim more than he wanted the whipping to continue.

The belt was striking higher now, on the curve of Blair's ass, marking it with a precision that Blair was only too aware of, the strokes never overlapping as they moved up to his shoulders. His back was going to look stunning when this was over.

That thought was his undoing; he moaned and a tangerine quivered and fell off. Jim paused, replaced it, giving Blair a fleeting glimpse of Jim's face, flushed but composed, and went back to what he'd been doing. Three more strokes and Blair's back had been covered, the lines of heat blending together. His back, ass, and thighs were on fire.

"Ten more," Jim said.

These hurt. These landed with an extra flick of strength behind them, all on Blair's ass, all more or less in the same place. By the seventh, he wanted to writhe and squirm, but that wouldn't help. He locked every muscle and held still, counting in his head as his breath hissed out, anguished gasps and whimpers.

"Ten," Jim said, and held the looped belt to Blair's mouth, the familiar coda to a punishment. Blair kissed it with a rush of emotion that brought tears to his eyes, tears he blinked back impatiently.

"Not bad," Jim said and ran an approving hand over Blair's smarting, stinging skin. It was too much. Blair gave a choking sound that even to his ears sounded frantic, and twisted around, falling to his knees in front of Jim. He shouldn't have moved without permission, but he needed to be on his knees right then and he needed --

Jim allowed him a minute or so of mouthing Jim's cock and balls with fervent lust and gratitude, worshiping at his own particular shrine, and then thrust his hand into Blair's hair, closing his fingers around enough hair to use as a way of pulling Blair's head back.

"Stay still," Jim told him, and it helped that Jim was so turned on his words sounded rough and shaky. Blair didn't want to be alone in this place where nothing mattered but coming, with Jim, on Jim, because of Jim...

Jim took hold of his dick, gripping it low down so that his hand was brushed by the dark, wiry hair Blair had just been nuzzling into, feeling it tickle his face. Blair knew what was coming next and he closed his mouth, curving his lips in a half smile as he glanced up.

Want to fuck my mouth? Make me open up. Make me take you deep. We both know I want it --

Jim rubbed the head of his dick across Blair's closed mouth, painting it wet, and smiled back at him. "Open up, sweetheart," he said without a shred of doubt in his voice about what a kneeling Blair would do when given an order.

Blair held the tight line of his mouth against that coaxing, teasing pass for a heartbeat or two and then sighed in anticipation and parted his lips. Jim's dick slid between them smoothly, slowly and withdrew, the action repeated over and over, with Blair not permitted to do anything but be there. It was arousing and frustrating. Blair tried to lick and suck, but if he did too much, the hand in his hair tightened and tugged, a non-verbal 'no' that Blair couldn't argue with.

When Jim pulled out all the way, they were both panting for breath. The slow, relentless thrusts hadn't been enough to make Jim come, but they'd pushed Blair to the point where he was about to climax just from feeling the whisper of a breeze pass over his heated, achingly hard dick.

"Stand up," Jim whispered and reinforced the command with an upward tug that brought Blair to his feet.

He swayed and Jim's hand released the hank of hair and he wrapped his arm around Blair, supporting him. If Jim had been planning to reach out and grab a condom, he was going to have to hurry, Blair thought as the head of his dick dragged across Jim's flat, muscled stomach. Because, oh shit, oh fuck, he couldn't wait, couldn't hold --

"Jim! I'm -- ah-ah -- God --"

Blair came, hanging onto Jim, his rock in a tempest-tossed sea, came, fucking air blindly and then getting mercifully gathered in close so that he could ride the smooth hollow of skin and bone at Jim's hip.

Jim was making noises that Blair was echoing, or maybe it was the other way around, but it didn't matter. Slick heat spilled between them and Jim's dick was a blunt push against Blair's belly, jabbing, stabbing, spurting.

Come fucking everywhere, God, so much of it. Jim was saying, "Sorry, sorry" in an anguished whimper into Blair's ear and he wasn't sure what Jim was apologizing for and he didn't want Jim to be sorry for this, for anything, not now, so he turned his head to shut Jim up with a kiss.

It worked really well.

***

"So, Simon's standing there, covered in mud, dripping wet, but he's still holding his bottle of beer and he just looks at the cow and he --"

A knock at the door, imperious and sharp, interrupted Jim's anecdote. His time as a soldier had ended too badly for him to want to dwell on those years, but Blair had asked about it and somehow, with those expectant eyes fixed on him, it'd been easier than Jim had thought to dredge up some memories that weren't blood-soaked and grim.

"I'll get it," Blair said and got off the couch, bestowing a kiss on Jim as he went that landed on the tip of Jim's ear. Jim smiled up at him, wondering idly who was at the door. The subject of the story himself, maybe; Simon had been making noises about dropping by for a visit even after Jim had reassured him by phone that morning that things with Blair were back to better than good following the events of the day before.

He'd talked things out with Blair after showering, a discussion that hadn't taken long, because really, they'd covered most of it in the argument and the sex that had followed. Jim would have settled for a truce; what he'd gotten had been so much more than that.

Jim stretched out his legs, numb from having Blair's draped over them for the last hour as they talked and necked, music neither of them was listening to providing a background to the conversation. He felt great. Happy. Relaxed.

Blair opened the door and Jim turned his head to see who it was, a flicker of apprehension shattering his good mood as if some sixth sense had kicked in. He'd felt like this before in the jungle, with enemy eyes watching him. Not Simon; he wouldn't have made the back of Jim's neck prickle.

"Mom?" Blair's voice went bat-squeak high with surprise and Jim got to his feet in a hurry, the instinct to protect taking him to Blair's side.

Naomi didn't wait to be invited in; she brushed past Blair as if he wasn't there, her gaze fixed on Jim, her expression stormy. No elegantly floating dresses today; Naomi wore a charcoal gray tailored suit and a navy blouse, both by a designer Jim recognized. He was appreciative of her appearance, and since he'd have put money on Blair being unable to tell Marc Jacobs from Primark, he guessed the intimidating, businesslike look was aimed at him.

"Naomi, nice to see you," Jim said smoothly, and turned on the charm. "I was hoping you could come over some time and see how Blair's settled in."

That wasn't entirely true, but the half-truth didn't trouble his conscience much. He didn't have any solid reason to dislike Naomi, who was one hell of an attractive woman, but something told him that her influence on Blair over the years hadn't been wholly positive. How many of Blair's insecurities were down to her, Jim didn't know, but he could see how thrown Blair was by her appearance on their doorstep and that said a lot.

"Were you?" Naomi said, her voice cool. There was a folded newspaper under her arm, the Cascade Times by the look of it, which made Jim wish that he'd taken the time to read his copy that morning. Cooking a late breakfast with Blair and eating it with no tension to sour each bite and a constant buzz of arousal in the air had distracted him from his morning routine. "I find that hard to believe."

"Mom!" Blair didn't look happy at all. "If you've come here to cause trouble --"

"I've come here because of this," Naomi said and thrust the paper at Jim, who took it and opened it.

"What am I looking at?"

"The bottom of the page," Naomi said through her teeth. She was piling on the drama, but Jim could tell that she was genuinely upset about something. Her eyes were shadowed and puffy, as if she'd been crying all night.

Blair craned his head to look at the page as Jim found the article Naomi had to be talking about, his heart sinking. Shit.

"'Woman found dead in alley'," Blair read loud. "Stabbed? God, that's awful, but what does it have to do with us?"

"Was she one of yours?" Naomi demanded, ignoring Blair. "Is her blood on your hands?"

"One of -- Mom, you're crazy! How could Jim have anything to do with this?" Blair snatched the paper from Jim's hands and stared at the paragraph. "She was probably mugged or something, which is horrible, but not Jim's fault. What else does it say...oh... "

"She wasn't one of mine," Jim said, locking gazes with Naomi as Blair's voice trailed off, presumably when he reached the paragraph stating that Tiffani Jones (19) had been arrested twice for soliciting. "My people don't do business on street corners and alleys. I take better care of them than that."

"'Your people'." Naomi said it with a curled lip, disgust thickening her voice. "Your prostitutes, you mean?" She turned to Blair. "He's a pimp. Did you know that? Did you?"

"I --" Blair gave Jim a beseeching look and then said with a creditable attempt at calm, "Mom, I told you that Jim runs an escort agency; it's not the same as prostitution."

"Forget it, Blair," Jim said. watching Naomi closely. "She knows that's not all I do; look at her. She's not here to ask questions, not really, because she thinks she's got all the answers."

Someone like Naomi, connected, wealthy, wouldn't have had much difficulty in investigating her son's new lover. Jim knew that he should have foreseen this, but he'd been so preoccupied with Blair that he hadn't thought enough about Blair's family. Families weren't really something that Jim was used to considering.

"So you don't deny it?"

"No." Jim folded his arms across his chest and stared her down. "I do run an escort agency; that's not a lie. It's completely legitimate and above board. I also have people on my payroll who, yes, are prostitutes. I used to be one myself, so I make sure that they're safe in every way and they're treated with respect and consideration."

"That's true," Blair broke in. "I've interviewed them, Mom, and if you think Jim's exploiting them, or ripping them off, well, he's not."

"And that makes them selling their bodies a good thing?" Naomi demanded. Her outrage seemed genuine and Jim could see her point of view, but it didn't stop him wishing that she'd shut up and go away.

"They make a lot of money," Blair said with a shrug, less defensive than Jim would have expected him to be. "For some of them, it's a quick way to pay off student loans or make a start on life with something in the bank. I haven't finished gathering data and analyzing the statistics, but most of the women stay with the agency for an average of two years and the men longer; they average four or five years."

The figures came as a surprise to Jim. He knew about the high turnover; had to, in order to compensate for it by hiring new staff, but he'd never broken it down the way that Blair had.

"And none of them have ever been killed or seriously hurt," Blair added. "One man got punched by a male client's ex-lover, who tracked them to the hotel room and didn't like what he saw when he broke the door down, but Jim's back-up arrived before the cops and got his man out of there."

"Blair --" Naomi's eyes were wide with shock, but Jim frowned. There was something just a little off about her reaction. "I thought that you didn't know, that he'd fooled you, lied to you."

"I've known what he did from the moment we met," Blair said, his voice steady.

Jim winced. Okay, any minute now, Naomi was going to put the pieces together...

"He told you? About all of it?"

"He didn't need to," Blair said. "I hired him to fuck me, not take me to a party."

Which was a definite revision of events, but Jim supposed that it was close enough to the truth.

Naomi absorbed the words Blair had flung at her in silence, her face tight with strain and her throat working, as if she was trying to swallow and couldn't. Jim braced himself for her response, wanting very much to slip his arm around Blair, who looked close to throwing up, but too aware of Naomi as a threat to restrict his movements that way.

"You hired him? Why? Was it connected with your book? Was that it, sweetie?"

Blair, to his credit, refused to take the easy way out. "No. Later, yes, I asked if I could talk to the people who work for him, but that night...no. I just wanted to have sex with someone."

And now it got awkward.

"You've had dates! Girlfriends!" Naomi said, quivering with indignation. "You didn't need to do that, Blair. If you were questioning your sexuality, you had to know that I had friends who could take you to places, introduce you to people --"

Jim felt Blair's embarrassment as acutely as Blair himself. God, if Naomi had been this controlling and 'helpful' all Blair's life, it explained a lot.

"Thanks, Mom, but I'm thirty, not thirteen," Blair said. "And it wasn't like that. I didn't -- I wasn't expecting --" He gave Jim a look begging for a rescue that Jim wasn't sure he could pull off. So much truth being spoken...maybe it would be better if it all came out, but that was Blair's decision.

"He booked a woman," Jim said. "We were busy, so I went instead. Blair told me that I wasn't what he wanted, but we got talking and it turned out that I was." Bare bones, but Blair was looking grateful for Jim's contribution. "I fell for him and we started to see each other, not connected with his book or my job, just...just us."

"That's right," Blair said and gave Jim a sunrise smile. "Just us."

"Bullshit."

The stinging slap Naomi delivered landed on Jim's face, not Blair's, which was about the only saving grace as far as Jim was concerned. He fended her off without making the mistake of grabbing her wrists, which would've increased her anger, and after a moment, with Blair hanging onto her arm with one hand, his face flushed now, his eyes distressed, as he said her name, she stepped back.

"Don't do that again," Jim said mildly enough given that he felt like a fool standing there with the imprint of her hand on his face. It hadn't been a token slap by any means either; she'd put all her strength behind it.

Naomi's lips thinned and she raised her hand again as if Jim's rebuke was all the spur she needed to resume her attack.

"Naomi, back off," Blair said stepping in front of his mother, the newspaper still clutched in his hand. "I know this isn't something you're happy with, and we can talk about it, but you've got to accept that I know what I'm doing here."

"You're sleeping with a man who has sex with strangers for money," Naomi said flatly. "Who lives off other people doing the same thing. A pimp. The idea disgusts me." She looked at the hand she'd slapped Jim with and rubbed it against her leg as if it was dirty, her face screwed up in distaste.

Jim sighed, bothered more by the small flinch Blair gave than Naomi's opinion. He'd come to terms with what he did a long time ago. He was searching for the best way to toss Naomi out on her elegant ass without adding to Blair's emotional upset when Blair said firmly, "Naomi, you need to breathe. Find your center."

"Blair, this isn't the time --" she began, her fingers flexing, forming fists, then claws. She wasn't armed, as far as Jim could tell, but it didn't mean that she wasn't a threat.

"It is," Blair said and tossed the paper down onto a small table already cluttered with books. "Mom, you just hit someone I loved. You can't tell me you're not hurting after that. Jim, make some herbal tea. Naomi, if you want to stay, you need to calm yourself. Breathe with me. Deep, cleansing breaths."

Jim wanted very much to roll his eyes (she was hurting? What the hell?) but after a long, tense moment, Naomi nodded and began to take deep, slow breaths with Blair encouraging her, echoing her breaths with his own.

Jim never drank tea and he'd found enough half-full cups of watery liquid around the loft to wonder if Blair really liked it that much, either, but his kitchen now contained three or four boxes of herbal teabags in assorted flavors. Lemon Ginger Zinger sounded entirely too stimulating so, with a grim smile quirking his lips, he made Naomi a cup of Sleepytime tea. It couldn't hurt.

By the time he'd gotten the boiled water in the mug a few shades darker by repeated dunkings of the teabag, Naomi was sitting at the kitchen table, her hands locked in Blair's who'd taken the seat opposite her. Clearly, extra oxygen worked wonders, because when Jim placed the mug in front of her, and sat down, Naomi managed a faint smile of thanks.

"Good, Mom, that's good," Blair said encouragingly, withdrawing his hands from hers. "Take a sip...right." He nodded. "Now, I want you to answer a question for me."

Naomi sipped at her tea, her eyes wary.

"When you came here today, you knew what Jim did, right?"

"I found out last night," Naomi said. "This morning I made sure."

"Okay," Blair said. "But what I want to know is this: did you really think it was going to be news to me?"

Naomi's gaze shifted to the side. "Of course."

"Mom, you're lying," Blair said with a frank bluntness Jim found surprising. "Aren't you?"

Naomi's body language told Jim that Blair's accusation was correct, but Jim wasn't sure why Blair was so certain.

"I could have been fooling you," he said to Blair. "Pretending that I was only involved with the escort agency."

Mother and son gave him identical looks of pity at his lack of brains. "Jim, you're just not that good at lying," Blair said. "And I avoided telling Naomi what you did for too long; if it'd been just the escort business, I wouldn't have needed to dance around it. As soon as I told her part of the truth, she knew there was more and she went digging." He leaned back in his chair and jabbed his finger at Naomi. "You came here and caused a scene -- hit Jim, for God's sake -- just to rub it in how much you disapproved. Pointless, because I already knew. So way to go, Mom; you pissed me off for nothing."

Naomi set her mug down with enough force that tea slopped over the side and splashed onto the table. "Blair, you can't tell me that this is what you want. You might be infatuated with this man because he's your first real relationship, but you cannot expect me to accept that what he does -- what he is -- doesn't disgust you on every level."

"It bothers me, yes," Blair admitted. He gave Jim an apologetic sidelong look. "Some of it, anyway. Just not as much as you think it should, Naomi. If Jim was running a stable of girls like the one who got murdered, terrorizing them, exploiting them -- hell, I'd turn him into the cops myself. But he isn't."

"It's dangerous, and degrading for everyone involved," Naomi persisted. "How can you sleep with him and not feel tainted?"

"I'm clean," Jim said. "All my staff are."

Naomi gave him a dismissive look. "Physically, maybe, though sleeping with you would make my skin crawl --"

"Mom, if you talk to Jim like that again, I'm going to tell you to go," Blair said. "Don't make me choose between you because I'll choose Jim."

"There's no point in continuing this conversation, is there?" she said. Tears stood bright in her eyes and Jim felt a pang of pity. She'd held onto Blair for so long; letting go had to be painful.

"Naomi, I'm not asking you to approve of what I do." Jim said. "I wonder sometimes if I should be doing it myself, but then a client will come along --"

"Like Blair?"

"Just like Blair," Jim agreed, ignoring the sarcasm. "Someone who needs something and doesn't even know it. Someone living his life...unfulfilled."

"You're a saint, is that it?" Naomi said, her mouth twisted with derision. "A therapist? Do they send you flowers and thank you cards, Jim, all those grateful clients? Do their cheated, betrayed partners join in the chorus of praise for your efforts to heal the wounded souls who come to you?"

Blair began to talk, his voice loud, sharp with annoyance, but Jim wasn't listening. Cards and flowers? No, not often, though Blair had sent roses, but sometimes they said thank you.

"Mr. Ellison? Jim, is that you?"

Jim rubbed his forehead with his fingers and contemplated transferring the call to Rhonda, but only for a moment.

"What is it, Mr. Matthews?"

"God, please, call me Gerry. After what we did --"

"If you want to arrange another session, I'm sure we can find someone suitable," Jim said.

"No, that's not why I called. I wanted, well, two things, really. The first was to see how you were. I didn't -- after we'd finished, you left so quickly and I wasn't sure --"

Jim kept his voice cool and steady. "I'm fine."

"Good. That's... Look, are you sure? Because I sure as hell wasn't fine when it happened to me and I can't believe I did that to you. I'm so sorry."

Pity softened Jim's voice. "It was different. I gave my consent and there wasn't a single second when I wasn't in control of the situation. It might not have felt that way to you, but trust me, neither of us were in any danger of taking it too far."

"Thank you," Matthews said after a pause. "That's very generous of you."

"If that's all --"

It wasn't. Jim knew that there was more, but he wanted this conversation to end. He'd changed his mind about seeing Matthews again. If he lost it during a session with Matthews, the consequences would make what had happened with Blair seem trivial. He couldn't risk it.

"No. I wanted to tell you that it worked. It really helped, what we did. I -- ah, I'm seeing a therapist. And I told my wife about all of it."

"How did that go?" Jim asked, curious despite himself.

"She's divorcing me," Matthews said. "But she's not -- I expected her to be angry, and yes, I guess she was at first, but when I told her what had happened --" He swallowed, the small sound loud in Jim's ear. "She cried. Said she was sorry for me. She doesn't want to live with me -- she kicked me out that same day -- but she's offered to come to the therapy sessions if I need her to."

"Sounds like quite a woman," Jim said dryly. Talk about mixed messages...

"She is," Matthews said, his voice tinged with pride. "So...you can take me off your books. I won't need you again."

"Certainly, sir. Thank you for your business," Jim said politely.

When he'd hung up, he opened Matthews file and added a note. He didn't mark the account as 'dormant' or 'closed'. It took a death certificate to do that.

They always came back.



Jim shook off the memory and rejoined the conversation. Blair had a full head of steam now, talking over Naomi's attempts to justify herself and leaning over the table, his eyes stormy.

God, Jim loved seeing Blair worked up like this, his diffidence lost in the heat of the moment, forceful and vocal. Loved Blair's ability to channel this side of him into his submission, spicing it with an originality of approach that might irritate a traditionalist like Sam, but which really worked for Jim.

"Are you still here?" he asked Naomi, breaking into Blair's lecture about the hetaerae of Ancient Greece. "Because Blair and I had plans for today."

Blair paused, his mouth open and Naomi turned her head to stare, narrow-eyed at Jim.

"You can come back," Jim said. "I'd prefer it if you called ahead, though. And we'd love to come to dinner with you; just let us know the date. But this visit, this conversation, is over. Your son's important to me and that means you matter, too, but what I do isn't up for debate. It won't touch Blair. I'll make sure of that. It won't affect what we have going on here." He stood and put his hand under Naomi's elbow, urging her gently to her feet and guiding her to the door with Blair following him.

She dug her heels in when she got there and Jim released her, braced for another slap.

"I'm not happy about this."

"We know, Mom," Blair said. He kissed Naomi's cheek and gave her a hug that she returned. "But I am, and that's what matters most."

Jim put his arm around Blair, drawing him close. Naomi stood in the doorway, her back straight, retreating without admitting defeat. "Your happiness means everything to me," she said.

Blair might have taken that as a blessing on their relationship, but Jim was pretty sure it was a warning not to screw things up. Fine with him; Blair's happiness was a priority for him, too.

The door closed behind Naomi and Jim locked it, feeling a need to batten down the hatches.

"That went well," Blair said after a pause long enough to make sure that Naomi had really gone. "If I made a list of moments when my mom has embarrassed me, this would be way down in third place."

"I don't want to know about the other two times," Jim said.

Blair turned and wrapped his arms around Jim. "I'm sorry," he said, his face muffled against Jim's shoulder. "I can't believe she did that."

"It was bound to happen," Jim said philosophically. "It's over and done with now. Unless she decides to file a complaint with the cops, in which case I'm toast."

"She wouldn't do that," Blair assured him, straightening up. "She hates cops."

"More than pimps?"

Blair held out his hand and wiggled it. "Tough call."

Jim took Blair's hand in his and led them back to the couch. "I meant it when I said I was going to make sure what I do doesn't affect you," he said. "No more clients. Not even the special ones. I know you didn't ask me to stop seeing them, but I don't think that I can give them what they want anymore. I was good at what I did because I could focus on a client, no distractions, but you...you distract me. A lot."

Blair draped his legs over Jim's again and grinned, looking indecently pleased with himself. "I do? That's so cool. Not the bit about you stopping seeing clients, though; that's totally your choice, Jim. I'd never ask --"

"I know you wouldn't," Jim said, knowing that Blair would understand his reasoning. "That's why I don't mind doing it."

Blair's smile faded, replaced by a knowing, inviting look. "So tell me about these plans of yours."

"Why don't I show you, instead?" Jim reached for Blair and then paused, his fingers tangled in Blair's hair. "You didn't tell her about the spanking, tie me up thing. Maybe you should've gotten that out in the open too?"

Blair's jaw dropped. "Are you serious? No! Never, ever mention that to her, Jim, I mean it. Never."

"She'd freak out about me hurting you?" Jim asked. "I guess she would..."

"No, she probably wouldn't," Blair said and began to unbutton Jim's shirt. "She's got friends who're into it; she's down with the idea of owning your kinks and all that."

"It doesn't mean she'd feel that way if it was your ass getting spanked," Jim said. He reached down and caressed the subject of the conversation. He wanted to spank Blair right now, take Blair over his knee, haul down those tight jeans, and make Blair's laughter and wriggles turn to soft gasps and bitten-off moans of pleasure.

"Jim, it doesn't matter if she'd be cool or if she'd freak," Blair said. "It's my sex life and she's my mom. She doesn't get to know what we do, any of it, kinky or vanilla. Got that?"

"Got it," Jim said. "Can I spank you now?"

"You're not supposed to ask, Jim," Blair said patiently. "I've got a safeword, remember? Just grab me. Spank me. Tie me up and fuck me 'til I come screaming your name, unless you've gagged me, of course."

"Maybe," Jim said, refusing to get topped from the bottom on principle. "Or maybe we'll go back to the basics again before we move onto anything as advanced as name screaming." He pointed to the floor. "Kneel."

Without a word, without a flicker of resentment or hesitation, Blair slid off the couch to kneel in front of Jim, his head down, his knees wide, the perfect submissive.

Jim tilted Blair's chin up and kissed him, exploring Blair's mouth leisurely. "Nice," he said, ignoring the voice whispering ideas in his ear about how to reward such a quick learner, such an obedient student. "Now stand up, find your collar, and we'll do that again with you properly dressed."

Jim could hear Blair muttering to himself as he ran upstairs to fetch his collar, but Jim would deal with that small rebellion later in a way they'd both enjoy and if Blair didn't, he'd try something else.

They had all the time in the world to get this right.



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