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Here he was again, back in a place he detested.
That was the life of an FBI agent—work with local police forces and endure the cynical respect the members of the jurisdiction gave. Federal bureaucrats, as Jayden quickly discovered during his days on the initial Origami Killer case, were not exactly presented with a warm welcome. In essence, he understood the apprehension and mistrust of men that worked alongside him; they felt that he, was ironically, a thief, stealing their jobs with a deftness that was not always afforded in the police academy. In truth, Jayden could never be a field cop—he'd tried the training in his early days as a cadet, but he found the solace of a desk and cut-and-dry psychological profiling to be a much better fit. Jayden was not a small man—he was average in height and weight—but he was not particularly imposing and did not command fear on a pliant leash like Carter Blake did. He couldn't strike fear in criminals unless he had time to practice his ruthless ability with words and profiling to knock a suspect down a few pegs, which was virtually never in the fast-paced world of field investigation.
For his entire employment, Norman Jayden had always been a desk man.
But God forbid, because Carter Blake was not.
The evening had passed quickly in Jayden's hotel room downtown, many blocks to the south of the police station. He'd rested from his crowded, consternating flight from Washington, having a quiet drink and watching mindless television, an activity he rarely indulged in. The lights of the blinking, rapidly flashing screen had reflected in the rippling pool of his vodka, swirling colorlessly in the bottle he'd bought at the airport in Philadelphia after disembarking. Alcohol kept him from relapsing back into the triptocaine, the vials of which were currently sitting in the drawer of his nightstand. For reasons beyond him, Jayden couldn't bring himself to throw them away—he not only feared being found out by the wrong mole, but there was also a sort of tainted sentimental value hanging to them. They were ex-lovers within an arm's reach, their pleas to spiral back into days where the clock's hands turned far too little too strong for him to eliminate. By morning, once he'd dressed, the desire to touch the drug—just touch it, and nothing else—was so powerful that Jayden knew he had to leave.
And so, he was back here again, the Philadelphia Police Department, and certainly with his spirits still in the doldrums.
The open office floor of the building's interior was the same as it had been six months ago, its daunting rows of tables staffed with frazzled, exhausted cops typing furious emails and making aggravated phone calls and half-open file cabinets still as grumpy and uninviting as the day Jayden had first arrived. The shining tile floor was scuffed with the boot marks of field officers moving back and forth, not bothering to pick up their feet, caked with mud and the blood of supposedly hardened crooks. Jayden nearly bumped into a wide-eyed intern on his way through the massive double-doors; blonde, buxom and petite, perhaps only reaching Jayden's chest as she ran headfirst into him, the wobbling stack of papers she was precariously brandishing close to spilling out onto the ground. "Oh," she murmured hastily, her soft blue eyes staring at him apologetically around her pile.
"Nah, yer fine," Jayden excused. Swallowing audibly, the young woman maneuvered a path around him, her tall red heels clacking hurriedly away. Jayden, curious, turned to watch her go, confused by her quiet beauty and fearfulness. Well, I suppose I'd be frightened too, workin' in the same buildin' with all these assholes.
"Agent Jayden?" A sing-song voice chimed in behind his pivoted shoulders, drifting over his gray-suited body and into his ears. The familiar tone struck a fairly comfortable chord within him, and he found a smile long enough to throw a glance back at the aging, jovial woman that stood there. She was wearing a characteristic scarlet pantsuit with black ballet flats, slightly more practical in her choice of footwear, minimal makeup covering the dimples and forehead wrinkles beginning to etch themselves onto her, a sign of definitely changing times. Jayden felt himself internally collapse in relief—the sole friendly face in this station alleviated him like a tranquilizer. He clung to the sensation as long as he possibly could, knowing that the men he was about to come around with would irritate him once more.
"Charlene," Jayden said, not revealing the dancing sentiment in his voice. "It's good to see ya again. How are ya doin'?"
"I'm doing just fine," Charlene told him. "It's been a while. I heard about the reopening of the Origami Killer case, so I'm proud to say that we were actually expecting you today."
Inadvertently, Jayden smiled a very hollow, thin ghost of a smile. He recalled his first day on the original assignment, sitting outside Captain Perry's office in the scratchy guest chair and playing video games with the ARI as he waited for the man to emerge, having caught him off guard from the fact that Jayden's superiors never bothered to inform anybody of transfers. Indeed, that had been a stressful day for everyone involved—more so for Jayden than he cared to admit. His mind was abuzz with memories of the cold, rainy week that he was rooted to one spot, never moving forward or making progress until it was almost too late. And, as much as he wanted to dismiss the needless blame from his already skewered psyche—an endless ocean that even he could not delve into, despite his years of rigorous training in psychology—he knew it was Blake's fault. It was the lieutenant's blunder to place the culpability on Ethan Mars, an obviously innocent suspect that was doing nothing more than trying to claw his son out from the brambles in which he was caught. That much was evident to Jayden from the beginning, but Blake never got it.
Not for one moment.
When she noticed that Jayden was a bit caught up in the memory, Charlene continued, gesturing to the same chair to the right of the somber glass door that read "Capt. Perry" on its glossy surface in unembellished black letters. "Captain Perry is finishing a telephone conference with your superiors right now," she said. "If you'll take a seat, he should be out in a few minutes."
Snapping back to reality, Jayden scratched the back of his neck sheepishly, doing his best to conceal an embarrassed blush. "Sahrry," he apologized. "Yeah, I'll go sit down." Dipping his head respectfully to the secretary, Jayden pivoted on his heel and walked with the awkward grace of a drunk man to the guest chair.
He settled himself in quietly, remembering the scratchy surface of the cheap gray fabric against the back of his suit jacket, just as bleak and inhospitable as everything in this department. Crossing his arms over the short breadth of his slight chest, Jayden leaned back in the chair and watched with delayed interest as Charlene made her way back to her nearby desk and resumed her previous task, clacking away at the keyboard of the computer in front of her with the fake fingernails and the urgency of a hardened office rat. This time, Jayden did not have the ARI to entertain him—he'd had to quit that particular compulsion as part of his rehabilitation from the triptocaine, his protection of its usefulness in crime scene investigations going overlooked. His psychiatrist had reinforced the fact that Jayden was an addict with a habit, and that the alternate reality interface only magnified his need to escape the real world. He, said the therapist, would have to face the veracity of his situation with the understanding of an adult man and not a temperamental child who relied more on his imagination than responsibility.
I'm no kid, Jayden had said to him that day. I just don't know where to go from here.
Suddenly, like the night before on his way up to his hotel room, a voice manifested itself by his ear, intrusive and bothersome. "Well, well," uttered the mirthful, sadistic snicker. "If it isn't Princess Norman. Didn't think you'd be back here so soon."
The hot and rancid coffee-laced breath made Norman frown deeply and turn to meet the face of Lieutenant Carter Blake, a mere inches away and gladly encroaching on the personal space that wasn't really Jayden's to begin with. Their nearby proximity allowed Jayden to assess the slowly forming wrinkles on the middle-aged cop's skin, his jowls starting to hang like the meanest bulldog in town—and the fierce, grim orbs of eyes in his head glowed with the embers of such an animal. Shielding the sagging hide from view was the lieutenant's characteristically well-trimmed and proud beard, black as the hair on Blake's scalp and equally sprinkled with flecks of discolored silver. At the realization that Jayden had noticed him, Blake's nostrils flared slightly, the thick, stocky muscle beneath his blue dress shirt flexing. The FBI agent couldn't help but feel that every time the pair was together, he was the matador and Blake was the angry bull that saw everything in nothing but varying shades of red. He was certainly built like it in both personality and stature.
In a reflex that was rote by now, Jayden gave Blake a mocking, close-lipped smile. "Couldn't wait to see ya, Cartah," he drawled, smooth and gradual, baiting the man.
Blake rolled his eyes and snorted, pulling away from Jayden's countenance and standing up straight, one strapping hand on the back of the agent's chair. Even sitting down, Jayden fully understood his hulking form as he loomed far over him, analyzing him with the smear and quiet flame of old enemies reuniting. "I'm sure you couldn't, Norm," Blake said, his heavy Brooklyn accent just as prominent as Jayden's, giving way to his obvious New York heritage. Philadelphia was an evident downsize from that particular metro area, and Jayden had always been curious as to why Blake had moved to this Revolutionary War town when New York City was so much larger and had more to offer—but Jayden never asked, for he felt it wasn't his place to know. "It's been boring here without you and your profiling assholery to keep me challenged and amused."
"I wasn't here fer long, ya know," Jayden said, cocking a substantial brunette eyebrow. "Just a week."
"Yeah, maybe not," Blake agreed. "But it was a fun week, wasn't it?"
Jayden cringed at his use of the adjective. Prick. "Well, now the week's continuin'," he replied. "'Cause ya and yer 'fantastic police work' picked up the wrong guy. So the Bureau sent me back here to correct yer massive fuck-up and make sure you don't do enethin else stupid." Upon uttering "fantastic police work," Jayden raised both hands and pantomimed sardonic quotation marks, narrowing his eyes at Blake in the process, causing the lieutenant to hiss lowly and arch his back slightly, a provoked copperhead snake. Blake was well aware of Jayden's apprehension toward him regarding the unfair jailing and suicide of Ethan Mars—the death of a perfectly decent parent and husband that had, in his eyes, been completely in vain. Yet in spite of the mounting evidence in favor of Ethan's post-mortem innocence, Blake would not buckle—and Jayden knew already that he would be stuck with this obdurate asshole as a partner again for however long it took to pinpoint the real Origami Killer.
Yawning with feigned boredom, Blake popped his knuckles in a gesture that was blatantly nonchalant. "Whatever, I'm human," he defended, not really trying to protect his position. "People screw up. I happened to have picked the wrong guy, according to your brownnosing superiors and their hoity-toity bearings. My gut said Ethan Mars, and so did some evidence, so what the fuck else was I supposed to think, Norm?"
"That maybe," Jayden challenged, "ya think before ya jump the gun into the race."
With the baring of his off-white teeth, slightly sallow from years of smoking, Blake leaned in so closely to Jayden that the tip of his enormous nose grazed the agent's, his expression as murderous as the criminals he dealt with on the streets. Jayden felt his blood pressure spike, his heart rate pounding in his ears and the temples of his head, sensing the radiating waves of rage from his aggressor, feeling—even for a moment—that he'd gained an upper hand of dominance. "You listen here, Mr. Psychology," Blake rumbled, the fury coalescing with the erstwhile rivalry they once had, collecting at the base of his throat like a battle roar. "We'd been searching for the fuckin' killer two goddamn years before you showed your pretty face around here, and Ethan Mars was our only lead. Did you expect me to let something that valuable go? At the time, he was all we had, and you still pursued until the bitter end when that sorry bastard strangled himself with his own damn bedsheets and rotted away in that tiny cell, like he deserved. You and your idiotic masters think differently? Good, then, show me something that gives us a guy other than Mars, and maybe I'll suck your dick a different way, Norman."
Repelled by the rank stench of black coffee on Blake's breath, Jayden pulled back far enough to smirk. "Ya gahtta stahp usin' homosexual innuendos like that, Cartah," he said mockingly, "or else someone's gonna think yer gay."
Blake stood up straight again, looking pompous and satisfied as he puffed out his chest with the victorious attitude of a rooster. "Maybe," Blake agreed. "But I'm no faggot—at least not compared to you, queer."
Although he would have flinched in response to that insult from anybody else, Jayden found it surprisingly easy to resist the lieutenant's accusations. He was teleported back to the taxi and the Pakistani driver from the night before, the man's golden wedding ring glinting off the setting glare of the tired sun beneath the ominous cloud cover that hung above Philadelphia. A man with good woman is never overworked. Well, then, that cinched why Jayden was chained to his desk, married to his profiling career without much of a notion to make a difference. He'd never officially come out, but everyone seemed to know anyway—within several days of meeting any potential acquaintance, they were either repelled by the underlying understanding of his sexuality or hardened by the prospect of a gay friend. His parents were well aware before he was even old enough to distinguish a difference between sex and camaraderie, and he was approached by almost nothing but interested men in college. Norman Jayden never told a soul in his thirty-four years that he was a homosexual and hadn't even uttered the words aloud himself, but the identity wafted about him like a delectable scent—an aroma that so overpowered that he'd only engaged in a total of two sexual encounters with women before he swept any hopes of heterosexuality under the rug. The soft, plush curves of a lady did not arouse or excite him in any definition, and the shame of his insecurities defeated him so that he walked with an ambiance of denial surrounding him, a fog that closely resembled the death of the psyche that he could only dream he'd merely heard about. Upon entering the FBI academy, Jayden swore off sex completely, plunging himself into a pool of celibacy and further frustration that was only temporarily cured by the triptocaine, his career, and the ARI.
By the time he'd come to the Philadelphia Police Department to work on the Origami Killer case, he hadn't had a romantic relationship in five years. Nothing—even the occasional hurried masturbation sessions had fallen from his list of priorities back then. He was numb to his natural desires, and somehow, he wasn't bothered by that. Instead, he almost felt smug, liberated as compared to his male compatriots that feared not getting off or inevitably losing their virility to the age that threatened to devour them whole. Jayden did not go as far as believe he was superior, but until this particular assignment, he certainly was enlightened.
Until he met Carter Blake.
Right away, the unctuous sarcasm and insults rained down upon Jayden with the sting of poison-tipped spears. From their first meeting at the Jeremy Bowles crime scene onward, Blake made it a point to call him every name in the book—queer, nancy, faggot, and most often, princess. Each insinuation the sociopathic, bitter man cast upon him made the scars on Jayden's right hand—his old ARI hand—throb and quiver with the pressing need to beat the taller, more built man senseless, despite his physical limitations beside Blake. One excellently executed punch to the mouth would shut the mouthy man up, or at least momentarily throw him off, Jayden presumed. Yet he couldn't ever bring himself to do just that. He wasn't scared of Blake and his false bravado, a show put on by the arrogant cock to impress the hens in the coop, but perhaps he was wary of the repercussions. He knew Blake would do his best to dig up dirt on him, and though he'd eliminated his dependency on the triptocaine and the ARI, Norman Jayden had a different habit now.
And it was a habit that he knew would destroy the precarious foundation his entire career was built on.
Chack. The door to Captain Perry's office opened abruptly, causing the fuming agent and his stocky aggressor jump, too enrapt in their argument to pay attention to much else. The pair turned their heads to the stooping, tired form of the aged police chief. Perry seemed much older than Jayden remembered—six months ago, he appeared much healthier, with a glow on this currently jaundiced face and his bright grey hair much fuller than the thinning sheet it was now. The exhaustion of overwork and minimal rest was patent in the way that he shuffled and stared blankly ahead, barely noticing where he and Blake were to his immediate right. "Lieutenant Blake, Agent Jayden," the Captain said thinly, his voice a gossamer web of misery. "Getting along as usual, I see."
Blake cast a shifty, askance glance toward Jayden before straightening his position and nodding at his elder. "Captain Perry," he greeted. "I was just filling Agent Jayden in on what he'd missed in the six month's he's been gone."
"If filling in requires screaming at the top of your lungs, then I suppose you're doing a wonderful job, Lieutenant." Perry paused to cough, a grating, strident noise that sounded clogged and ill. Quickly, Charlene snapped her head up from her computer and leaned beneath her desk, emerging from the sea of paperwork with a plastic bottle of water. Standing up, she hurried to the captain and handed him the drink, watching with notable concern as he unscrewed the lid sloppily in the midst of his fit and took a few rapid swigs. Once his uncontrolled breathing was in line once more, Perry smiled with all the strength he could muster. "Bless you, Charlene. I'm a bit worse than usual today."
Jayden studied the violently sick captain with deep confusion. A bit more than usual? What was usual for him these days? He suspected an underlying condition—perhaps an open secret in the department. He didn't know, as he'd been absent for too long to pick up on office gossip quite yet. He stole a glimpse back at Blake, who was uneasily rocking back and forth on his heels with the guise of a reprimanded child. Perhaps he could ask the lieutenant if he knew anything—or would that be prying? Jayden was not much of a social butterfly, and often what was deemed polite and rude was easily mixed up to him.
Captain Perry turned his attention to Jayden, regarding him from the wisps of his chocolate brown hair to the tips of the brown loafers on his feet, gleaming from the spit-shining they'd received that morning. "Ah, Jayden, Jayden," he murmured, almost more of a manta to himself than a statement directed at the FBI agent. "Welcome back. It's been… interesting lately. Quieter than the week of Origami Killer case, that's for damn sure. I'm due for supervising a performance review meeting here soon, so I might as well show you around again. A few things have changed since the last time you were here."
"Captain Perry, if ya don't feel well, I can have Lieutenant Blake fill in," Jayden suggested. He heard—heard, as if he were an antagonized tiger in a cage—Blake make a distinct noise of disgust behind him.
Perry seemed troubled by that response. "Are you sure? I've weathered worse. Surely a walk around the station won't kill me."
There was a resounding sigh from Blake and a surge of triumph erupted in Jayden, pervading his veins like a jolt of electricity. "I'll take care of Jayden for you," the lieutenant promised with no dearth of reluctance. "His office hasn't been used for anything else since he left, so we can finish up there. You can rest before your meeting, Captain."
Rolling his eyes, Perry muttered a diatribe under his breath. "Fine, fine," he relented, shooing the two away from the entrance Charlene's enclave and into the milling crowd of plainclothes and suited police officers as they came and went from the building. "You two catch up on a few things—and maybe work your aggression out somehow. I'm tired of your clashes. It exhausts everyone else around here, too; not just ragged old me. The less you argue, the faster we can get things done. This case has to be solved some way or another." He turned to Jayden momentarily. "Jayden, your superiors ordered me to assign you to Blake as a partner once more. I'm not against that, as you two seem to cooperate well. You two are damn good policemen, and you'd better not let me down." Covertly, Perry's disparaging sneer slid to Blake, who appeared that he was choking back a frown by the way his Adam's apple bobbed nervously in his throat. "Again."
Pivoting on his heel, Perry headed back into the musty blackness of his office, the mysterious infirmity even emanating from the atmosphere of the hidden room inside. The door shut tentatively, as if he were worried of waking a sleeping child, and the knob clicked with the indication of locking. Clearly, the captain required some privacy, and Charlene noted this as she schlepped back to her desk, seemingly much more dejected than before. Blake sidled up to Jayden, his towering shadow draping over him as the shorter agent shrank back somewhat into the husky form beside him. Detecting the close movement, Blake shied away, shooting Jayden with a venomous bite of a look. The cupid-shaped mouth beneath his bristly beard curled downward in a distinctive scowl, and suddenly, Jayden felt much smaller and more fragile, the china shop to his bull. His vivid teal eyes watched Blake, searching the minute twitches on his expression that would divulge any directions of what to do next, but there was nothing but a silence that pierced Jayden more than the callousness of his partner.
"What's wrong with 'im?" Jayden inquired, motioning to the Captain's office in an attempt to fill the gap between them.
"Just to let you know," Blake said, ignoring him completely, "we haven't reused your office because we were afraid the next guy would catch queer. It's pretty contagious, you know." Jerking his head to the right, toward the path down the middle of the thicket of open cubicles, Blake took a step forward. "Come on, let's make some good time, princess."
He was already moving forward with Blake by then, but the throbbing of his battered right hand—and the small nick on his cheek—stood even taller than the lieutenant in his mentality, laughing scornfully at Jayden's vain attempts to, once again, fit in. Even as he walked, he understood that he could never relate to anyone else, as he was barely able to keep a handle on himself. Taking a deep breath as Blake pulled ahead of him, Jayden fluttered his eyes shut for nary a minute, letting the feeling of each thump viciously assail his veins and bitterly remind him of the violent new addiction that he needed to care for later. One obsession for another, just as he'd expected.
For a second, he let himself stop breathing.
Choke on that, princess.