Point of Contact

Part Eleven




Many thanks to T Verano for beta reading


Blair drew a neat circle around an apartment listing in the local paper and then turned to look the address up on the street map spread out on the kitchen table. When he found Williams Street, he sighed and the circle got turned into an X. Well inside one of Jim's no-go zones.

The map was sprinkled with them; irregular shapes drawn, once he'd wrested the marker from Jim's hand, with a pencil, delineating the places Jim had told him weren't suitable addresses. Blair had objected with some vehemence at first. "Jim, that one there, it's like two blocks from this great bookstore -- what's wrong with it? I don't need a penthouse, you know."

"Chief," Jim had replied, his eyes amused, his expression inflexible, "if my people worked street corners, which God forbid, those are the kind of streets they'd be standing on. And some of the places that look okay, well, you'd be surprised what goes on and who lives there. Trust me. No."

It had reduced the city to a scattered few areas; most, thankfully, close to the main library, if not Rainier -- the university wasn't in that good a neighborhood by Jim's standards, which made sense when you thought about it -- and all not too far from Jim's loft, which neither of them had mentioned.

Blair pushed his glasses up and studied the next listing. No pets, not a problem, and the square footage was impressive for the rent -- though that was something that made him suspicious after only three days of searching for somewhere to live, rather than optimistic. He was interrupted from his hard stare at the listing by a knock at the loft door, an imperious rap, in fact, that brought him hurriedly to his feet.

Opening the door when Jim wasn't there felt weird, but he did it anyway, and put a welcoming smile on his face that wasn't visible to the man in the doorway until Blair had tilted his head way back.

Tall. Broad shouldered. Doing a good impression of a storm cloud, his mood as dark as his skin, from what Blair could tell.

Simon.

"Oh." Blair kept the smile on his face. "Hi. You must be Si -- Mr. Banks. Jim's not here, I'm afraid, he's --"

"I know where Jim is," Simon interrupted, raising his eyebrows until Blair, flustered, stepped back so that Simon could push past him. "He's at work, where he should be. It's you I came to see."

Blair closed the door and then turned. "Right. So I don't need to introduce myself?"

"You're Blair Sandburg," Simon said flatly. "Jim's latest."

Anger rose but Blair didn't let it show. "Latest what?"

Simon studied him. "Why don't you tell me what you think you are? User? Loser? Both?"

His heart was starting to hammer with the lurching, relentless beat that meant he was stressed out. Confrontations did that to him, especially when they were unexpected. Jim's loft had felt safe --

He tried to find words, but in the face of Simon's disapproval they shriveled to a dry sharpness in his throat, choking him.

"Sit down," Simon said abruptly. Blair stepped back involuntarily as Simon advanced on him, but the man just guided Blair back to the chair he'd been sitting on and pushed him down into it with the same brand of gentle force Jim used. A warm hand tapped the back of his head. "Between your knees," Simon ordered. "Breathe nice and steady, that's it."

Blair obeyed until the sparks of light dancing in front of his eyes receded and then sat up. A glass of water appeared in front of him and he took it and sipped at it in silence, eying Simon warily.

"Feeling better?"

Simon sounded brusque again, so Blair guessed he was looking better, anyway. "I'm fine," he snapped, setting his glass down hard on the table. "And Jim's past the age where he needs a babysitter, so why don't you get the hell out of here?"

"So you do have teeth," Simon said. "Huh."

"You just -- I don't like surprises," Blair told him. "And I don't deal well when people try and push me around."

"No wonder he's having trouble with you."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Blair heard his voice rise, but if Jim had been talking to Simon about them --

Simon sighed and rubbed his forehead with long, well-shaped fingers. Blair tried to picture them holding a rifle, Simon's suit replaced by a uniform. He couldn't. The man sitting across from him was a world removed from the man in the photograph with Jim, a photograph Blair had studied in more detail since he'd come to visit. The two of them had been smiling, but their eyes had been shadowed and the arms slung over each other's shoulders had looked like an effort to keep upright rather than two buddies hamming it up for the camera.

"Most subs don't mind getting ordered around was what I meant, but I was out of line. You mean you don't like being bullied, right?"

After a short, horrible pause in which Blair dealt with the fact that yes, Simon knew about his kinks, he nodded. "Right."

"Sorry."

"It's okay." It wasn't, but Blair didn't really want to fall out with Jim's best friend. Even if said best friend was a complete fucking asshole.

"Going to offer me a drink?"

"You're staying?" God, that had come out sounding really horrified….

Simon grinned at him, a charming grin, making him look younger, even friendly. "If Jim's got beer, I am."

Beer. Yes, Jim had beer. Somehow Blair thought Simon knew his way around Jim's kitchen just fine. He got two bottles from the fridge and then hesitated. "Do you want a glass?"

"Sure."

Okay, this was a test, wasn't it? Blair stared at the cabinets and then walked over to one. It contained neat rows of cans, mostly soup, with a lone can of coconut milk Blair was willing to bet Jim had bought for a recipe he'd never gotten around to trying.

"Second one over," Simon said placidly.

"I've only been here a few days," Blair muttered.

"And it looks like you're planning to move out already?" Simon took the beer and glass from Blair and nodded at the newspaper and the map. "Jim know about this?"

Blair took an unwisely large gulp of beer and had to mop up the overflow as it foamed up out of the neck of the bottle. He wiped his wet hand on his jeans and sat down. "Sure. Look, if you've gotten the idea that I've moved in or something and I'm mooching off Jim, you're wrong. Jim's letting me stay while I look for a place of my own, that's all. It was his idea."

"Sure it was," Simon said blandly, pouring his beer into his glass without spilling a drop.

Blair put his beer down. "You don't believe me."

"I think Jim's not always that perceptive about people when he likes them," Simon said. "He misses their flaws."

"Yeah," Blair said dryly. "I've noticed he thinks you're close to perfect."

Simon absorbed that for the time it took for him to swallow a mouthful of beer and then he started to laugh; a deep, rumbling chuckle. "Nice. But I'm the exception."

"Whatever."

"I'm just looking out for him," Simon said, his voice losing its amusement. "It's become something of a habit."

Blair met Simon's eyes. "I'm not a threat to him, honestly, I'm not. I only just met him, for God's sake! We -- we've gotten to know each other really well, in an incredibly short time, but I don't fool -- I'm not letting myself think it's going to last -- I mean -- Jim, he's --"

"A hooker?"

"What?" Blair gaped at Simon. "No! Well, yes, he is, but that's not -- look, he's special, okay? And I'm not. I'm just not. A user, no, I don't think so, but loser? Yeah, Big time. Always." He picked at the label on his beer bottle. "You don't know what he sees in me? Well, neither do I. I'm just waiting for him to see me the way everyone else does and then it'll be over and you can relax."

"If it isn't you, it'll be someone else," Simon said. "Jim's a sucker for a pretty face and a sob story."

"Fuck you," Blair said distinctly. Pretty face? Huh? He decided that Simon was just trying to insult him and kept going. "And you're wrong about Jim."

"I've known him for years and you met him, what, three weeks ago?" Simon nodded. "But you know him better than me. Mmm-hmm. Sure you do."

"What's your problem?" Blair demanded. "Do you do this to all of his dates, then? Must keep you busy if he's picking up stray dogs on a regular basis."

"Maybe I exaggerated there," Simon admitted. "He dates people, but you're the first in a long time that he's sounded serious about."

"How long?" Blair asked, the question popping out before he had time to censor himself.

"A while," Simon replied uncommunicatively. "I need Jim sharp. On top of his game. You're messing with his head, kid."

"I'm not a kid."

"Look like one to me," Simon said. "A damp-eared kid, needy as hell, the kind who's going to take looking after. What did you say? Babysitting? Sounds about right."

"You obviously know something about me and how I met Jim," Blair said, keeping his voice steady. "You know I'm new to all this and curious --"

"I know Jim's running himself ragged trying to stop you from hurting yourself or getting in over your head." Simon pursed his lips. "And he's not that good at controlling people he likes. A client, sure, he can give them just what they want, doesn't turn a hair. But he wouldn't find it that easy with you."

"I don't make it easy," Blair confessed, the words just slipping out. He always did this, he reflected bitterly. Tell him he'd done something wrong; disappointed someone, and he started babbling out more sins. His therapist would have told him it was guilt seeking absolution through verbalization of a perceived error, because she wasn't allowed to come right out and call him stupid. "Not always."

"I know that, too," Simon said, not unkindly.

"But that's something for me and Jim to work through," Blair said. "It's nothing to do with you." Simon frowned, but Blair was past being intimidated. "Jim kicks me out, I'm gone. Jim tells me he's bored with me, well, it won't be what I want to hear, but I'll get out of his way. But Jim's got to be the one telling me, not you." Blair shook his head. "Not you," he repeated softly.

"You don't know him," Simon said, sounding tired. "Has he told you much about himself?"

"Not really." Not anything.

"Yeah…" Simon hesitated. "He says you're writing a book?" He grimaced. "About prostitution?"

He hadn't done much work on it since he'd met Jim, but he supposed, technically, yes, he was. "That's right."

"Well, any of this shows up in it and I'll kick your baby ass bruised and bloody, you got that?"

"Hey!" Blair leaned across the table and poked Simon in the chest, which hurt his finger. "Back off, buddy. Physical threats aren't cool, and that one's not even believable."

"It wasn't a threat. It was a promise. And you poke me again and I'll feed you that finger."

"You're not listening to me," Blair said, frustration boiling up. "I hate it when people do that," he muttered.

"Suppose you listen to me, instead." Simon didn't phrase it as a choice.

"If you stop with the stupid male posturing, I will." Blair studied Simon. "Is this because you and Jim -- he said you were straight?"

Simon blinked at him. "You think I'm jealous? Hell, no! I love the man like a brother, but I don't want him that way. Never have."

"You must be straight," Blair said without thinking.

That got him an unexpected smile. "Yeah, he cleans up good, doesn't he? Back in the day, I'd walk into a room with him and he'd turn heads. People would stop talking and watch him, wondering who he was going to walk over to, who was going to get lucky." Simon shrugged. "He had quite the reputation. Still does: if he ever takes you to Sam's club, you'll see what I mean."

"He said he would, but he hasn't yet."

"I wonder why," Simon murmured under his breath.

"I don't know why," Blair said. "Maybe he thinks I'd be shocked or something. He says it gets pretty wild there."

"Maybe. Or maybe he thinks you'd like it just a little too much." Simon finished his beer. "And maybe he knows just how many heads you'd turn."

"Me?" Blair frowned, suspecting sarcasm. "I wouldn't turn any." Defuse it, admit it yourself, give them nothing to attack you with…

Simon stared up at the ceiling. "Oh, my. Poor Jim."

"Do you want another beer?" Blair asked in an attempt to change the subject away from the way he looked, as hopeless geek went bone deep, and he'd more or less come to terms with that. Jim didn't agree, or said he didn't, but that wasn't something that reassured Blair much; he'd noticed the expressions of pretty much everyone at Zigzag and seen a unanimous verdict; Jim could do better.

Jim had to know that, and pity had a short shelf life.

"Another beer sounds good," Simon said. His gaze was back on Blair again, assessing, cool. "So are you going to listen to what I have to say?"

"I want to know about Jim," Blair said, bringing Simon another beer. His own was still half-full. "But -- don't take this the wrong way -- I don't want to do it behind his back. I want to hear it from him."

"He won't tell you. He'll say he will, but it'll never be the right time, or he'll distract you --" Simon's gaze traveled over Blair. "Yeah, wouldn't take much, would it?"

"No. It wouldn't." He wasn't going to get embarrassed by the fact that Jim only had to snap his fingers to get him hot and hard. In fact, the thought of Jim doing that even here, now, with Simon a disapproving presence a few feet away, was having an effect.

"And you'll never find out what you need to know," Simon finished.

Blair shrugged. "I'm not going to listen to you spill his secrets. I won't tell you to go; you've got more right here than me, I know that, but I can go somewhere until Jim gets back from work, and I will."

Simon smiled, thawing slightly. "I can see why he likes you. I didn't think I would, not a chance, but you're growing on me."

"Gee, thanks."

"You're not good at sarcasm, kid."

"I'm not a --"

"You're not good at sarcasm, Blair. That better?" Simon rolled his eyes. "You're a persistent kind of guy, aren't you?"

"It's been said."

"I bet." Simon chewed his lip in thought. "I could tell you how I got into the business."

"It'd involve Jim," Blair said promptly. "Cheating. And why are so you so eager to tell me?"

Simon's gaze wavered and Blair's eyes widened in comprehension. "Oh… you think it'll scare me off. Disgust me. Get me out of the way. Got it. Nice."

"I think if you're going to stand any sort of a chance with Jim, you need to know," Simon said gently. "Without knowing what happened to him, you won't be able to deal with him when he remembers it. And he does. Sometimes, he does."

"I… okay." Blair cleared his throat. "I've never been in a relationship with someone that lasted much past finding out her star sign. I'm not used to coping with the rough spots because I barely get to the smooth parts. But it doesn't mean I'm going to bail on Jim. You don't need to worry about that."

"You like him."

"Jim?" Blair shook his head. "Doesn't come close to what I feel, even if it has only been a few weeks since we met."

"No." Simon leaned over the table, his expression intent. "You're talking about lust, and maybe, if you're romantic and good at fooling yourself it happens this fast, falling in love. I don't care about that. I want to know if you like Jim."

"What?" Blair opened his mouth to answer and then thought about it. The answer stayed the same. "Yes, I do. Man, I can see why you're doing this, because if he was my friend I'd be just the --"

"If?" Simon repeated. "Isn't he your friend?"

"I want him to be. It's how I see him; I just don't know if it goes two ways," Blair said. "And it should, right? If it's real friendship, it has to. I know he's focused on me for some reason, and believe it or not, I'm as freaked out about that as you are because I don't see that lasting, and when it fades… well. But you don't know what it's like to have him be that interested in you. You don't know what he's like." He stared at Simon, and refused to back down. "You can't know."

"Oh, God," Simon said. "Spare me. I'm sure he's a maiden's dream." He stood. "Jim's going to be home soon. Tell him I came by to say hi."

"Okay." Blair chewed his lip and decided to go with frank and the hell with being tactful. "Do you want me to tell him why you came? Or is that going to piss him off? I don't want to cause trouble between you."

He meant that. He hadn't known Jim long, but even at their first meeting it'd come over just how close Jim was to Simon; the last thing he wanted was to disrupt that.

"I don't keep secrets from Jim, and it's not something I'd advise you to do, either." Simon was back to looking disapproving. So much for trying to help. "Tell him everything. He'll yell at me, but he won't be surprised I came by."

Blair started to reply, but the phone rang. "Excuse me." He answered it, watching Simon tidy away the two bottles and the glass he'd used, moving around the kitchen as if he knew it well.

"It's Jim."

"Jim? Hi!"

Simon turned sharply and then shook his head, looking resigned.

"Put Simon on."

"What?"

"I know he's there. Put him on, will you?"

Jim sounded grim, his voice a tense, harsh rasp. Blair waved the phone at Simon and mouthed "Jim. For you."

Simon sighed and came over to take the phone. "Jim?"

Blair watched Simon's expression go from wry to surprised as he listened. "No, I didn't… what? I was going to, but he wouldn't let me… huh? Jim… No, he won't. Fuck, you tell him, all right?"

Simon thrust the phone back into Blair's hands and headed, not for the door, but the armchair in the middle of the room.

Blair said tentatively, "Jim? Tell me what?" Don't break up with me when Simon's watching, he prayed silently. Don't do that to me.

"Simon wants to fill you in on all our sordid little secrets, doesn't he?"

"Um…"

"Let him. If you really want to know -- and you do, don't you, Chief? -- he'll tell you, and he was there for all of it. Just do me a favor and don't talk about it tonight. I mean that. One word, hell, if you even look like you're going to bring it up, and I'm gone."

"I won't," Blair said, stumbling over his quick reassurance. "He doesn't have to tell me anything, Jim. I don't need to know this. Not now. It's too soon."

"I want you to know." Jim didn't sound too certain about it. " I just can't go through it all again. I've got to go, Chief. Busy as hell here today and I want to get away on time." Jim's voice changed, turned husky. "Tell Simon he's got an hour, and if you can be naked and in bed when I get back, I'd appreciate it, because I've been thinking about you all day and --"

"Jim --" Blair protested uneasily, wondering if Simon could hear any of Jim's side of the conversation and hating the way Jim sounded, slick and practiced. Jim's voice sharpened with annoyance.

"Do you want me to tell Simon to gag you before he leaves?"

"What?" Blair swallowed. "He wouldn't."

"Oh, he would." Jim was back to matter-of-fact now and Blair was getting whiplash from trying to work out what Jim's real mood was. Unhappy was probably a safe bet. "He'd get you naked and tied down for me if I told him to, and watch over you until I got back, then slip out of the door, leaving you for me to deal with. Or maybe he can tie you up right now, and you can wait for me like that, so when I walk in you're so fucking hot from being cuffed you'll come as soon as we're alone and I say your name." Jim's voice was caressing, cruel, making Blair's heart hammer painfully because it was what he wanted wrapped up in barbed wire. Did he want to wait naked and bound for Jim to walk in? Yes. Did he want to do it with Simon silently watching over him, an unlikely guardian angel? No fucking way. He could hate Jim, just a little, for even offering it.

Jim chuckled, as if he knew how conflicted Blair was, struggling with an arousal he didn't want to deal with, not with Simon close by. "Well, sweetheart? You want that instead of a long, and I have to warn you, fairly boring story?"

He'll distract you…

"Sure," Blair said evenly. "Let Simon tie me up. Why not. I'll tell him to do that -- after he's finished talking. See you later, Jim."

He put the phone down in the middle of Jim saying, "No, wait --" and turned to Simon. "If it rings again, or he tries to get you on your cell, ignore it, okay?"

Simon was looking a little wide-eyed. "What the hell did he just say?"

"He said --" Blair shook his head and went over to the couch opposite Simon's chair, collapsing onto it. "He did what you said he would. Tried to distract me. Said I should tell you to strip me, gag me, tie me to his bed, and wait until he got back." He glanced at Simon. "Would you really do that?"

Simon nodded, relaxing as if he'd expected something more outrageous. "Sure. For as long as it took. Basic rule of bondage; you don't leave someone alone."

"I don't mean the waiting," Blair said, letting his exasperation show.

"Oh, that." Simon shrugged. "No problem."

"It's not a problem?" Blair controlled his voice. "Stripping me isn't a problem?"

"I'd make you do that," Simon said.

"You're straight!"

"Don't recall sex with you being part of any of Jim's plan," Simon said calmly. "I usually work with women, but you wouldn't be the first man I've tied up."

"Oh, God," Blair said, finally getting it. "You're like Sam."

Simon smiled. "No. I'm worse."

"Fuck."

"Even if I wanted to, Jim wouldn't let me." Simon's smile turned bland. "You should see the way he's been glaring at Sam since you and she had your little encounter. That man never did learn to share. Good job on pushing his buttons just now, even if it does mean he's going to spend the rest of his shift doing nothing but fume and bite people's heads off."

Blair had to admit that the idea of Sam suffering was sweet, if undeserved, but Simon seemed to be doing as good a job of Jim at veering away from the topic. "You're supposed to be telling me… stuff."

"So I am." Simon folded his hands in his lap and sighed. "Okay. But I'm not dragging this out. Jim's not the only one who wants to leave some rocks where they are."

"I'm sorry." Blair gave Simon an apologetic look.

"Why? You didn't ask me to do this." Simon moved restlessly in his chair and then began to speak, his words halting at first. "We were in the same company. You knew that, right?"

"He took a bullet for you," Blair said, remembering.

Simon snorted. "Boy exaggerates. You see any scars on him? Little-bitty scratch on his shoulder, that's all."

Blair tapped his own right shoulder. "Here." A white line of scarring he'd licked, feeling the edges of the raised skin against his tongue.

"Yeah…" Simon looked thoughtful. "Course, if he hadn't pushed me out of the way and used me to land on, the bullet would've gone through my skull, and it's hard, but it's not titanium. He saved my ass, not for the first time."

"Warrior bonds are fascinating. Did you know…?" Blair swallowed nervously at the glare that comment got him. "I'll just shut up now."

"I could always get you the way Jim wants, gag and all, and then start talking," Simon said ominously.

"I wouldn't be listening if you did," Blair retorted. God, that idea was… he wasn't sure what it was.

"Figures. Button it, Blair. I mean it. As I was saying, we served together for a while. Got to know each other, not real well, because I was his superior officer and it doesn't do to play favorites, but -- yeah. Friends. So he came out of the jungle down in Peru, after a mission went wrong, everyone dead but him, and they put him in the hospital for everything from vitamin deficiency to a raging infection from a cut on his foot. I went to visit him when I could; the hospital was on base -- we took care of our own -- so it wasn't difficult. Jim was a mess emotionally. You don't want to know what he was like when they found him. He'd buried the soldiers who'd died, shallow graves, and given his own injuries, I'm not sure how he managed even that, but thank God he did, or we'd have had no bodies to take back to bury properly."

Blair repressed a shudder, both at the thought of Jim scraping at earth with nothing but bare hands or a stick, and covering up the still-warm bodies of his friends, and the idea of the bodies being ripped apart by scavengers.

"What happened next, we don't know. Jim still doesn't. He tried to follow a river, we think, but he was going in circles, delirious. Another day and he'd have been the final fatality of the mission."

"God…" Blair murmured, painfully aware of the inadequacy. "But once he was in the hospital he started to get better, right? Mentally, I mean?"

Simon snorted. "Not so you'd notice. It didn't take me long to see Jim was getting hot and heavy with one of the nurses. That happens a lot; you're surrounded by death and bullets flying, up to your neck in sand or a swamp, and then you're somewhere clean, somewhere safe, and you latch onto the person you see smiling down at you, telling you you're a fucking hero because they're clean and safe, too, and you want that, you need that -- "

Blair opened his mouth but never got to comment because Simon was still talking, staring through Blair at his memories marching by.

"Only this nurse wasn't a pretty little girl, all curls and a giggle and a wiggle. No. He was a nineteen-year-old, slick as they come, and he looked sweet as sugar candy at the hearing, voice shaking, giving Jim these sidelong, pleading little looks, but he was poison, I tell you." Simon hammered his fist against his knee, a solid thump that made Blair flinch. "Fooled Jim. Fooled me, too, until I asked around the bars -- but it was too late by then. The kid -- Owens, his name was, Lee Owens -- got what he wanted; kicked out, his father's name tarnished -- did I mention his old man was a general? -- and he didn't care that he took Jim with him."

"So he had a reputation?" Blair demanded. "If people knew, then why didn't he get into trouble before that?"

"People look the other way," Simon said. "Most people. He wasn't on active duty -- not sure how he'd got the transfer to the hospital, though I can guess -- and people just ignored him or used him. But he was making it hard to ignore him. It wasn't just the sex; there were rumors he was dealing drugs, too. Jim's infatuation just gave him the chance to speed things up and stage a nice, dramatic outing right there in Jim's hospital room." Simon rolled his eyes. "Idiot. And, yes, I do mean Jim."

"Why did he do that?" Blair was lost in pity for Jim. "God, how could he do that to Jim, to his father?"

"Twisted little fuck, spoiled rotten by his mother," Simon said succinctly. "The general pushed him to enlist, pulled strings… the kid just wanted to party away his trust fund. So Jim went from being a hero to getting a dishonorable discharge -- might have been a prison sentence but I cashed in every favor I had and the general wasn't entirely stupid; he knew better than any of us what his son was capable of, and he didn't insist on anything more than Jim's career ending. Well, it had to; you get caught on your knees, the way Jim was… never mind."

"That's so wrong," Blair said with conviction. "Other countries have gays serving openly and --"

Simon's upraised hand halted him. "Don't. If I wanted a lecture on equal rights, I'd -- well, I don't. I know. Doesn't change anything. Jim was out. And three months later, so was I."

"Protesting the system?" Blair asked doubtfully. It didn't seem Simon's style. He came over as the pragmatic sort.

"No. I stuck my neck out for Jim. Repercussions, consequences… they took a while coming, but when they did…"

"But you're not gay," Blair said. "Did they really think you'd helped Jim because you were?"

"Wasn't that." Simon looked indecisive and then sighed. "You know what I am. How I like to play. Back then, it was something I did when I could, which wasn't often, but I'd left myself vulnerable. I was discreet, but it wasn't safe. After I got divorced, maybe I stopped being as careful to cover up as I should have been."

"Your wife… did she… was she…?"

"No." Simon smiled thinly. "Why do you think we split up?" He held up his hand. "Don't say it. This is about Jim, not me. So I got a warning from a friend that some people high up were looking my way and I got the hell out with my pension intact. And I went searching for Jim because I hadn't heard squat from him and I didn't like that."

"And you found him."

"Singapore." Simon looked reflective. "Three months. I think he'd spent them trying to fit inside a bottle and when he wasn't doing that, he was earning money to buy the bottles."

"Doing what? Oh, you mean --?"

"No. Don't think that would've occurred to him. Why would it? He was a soldier. Trained to fight. He went with that. Hired himself out as a bodyguard to someone with a lot of enemies. He'd have been a splash in the harbor if I hadn't found him; people really wanted his boss dead, and Jim was stubborn enough that they'd have had to go through him to do it."

"God." Reduced to silence now, Blair stared at Simon, trying to reconcile his words with the Jim he knew. Simon seemed to be waiting for more; so, with an effort, he said, "But you got him out?"

"Hell, yes." Simon grinned, quick and savage. "I kidnapped him. Want to see the scar Jim gave me before I finally knocked him out?"

"Uh, maybe another time." Blair leaned forward, caught up in the story. He knew it had a happy ending, after all. "So you brought him back here and dried him out?"

"You make it sound nice and simple, but, yeah, more or less."

"And then what happened?"

Simon got up and walked over to the balcony doors and stood there, staring out at the water. "We went to a party…" he said slowly.

"A -- excuse me?"

"Jim wasn't an alcoholic. He was just depressed. Once I'd gotten him back to thinking life wasn't that bad, well, by then, we were both tired of the pity party and ready for the real thing." Simon turned to look at Blair. "My kind of party. Jim wasn't really interested, but he was willing to try it out -- nothing heavy; he wouldn't have been allowed in to one of those without someone to vouch for him, and back then, I didn't qualify. I'd told him there'd be people there who were just looking, like him, men and women." Simon looked amused. "And he was interested in getting laid, which I took as a good sign."

"I guess so."

"I know so." Simon bit his lip. "And we met Jack. He owned the agency. Big player. I'd met him once or twice; knew him to speak to. Halfway through the night he came up to us, took us into a private room. Offered us a shitload of money for us to go to this woman's house for a scene, lasting from Friday to Sunday. She was at the party and she'd been watching us. We'd stuck close together and she'd gotten the idea we were a team, even lovers. Jim's always been a tactile kind of guy and we'd gotten close while I'd been looking after him. Still wasn't interested in him, or any other man, sexually, but I knew his body as well as if we were together. Even if that was mostly because he was too far gone to wipe his ass or remember to bathe."

"Oh, God -- I just can't see him like that. It's -- God, it's -- how could they do that to him?"

"The army?" Simon shrugged and sat down again. "I don't know. I'd say Jim did it to himself, but he wasn't himself. They made sure he was physically fit to stand trial, but he should have had counseling after what went down in Peru and he never got it. He was out of his head. Vulnerable. You have no idea…"

Blair stood, needing, as Simon had done a few minutes earlier, to release some of his emotions in movement. "But he's strong," he said. "To come back, to let you help him."

"Yes, he is." Simon's voice was soft. "But he was still vulnerable. And it didn't take much to persuade him to take the job. I should have stopped him, but he wanted the money. Said he'd sponged off me for long enough…" Simon grimaced sourly. "That should show you how screwed up he was, because he never stopped to think he was dragging me along, too, and maybe I didn't want to do it."

"You did it so he could stop feeling like he owed you." Blair met Simon's eyes, feeling a flash of admiration, because he'd have wanted to do that for Jim, too, but he wasn't sure he would have been capable of going through with it. "That was -- man, that was --"

"Don't make me out to be a hero," Simon told him. "She was a nice lady. Older than we were, but not by much. Rich. Hell, her place was an honest to God mansion."

"What did she want you to --?" Simon's eyebrows went up and Blair flushed. "Sorry."

"Yeah… we don't share. Doesn't matter. What did matter was afterwards, when the time was up. She thanked us. Total change in manner. Came back down, got talking to us. We could've gone home; should have gone, I guess; most people don't want you hanging around…" Simon shrugged. "We didn't have a clue about the rules. We'd been there the whole weekend; gotten to know her, I guess, so we talked, opened a bottle of wine, and it got late. Ended up with her between us on the couch and damned if we didn't go one more time just because we wanted to." Simon chuckled fondly.

"Is she one of the people Jim still sees?" Blair asked, not sure if that was crossing a line or not. He retrieved his beer from the kitchen table and sat down again.

Simon pursed his lips as if he was wondering whether that was betraying a confidence, and then nodded. "Yes. Both of us do."

"And after that, you started working for this Jack guy?"

"No. After that, Jim met Carolyn." Simon blew out a gusty breath. "Grabbed her when her heel broke crossing the road, scooped her up in his arms like something out of an old movie, and bam. Hearts and flowers, birds singing, and they were married a few months later."

"And she knew about…? It didn't bother her?" Blair couldn't think of a tactful way to ask how Carolyn had reacted to Jim's past.

"Didn't tell her."

"Ouch."

"Yeah…" Simon looked pensive. "We didn't lose touch after that, but I didn't see as much of him. He got an office job, some nine to five crap, and he had this college trust fund from his grandfather; he hadn't used it for college, so he had to wait a few more years to get his hands on it, but it was a nice chunk of change. I invested it for him; always been good at that, and it was how I was making my living. Things just… went along. Peaceful. Quiet. Jim even started talking about seeing his old man again, thought maybe he and Carolyn would have kids, and it'd be nice for them to be on speaking terms with their granddaddy."

"But it didn't work out?" Blair found himself wincing in anticipation.

"Jim started having flashbacks. You can bury the past but it's got a way of working its way up to the surface again. Carolyn did her best, I'll give her that, but waking up to find Jim screaming a man's name, and it wasn't one of the men who'd died in Peru, well…" Simon shrugged helplessly. "Jim told her everything one night in the middle of a fight, which included my part in it, too, and she laid down some ultimatums, which Jim didn't take kindly to -- one of them was never seeing me again -- and the next thing I knew he was on my doorstep, dead-eyed and drunk, and we were back to where we started."

"That had to have hurt," Blair said softly.

"It did. I thought we'd both gotten somewhere good and it was a shock." Simon shifted restlessly in his chair. "Should've known better…By then, I was playing a lot more; I had the time and the money and I wasn't looking over my shoulder the way I had when I was in the army. Jack and I saw a lot of each other socially and when Jim asked about working for him, well, I tried to stop him, but he wanted it and I've never been good at telling him no."

"Why did he want it?" Blair asked. "I'm sorry, I know it's what you two do, but you've got to admit, it's not the career choice most people go for."

"Who knows with Jim? He remembered that first time and he'd enjoyed it; it had its awkward moments, sure, but he had a talent for knowing what she wanted, somehow; hard to describe. He took care of her -- and of me, because having sex with another man there, well, it wasn't easy. Not really. If it hadn't been Jim, I'd have lost my nerve."

"He's good at that," Blair said. "He -- I get stressed out and he just -- he knows what to say, what to do."

"Yeah. Well, like I say, he had these rosy-colored memories, and he was hating himself and the world right then. Self-destructive, bitter… and he'd been fired, because he kept showing up late and with an attitude I wouldn't have put up with for a minute if he'd still been under me, so he needed to do something…" Simon held up his hands and let them fall. "And he went for what Jack offered. He soon got his nose rubbed in reality, but it still wasn't that bad. Jack marketed him. Priced him high. Spread the word that Jim was choosy, special." Simon chuckled without much humor. "All bullshit; Jack would have had Jim working his ass off every night if he could, but it went down well."

"And Jim liked it so much, what, the two of you bought Jack out?"

"No. Jim came to his senses. He'd had a bellyful of being treated like -- well, like a hooker. There was this one client -- never got the details, but Jim just told Jack he was through, and the next thing I knew, Jack had kicked Jim out of the apartment the agency had given him and Jim had moved in here."

"Wow."

"Yeah… Jim's all about the big changes." Simon looked at his watch. "God, I feel like I've been talking for hours."

"I feel like I've been listening to you talk for hours." Blair smiled at Simon. "Luckily for you, I'm good at listening. Have to be, for my job."

"The writing? Yeah, I guess you interview a lot of people, don't you?" Simon pointed his finger warningly. "All this? Off the record. Remember?"

Blair held up his hands. "Hey. Chill. I do."

"I'm going to wrap this up fast," Simon said abruptly. "Jim's going to be here soon and I don't want to still be telling you this when he arrives. So. Jim quit, Jack got pissed. And Jack got further down the hole he was digging for himself because Jack liked to gamble and he didn't always win. In fact," Simon studied his fingernails, "Jack was about to go belly-up. And I wasn't pleased with him and the way he'd been bad-mouthing Jim. So I got some backing -- that lady I told you about for one -- and I bought Jack out, and asked Jim to take over. Equal partners, put it in his name. Do it right. Make it the --"

"Best little whorehouse in Texas?" Blair supplied.

Simon started to laugh, a deep, happy sound. "Yeah, something like that. And you'll have to ask him sometime why he agreed, but he did, and that's about it."

They sat in silence for a while but it was too much for Blair to process and he needed to do it alone. Simon had stopped feeling like a threat but he was, if not a stranger, not after this, still someone new.

"You'd better get moving," Simon said after a few minutes. His voice was deeper, somehow, calm and sure.

"Huh?"

Simon nodded at the bathroom. "Go and take care of what you need to."

"What? Oh. I don't need to." Blair gave Simon an exasperated look. "I can decide little things like that for myself, you know."

Simon rolled his eyes. "If you call a timeout for a bathroom break an hour from now, Jim's going to be snarling, the mood he's in. Take care of it and then you'd better get your ass upstairs."

Blair felt his cheeks stain red as he remembered what he'd taunted Jim with. "Simon -- I was annoyed with Jim, but I didn't really mean I'd do that. With you. Let you do that. To me."

"Incoherency and you're blushing. Sweet." Simon smiled, not nicely. "Bathroom, Blair. Go."

The beer he'd drunk was going to make the trip inevitable at some point in the next hour, so Blair, after a final, muttered, "Not going to do it…" went into the bathroom, giving Simon a backward glance before he closed the door.

Simon was still smiling.

When Blair came out, the smile had gone. "You all set?" Simon inquired.

"Yes, but -- "

"But you're not mad at him now? You're feeling sorry for him? Want to hug him, kiss it better?"

Blair ignored the sarcasm and nodded. "Pretty much. When you're gone, I'll, uh, I'll go upstairs and I'll, I'll be waiting for him, but the whole bit where you tie me and the rest of it? I don't think so."

Simon gave him an amused look. "I don't think so, either. Though I have to say I like the idea of Jim's expression if I did do it."

"I don't want Jim pissed off at me," Blair objected.

Simon grinned. "He wouldn't be. Not at you. At me. For getting an eyeful of you."

"Why would that bother him?" Blair asked curiously, less on edge now that Simon was treating the idea as a joke. "It's not like you'd enjoy it."

"I'd enjoy tying you up. I'd enjoy gagging you. I'd really like seeing you lie there, waiting for Jim."

Robbed of words, Blair stared at Simon in silence, tempted suddenly, seeing Jim's face…not angry, not with either of them, just staring at him as he lay there. God, naked, bound, hard on Jim's bed with the two of them watching him…

"Yeah, you'd like it too, wouldn't you?" Simon patted Blair's cheek, the contact fleeting, impersonal. "Go and wait for Jim. And don't be too nice to him. He doesn't need that."

"What does he need?" Tell me, because I'm so freaking confused right now…

"Right now? It looks like you." Simon gave Blair an appraising look without any of the appreciative heat that was always in Jim's eyes when he looked at Blair, but without his earlier animosity. "You're really not what I expected."

Blair took that as a compliment of sorts given that Simon had clearly expected to meet someone who was another Lee Owens. "Thank you. For telling me, I mean."

Simon lifted a shoulder in a dismissive shrug. "Thanks for the beer." He got to the door and then turned. "One more thing."

"Yes?"

Simon gestured sharply at the map and the newspaper on the table. "Get rid of those. He wants you here, with him, not halfway across the city."

"You came here to scare me off," Blair pointed out, to give himself time to think. Stay here? Live here? With Jim?

Simon grinned. "That was before I saw how pretty you were."

Not that again… "Bite me."

"Jim really wouldn't like that," Simon said. "Trust me. Put them in the trash and move in."

"I'll -- I'll think about it." Blair nodded his head jerkily. "If it's what Jim wants. I'm just not sure -- I'll think about it, okay?"

"You do that," Simon said. "But they're the last thing he's going to want to see tonight." His mouth twisted in a smile. "And you, naked, is the first thing, and I think I hear the elevator, so…"

He raised his hand in a casual farewell and the door closed behind him.


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Part Twelve

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