Aliah rolled her chair through the double doors of Major Crimes, looking for her target. "Blair!" she called, raising a hand to catch his attention. The boy was simply was not taking care of himself. She might even feel guilty about getting him to volunteer with her dance group, except he clearly needed someone to drag him out of this soul-sucking void that was the police station. She planned to be that person.
She gave her chair a good push and let it roll to a stop in front of his desk.
"Aliah, hey. Wow. Am I that late?" Blair looked up with this expression of confusion. She smiled at him.
"I just thought I'd save some time by assuming you'd be late," she shrugged. She rolled her chair forward and back by inches as she studied the room that had become another of the foci for Blair's life. A man in a truly hideous green and yellow shirt had looked up when she called Blair's name, but now he was carefully studying his paperwork. Another man, younger, dressed in a suit, was also carefully not looking at her. She missed the days when every man would watch her stride through the room on long legs that made them think of sex and sweat as they wished her fingernails were running down their backs. Well, she could still get a little male attention, even if she had to work harder.
"Oh man, I've been late a lot lately, huh?" Blair asked, shoving his books into his worn bag.
"Oh sweetie, I like a man who takes his time, who loses himself in a project and gets that single-minded focus that makes the rest of the world vanish. I'd like it even better if you'd focus all that energy and those cute eyes of yours on me." She twitched her body. Her white shirt slipped down over one shoulder to show a perfectly formed, dark arm and she gave Blair a wicked smile. He stopped shoving books long enough to look up at her.
"You are totally not playing fair. How am I supposed to resist that? Male anatomy is not made for resisting the charms of beautiful dancers."
She laughed. "I never promised to play fair. When I asked for your help with this community project, I always planned to seduce you." She flashed him a wide smile. She was beautiful; not even the chair and the legs that were slowly succumbing to atrophy could dim her sexual appeal. Dark eyes, long curling black hair created by hours in a salon, dark skin, white teeth and lithe muscle formed from years of dancing—even now she could get most any man—or woman—in her bed, but Blair had become a special challenge.
Blair's eyes lit up, and Aliah arched her back invitingly at the evidence that he was finally paying attention to what she had to offer.
"Jim!" Blair called out. Well, shit. Aliah pivoted on one wheel so her chair turned. A large man with a dark expression was walking into the room. So this was the infamous Jim. He was definitely not what she would consider appropriate friend material for Blair. Blair's spirit was too creative for a man who had obviously wrapped himself in the stereotype of a cop like a familiar coat. His shirt was rumpled, and he wore a deep frown.
The man finally looked up from the file, his eyes going to Blair for half a second before they moved to Aliah. He studied her, not flinching from the chair. That was more than Aliah had been able to do for months after the accident. She gave him some credit for that. Then again, this man had to have more going for him that it first appeared or Blair would not be so damn loyal to him. He had turned down expeditions and cut back on his volunteering in order to make himself fit into Jim's life, and Aliah didn't think Blair was stupid. He wouldn't have done that unless Jim had something to offer other than a frown and a seriously broad and well-muscled set of shoulders. He was one seriously yummy man, she had to admit that.
"Jim, this is Aliah Wilkerson, the director of the community dance project I told you about. We're going to go recruit over at Central High this afternoon."
"You're the dancer?" Jim didn't even bother to hide his disbelief.
"Jim!" Blair hissed desperately.
Jim just continued to stare at her.
"I manage to get around," Aliah answered. She rolled back a little so she wouldn't have to crane her neck to watch him. "I still perform on stage in the chair. It's an athlete's model, which is why the wheels are angled outward. I don't like the chair to slow me down in any of my pursuits." Then she gave him a look to make it clear just which pursuits she still enjoyed. The chair's back was so low that it allowed her to stretch and show off cleavage that had brought dozens of lovers to their knees. Jim just stared at her harder. The man had suspicion and disapproval down to an art.
"So, Chief, am I going to be bailing you out for facilitating the corruption of Cascade's youth?" He dropped the file on the desk next to Blair's and crossed his arms.
"What? Man, that is so not fair. Aliah has a great reputation, and she's one of the best choreographers on the west coast. The university is sponsoring her program because she gets results. She gets inner city kids off the streets."
"Just as long as they don't end up in her bed."
"No way. No fucking way did you just say that," Blair almost growled the words as he came around the desk and stood toe to toe with Detective Ellison. "Your attitude is way out of line."
"I'm not the one dressed like a slut." Jim leaned forward a little, and Blair didn't back up at all so that the two of them were nose to nose. Aliah had on black dancer's tights with a shirt that certainly showed a little more cleavage than strictly necessary, but looking good was not about what was necessary... it was about showing off the beauty you had. Aliah had worked hard to regain much of her physical beauty after the accident, and she would not hide that because some Neanderthal with Victorian morals thought she should wear a dress down to her ankles.
"You take the cake. You really take the cake." Blair held up his hand, nearly shoving the palm into Jim's face. He turned back to his desk and started pulling out drawers and slamming the violently.
Aliah expected some sort of response—a shove or curse. After all, a man would defend his personal territory, and there was little that a man considered more personal than his face. Instead a look of near-panic flashed across Jim's face, a lightning strike of emotion that flared and left behind only that façade of implacability. One only hid emotions when they were so great or so terrible as to overwhelm the world. Of course, the world would be a much better place if people would simply let loose and overwhelm it from time to time. Blair understood that. Blair was one of the only souls she had ever met who called to her on that level. He knew what it was to release inhibitions. He'd stripped naked and danced under the moon in a drum circle. He'd lost himself in the sounds of a visiting troupe of musicians playing tribal rhythms on native instruments. He'd heard the universe.
"Perhaps he is afraid that it is you and not the students who will end up in my bed," she said with a smug smile. She was poking at this Jim, trying to find that storm of emotion that had flashed so temptingly across his face. Instead he glared at her with wintry eyes.
"Man, I don't give a shit what his issue is. No way should he talk to you like that," Blair huffed and slammed another drawer. He was such a defender. In response, Jim gave a derisive snort.
"Don't start," Blair said, poking his finger toward Jim.
"Considering your record with women, maybe I should run a background check," Jim said as he finally walked around his desk, but instead of sitting, he stood beside his chair and continued to watch Blair.
"Look who's talking. Man, when you go on a date, I take out life insurance. At least I don't date murderers."
"Only drug runners." Jim looked smug.
Blair looked up, a file in his hand. "At least I never let Simon fucking take you in for questioning like a suspect. Hey, you get sucked in by some jewel-stealing killer, and that's okay. But if I get kidnapped by a psycho with a drug habit, then we have to do things by the book. Then I have to be questioned."
The tone in the room turned suddenly dark. The detectives who had been trying so hard to not stare were now openly gaping at the tableau in the middle of the room: two men glaring at each other with thinly varnished anguish and a woman in a wheelchair. Even after a lifetime of not fitting in, Aliah suddenly felt remarkably out of place.
Aliah expected more anger to follow the anger. While she hadn't expected to see Blair so upset at all, Jim was all machismo so she waited for the explosion. If she'd had any idea Blair was harboring so much pain, she wouldn't have poked at this sore spot, but his strongest emotions were always love or awe, not anger and hurt. She rolled her chair backwards, not wanting to get in the middle. In her younger days, she would have sailed into the middle of a fight, waving her hands to distract the men, like a flock of birds mobbing a hawk, distracting it with motion. But now, with her spine damaged, any bruise or mark on her lower body would take forever to heal. She couldn't take that risk; she could only hope that Jim's colleagues would step in to protect Blair.
Instead of anger, Jim seemed to fold in on himself. "That wasn't my choice." His voice was little more than a whisper.
Blair sucked in a fast breath. "Yeah, I didn't see you arguing."
"Oh Hairboy, he argued," the badly-dressed African American detective offered. "He went way over the line arguing with Simon over that one."
Blair frowned at Jim. "You did?"
Aliah stretched her back and watched this display in confusion. These men were certainly not playing by the rules she knew... and she thought she knew most of men's rules.
"Yes, I did, Darwin," Jim snapped. He turned his glare on the poorly dressed detective, and the man fairly well scurried out of the room.
Crossing his arms, Blair considered Jim with the sort of calculating anger that Aliah had never seen on him before. Spending so much time with police was not helping Blair’s karma. "Oh man, why didn't you say something? You knew how pissed I was."
"It's better for you to be pissed at me than say something stupid to Simon." Jim sat in his chair and turned his back on Blair.
"No way would I..." Blair stopped. He looked around the room as though wanting someone to back him up, even looking over at Aliah. However, she couldn’t offer any support. Blair was many things, but he did not even approach subtle. "Okay, maybe I would have," he admitted with great reluctance.
"Exactly, so drop it. I don't even know why we're talking about it." Jim turned on his computer and very carefully did not turn around to face Blair. Oh, only one emotion made men this twitchy, Aliah couldn’t be sure. It flew in the face of everything she knew about police and their uptight, repressive, rule-loving ways.
Aliah turned to the last detective, the well-dressed man with the dark eyes. "Are they always like this?" She offered him a conspiratorial smile.
"Definitely." He smiled back. "Brian Rafe." Leaning forward, he offered his hand across his desk.
"Aliah Wilkerson." She offered her own hand, and then smiled when Brian's eyes darted down her body before returning, with some guilt, to her face.
"They should just get that energy out by having sex, and then they would not feel the need to bottle up so much emotion." She offered the words airily, as though she were announcing the time. But she watched Blair and Jim. Jim's fingers froze over his keyboard for a moment, but it took Blair a second longer than that to register her meaning. He had been swinging his backpack up to his shoulder so he could leave when the words finally registered. Aliah had thrown the words out like a bit of bait glittering in front of the fish to see if they were hungry, but the clear reactions spoke louder than any words. They wanted sex. Jim might be police, but either she had misjudged police in general or he was a unique member of his profession because he wanted Blair. Badly. However, sex would never tie Blair in such knots. Only something deeper, something more dangerous could do that. Aliah studied the men, curious as to just how deep this emotion went.
Brian was clearly unprepared for such truths. "I... uh... I'm sure that's...." He stopped and shook his head. "I've got nothing." Brian focused on the papers on his desk without ever denying Aliah’s claim. She laughed at his refreshing honesty.
"Aliah, now you are way over the line," Blair warned her.
She shook her head, certain now. Had she spoken some dangerous half-truth or outright lie, the other men would have jumped to Jim’s defense, at the very least. They hadn’t. Brian and the one with the terrible shirt were both trying so very hard to avoid confirming her suggestion, an act which, in and of itself, confirmed it. "The truth often is. You're angry that he didn't put your needs in front of his boss, his duty. He's jealous that you're going out with someone with whom you might have sex." Aliah pursed her lips and silently dared Blair to contradict that. For a moment they were all silent.
"Shove it, lady. I just don't trust you," Jim finally offered, and again, there were no denials.
She waved him off. "You are close enough to be honest, but you refuse to show each other your real emotions." She looked at Blair again. "Well, he is afraid to show real emotions. Blair, you are delightfully emotional. Naomi did a remarkable job raising you."
That earned another derisive snort from Jim, and Blair glared over at him, the two of them exchanging silent words. Aliah had thought it strange that Blair spoke only of Jim—Jim who had become the center of his life to the point that Aliah had worried about him and his ability to maintain any sort of emotional balance, but now she suspected she knew why he clung so tightly to Jim’s life. It was in the nature of the soul to chase what it desired but could never have. It was like her own obsession with dance. As a young woman, she had physically drained herself in order to find an elusive success. As a successful dancer, she had learned to take other pleasures from life—to explore her heritage and her sexuality and her spirituality and find such interesting souls such as Blair. Now that she had lost so much of dance, she clung to the tattered remains. Her heart ached to see Blair cling so hard to what he desired while denying his desire.
"You even have this non-verbal language you share. You live together, work together, play together.” She watched while both men stared at her blankly, as if they were unable to understand her words. “If you two don't sleep together, it can only mean that you're both world-class idiots who can't see what is obviously in front of your face."
"Oh, they're idiots," Brian said so softly that even with her chair next to his desk, Aliah barely heard him. Jim still turned to glare, as though he had heard the comment from across the room.
"We so need to get going," Blair hurried toward the door, ignoring the entire conversation. Jim gave his attention back to his computer and finally started typing, his back stiff.
Aliah shook her head. It wasn't often that she was wrong, and she knew she wasn't wrong this time. She hadn't heard any angry denials or homophobic rants, but Blair was walking out of the room without having anything resolved. She definitely needed a little more time to work on this. Turning her wheelchair toward Brian, she reached out and rested her fingers against his arm. He was an attractive man, willing to accept love in all its forms—even between two of his male friends—and he was wise enough to still desire her. If it weren't for his job and her current lack of balance in her life, he'd be perfect. But she had a larger mission to worry about. Someone needed to pound sense into Jim and Blair.
However, Brian would provide a nice reason to spend more time with these two. She gave Brian her best smile. "Next Friday we have early rehearsals. I'll be done by four. If I were to come by here, would you be available to escort a beautiful woman to dinner?"
He swallowed and didn't answer right away. She started getting that unsettling feeling of rejection, of knowing that someone else didn't like you well enough to even spend a few hours with you. An immediate response that he had a girlfriend wouldn't hurt, but this lingering silence as he constructed excuses was torture. She remembered the day when no man would turn her down and she fought with an irrational desire to get out of the room before he could offer whatever pathetic excuse he might finally settle on, but she couldn’t seem to move and her smile froze in place.
Then Brian gave her a small grin. "Um, yeah. That'd be great. That'd be really great... if you don't mind having to wait around some. I don't always know when I'm going to be able to break away." He sounded desperate and apologetic all at once. She smiled as she realized he was only shy, not hesitant about taking the disabled woman or the black woman or the strange woman out to dinner. The relief was nearly orgasmic.
"Waiting around will not be a problem at all. I'm sure you're well worth the wait," she agreed, her face stretching into an even wider smile. Blair always did bring her luck. She could hang out at the police station, work on chiseling away the stupidity Blair and Jim were showing, and have a date with a handsome man. Today was a good day. Now it was time to remind some young people that there were things other than drugs that could make a person feel like they were flying.
Aliah gave Brian one last smile before spinning the wheels on her chair and gliding toward the exit. Blair would be waiting for her by the elevator. She had time to work on him a little bit before next Friday when she would have a chance to work on that partner of his. Her own love life might be fodder for the gods of comedy, but she was going to make sure that Blair got everything he deserved.
Aliah rolled to a stop next to her van, poking the mechanical lift into motion with a heavy thunk that hinted at repairs lurking in her near future. Blair caught up with her. "Oh man, I cannot believe you went there." Throwing himself against the side of her van, he leaned--a picture of disinterest. But his body was far too tight for her to believe his act. Since she was five years old, she'd watched bodies. The studio down the street had offered her beautiful bodies bending in time to music, the instructor brutally criticizing any failed line in the graceful limbs. Her own home had offered her the chance to practice on the darker emotions. Right now, Blair's body screamed of nonchalance, but it whispered more honest notes of fear.
"Oh please, I've gone farther. How long have you known me? I would think you would just stop being scandalized at some point." She smiled at him, and rolled her chair backwards onto the van lift.
"I've known you way too long for these games." Blair even added a small snort at the end, as if that would make him appear more believable. The man was adorable. Hopeless, but adorable.
"Games make life more interesting," she countered. She pressed the button, and the lift raised her so that she was eye to eye with Blair. "And for me, this doesn't even rise to the level of scandalous. If you want, I could try harder... come up with something that would really scandalize you." She offered him a licentious smile before she rolled into the van. She settled herself behind the wheel and waited as Blair threw his backpack in through the passenger side door and climbed in.
Blair shook his head sadly. "Man, I've been hanging out with Jim on the uptight side of the fence way too much, because trust me, this is feeling pretty scandalous. Aliah, you can't walk into the middle of a police station and accuse one of the cops of being gay."
"Accuse?" She twisted in her chair to face him. From the way his face warped into a caricature of itself, he understood exactly what she meant. One only accused people when the action carried blame. You would never accuse her of being black or disabled or a dancer, so if Blair wanted use the word accuse with gayness, she was even more worried about his karma, not to mention his happiness. If he couldn’t have Jim, he wouldn’t be happy, she could see that clearly. “So, if I like women as well as I do men, you would accuse me of something?” she demanded.
"You know what I mean." His blush was a gathering storm of guilt and embarrassment that darkened his cheeks.
"That to be called gay is an accusation?" she asked carefully. While she would expect such foolishness from many men, she had never expected it from Blair... not even the subtle unconscious unfairness that hid in his words. "Yes, I do know what you mean. I'm horrified, but I know what you mean."
"Oh man, no. Just no. You're so twisting things around here. The weirdness is you coming in and saying that about Jim and me." Blair's fingers curled around the strap of his backpack like a child clutching a favorite blanket. Aliah just watched him for a long second, studying the way Blair sat, stiff and prepared to flee. She started the van and headed out of the police parking and toward Central High. Blair was brilliant with the students, teasing out those shy creatures who hid in the shadows and who would probably hide even more if Aliah tried pursuing them. She'd been a daughter of the shadows herself, but somewhere along the line she had lost the ability to slide in and out of the dark. Blair still could.
The odometer clicked by the miles and traffic smog filtered in through the van's heater and silence lingered heavily on the air, like the odor of dead fish. "I just spoke the truth." Aliah finally defended herself against the quiet. She hated the anger, but she would hate to watch Blair whither in longing even more. Lancing a boil hurt. Allowing it to fester would kill the patient.
At first, she didn't think Blair was going to answer. Then he pulled his backpack closer and turned an angry face toward her. But Blair was Blair, and the anger faded to resignation before he finished his first word. "Okay, first, you are really not the one I'm going to listen to when it comes to relationships"
"I can't imagine why not," she quickly pointed out before he could get to his second point.
He cast a disbelieving look in her direction. "Okay, I can't tell if that's sarcasm or not, so I think I'd better just ignore it."
"I have a long line of very satisfied lovers in my past-- my love life is the grand adage. It is a slow, sensual dance that leaves the audience in awe." Aliah bridled her body, emphasizing just how satisfied she could leave a lover.
"Roberto?" Blair demanded, poking her ego with one sharp word-pin. Aliah flinched from the memory. That was a low blow.
She shrugged off the flash of pain and insecurity that name provoked. "Perfection always requires a flaw so the beauty of the overall pattern stands out in contrast. Roberto was the flaw."
This time she settled for ignoring him. Certainly she had her share of difficult relationships, but that did not change the fact that she was speaking only the truth about Jim Ellison and how he looked at Blair. The man was not someone Aliah would choose... at least she would never choose him for more than a night of very athletic and enthusiastic sex... but he and Blair obviously had some deeper connection.
Blair did not take her hint. He continued to poke at the same spot. "And that weird guy who wore feathers?" he demanded. That relationship had been painful. Blair tapped the side of his face as though in deep thought. "How about that guy with the freckles? You know, the author?"
Of all the conversations Aliah was more than happy to have with Blair, a listing of her failure at love was not one. "We're not talking about my relationships," she informed him, merging into traffic with a lack of finesse that left the driver of a white Honda blaring his horn at her in furious bursts.
Blair gave a little snort of amusement. "Oh yeah, I can't even *imagine* why you don't want to go there." The sarcasm dripped from the words.
"You're too young to be so sarcastic."
"I'm an early bloomer," Blair shot back. "But seriously, you need to stay out of this with Jim. You're just making this so much worse. Jim and I are friends, just friends with absolutely no benefits other than getting to put up with his anal-retentive need for color coordinated dishes and total custody of the remote control. There is no unrequited love there, so stop trying to turn us into some damn romance story."
She sighed sadly as she turned onto Central Avenue. "You truly are an idiot."
"Says the woman who dated that guy with the feathers." Obviously Blair was feeling particularly aggressive today. The police had not been a good influence on him. Maybe Blair suspected that he had gone a little too far because the next sound was a weary sigh. "Aliah, please. I know you, and I know you have the best of intentions here, but if you go sticking your nose into this, you are so going to make my life way more complicated. Jim and I honestly are friends."
While Aliah was feeling far too generous to point it out, Blair had said so many times that a good friend made for a good lover. Of course Aliah was normally on the end of the argument that advocated for more carnal attributes in potential lovers. This reversal was awkward. However, if Blair insisted on being an idiot, as a friend, it was her duty to take the argument to its logical conclusion, no matter how awkward. If she could perform a perfect cabriole during auditions with her stomach in flutters and heaves from fear, she could get Blair Sandburg to admit that he was an idiot.
"You and I are friends, yes?"
Blair gaped at her in concern. "You know we are. Oh man, you're one of my oldest friends. I mean, you were the first person to try and corrupt me when I got to the university." He laughed. His smile would charm angels out of their underwear. "Trust me, you will live in my memory forever, and you’re actually the only friend I have that Naomi actually likes. Seriously likes." His hands fluttered around his face in imitation of that panic she'd first seen on him when he was sixteen and standing in the middle of her studio, dragged in by a student who had been unable to resisted the wide-eyed and helpless charm he had exuded, even back then when he had hidden it under a layer of cocksure adolescence. Aliah smiled at the memory. Blair had been so sweet then.
Older, he had a sharper tang to his personality, one that Naomi had never acquired. Naomi’s personality and her skin between her breasts where she sweated during sex were both sweet. However, that relationship had been one of her few successful ones, and she had promised Naomi to never tell Blair of their on-again, off-again assignations.
Aliah shrugged. "Someone should have told me you were sixteen. I would have toned down my naturally flirtation personality."
"I think they all assumed you noticed. I wasn't exactly a well-developed sixteen. I was more on the pathetically scrawny and self-absorbed end of the gene pool."
"Dancers and gymnasts simply do not age the same." Aliah dismissed his argument. In truth, she had wondered. As she walked out in only her dancer's tights and the headdress for her role in Le Corsaire, she had noticed him for his young face and brilliant blush. She made another noise indicative of just how unimportant her small moment of indiscretion had been. "You did not look that young. Eleanor just turned 36 and the woman looks like a china doll. She is a perfect replica of a woman in a miniature body, and she still gets carded when she buys a bottle of wine. I had no idea that the elven-faced young man with the deep blue eyes who suddenly appeared in my studio one day was so very young."
"You knew how old I was when you bought me beer."
"You stole the bottles from my refrigerator, and you never drank them."
Blair jerked. "Whoa... you knew?"
Aliah had to laugh. Blair truly could be a charming idiot at times. "Did I know that you would walk around with a beer trying to look like you were old enough to fit in? Of course."
"Oh man, I'm surprised you never called me on that. You have always been the first one to go poking at people for putting up a front. I thought I was totally good with the Bond impression—you know, pouring it out a little at a time so I was convincing. Adolescent beer subterfuge." Blair smiled at the memory of his own antics. It had been particularly charming—both his elaborate scheme and his unwillingness to get drunk. She’d fallen for him a little that night. He’d been so young and so unsure, and any other young man would have gotten drunk to escape the fear—the awkwardness. Blair hadn’t. If Aliah hadn’t ended up in Naomi’s bed, she would have seduced Blair and left him sweating and breathless on his eighteenth birthday.
Of course, she didn’t regret choosing the mother over the son because Naomi was so very delightful every time she breezed through town, and Blair… he was so very much in love with Jim. She would have lost him. At least with Naomi she always knew her lover would eventually return to her. These days, she clung to the hope that Naomi would show up sooner rather than later. Since the accident, lovers were not as easy to find. Even the charming Brian would, no doubt, take her for a delightful evening of eating and laughing and then politely abandon her on the doorstep. She missed hard, sweating, hungry sex.
"You were not that convincing with your beer, probably because so few men use the bathroom that often or take their beer in with them," Aliah pointed out, although in his defense, she had never seen anyone else notice.
"I'm surprised that did not lead to you publicly humiliating me," Blair said softly.
Aliah frowned at such an unkind description of her motives. "You were a child trying to fit in, and such a deception bothered no one. I never would have disgraced you." The light had turned red, and so she turned to enforce her words with a stern look that made it clear that she did not appreciate Blair so unkindly underestimating her tact. Slowly she smiled as she gathered for her next skirmish against Blair's self-imposed ignorance. "Now, this self-deception you have with your friend, Jim... that has grand potential for disaster. As you say, we've been friends for a long time, but you have never asked me to put aside my professional obligations. You've never asked me to miss a rehearsal or betray the confidence of one of my dancers."
"What? No way would I do that. I know how much your dance means to you."
"And yet you will ask that of Jim. I get the feeling that he is the sort of man who is equally involved in his profession." She gave him a sharp look before turning on the street behind Central High. Blair had the grace to blush at the truth of that. "Of course," she said airily, "my impression of him is based on nearly two years of hearing you describe all his attributes in great and loving and tiresome detail, the sort of detail one expects from besotted lovers and doting parents."
"I do not describe his attributes," Blair grumbled unhappily, but he didn't even pretend to believe his own words.
"Oh, you are such a sweet little idiot."
"Maybe you missed this the first two times I said it, but I am not taking relationship advice from a woman who dated a guy who wore feathers." And with that, Blair returned to the offense with a smug smile.
"So, you would rather ignore the fact that your handsome friend did challenge his boss over your questioning?" Aliah parked the van in the school lot and angled her chair toward Blair. "He chose you over his job." She raised a single long finger. "When he failed to protect you, he tried to protect you from your own foolishness by allowing you to blame him instead of targeting your boss." A second finger joined the first. "He feels guilt from his inability to protect you." The third finger went up. "He would risk censure or discipline in order to shield you from embarrassment." The fourth finger condemned Blair's assertion that Jim and Blair were no more than friends.
"Blair, as much as I would dearly love to teach you a trick or two now that you are old enough, I would not choose you over my profession. I might slip you in between two shows, if you'd like, but I assure you, I would leave you sweating and sated and collapsed on the floor of my dressing room as I went to make my second performance. I do not believe Jim would try to slip you in between the second and third act."
"Romantic." Blair's tone was anything but romantic, but sarcasm was the last defense of a failing argument.
"We all have our own definitions of romance," Aliah pointed out cheerfully. She did enjoy winning, and the scent of victory drifted sweetly on the air. "Myself? I adore the romantic story of the idiotic friends who cannot see the love before their eyes until another shoves their mutual noses in it."
For a second, Aliah believed Blair might capitulate and they could move on to the interesting portion of this plan—making Jim Ellison realize he was in love. But at the last minute, he shied away from the truth.
"Okay, if that's your plan, I'll take out life insurance on you now. Jim is going to hang your dead body from the flag pole to warn all comers. No fucking way is this some big romance. We wouldn't even qualify for a romantic comedy. And you know, I may take out life insurance on you anyway. You're fucking with Rafe's heart, and you're trying to manipulate Jim. You're poking two really big dogs at once. And yeah, Rafe is way quieter than Jim, but that doesn't mean he isn't going to be more than a little cranky when he figures out you used him. That's going to go over like a Playboy magazine on the hajj."
Aliah did feel a twinge of guilt. Brian had looked at her so sweetly. "I like Brian."
"He is handsome, and he clearly has good taste in women." Aliah smiled as she rolled backwards into her lift. The next car was close, but she was fairly sure she had the correct clearance. If not, her equipment had already proven capable of dragging the chair platform through the thin metal of these modern cars. She wouldn't try that with a classic Ford or steel-framed truck, but if another Honda tried crowding the access lane to a handicapped space, she could make them so very sorry without even slowing her lift down. The sweetest part had been watching the police write the idiot the ticket for blocking the handicapped easement while explaining that Aliah’s insurance didn’t have to pay for anything since he had been in the wrong. These days, she took pleasure where she could, and that had been most pleasurable.
Blair had to get out and wait as she maneuvered around and closed the van back up. She had hoped that the delay would distract him from the conversation about Brian, but as soon as Aliah had turned the lock on the side door of the van, he was there with his barbed words.
"What was that that you kept saying when I first told you about my new project with the police?"
She rolled her eyes at his pertinacity. "That was so long ago. It certainly is not important enough for me to remember now."
"Hmmm. It went something like, 'There is no such thing as....'" Blair paused as though struggling for a word even though they both knew what she had said many times. He was not only charming and cute but also manipulative and annoying.
"I never thought Blair Sandburg would be so petty." Aliah coated her words with disapproval. She hadn’t made blanket statements about police for quite a while now. Years, even.
Blair snapped his fingers as though finally remembering. "There is no such thing as an honest cop. Does that ring any bells at all? Any? I mean, you asked Rafe out, and Rafe is a cop, and you think all cops are dishonest, and you value honesty above all." He held his hands in front of him as though they were a scale tipping wildly from one side to the other. "Man, the cognitive dissonance in there is like.... wow."
"And you’re mother once took great pains to point out that all police were pigs. Do you remember that?” Aliah asked.
“Yeah, but Naomi is not asking any of them out on dates.”
“You've become a pessimist. Jim is a bad influence." Aliah gave the oversized wheels on her chair a hard push, sending her gliding toward the main office where one of the principals waited for them. Blair chased after her. She did not want to get into this conversation. As a black woman and an immigrant to this country, she did have rather uncompromising views about police, but after the accident, it had been police to sit by her bed and offer comfort while taking her statement. Police had pursued the drunk driver who fled from the scene, leaving her trapped in the twisted wreckage of her car. The prosecutor had listened to her and talked to her about possible sentences and pleas. True, they didn’t punish the man as much as Aliah would have preferred, but she did understand that public drawing and quartering was not an option. Twelve years had been much more than she’d realistically expected. However, that grief was still new and shiny enough that she could not discuss it without her emotions overwhelming her better sense. Unfortunately, Blair chased after her, still intent on chasing this hole in her defenses.
"Oh no. This is coming all from years and years of watching you have spectacular blow-outs in a long string of relationships. Rafe is not the type to jump from one relationship to another. And he is not the type to bounce back fast if things get ugly. So, do not even start this with him. You're welcome to fuck with me all you want because I totally get where you're coming from. I think you're way off base and heading farther out with every passing minute, but I can see where you're coming from. This is totally from a place of love. Manipulative, obsessive, and delusional love, but man, sometimes you remind me more of my mother than I want to really stop and think about considering that you are so totally hot."
Aliah stopped to give Blair a confused look. She’d lost track of the argument somewhere in there, but she did appreciate the compliment. "I'm coming from the fact that you are in lust with your friend. Even worse, you are in love with him."
Blair ran to get in front of her and stopped so that she had to grab at the wheels to keep from careening into him and sending them both tumbling to the concrete. "Don't go there," Blair begged. She had never seen such anger from him, but then honest anger was at least evidence that she was close to lancing this boil of emotion that Blair was allowing to fester.
"The only time I do not go somewhere is when the facility is not accessible by wheelchair."
"Then consider Jim ADA-unfriendly," Blair said with a seriousness that Aliah was not used to in Blair. "Think of him as having a huge flight of stairs right in front of him and there is no fucking ramp. Assume that your wheelchair is going to get mired in the fucking swamp of doom if you come within a mile of the man."
"Coward." Aliah had never used that word with Blair before, but this anger... this was not something she ever wanted to see in Blair. She knew anger. They were friends and dance partners and sometimes lovers, but it was a dangerous dance and Blair did not know the steps. Anger would consume him.
Blair, however, was already shaking his head as though Aliah had said something amusing. "Coward has a connotation of one who shouldn't be afraid. As your friend, I have a right to be very, very afraid for you if you go poking at Jim. Jim or Rafe."
Aliah frowned at that. Perhaps it was not the relationship, or the sexual orientation, but the man himself who bred such fear in Blair. “Is Jim dangerous?" she asked slowly.
"In the hitting you way? No, never," Blair blurted. "But man, he can so verbally rip someone to pieces if he wants, and he can be a cold, unforgiving bastard."
She studied him for a long second. "Which is why you've never told him that you lust after him," she finally concluded. Blair shook his head immediately, but his face darkened with the truth.
"I don't lust after him. God, you really do have a one track mind. I thought it was only getting laid that you got this obsessed with."
"And yet, you deny it only now. Up until now, I have not heard denials. You two are circling each other, dancing pas de deux while trying to ignore each other. That sort of willful ignorance never ends well," she warned before she navigated around Blair and continued down the gum-stained sidewalk.
"Yeah, I'll keep that in mind." Blair sighed, but he apparently gave up on winning this battle. "So, are you ready to go talk to these kids--terrorize a new generation of young people?"
"I do not terrorize," she said firmly.
"Oh yeah, yeah you do. It's part of your charm. Damn, no wonder Jim took such an immediate hate of you. "
"He just hates that I might be a rival for your affection."
"Oh no, I think he'd hate you anyway." Blair nodded knowingly, but now a smile quirked the edges of his lips.
"You're feeling particularly emotionally supportive today, aren't you?"
"Now look who's feeling sarcastic."
"Yeah, but you love me anyway." Blair turned his smile on her; the man could charm the devil himself if he put his mind to it. Sometimes Aliah wondered exactly how the small, over-awed child from so many years ago had squirmed his way into her life so firmly.
"I've grown used to you. There's a difference."
Blair's smile grew. "Whatever."
"We have work. Go turn some of that charm on these young people," Aliah suggested as the turned the final corner to the main courtyard at the center of the school. Blair gave her one last smile before he wandered into the shade between two buildings. Aliah rolled toward the office in search of the principal, but she knew that once she returned to the courtyard, Blair would be here, reeling in the shy and lost souls from the edges of the crowd. Right now, Aliah had other issues to tend, but she would deal with Blair and Jim eventually. It might take time, but she did not walk away from a problem... not even metaphorically.
Aliah rolled into the precinct, her wheel hitting a metal trashcan hard enough to send it skittering across the floor. Her physical therapist suggested that her need to shove things out of her way showed aggression. He’d even implied that she allowed her injury to overly influence her emotions. She’d pointed out that from the time she was six years old, she had shoved things out of her way.
Growing up in Basutoland, a country that had technically ceased to even exist as Africa turned into a series of brutal and unforgiving conflicts, she had seen how those who didn’t bend the world to their needs were quickly bent to serve the world. She would never be that sort of woman. Never. Although she truly doubted that the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Sisters of the Holy Family would approve of her current choices. She didn’t require their permission.
And she would not allow Blair and his beautiful soul to be bent by grief and longing until they yielded to the world. He loved Jim. In the hospital after the accident, so many of her friends had avoided her. She didn’t blame them. So much of what made her Aliah was her physicality, her strength and her beauty and her ability to perform straight-legged scorpion or a grand jete that could make an audience cry. Lying on the bed with useless legs under a white sheet, she hadn’t felt like herself. She didn’t want people to see her.
However, Blair had shown up at her bedside with his normal river of words—amusing anecdotes and sly little observations about the hospital staff that made Aliah pay attention to something other than herself. And so many of his stories had been all about Jim.
He described the time Jim had been in the hospital, shot in the leg by some suspect and he had driven all the hospital staff past the boundaries of sanity. To hear Blair tell the story, the man was an absolute bear snarling at the nurses. Yet Aliah knew Blair well enough to know he’d never stay at Jim’s side had Jim snarled at him even once. He would have flittered off to some other activities, coming back only when Jim felt like being social. He’d flitted away from her on her worst days, allowing her the privacy of her pain before coming back with that boyish smile of his. Yet he described sitting at Jim’s bedside flirting with the nurses so they wouldn’t accidentally give Jim an dose of sedative strong enough to make him sleep through the rest of their shift. Blair’s eyes had lit with amusement until he talked about the actual injury and then they sparked with despair and fear.
So much denial. Well, she was uniquely good at making others see the truth.
Aliah stopped her desk next to Brian’s desk and watched his eyes light even though he kept up a steady stream of “uh-huhs” into the phone. “Really?” He jotted something down, and Aliah could see the moment his smile turned apologetic. The stab of grief surprised her. Perhaps she grieved for the fact that she had turned into the sort of woman who would be stood up. Never mind. She could use a long soak in a warm tub. Her chair allowed her a sort of dance, but the physical demands on her arms often exhausted her and left her shoulders knotted and aching. She could use a night in.
She gave Brian a small nod and turned her chair. She would find another source to mine information about this Jim Ellison. As she rolled away, she could hear Brian scrambling to finish his call. It was actually sweet. They hadn’t even gone on a single date, so he didn’t owe her any extended apologies. After all, he’d even warned her that being a police officer meant that he had difficulty keeping appointments.
She coasted out of the room and stopped at the elevator, hoping that a quick appearance might save her and Brian from an awkward moment. Hope was not her friend.
“Aliah,” Brian called as he hurried into the hall. “I’m so sorry. This is a quick lead… it probably won’t go anywhere and I can clear it up in a twenty or thirty minutes, but I just can’t let this wait until tomorrow.”
“No, I understand that the universe has its own timing. Perhaps today is not our day,” Aliah said, offering him an escape.
Brian dropped down to one knee at her side, and suddenly she was eye to eye with him instead of having to look up, or as she more often did these days, look elsewhere than at the person to whom she spoke. “I want the timing to be right,” he said seriously. “Can you give me twenty minutes to see where the lead takes me, if it takes me anywhere at all?”
Aliah tilted her head and studied Brian. He was a tall man, which is why she appreciated his willingness to come down to her level. Before the accident, Aliah stood six feet, and she suspected Brian was about the same height. He had hazel eyes that searched her and light brown hair, but for all his American looks, there was something not quite American in his face, something South American or maybe even from one of the white families in Africa that have one or two black African ancestors hiding in the attic. It gave his face a strength, a mystery.
“I respect a man who takes his work seriously. I will not take offense if you need to chase your passion,” she said, this time with far more sincerity. She could respect that sort of obsession.
“I get calls all the time. It might be something, it might be the clue that helps me find a killer, but I can’t walk away without knowing which it is.”
Aliah studied him, searching for some sign of pity to send her fleeing the building. She could only see a genuine conflict, a man torn between honestly wanting to spent time with her and wanting to pursue his own passion for his work. At one time Aliah might have dismissed police work as less important than dancing or painting, but she’d seen the way the best of them could pursue their work with the same fervor of any artist, and if there were police who still, in Aliah’s judgment, deserved to be called pigs, well any profession had its share of poseurs.
The elevator doors opened, and Aliah considered them for a moment. “I can certainly wait twenty minutes for a man to pursue his art,” she offered. Brian gave her a brilliant smile before standing up.
“Ladies first,” he offered with a sweep of his arm toward the doors to the squad room. Of course then he had to scramble to get ahead of her to open the door, but Aliah found he actually enjoyed his somewhat clumsy charm. “I wouldn’t exactly call this art. This is more trying to track down a description of a possible car make and model.”
“Anything done with passion is art,” Aliah disagreed as she settled herself next to his desk and locked her wheels. Brian sat down and gave him a questioning look before starting to type on his computer.
“So DMV searches are art?”
“If you do it with passion.”
Brian’s grin was infectious. It made him look like an oversized boy. Oddly, that was not the sort to normally catch her eye. Normally she gravitated to the bad boys who wore their passions like fine jewels set in gold for everyone to see. However, if she were to be perfectly honest, Brian was the first man since she’d left the hospital to really and truly lust after her. She could see it in the way his eyes would slide from the computer to caress her curves before he wrenched his attention away again. She missed this, the knowledge that someone was passionately interested in her. She missed passion in any form.
“I dare you to tell Jim that,” Brian laughed.
“Oh, I am well known for my willingness to do anything one wishes to dare me to do.”
Brian paused and looked her in the eye. “I don’t doubt that.”
“You shouldn’t.” Aliah pursed her lips and twitched her body, loving the feel of her old power returning. A glance down toward her shriveled legs rather deflated her mood, though. Clearing her throat, she changed the subject. “So, what particular reason would Jim Ellison have for disapproving of my opinion on art?”
“Well, if you think any passion is art, you are definition describing Jim as an artist. He is the king of closing cases and he does that by throwing himself headlong into pretty much any investigation. If it gets him reprimanded or commended, he doesn’t even care as long as the case gets closed. But if you tried calling him an artist for that, it would probably lead to some of the old Ellison glare.”
“I would expect no less from someone who has charmed my Blair so thoroughly. Blair’s soul needs an artist to match his own passions.”
Brian’s fingers paused in their work. After looking around the room for a second, he leaned forward. “You shouldn’t be saying that where people can hear you.”
Leaning back in her chair, Aliah narrowed her eyes. “Why? Are you suggesting there is anything wrong with the many forms passion can take?”
“No,” he practically hissed. “Look, if Jim and Hairboy are together or interested in getting together, good for them, but it’s not something we should be discussing, especially not here.”
“Why?” Brian sounded flummoxed.
“Yes, why. It is a word used to inquire as to reason.”
Now Brian was narrowing his eyes. Oh, the puppy did have some teeth. “You just don’t. Not here. Now promise that you’ll drop that one topic while I get artistic with the Department of Motor Vehicles database.”
“Just the one?”
“I’m going to regret it if I say ‘yes,’ aren’t I?”
“Definitely.” Aliah smiled to suggest that she would also be more than happy to make up for her poor manners in private. Making up was one of her greatest skills. At least, it once had been.
“Okay, shoot. What question has you looking like the cat that ate the canary?”
“Where is your family from?”
That seemed to surprise Brian. “What makes them think they’re from anywhere?”
Aliah waved her hand without answering. She couldn’t exactly articulate a reason, but she did know she was right. Perhaps it was that his English was a little too crisp and his word choice a little too grammatically correct.
“My parents were driven out of British Guiana,” Brian finally answered. “I was born here.”
Aliah nodded and watched as he returned to alternating between typing and running his finger down the screen. So his parents had been part of the only English empire that fell. It suggested that he was a bit younger than she was… not that she hadn’t already figured that out. He was probably in his mid-thirties, young to have risen up to a homicide detective or major crime detective or whatever it was they did in this unit. Aliah only remembered that the work was of such an important nature that he felt great pride in being associated with it. Aliah had passed forty a few years back, finally entering the decade where dance parts would give way to invitations to judge and teach and speak for the profession while being kindly escorted from the stage so younger stars could rise. Most had a more graceful exit, but her accident had precipitated a rather more drastic shift in her fortunes. But certainly Brian’s family would have told him many of the same stories that she knew intimately—the anger, the fighting, the struggle to form a new identity.
Aliah frowned as it occurred to her that that described more than one event in her life. However, given Brian’s fair skin, she suspected that his family was on the losing side in Guiana, pushed out while natives and lower classes reclaimed their world.
“Were your parents angry over having to come here?”
“Were yours?” Brian asked.
“I lost mine when I was three years old. I was lucky enough to be raised in a Catholic orphanage.”
Brian visibly flinched. “I’m sorry.”
“Do not worry over that. I can’t remember them, and one cannot miss what one never truly had.” That wasn’t strictly true, but that was as much as Aliah wished to share. From the way Brian chewed his lower lip, he wasn’t taking her at her word. She thought he might push, but then he blinked and the expression vanished.
“My mom hated being poor. My father was a little more pragmatic about the whole thing.”
“They pushed you to succeed,” Aliah said with confidence. “Are they proud of your choice to become a police officer?”
Brian did something to his computer and pushed his chair back so that it rolled a few inches. “Why do I feel like this is an interrogation?”
“Perhaps it is. Perhaps I wish to know if you are good enough.”
“Oh, I’m not,” Brian said with a sort of self-deprecating chuckle. “I’ve seen Jim get the beautiful women… many of whom turn out to be criminals. And I’ve seen Hairboy get the cuties and the women who would frighten you into trying out a monastery.” Brian suddenly stopped and narrowed his eyes as he considered her. “You had a thing for Blair at one point, didn’t you?”
“A thing?” Aliah laughed. “I never had ‘a thing.’” She waited a moment for dramatic purposes. “I did promise myself that I would seduce him and leave him boneless and sated in my bed on his eighteen birthday, but somehow the opportunity passed and now we are friends.”
“Uh huh.” Brian didn’t look convinced.
“Besides, now Blair is so enamored of Jim Ellison that I would never thwart the path of true love.”
Brian flinched. “Seriously, stop that.”
Aliah leaned forward and lowered her voice. “And if I do, will you promise to explain why I must never bring up a truth so self-evident that only a fool could miss it, especially since you are no fool.”
“I’m not so sure of that,” Brian muttered to himself.
Aliah frowned, not liking the implication of that.
“You’re going to pump me for information on Jim and then drop me the minute I start getting fond of that sharp tongue of yours, aren’t you?” Brian asked as he hit the computer’s power button a little harder than strictly necessary. He looked oddly resigned at that.
“Why would you believe such a thing?”
“Because I’m a detective.” Brian flashed her a brilliant boyish smile as he stood up. “But I’ll take what I can get as long as I can get it.”
Aliah looked at the computer and raised her eyebrows. “You don’t need to follow up on your lead?” she asked.
Brian shook his head. “The tip said that our suspect was driving a white truck, but the partial license plate doesn’t match any trucks, and no one connected to the suspect has a white truck.”
“Could he have changed license plates?”
“Yep… or stolen the truck. I put out a BOLO for a white truck with this license plate. Like I said, when you’re a detective, you just never know which lead is going to pan out. This one didn’t.”
“So you chase them all the way I once chased every dance audition. Trust me, I do understand. So, shall we go to dinner and discuss subjects which you absolutely insist must not be discussed here?”
“We should,” Brian said. “Blair suggested that you really liked South American food, so I made a reservation at the new Argentinian asado that opened downtown.”
“Oh. How delightful.” And surprising, Aliah thought although she had far too much class to ever suggest that she had braced herself for something as appalling as fast food. To hear Blair talk, not a one of these detectives had any taste in fine cuisine.
“I certainly hope so. I would not want to disappoint a lady,” Brian offered with a tilt of his head before he paused next to her chair, his arm awkwardly raised at in inexplicable level, at least until Aliah realized that he had been close to offering her his arm. Such a waste of a gentlemanly gesture. Unlocking her wheels, Aliah could only roll forward, ignoring that awkward moment. They got to the elevator before Brian’s hand gently brushed across her shoulder, the gesture seeking permission for the action already taken. Aliah smiled up at him and shook her head indulgently. With his own smile in place, Brian rested his hand against her left shoulder, making it clear to the two officers already standing in the elevator that they were a couple. She was going on a date. Aliah just firmly reminded herself to get some of that information on Blair and Jim before Brian’s smile completely disarmed her.
Aliah sat outside Blair’s apartment door, thankful that his friend had offered a place to stay. Aliah remembered when he had lived in simply the world’s worst neighborhood. She had spent her early years surrounded by men angry about the racism that had taken the neighboring South Africa captive. She’d watched men fight over how to rule Basutoland as it turned into Lesotho. She watched the nuns desperately trying to protect the children from seeing any of it. It’d been a terrifying time, and she knew she was lucky that fate had put her in Basutoland and in the Catholic orphanage. However, all of that had paled to her fear when she had visited Blair at his old place just once.
The men standing on the streets had looked at everyone with this eye that had simultaneously judged and searched for weakness. They wanted victims. At the time, Aliah had offered them a cold look and walked faster. These days, she would never wander into that neighborhood. She was grateful that he had taken refuge with Jim before becoming the victim they sought.
But it took an odd man to invite another into his territory. Men were so aggressive about their space unless one was counting fraternity brothers or team members from some American football team. However, the rules that allowed for male sharing in American cultures were as unbending as this Jim Ellison himself. And yet he had bent and he had bent the rules. More than once, based on Brian’s colorful anecdotes. From the stories she’d heard, this Jim was controlling and passionate, protective and stifling, encouraging and brutally, painfully honest. Listening to Brian, Aliah wasn’t sure what to think of Jim Ellison.
Well, she would never find out by talking to Brian. The man was all charm and smiles and this odd shyness that probably would have made her overlook him two years ago. He certainly had no need to be shy. He had attributes enough to attract any woman if only he would share them with the world. Perhaps she should be grateful that he was so unassuming. It would minimize the number of women who might flock to him were he more assertive.
Clearing that from her mind, she knocked on the door. Almost immediately, the door came open and Jim stood there, leaning against doorjamb in a white wife-beater shirt. “I thought you were going to sit out there all day without knocking,” he commented.
Aliah bridled. She hated being seen as indecisive and to sit on a doorstep was the ultimate indecision. “Should I apologize for inconveniencing you?”
“If you feel like it.” Jim turned his back and headed into the loft-style apartment. Brusque. She could handle brusque.
Jim stopped in the middle of the room and crossed his arms, clearly challenging her, and she pushed herself up straighter using the wheels of her chair. One of his eyebrows rose.
“So, this is the place you share with Blair for… what… three years now?”
“Three and a half.” His expression never changed. The man would make a formidable poker player.
“I hear you once shared it with your wife.”
Jim’s second eyebrow rose, but he didn’t answer. Instead he stared at her, much like those boys who had lived in Blair’s old neighborhood, as though searching her for weakness. Aliah had been more bold then, but now she shifted nervously under the examination. Without warning, Jim dropped down on one of his chairs and crossed one leg over the other in a wide sprawling position that made it clear this was his territory.
“Drop the bullshit,” Jim suggested.
Aliah laughed. “Given your apparently unending patience for our Blair, your lack of patience with bullshit is rather surprising.”
“Are you suggesting that Sandburg is full of shit?”
“Yes,” Aliah answered. No embellishments, no excuses. She adored Blair, but the man could take a story and spin it so many different direction that a person could never see the truth beneath all the threats of obfuscations and prevarications and old-fashioned lies.
Now Jim did smile. It wasn’t a large smile, something more controlled and cautious. They did say that opposites attracted, and Jim Ellison was the perfect opposite of Blair and all his unbridled enthusiasm. “Maybe I like him more.”
“That would be my point.”
Jim leaned forward. “You came here to tell me that I like my roommate?”
“Are you always this obtuse?”
Taking a second to answer, Jim let his eyes wander the room for a moment before returning to her. “When I’m trying to nicely tell someone to get their very beautiful ass out of my business before they regret it, yes.”
Aliah sucked in a breath. That truly was brusque. “Your business affects Blair.”
“Blair, yes. You? No.”
Narrowing her eyes, Aliah tried to decide how to handle this particularly prickly man. “I hear that the homophobia of a police station can sometimes force men to either avoid certain activities or hide those activities from others.”
“You hear that from Rafe.”
Aliah raised her chin and dared him to deny Brian’s story of homophobia and backup calls going out a little too late and men being perceived of as too feminine being harassed. Were she to rule the world, she would take anyone with that kind of outdated belief system and run them over with her wheelchair… or a Mac truck. Either would be appropriate for the sort of discrimination Brian had described.
“Interesting how you’ve taken a shine to Brian. Blair is terribly excited about you showing interest in someone who isn’t a psychopath.”
“Blair would never say that.”
“No, but he implied it. The stories about the guy in the feathers….” Jim shook his head and made a face to show just how horrified he’d been. Aliah could feel her face heat a little, but she would not be shamed by a man too afraid to love at all. She took risks with her heart, and sometimes she suffered. Life was messy.
“He was an artist,” she said, her voice brittle.
“That’s not the first word that came to my mind. So, you went from that to Rafe. Are you slumming?”
“How dare you!”
“How dare I what? Interfere in your love life?” Jim leaned back with a cat that ate the canary look that quite surpassed any smugness she’d seen from any other human being. And she had lived her life with dancers, and there wasn’t a more arrogant, smug, aggressive group on the planet, at least when you dealt with the stars of the profession. They all could have taken lessons from Jim Ellison, however.
Aliah carefully controlled her voice. “How dare you suggest that Brian Rafe is anything less than a gentleman that any woman would appreciate.”
Jim’s arm actually fell off the back of the chair where he’d propped it, and his face lost all smugness as he blinked at her as though unable to comprehend. How dare he have such a low opinion of Brian when Brian admired him so much. Aliah rolled her chair closer. “Brian Rafe is an artist in his own way, passionate about his work and about life. He certainly knows how to dress, speak, and treat women better than you.”
“Um, yeah. He does.” Jim almost sounded confused, and now Aliah was confused.
“Why are you dating him?” Jim came right out and asked.
“Why aren’t you dating Blair?” Aliah returned.
Jim leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “I’ll make you a deal. You answer my question honestly, and I’ll answer yours.”
Aliah cocked her head to the side. “And how are either of us to know the other has been honest?”
“Because we’re promising to be honest.”
The answer would be ridiculous under almost any other circumstance. Aliah lied well and creatively. She had done so often enough that she sometimes wondered if she could distinguish truth and lie in her own mind. However Jim had such a look of intensity on his face that she wondered if his offer were genuine. It wasn’t as if she had anything to hide with Brian, and she was under no obligation to believe Jim. She would listen to whatever story he concocted and use it as the launching point to explain all the reasons why he should embrace love in all its forms, including homosexual love.
“I like Brian.” She watched Jim to see what he would make of that.
“Even though he’s not your type? I mean, he’s not the bad boy or the artist or the complete loon in need of psychotropic medication.”
Aliah narrowed her eyes. Next time Naomi visited, Aliah would have to mention this conversation. The fallout would be amusing. “I like him. There is nothing more nefarious than that.”
“But you asked him out at first to get information on me.”
Aliah didn’t deny that. “Blair loves you, I love Blair. I see no fault in taking extreme measures to protect people I love.”
“Neither do I,” Jim said, and now his voice had a warning in it. “So, do you plan to drop Brian now that you’re getting your answer?” Jim leaned back, and now Aliah felt like the one being interrogated.
“I certainly plan to answer the phone if he calls,” she said.
“So, you’re waiting for him?” Jim shook his head. “That is not the woman I’ve heard described in excruciating detail over the last three years. The woman Blair has described would pursue him.”
“As you admitted, Blair is very capable of spinning the bullshit.” Aliah let the profanity drop out of her mouth in a flat American accent the didn’t match the rest of her lilting voice that had so much of the Sotho and French influence.
Jim shook his head. “Not about you, he doesn’t. Or rather he tries, but he’s not particularly successful. You know, he’s spent the last two years worrying about you.”
“My troubles are not his concern.” Aliah looked away. The last thing she wanted was pity from Blair. Blair or Jim. Her body was twisted and broken, but her pride was intact.
“Well he’s afraid you have your head so far up your ass that you can’t smell anything but your own shit.”
Aliah’s head whipped around.
“I would normally put that nicer, but honestly, you annoy me,” Jim said. “So, Rafe clearly adores you, you clearly admire him, and if you two don’t see each other again I would have to suspect that one of you has a problem with the head and the ass. Generally that isn’t Rafe.”
“I shall take that under advisement.” Aliah was beginning to suspect that confronting the lion in its own den had been a tactical error. “So, will you now enlighten me as to why you aren’t dating Blair?”
“Nope.” Jim leaned back, that smugness returning to his face, and Aliah felt a helpless sort of rage well up. She’d bared herself to him, and he had the audacity to refuse to honor his end of the bargain. Jim sighed about the time that Aliah was mentally gathering appropriate insults. Some of them required a little thought to translate into English. “Aliah, we’ve been together for almost two years.”
“You… honestly?” Aliah found herself without words, which was a fairly unique experience.
“Honestly,” Jim said. “When you were in the hospital, Blair used to come home so angry and then he’d get scared. He’d always seen you as someone unbreakable, and seeing you hurting terrified the shit out of him.”
Aliah rubbed her hand over her useless legs.
“Not the wheelchair,” Jim said, interrupting her thoughts, and his voice had turned slower and gentler than she expected. “It never had anything to do with the wheelchair. Blair’s seen me blinded by poison at work. He’s worked with people with disabilities. He doesn’t give a shit about any of that. He was worried because you stopped living. He said you fought like hell to get back to dance, to teach it even if you couldn’t perform, but he said that after that, you just stopped. Blair never wanted you to know about us because he never wanted to hurt you by pointing out that he was moving on with his life, and you got stuck somewhere around step four of your recovery.”
Aliah wheeled her chair back, inexplicably grateful for the open apartment door because the room was too small and Jim was too large to be in the room with. She spun her chair and gave herself a hard push toward the door, hitting the edge with a rubber wheel so that she jerked to one side before she could get herself straightened out and head down the hallway.
“Aliah?! Shit.” Ellison was following her, and Aliah pressed the elevator button, silently cursing in Sotho as she listened to the mechanical beast groaning and clicking its way up the shaft. “Aliah, I didn’t mean… okay, maybe I was a little more blunt than I should have been because I still don’t like you. You remind me too much of Naomi.”
“She’s a great woman,” Aliah said, happy to focus on anything except this warped version of her own life which Jim had served up. Had Blair really said such things to him?
“She abandoned Blair when he needed her, and he still struggles with that. He may love his mother, but I sure as hell don’t have to, not when I’m the one who gets to deal with his raging fear of abandonment every time we have a disagreement.”
Aliah frowned at Jim.
“I can love the hell out of Blair without thinking he’s perfect, Aliah. No one has to be perfect. I sure as hell not perfect. Hell, when Blair hears about this, I’ll be sleeping on the couch for a week and I might deserve it.”
The elevator opened, and Aliah got in, rotating her chair to face the doors. Jim was watching her, but she limited herself to staring at his knees. When he put out a hand to keep the doors from closing, she could only clench her teeth, helpless to stop him.
“Shit, make that a month,” Jim said softly. “You put on a damn good front. I really thought Blair was exaggerating because you didn’t seem all that fragile to me.”
“I’m not,” Aliah snapped.
That made Jim pause, and Aliah took what satisfaction she could in winning that point. “No, you aren’t. But you are human, and that wasn’t a nice thing to say to a fellow human being. I’m glad to see you enjoying life, Aliah. I’m glad to see you dating Brian and he’s human too, human and far too fragile so please don’t play games with him.”
Aliah looked up at Jim’s face and glared.
“I only want one promise.”
“Or what?” Aliah demanded, knowing full well that she couldn’t handle this the way she once would have, kicked him in the genitals and stalked off while he writhed in pain. It was a pleasant enough thought.
“Or nothing. But don’t drive upset. Get a bagel downstairs, give yourself some time to calm down and focus on how much you hate my guts, okay?” He gave her an expression best described as pleading.
“You’re a moron who doesn’t deserve Blair.”
Jim shrugged. “I’ve actually told him that once or twice.” Pulling his hand back, Jim allowed the elevator doors to close, and Aliah was alone in the small space with too many emotions threatening to crush the breath from her.
Aliah sat inside the van, emotions warring. She had always valued honesty. Always. A soul who could not embrace honesty would never find beauty. That’s what she taught her students at the schools where she tried to reach inner city youth in danger of losing themselves. Honesty allowed for change, for growth.
But to hear Ellison speak of her, she had lost her own honesty. Or perhaps she had only fled some distance from it. Certainly she knew her life had lost a certain balance, but was she so pitiful that a friend could not trust her to celebrate with him?
She loved Blair. She did. She was also furious that he could hide his love so completely, even when she urged him to follow it.
Her face heated as she thought back on all those conversations with Blair, all the times she’d encouraged him to pursue love, to throw caution to the wind. She might love Blair, but she was just a little annoyed with him for failing to mention that he had already done exactly that. In the process of trying to shield her from suffering the pangs of jealousy, he had made her a fool.
Aliah sighed. Or she had made herself a fool.
“Aliah? Are you in there?” Someone knocked on the driver’s side window, and Aliah backed her chair off the lift and rolled toward the front windshield. Brian stood outside the driver’s window, his hand cupped to the glass as he tried to peer inside. He smiled and backed up an inch as she rolled in behind the window and slipped the key into the ignition so she could roll the window down.
“Brian? Whatever are you doing here?”
“Jim called. He said you had a close encounter with his cranky side, and that I should get down here.”
“He did?” Aliah frowned at the building, not appreciating any gesture of kindness from Jim Ellison. Not right now, anyway. Her feelings were too raw to appreciate that he might have an altruistic bone or two.
“We’ve all seen Jim have his asshole moments, so I figured whatever he said it must have been bad for him to admit that he crossed the line. Usually he ignores any rules of etiquette and lets Blair apologize for him later.” Brian made a face and leaned on the side of the van. “Are you okay?”
“Do I strike you as particularly fragile?”
Brian blinked at her, his face devoid of emotion or reaction, and Aliah had no idea how to interpret that.
“Weak?” Brian finally asked. “Weak? You? Aliah, you are as far from weak as a person gets.” His blinking grew faster. “Why would you even—” He stopped in the middle of his own sentence, his lips pressing together in a thin line for a moment. “Did Ellison say that to you? I can go kick his ass right now,” he offered, his words clipped in his anger.
Reaching out the window, Aliah rested her hand on Brian’s arm. “I could do that myself if I wanted it done,” she pointed out archly, despite the fact they both knew she lied. However, Brian settled under her touch, his anger turned to a quieter emotion—aggravation perhaps.
“He has no right saying something like that to you.”
“I believe he was only repeating what Blair had said to him,” Aliah said wearily. She could dismiss Ellison’s cruelty as nothing more than the retaliation of a man who felt backed into a corner. Pursuing that particular lion into his den definitely had been a tactical error.
“Blair?!” Brian’s mouth fell open, a rather unpleasant expression, even on someone as attractive as Brian. “Blair called you weak?” Brian demanded.
“He might as well have. Blair did not want me to know he was happily pursuing his forbidden love the entire time I was needling him about becoming too afraid to follow his heart.”
“He… and Ellison?” Brian looked mildly horrified.
Aliah drew in a breath, ready to launch into a lecture on the value of love in all its forms. However, Brian continued. “I thought Sandburg had better taste. Well, not better taste in clothing given the colors he puts together, but I would have expected him to pick someone who had a little more class.” Brian shook his head. “Not only does Ellison wear white socks with dress slacks, a fault I could overlook given how often Ellison gets called in to work at crazy hours, but he snaps at anyone who doesn’t do what he thinks they should within two seconds of when he thinks they should do it.” Brian sighed. “Do you mind if I sit down?” he asked, gesturing toward the passenger side.
“Of course,” Aliah triggered the locks, slightly embarrassed to have left Brian standing outside. He smiled at her and trotted around the front of the van to get in. “So, what did Ellison tell you when he called?” she asked as Brian settled into the seat next to her.
“He said he’d been a first-class ass and you might need someone to talk to about how much you hated him.” Brain made a face as he pulled the passenger side door closed. “He also said he was so far over the line that you probably needed someone to keep you from doing something stupid like shooting him because he was going to be busy keeping Blair from shooting him.”
Aliah sniffed. “He seems to think a lot of himself, believing that he’s worth killing.”
That made Brian snort. “The first case I worked with Major Crime as a full time detective, we find out after the fact that Ellison blinded himself with some drug, and he’s still trying to work the case, growling at everyone, snapping at Sandburg like the man just shot his dog. Trust me, Ellison is worth killing. On lots of days, Ellison is worth killing. He’s also a good man who will go to the ends of the earth for his friends.”
“Including Blair,” Aliah said softly. “I should point out that I wanted the two of them to admit to their forbidden love back when I believed they weren’t together. I don’t have a problem with Ellison per se.” Aliah really tried to tell herself that was still true. She certainly disliked him a little more than she had this morning. But he made Blair happy. Her feelings were in such a turmoil that she truly didn’t know where to turn or what to feel. She had wanted Blair and Ellison to admit their love. They had. Years ago. And she was truly lost in a mire of her own pathetic needs because she wanted to have been the one to ‘fix’ them and show them the error of their ways. She wanted to open their eyes. She wanted to be the sort of friend Blair trusted to share joy. And yet….
“Penny for your thoughts,” Brian said, his voice breaking the silence that had gone on for far too long.
She gave him a smile. “I’m not sure they are worth even that much.”
For a second, she really studied him, looking for some sign that he was indulging her. Her old lovers, they wanted her to be exciting and sexual. The second she showed any neediness around them, they had vanished like smoke. Even Naomi. God that woman could wrap her legs around your waist, her body bending in directions to make even a dancer envious. But when Aliah had railed against the universe, the drunken driver who had crippled her, and the chair with all its limitations, Naomi had flitted her hands through the air and talked about universal truth. Actually, she had threatened to bring sage into the hospital before vanishing, which had set this older nurse twittering in distress.
Aliah wanted to have someone lance this ugly boil of heavy karma Ellison had forced her to notice, but she felt like doing so might lose her the chance to have a handsome escort to dinner, someone who could make her feel like she was still beautiful. She suddenly found herself terrified at the thought that Brian might stop taking her calls.
“My thoughts are not very pleasant right now,” Aliah said slowly, struggling to explain why she didn’t want to share them, why she couldn’t.
“Sometimes they aren’t.” Brian interrupted. “No one can be happy all the time, Aliah.”
They sat in the van looking at each other, and Aliah could feel old emotions stirring. Anger that the accident had taken one more thing. She should have had years of laughter with her friend… years of celebrating a secret love instead of this brittle friendship that left Blair afraid to share so much of his life. Shame that she had made such a mess out of things. Fear that she would keep making a mess out of things because Blair was right—since the accident, she had become the kind of person with whom you didn’t share happiness. Hot emotions churned in her chest until it almost hurt, and she kept waiting for Brian to get out of the van because who wanted to deal with this kind of pain. Aliah didn’t. She wouldn’t if she had a choice. She’d walk away. No, she’d dance away.
Aliah touched the rubber of her wheel. Well, she might have at one point. Now…
Brian interrupted her by reaching over to brush his fingertips over the back of her hand. “Why don’t we go for coffee? I’ll tell you about this idiot kid who was so scared of prison that he refused to put his gun down during this bank robbery.” Pain flashed across Brian’s face, and he did nothing to hide it. “And you can tell me what could make that beautiful face of yours reflect so much suffering.”
Aliah brought her hand up to her cheek, momentarily horrified that she had telegraphed so much in an unguarded moment.
Brian caught her hand, holding it in his fever-hot palm. “Come on, I’ll treat you to some cappuccino.” Brian smiled at her, his fingers curling around her hand, and Aliah smiled back even though grief and confusion still tugged at her.
Slowly, Aliah nodded. “I could try some cappuccino. I should warn you I have so very little experience with this particular activity that I fear I’m a true novice.”
Brian gave her a wide grin. “At cappuccino? You’ll love it.” He winked to make it clear he understood full well that she wasn’t referencing any coffee drink. “You just have to let it cool at its own pace. Come on. If we sit in the corner we can see Blair pass us out front. You can tell how mad that man is by how jerky his arms get when he walks. I’m betting his arms are going to be jerking around like a martinet with strings that are too short. Come on, it’ll be fun.” Brian opened his door, but he stood there, waiting in silence as Aliah struggled with her own thoughts.
Well, if she couldn’t take care of Blair and his needs, perhaps she should look to her own. Rolling her chair backwards, Aliah headed for the lift. She had a date for cappuccino. It was time for her to perform a new kind of grand allegro across an entirely new stage.