Author's disclaimer: Nothing's mine but the words.
Author's notes: WARNING: ADULT THEMES. CAVEAT LECTOR. Many, many people have helped me with this story, which has been a difficult one. Eternal devotion to Destina and Anna S. for superb beta work well above and beyond the call of duty. Thanks also to Livia, Owlet, Sigrid and Julad for constructive reads and useful comments. Feedback welcome.
Jim Ellison stood on the top step outside of Hargrove Hall and surveyed the lawns methodically, slowly turning his head. At times like these, he was grateful for Blair's distinctively weird appearance — he could easily scan the myriad college kids dotting the lawns, filtering for plaid flannel, long curly hair, the glint of light off a hooped earring. It was possible, of course, to find any number of students with one or even two of the above, but the presence of all three narrowed the field significantly, and tended to get you Sandburg or at the very least a serious Sandburg-wannabe.
Flannel, hair, earrings — check. Yeah, that looked to be him, sitting on an isolated park bench two lawns away, past the rose bushes. Jim frowned and narrowed his eyesight even as he began to slowly descend the steps — yeah, that was Sandburg all right, dressed in a red flannel shirt, black jeans and heavy black boots, two silver hoops in his left ear. Sitting there with Nina. That figured. Everything was Nina-this, Nina-that with Blair, nowadays.
He widened his field of vision as he crossed the first lawn, watching carefully for frisbees and flying soccer balls and students sprawled out on the grass underfoot. Nina, he thought, could take a flying leap today, because the Stonyground Securities Systems case was finally, officially closed, and he felt like he'd been working that case for at least half of his natural life. Now was the time for all good men to have a large celebratory lunch, and Blair was going with him, because Blair was probably the only other person in the entire world who knew what a total bitch this case had been. Blair had, after all, spent over a week helping him sort out and analyze fifteen years of old employee files, and then they had to do all the fucking interviews. And now it was Miller Time, and Blair was —
Jim stopped short. Blair was looking straight through him.
Through him — not at him. Blair never looked through him. Blair always looked at him — in friendly greeting, with scientific curiosity, sometimes even with mild irritation.
But Blair had lifted up his head at Jim's approach — instinctively, almost animalistically. Had blinked at him — once, twice, slowly, vacantly. Was looking through him, not at him — and now Blair was turning his face away, turning his attention back to the girl sitting next to him, tightening his grip on her hand.
Jim stopped and stared at the isolated, weather-beaten bench, at its two occupants, and realized that if he'd really looked at Blair, rather than just having spotted him, he would have already known that something was wrong. The body language told it all, really — Blair and Nina were holding hands tightly, with a sort of desperation, and Nina's thin shoulders were shaking slightly. Jim zeroed in on their intertwined hands and saw that Blair's were white-knuckled —
Jim blinked and turned away, not wanting to be caught zoning, not wanting to be caught staring. Not when Blair so clearly had other things on his mind.
But he threw out his hearing as he began the long, slow walk back to the truck, parked in the lot adjacent to Blair's office. To his surprise, Blair's voice was surprisingly strong, betraying nothing of the white-knuckled terror he'd glimpsed a second earlier.
"You just tell me what you need. We'll do whatever you want. Whatever you need, I'll get it."
Nina inhaled wetly and then spoke in a voice between anger and tears. "I don't know what I want. That's the problem. I don't know what to do — I don't know what I should do..."
Blair's next words floored him. "If you want to get married, I will."
"Oh, geez, Blair...."
"I mean, I'm glad to. I mean, I want to. If you want to. If that's what you want."
Nina sounded agonized. "I don't want — I didn't want — God, why does it have to be like this?"
"If you want something else, that's okay too. It's whatever you want. You're in total control here — "
"I don't fucking feel like I'm in control!"
"You are. I swear. I'll do anything you want me to. Get you anything you need. Money." Blair's voice dropped to a hoarse whisper. "Doctors. State agencies — I know how to work the agencies, I've been through most of them at one time or another — "
"I just don't know! I'm so confused... I should know what to do but I don't."
"Anything at all, Nina," Blair said doggedly. "Anything at all," and Jim instantly blotted out his hearing, roughly twisting his dial down to zero and walking the remaining steps to the truck in a bright, cold silence. He looked down at his hand, which was clutching the truck's shiny chrome door handle, but he couldn't for the life of him remember how the mechanism worked.
He concentrated for a second and then, of course, it came back to him. Thumb there, press there — and he got into the cab of the truck and stared out over the sea of parked cars. He couldn't remember, afterwards, how long he'd sat there, and he couldn't remember what he'd thought about. But at some point he'd come back to himself and looked down at his hands, which were tightly gripping the wheel in front of him, and were as white-knuckled as Sandburg's.
He wasn't surprised that Blair didn't come to the station that afternoon, but he was surprised when Blair didn't come home at all. He'd ordered a pizza at some point in the evening, unable to face cooking, and had diligently eaten two slices, chewing mechanically as he watched the evening news. The rest of pizza sat there, and sat there, and sat there, growing cold, grease congealing on the top. Eventually he threw it away and turned off the lights, grimly sitting vigil on the sofa.
And again, he couldn't remember how long he'd sat there, or when he'd fallen asleep; he certainly couldn't remember exactly what he'd been thinking, if he'd been thinking at all. But when he opened his eyes it was morning, and light was streaming brightly through the French windows. He heard keys jingling in the hallway and scrubbed at his face. It felt like a small furry animal had slept in his mouth all night.
The loft door opened and Blair came in, still wearing his clothes from yesterday. Blair looked tired, looked distracted — but, thankfully, Blair looked at him and not through him. "Hey, Jim," Blair said, shutting and locking the door behind him. "You're up early."
"More like late." Jim slowly rotated a stiff shoulder. "I fell asleep on the sofa."
"Oh." Blair wandered into the kitchen and pulled the carafe out of the coffeemaker. Two inches of yesterday's cold, overcooked coffee swirled at the bottom, and Blair carelessly poured it into a mug and took a swig.
Jim frowned. "That's disgusting."
"It's not bad," Blair disagreed.
Jim pushed himself to his feet and moved toward the kitchen. "I'll make fresh."
Blair waved him away with a hand. "Nah, don't bother. This'll do me. I just need a quick caffeine injection — I don't much care what it tastes like."
Jim stopped, leaned against the counter, and looked Blair up and down. "Look, are you all right?"
Blair shrugged and looked away. "Yeah. No. I guess. I don't know, really." He swigged the rest of the cold coffee and put the mug down.
"Is Nina okay?" Jim asked quietly.
Blair shrugged again, not meeting his eyes. "Depends on what you mean by okay. She's pregnant. I don't know if that counts," he added flatly.
Jim nodded slowly, his eyes locked on Blair's face; Blair couldn't seem to face him. He found this view of Blair — shocking. Blair looked old; there were lines on his face and defeat in his posture. "So what does that mean, exactly?"
Blair stared at the far wall. "Hell if I know. Wait and see, I guess." He blew out a long breath and said, "I'm gonna go take a shower, okay?"
Jim stopped Blair with a hand on his arm. "Can I — help in any way?"
Blair shot him a quick glance before shaking his head. "Nah, but thanks, man." He patted Jim's side affectionately, if a bit absently. "I think this is very much my problem, you know?"
Blair tried to pull away but Jim tightened his grip. "Just — if you need money or something — "
"Thanks," Blair said, gracing him with a longer look this time. "I appreciate the offer. Really. But I'll manage. Right now there's nothing to do but wait, anyway. I'm waiting on Nina, you know?"
Jim felt like he couldn't tear his eyes from Blair's face — Blair's tired, tense face. Dark blue eyes. The brush of eyebrows and dark, thick eyelashes. Pale dry lips. Waiting on Nina. "Yeah." He felt Blair tugging his arm away again, and he had to force his fingers to relax, to open, to let go. "Gotcha."
Blair flashed him a quick, tight smile and headed for the bathroom. Jim leaned against the counter and watched him go, watched the door shut. He listened as the shower came on, and then shook himself out of his daze and made a pot of fresh coffee and some toast.
He looked up as Blair came out of the bathroom with a towel around his waist, and another slung around his neck. "I'm done." Blair paused at the door to his room and rubbed the side of his face with the towel. "Left you some hot water, too," he added, and flashed Jim another forced smile.
"Thanks." Jim jerked his head toward the coffeepot. "Coffee's up if you want it."
Jim tried to keep his voice casual. "Are you, uh, gonna come to the station today?"
"Uh, probably not, no," Blair confessed. "I've got a lot of things to work out today, you know?"
"Right, yeah." He turned and took the toast out of the toaster. "So, um....where can I reach you? You know, if I need you?"
"In my office. I'll be in my office today." Blair shut his door.
Jim stared at his computer screen, which had again devolved into black spots and white space. He blinked, and frowned, trying to focus on the words.
"...informant provided a description of the suspect..." Informant. Was that the word he wanted? Was it spelled right? It looked wrong somehow.
He closed his eyes, rubbed them roughly. This was hopeless, this was pointless, this was hell. He couldn't concentrate, he couldn't think — he'd been staring at the same sentence for how long? Too long.
He picked up the phone, and speed-dialed Blair's office.
'It's me. Let me take you to lunch. My treat."
"I, uh..." Jim listened intently to the crackling silence, then heard Blair blow out a breath. "Yeah, okay. That'd be great."
"I'll pick you up at your office in...twenty minutes?"
"Twenty minutes is fine," Blair said and hung up.
Jim carefully saved his report and logged off the server before grabbing his jacket and heading for the elevator.
It felt like a repeat of the day before — the same kids seemed to be out throwing the same frisbees under the same blue sky. He ascended the stone steps outside Hargrove Hall and turned, overcome by deja vu, to survey the lawns again before heading into the building's cool, dim interior. He climbed the flight of stairs leading to the Anthropology department, and then pushed through the double swing doors at the top.
Sandburg's office door was open, and the lights were on, but he wasn't there. His jacket was draped over the back of his chair, though, and his knapsack was on the floor, so he was still here, he was still around. Jim glanced down at the broadsheet newspaper spread open on Blair's desk — huh, so maybe Blair hadn't had much of a mind for work either. Not if he was sitting around reading the paper. And then he frowned, seeing the blue-magic-marker circles.
WANTED DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, CASCADE JEWISH COMMUNITY CENTER Candidate should have experience in (1) planning, supervising, and implementing a full-scale development program; (2) working with and motivating a large volunteer corps; (3) developing grant proposals. We offer flexible hours, competitive salary, and a great community! Fax resume.
WANTED DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR, CASCADE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS CMFA seeks an individual to plan and implement all components of our current development program, annual fund, corporate and foundation grants, and special events along with helping conclude the $2,000,000 capital campaign. Successful candidate will have proven record of setting priorities and attaining goals in a fast changing environment. Job requirements: MA, knowledge of arts, signif. fundraising experience, excellent grant writing and computer skills. Please e-mail your cover letter with salary requirements.
WANTED ADVOCATE FOR CASCADE BATTERED WOMEN'S SHELTER This position will require you to prepare case review forms, provide appropriate referrals to community services and provide information on the use of these services. Qualifications: Bachelors Degree related field, or (3) three years or experience in counseling or advocacy work. Familiarity with community resources and agencies, domestic violence issues. Fluency in Spanish preferred but not required. Ability to work with culturally diverse populations a must. Competitive salary with excellent benefits package including vacation, personal, sick, holidays, dental, health and retirement.
Jesus Christ. He reached out and put a hand out on Blair's desk to steady himself. The fucking world was tilting on its axis.
"Hey there." He looked up and saw Blair standing in the doorway. "You're early."
Jim looked down at the newspaper again, then back up at Blair. "Are you, uh, looking for a job?"
Blair came over and grabbed his jacket from the chair back, barely glancing down at the newspaper. "Never hurts to get a sense of what you're worth in the open market."
"Couldn't..." Jim found himself struggling for words; he couldn't seem to articulate himself. "I mean, couldn't you stay in school? Wouldn't you? I mean, you wouldn't have to change your whole life over this, would you?"
Blair shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe. Maybe not. Not sure what the point would be, though. Of staying in school."
Tilting. Tilting. Nothing was making sense — the few certainties he'd relied upon were suddenly shifting, slippery. "Your doctorate?" he managed finally. "The dissertation?"
Blair laughed and shot him a look of such affectionate warmth that he was taken aback. "Oh, Jim." Blair was smiling helplessly. "Oh, geez, man. I — " Blair stopped himself, suddenly, and then crossed back to his office door, peered out into the hallway, then closed and locked it. He then turned around. "I suppose, you know, I should have said something before now."
Jim frowned, unable to see the joke, unable to see anything funny here.
"Just that — I mean, there's no way, man," Blair said, and then laughed again. He looked young again when he was laughing, and that somehow made Jim feel better. "With the dissertation," Blair explained. "The thing's fucking hopeless. It would have come to this anyway, sooner or later — it will come to this, whatever happens now — "
"Come to what?" Jim asked tightly.
"Me and the non-academic job market," Blair said, amused and guilty at the same time, like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "I mean, I can't possibly publish. My dissertation. You'd end up in a lab, or I'd end up in a rubber room. Or maybe both in some worst-case-scenario. I'm gonna end up doing something like that eventually," he added, nodding his head at the newspaper. "Grant writing. Public advocacy." He grinned mischievously. "I mean, if I can get people to give me money to research Sentinels, I can certainly get them to give me money for museums and schools — "
Jim stared at him, slack-jawed. "What are you saying? I don't understand what you're saying..."
"Jim, I'm saying that — " Blair stopped, startled, as there was a thump at the door, like someone was kicking it. Blair recovered quickly and raised a warning finger before turning and opening his office door.
Nina was standing in the hallway, carrying a large box. "Why'd you lock your door?" she asked, pushing past him, and then she saw Jim. Jim frowned and instantly stepped forward to take the box from her — fuck, it was heavy. What the hell was she doing, carrying heavy boxes in her — cause she was — she had Blair's —
"Oh, thanks Jim," Nina said, reaching up to brush a strand of light brown hair out of her eyes. "Those are your photocopies, Blair — they came in from the print shop this morning."
"Oh, cool. Thanks."
"Don't mention it."
Blair took a step closer to her, looking suddenly anxious — the worry lines were back on his face. "Listen, I uh, thought I might go out and grab a bite to eat with Jim. That's okay, right?"
"Sure. Of course. I get off work in a half-hour anyway — I'll probably go over to the library and read for a couple of hours."
Blair lifted a hand and gently touched the tiny bright plastic barrette that pinned Nina's fine hair up on one side. "You'll be in the usual place?" She nodded. "I'll come find you there later, okay?"
"Okay," Nina said, and then she tilted her head up and kissed Blair briefly, sweetly. "It was nice seeing you, Jim," she said, turning to flash a smile at him, and before he could really think about it, he had extended his hand to her.
Nina looked momentarily surprised by the formality of the gesture, but she put her hand in his. God, her hand was tiny — tiny and soft and pale — and he closed his own and around it gently, feeling the blood pumping through it, feeling her heartbeat shoot up his arm. She stared up at him, and her blue eyes went wide, wide, wider... Blue eyes. Nina had blue eyes. So that meant — There was no question that — There was one thing that was certain, anyway.
"Jim?" Blair's voice, and his head instinctively jerked toward it. "Jim, we ought to go."
Nina quickly pulled her hand back, and he wanted to apologize but he didn't know how. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be weird, but I just needed to touch you. Because you're — Because you've got — - Because, see, Blair is —
He said nothing, and Nina flashed him a nervous smile and turned away.
"I'll...uh...catch you later, Blair." Nina passed through the door and headed back toward the department lounge, and Jim took a single, unthinking step after her before forcing himself to stop. He couldn't very well stalk the woman — even if — even if a protector should — although Blair was —
"So, where you gonna take me?" Blair reached up with one hand and brushed the lights off.
Jim turned to him, forced himself to focus. Flannel. Hair. Earrings. "Where do you want to go?"
"I don't know." They stepped into the hallway and Blair pulled the door shut behind them. "I'm pretty hungry, actually — I haven't had much of an appetite, lately, but now it's starting to come back with a vengeance."
"Well, what are you in the mood for?"
Blair stopped, suddenly, a few paces down the hallway. "Steak," he said decisively, and then looked so shocked at himself that Jim laughed. "That's what I want — I think that's what I really want. Like a — just a giant — " Blair's hands were up and tracing a shape in the air; Blair wanted a whole half a cow, apparently. " — a big, fat, juicy — "
"Steak," Jim finished.
"I could go for a steak."
Blair launched back into motion. "So let's go."
Jim took them to Simon's favorite steak place — a darkly lit, wood-paneled restaurant across the street from the Federal Courthouse. The place was sparsely populated — a couple of suits drinking martinis over here, a canoodling couple over there — even though it was still lunchtime. A quick glance at the menu told him why — the joint wasn't cheap.
A glance at Blair's frowning face told him that Blair had reached the same conclusion. "Maybe we should go somewhere else."
"Shut up and order, Sandburg."
Jim collected his thoughts as they each ordered medium-rare steaks, baked potatoes, and beer. He was trying to marshal his words, form intelligible questions. He couldn't be caught speechless — not now, when things were moving so fast, changing so quickly.
"Listen, I really appreciate this." Blair put down his giant red-leatherette menu with a thwap. "I think I really needed it. A little iron, a little protein, do me wonders. " He picked up his menu curiously and thumbed through it. "Does it come with a vegetable?"
"I need to know about the dissertation," Jim said quietly.
Blair's fingers tightened on the menu. "Cause I could use a vegetable," he said, finally. "Spinach, maybe. Or broccoli. Something green."
"Order some spinach and I'll split it with you."
Blair nodded and put the menu down again. "Okay."
"So?" Jim pressed.
Blair sighed and glanced around the restaurant, then leaned forward across the table and dropped his voice. "Listen, it's not a big deal, the dissertation thing. I didn't mean to drop that on you or anything. I mean, I'm writing it. I'm still writing it. For me mainly. And also for you." Jim frowned and Blair rushed on: "Look, basically, I was just trying to ride this puppy out. Squeeze it for all it was worth. Keep the ride-along status, do the tests, get the info, buy the time. The more time I've got, the more research I can do, the better off you'll be when I'm done. Plus, you know — I like it. The way things are right now. So I've been stringing Rainier along — get 'em to give me as much cash as possible before the shit hits the fan."
Jim felt like he was struggling to comprehend this. "So — you don't think you'll finish?"
"I doubt it most sincerely."
"Won't you have to pay the money back?" Jim asked.
Blair cracked a smile. "Hell, no. Students wipe out all the time. They get ABD and then they go to the dissertation boneyard. That's what we call it — 'so and so went to the boneyard.' We all know what it means. It's like a long, slow death of the passion — they thought they had a dissertation, they thought they could do it, but then they find out that they couldn't. It's like they come out of a coma five years later and find that they've only written forty-five pages. Me, I've got closer to three hundred, but nobody's gonna know that. They'll just think I went to the boneyard like everyone else."
"But — why don't you just write about something else?"
"I don't want to write about anything else."
"But if you can't publish — "
Blair shook his head. "Look, it doesn't work that way. You don't really pick your dissertation subject. It sort of picks you. You can't just pick a topic abstractly — frankly speaking, its just too fucking hard. It's like, you know — " Blair stopped talking suddenly, face flushing a deep red. "I was, um, gonna say...." Blair reached for his water glass, took a long swig. "Never mind. Just trust me — it's too fucking hard."
Jim stared at Blair's overheated face and the words suddenly came him. Like having a baby. That was what Blair had been about to say. He was sure of it.
"You have to really want it," Jim murmured.
Blair nodded. "Yeah. Exactly."
"Too much work if you don't."
"Much too much," Blair agreed. "Lousy pay, long hours, sleepless nights — if you don't want it, there's just no fucking point."
Jim had to ask the question. "So, do you want it?"
Blair just stared at him. "Of course I want it. Whaddya think I've been doing this for? Even if it's just for me. You. Us. It's still been worth it — every second."
"But now you're gonna stop? Find a job?"
Blair frowned, as if he'd momentarily forgotten that that's what he'd been planning. "Well, yeah," he said with a heavy sigh. "All good things come to an end. I mean, like I said before, it's gonna happen sooner or later. That's not about Nina. That's inevitable, really. It's just — whatever — the timetable. I've been showing Rainier bits and pieces, just enough to get my grants renewed. Figured I had at least another year of money coming — but it doesn't really matter. This year, next year..." He waved his hand. "It's not a big difference in the larger scheme of things."
"Has she made a decision?" Jim asked.
Blair made a face. "Nah. It's all still on the table — the full array of options. It's funny," he added, reflectively. "I don't know her well enough to know what she's gonna do. And that's pretty weird in itself, you know? This whole thing just happened so fast..."
"I think you're doing the right thing," Jim said quickly.
Blair looked surprised. "You do?"
"Yeah. I do." Jim clenched his hand into a fist and pounded it against the table softly. "And I think you should tell her. What you're planning. About the job and all that. So that she knows that you'll — that you'll be able to — I mean, it might influence her decision."
Blair's forehead was deeply creased, now. "Jim, I don't know if I should try to influence her decision. In any way. It's gotta be her call — "
"It's your call, too."
"It's her body!"
"It's your child!" Jim hissed, surprised by his own vehemence.
Blair's face was contorted with tension. "Don't you think I know that?! God damn it, Jim — don't you think I — "
Jim jerked his head toward the waiter, who was approaching with a large metal tray. Blair bit off his words, snapping his mouth shut, and they both leaned back in their chairs.
The waiter put the tray down on the small rack set up next to the table. "Two sirloin steaks," he said, putting the dishes down in front of them, "medium rare. Two Sam Adams. Can I get you anything else?"
Jim glanced at Blair, but Blair was looking resolutely away. "We'll have a side order of spinach," he said, and the waiter nodded and noted it down on his pad before gliding away. Jim bit his lip, and then reached out again and nudged Blair's hand. "Eat your steak."
"Okay," Blair said quietly, and picked up his knife and fork.
Jim carefully cut his own steak up into little pieces before venturing to speak. "I'm just trying to be...supportive, okay?"
Blair didn't look up from his food. "Okay. Thanks."
"And...I think you're doing the right thing. The responsible thing." Blair didn't react to that nugget of praise. "But you know that already. I mean, you of all people — "
Blair's head jerked up. "Yeah, Jim. Me of all people."
Jim's face grew hot. "I didn't mean — I just meant that — well, that you..."
Blair stared at him for a moment, his expression strangely blank. "Yeah, I hear that," Blair said slowly, and Jim cringed at the expression. He'd already said too much. "And you're right. Me of all people. I do understand the situation, okay? I understand totally." And suddenly Blair's face and voice grew hard. "And you don't. So why don't you just let me handle it, okay? Being that I'm the local expert on unplanned pregnancy."
"I — " Jim felt sick; he felt his own fuck-up viscerally, like a toxin in his system. "Okay."
Blair stabbed his fork into a piece of steak. "Okay, then."
Jim looked down at his plate and his stomach turned — suddenly, it was too, too apparent that he had a dish of slaughtered flesh in front of him. He hurriedly dialed down his sense of smell, and averted his eyes. "I'm sorry."
"I'm sorry, too," Blair said quietly. "I know you're trying to help. And I appreciate it. Really."
Trying to help. Was that what was he was trying to do?
He dropped Blair at the library on his way back to the station. To his supreme annoyance, the paperwork on his desk had mysteriously, magically multiplied in his absence. He shot nasty glances at Henri and Rafe, but Henri was on the telephone and Rafe was typing in quick, short machine-fire bursts, and neither of them quaked in anything like appropriate fear.
He threw himself into his desk chair. He supposed that he'd better get used to doing his own fucking paperwork from now on, what with Sandburg dropping out of school and quitting his observership and becoming a family man.
A few angry keystrokes brought up his last document. He stared at it for a few moments before beginning to type slowly.
He looked up; Simon Banks was standing in the door of his office.
"Can I see you?"
Jim gritted his teeth. "Coming, sir." He closed the file and followed Simon inside.
Simon had already settled himself back in his desk chair, and now he motioned for Jim to shut the door. "I wanted to tell you — hey, where's the kid?"
"He's not here," Jim answered tersely.
Simon's eyes narrowed. "Yes, I can see that. I have amazing powers of observation. Where is he?"
Jim chewed his lip, shrugged. "He's, uh — he's got some problems right now, Simon. I don't think he's gonna be in for a while."
Simon frowned. "Why? What's up?"
"I'd rather not say, sir. It's his own private business."
"I...oh. Well." Simon meditatively pulled a cigar out of his breast pocket, face creased into a frown.
"You wanted to tell me something?" Jim pressed.
Simon ignored the question. "When's Sandburg going to be back?"
"I don't know," Jim snapped. "Maybe never. You were saying?"
The frown on Simon's face deepened. "What do you mean — never?"
"I mean — could be never, Simon. I think he's looking for a job that pays a little more cash than we do."
Simon made a wry face. "More than nothing, you mean?"
Jim nodded. "Yeah, exactly."
"So it's money, is it?" Simon nodded to himself. "Is the kid in trouble?"
Not him — that, at least, was a biological impossibility. "Sort of," Jim hedged.
Simon's eyes flashed angrily. "He's not gambling again, is he?"
"Uh, no. Not — exactly."
Simon snorted. "Well, thank god for small miracles. I suppose it can't be helped." He sighed and leaned back in his chair. "Katherine Murray called — she wants the paperwork on Stonyground. You almost done?"
In his mind's eye he could see the blinking cursor, the few short lines. "Nearly, yeah," he lied.
"She'll want the case file too — yes, all of it," Simon added in a tone of finality, before Jim could even open his mouth to protest. "All the interviews, copies of all the records, everything. There's a chance that she might be able to get in early because of a surprise flip-flop in the court schedule, so she needs all the support we can give her, all right?"
"Right, okay," Jim said, and glanced quickly down at his watch. It was only 4:00: if he got on the stick, he should still have enough time to pull it together.
"Get help if you need it," Simon directed. "Get Rhonda and Marlene to do the copying."
"Right, okay," Jim repeated. "I'd, uh, better get to it."
"You do that," Simon said and waved him away.
Jim went back to his desk and started making a pile of things to be copied. When he'd amassed all he could amass, he took it to Rhonda — who glanced pointedly at her watch and shot him a look that asked if he really wanted to ruin her entire evening.
Jim smiled thinly. "Simon's orders," he said, and she sighed and relented.
He went back to his computer, re-opened the Stonyground file, and groaned. Hell, he'd done even less than he thought he had — just a few measly lines. He tried to concentrate, tried to muster orderly thought and the language to express it. God, he wished that Sandburg were here — Sandburg could do this sort of thing so dammed easily.
Except Sandburg wasn't ever gonna do this sort of thing again. Sandburg was going to quit school and get a job. Sandburg was going to spend his life doing paperwork for someone else — he was going to write grants, raise money for battered women or Jewish refugees or museums or something like that. Sandburg was going to work in the service of a good cause — who cared, after all, whether Stonyground Security Systems was a front or not? Why should the battered women or the Jews or the artists give a flying fuck? Why should Sandburg, for that matter?
Amazing how quickly your priorities could change. Nine months from now Sandburg was gonna be a father. Jim could picture it, too — Sandburg was gonna be one of those new-agey, touchy feely dads who carried his kid around strapped to his chest. Sandburg would stuff a diaper and a couple of rattles into his knapsack and bingo! — they'd be ready to go. Sandburg'd have this tiny thing with dark hair strapped to him all the time, and he'd talk to it like it was actually a person.
"C'mon, kid, we're going to the supermarket." "Hey, kid, look — there's a bird, see the bird?" Like the kid could see anything. The kid would be staring all glassy-eyed out into space, or would be half-asleep most of the time. But Sandburg would talk, talk, talk to it anyway, because that's just what Sandburg did. "Hey kid — look at the roses! They're yellow roses. Aren't they pretty? Can you see the roses? Can you smell the roses?" He knew exactly what Sandburg would sound like — he could hear the soft, familiar voice, the low rumble of love, reassurance, instruction. He could see it, could see the both of them with their blue eyes, bound together —
"Jim? Jim!" Jim turned toward the voice and looked up at Simon Banks. The bullpen felt oddly still, oddly empty — and so it was. Jim turned his head slowly from side to side and noticed that the windows reflected only a glossy black, that pretty much everyone from the day shift had left the sixth floor. Down the hall the guys on the night shift were making coffee and reheating yesterday's Chinese food, and old Jasper was slowly shuffling toward the bullpen, pushing his wide broom.
Simon Banks was standing by Jim's desk, carrying his overcoat and briefcase, looking concerned. "Jim, are you okay?"
"Yeah." His voice was unusually hoarse — he blinked rapidly and felt a surprising splash of wetness on his cheek.
"Jim, what the hell's going on?" Simon said quietly, as if somebody was there. But nobody was there.
"Nothing." Jim trained his eyes on the screen in front of him, on those same few measly lines he'd been staring at all day. Informant provided a description of the suspect... "I'm not done yet. I'm sorry."
Simon slowly moved behind him and peered over his shoulder. "What is that? Your report?"
"Yeah," Jim mumbled. "I can't seem to finish it."
"The A.D.A.'s waiting on it."
"I know. I'm sorry."
They listened to the nighttime sounds of the sixth floor for a few moments — a phone rang down the hall, stopped as it was redirected to the PD's central operator.
"Jim, this problem Sandburg has...." Simon ventured, and then he trailed off, apparently unsure about how to continue. "Is this your problem, too?"
Yes. No. It wasn't his problem — but yes, it was, he felt that it was, deep inside, he felt it: it was. A problem. His problem. But it wasn't his problem — this was between Sandburg and Nina. There was no place for him in this problem. That was part of the problem.
"I'm fine," Jim said, not answering the question.
"I see," Simon said. "Look — maybe you should go home, Jim. Work on this tomorrow."
Jim's head jerked up and he stared at Simon. That was unusual — that was damn near unprecedented. The ADA was waiting on his report, and normally Simon would have just smirked at him and said, "Well, you have a nice night, Jim."
Jim opened his mouth to protest that he was okay, that he could manage, that there was no problem here. And then he shut it again, because he obviously wasn't, he obviously couldn't, there obviously was — because those few lines of text on the computer in front of him were their own sort of evidence, and Simon Banks was a detective, when all was said and done.
"What about the ADA?" Jim asked finally.
"We'll send her what we have," Simon said, shifting his overcoat to his other arm. "Tell her that she'll get the rest of it as soon as it's done. We're not supermen, here — she's gotta deal with the human quotient. Cops are people — they have lives, issues, feelings. Problems," Simon added and looked away.
"Simon, I...thanks." Jim rose from his chair, his face burning, feeling deeply humiliated. He hated failing at his job, and the pain he felt at failure was usually its own deterrent. Every so often, though, failure crept up on him, blackly, stealthily, and flexed its monstrous sinewy muscles. The last time it had happened, his senses had gone haywire, and he'd contemplated medical leave, even resignation.
He'd had a problem, and Sandburg had fixed it.
But Sandburg couldn't fix this, because this was Sandburg's problem. His problem was secondary, a side effect, and he was gonna have to fix it on his own this time.
"I'll, um...get some sleep." Jim raised a hand and rubbed blearily at his left eye. "Get my brain in gear. I'll get this done tomorrow, Simon, I promise."
Simon nodded confidently and flashed him a sympathetic smile on his way out the door.
Jim shut off his computer, picked up his jacket, and went home.
Sandburg didn't come home.
Jim put up a pot of water, waited for it to boil, threw in a half a pound of spaghetti. He told himself that he wasn't surprised, really — Blair was with Nina, Blair's place was with Nina now. They'd have a lot of things to work out, there were practicalities to consider. They'd have to focus on the practicalities.
Jim stirred the spaghetti, tested it. It was done, and he poured the pot into the metal colander in the sink. Steam rose up in a cloud, warming and engulfing his face, and he turned his head away.
They'd have a million things to attend to, Jim thought, dumping some of the steaming spaghetti into a large bowl and tossing in a half-stick of butter. Where they were gonna live. Where Blair was gonna work. He fumbled in the fridge for a cylinder of parmesan cheese, and shook it on top of the spaghetti and butter until the dish looked like it had been sitting out in a blizzard. Blair would hate this meal, Blair would say that it was a bowl of instant death — but Blair was with Nina, now, and he could have all the fucking butter and cheese he wanted. Blair's attention would be on the health of his other family, of his new family. Blair would have to be concentrating on all the complicated details of turning one person into two, two people into three.
He sat down at the kitchen table, twirled his fork in his spaghetti. He'd handle this. He'd cope. A good night of sleep and he'd put his brain back in gear. Because this wasn't his problem, really. Not his problem at all. Just shock — that was it, this feeling he was having was just the shock of change. Things changed, and change was difficult. Sandburg always said that he didn't particularly take change well. So here he was, not taking change well; nothing new there. But when you got used to change, it wasn't change anymore. It became banal, and easy, and okay.
He ate his spaghetti, staring at the wood grain of the table in front of him. He'd survived Sandburg's coming, he would survive Sandburg's going. Sandburg was doing the right thing, the only possible thing — and in his mind's eye he saw Blair, standing there, and there was something forming and growing in his chest. Blair's flannel shirt was heaving, bubbling, rippling — and the lump grew larger and larger until suddenly it was baby-sized and he could see the dark head resting limply at the base of Sandburg's throat, could see the baby strapped there in its soft flannel sleeper. Saw Sandburg raise a careful hand to cradle the baby's head, tilt his head downward and whisper: "Hear my voice. Feel my breath. Hear my heartbeat." Jim opened his ears and listened but then shuddered, stunned by the syncopated sounds — two Blairs, two hearts beating, bum-BUM-ba-BA! bum-BUM-ba-BA! bum-BUM-ba-BA! like the sound of a rapidly chugging train. He felt a wave of nausea as the smell of butter overwhelmed him, and he rose from the table, stumbled for the fridge to get a beer. Still, the train chased him — Bum-BUM-ba-BA! — and he had to grit his teeth and concentrate on getting the cap off, getting the amber bottle to his lips.
The beer was cool and went down easy, the smell of it chasing the butter-smell from his nostrils, the taste of it washing away the salty taste of the cheese. Too much butter, too much cheese — he should have listened to Sandburg, he should remember to listen to the virtual-Sandburg when the real Sandburg was gone.
He bypassed the kitchen table and the leftover pasta on his way to the sofa — he could let it sit there, now. He didn't have to worry about setting a good example anymore. He sat down, heavily, and reached for the remote control; he switched on the television and switched off the lights. The evening news flickered in the darkness hypnotically, pictures flashing across his retina. A woman reporter was standing in the rain, wearing a bright yellow slicker, talking into a microphone. "Hey, kid," Sandburg whispered in his mind, "see the pretty flashing pictures? See the yellow slicker, see the big black umbrella? See the rain? — can you hear the rain?" And he could hear the rain, now, outside, pelting crazily down onto the windows, onto the balcony. It sounded like two syncopated heartbeats — bum-BUM-ba-BA! bum-BUM-ba-BA!...
He fell asleep to the pounding rhythm of the rain.
When he opened his eyes again it was dark and he was horizontal. The television had been switched off, and Blair Sandburg was crouched down beside the sofa, a hand on his arm, gently shaking him. "Hey," Blair whispered.
"Hey," Jim whispered back. He didn't dial up his eyesight, not wanting the room to be too clear, not wanting to see Blair too clearly, either. Instead he squinted, and saw that Blair's hair was wet, that Blair looked tired, older, and...deeply relieved.
"You've got to stop doing this falling asleep on the sofa thing." Blair's deep voice was shot through with amusement. "It's gonna wreak hell on your back."
"Must be getting old," Jim confessed, pushing himself up onto his elbows. "I didn't expect you to come home."
"Well, I'm home," Blair said with a small grin.
"Are you okay? Is everything okay? What time is it?"
"I'm okay, everything's okay, and it's almost three," Blair replied, shifting slightly on his sneakers. "I'm exhausted, I'm on my way to bed, but I just thought you should know — "
"Nina's made a decision," Jim said instantly.
"Yeah," Blair said, and the relief was palpable in his face, in his voice, in the very limbs of his body. Any more relief and Blair was gonna fall over like a limp noodle. "She wants an abortion."
The word didn't make sense at first; the word was impossible; the word was obscene. "What?"
"That's what she wants," Blair said, settling down onto the floor comfortably.
"But I thought..." Jim tried to speak clearly, coherently, through the sudden blast of heat in his head. "I thought that you...and she..."
"Well, she wasn't sure at first, and obviously I wasn't going to pressure her either way, but — well, now she is sure." Blair closed his eyes; the limp noodle thing kicking in now that the tension was dissipating from his body — he looked like he might fall asleep right there. "And I think it's for the best, really," Blair continued with a sigh. "Nina and me — she doesn't love me, Jim. And I...don't love her. We're not going to be together, we're not ready for this sort of step — "
"You've got to stop her." The words came, unwanted, unstoppable. "Can't you stop her?"
Blair's eyes widened, the startled whites bright in the darkness of the room. "Stop her?" Blair seemed shocked at the very idea. "Jim! I told you! This isn't my decision — "
Jim reached out and gripped Blair's arm tightly. "But it's got to be your decision. You can't let her abort that baby, Sandburg."
Blair's mouth fell open. "Let her?
"She can not abort that baby. I can't let her abort that baby."
"This is not my decision!" Blair looked utterly astonished. "And this is sure not your decision! This is about Nina! This is about what Nina wants — "
"She can't," Jim repeated blindly. "I won't let her. I swear."
" — and Nina wants to stay in school. Nina wants her Ph.D. Nina isn't in love with me, for God's sake! — "
"I'm telling you — she can't."
"And I'm telling you that Nina is a person, Jim!" Blair yelled, wide awake and flushed deep red with anger. "She is not — not — " and Blair was sputtering with rage now, " — a fucking Guide incubator, you got that?!" Blair's hands flew up, and he was yanking his arm out of Jim's grip. "And she doesn't want a baby, you hear me? Can you get that through your thick skull?" Blair skittered a few feet backwards on the floor, moving out of reach, putting distance between them. "Nina doesn't want a baby, and her decision is none of your fucking business!"
Before he could even process this, before he could even let his conscious mind hear what Blair had said, he had sprung off the sofa, he had caught the flash of fear on Blair's face, and then he was chasing Blair through the darkness across the living room floor.
Blair was scrambling toward his bedroom on hands and knees, and Jim reached out and seized his ankle just as Blair's hand crossed the threshold. Jim yanked, and Blair slid backwards, arms flailing, fingers scraping against the wood.
Within seconds he was on top of Blair, pinning him to the floor. Blair stared up at him — he was panting like a terrified animal.
"You're crazy," Blair hissed — and Blair's gust of breath was sweet against his face, despite his terror, despite the unflattering sentiment of his words. "You've gone off your fucking head — "
"I want the book," Jim said; to his surprise, his voice sounded calm and rational to his own ears.
"What?!" Blair nearly squeaked.
"I want the book. Your dissertation. You said it was mine — I want it."
Blair looked flabbergasted. "Now?"
"But — why?"
"Because it's mine," Jim said implacably. "It's mine, and I want it."
Jim tightened his grip on Blair's wrists.
Blair squirmed. "It's...on my laptop."
"The only copy?"
"There's a copy...on my zip drive."
Jim nodded and got to his feet in one graceful motion — he stepped over Sandburg through the French doors, instantly dialing up his sight. The laptop was sitting on top of Blair's desk, and he scooped it into his arms. Behind him, he heard Blair struggling to his feet, stumbling into the room, impeded by the darkness. Jim kicked the lamp plug out of the socket, then began searching for Blair's zip drive.
"...Jim..." Jim heard the futile click-click of the light switch, then felt Blair's hands grasping at his back. "...Jim...what are you doing?"
He popped the disk out of the zip drive and turned around. "I told you," he said patiently. "I want the book. You said it was mine. Isn't it mine?"
Blair looked confused, distraught, near to tears. "I — yes. It's yours."
"Okay, then." Jim pushed past him, the laptop clutched to his chest.
"But..." Blair stumbled through the French doors, after him, the very picture of grief and loss. "Jim...please..."
"Goodnight, Sandburg." He climbed the steps to his bedroom, abandoning Sandburg at the foot of the stairs. He looked around his room for a safe place to store the laptop, and then abruptly decided that no place was safe enough. So he brought the laptop to his bed and carefully put it under his pillow before stripping off his clothes and getting under the covers.
Lying there, staring up at the ceiling, he heard Blair pacing agitatedly around the apartment in the darkness — into his room, out of his room, around the living room. And then he heard the quiet snick of the door as Blair Sandburg walked out.
The bright morning sunlight woke him up. He winced, raised a hand against the skylight, and rolled over, berating himself viciously for forgetting to put on his eyemask. His hand slid under his pillow and met hard plastic — and then suddenly he was awake, really awake, sitting up and lifting the white pillow.
He stared at it, and the night before flooded back to him. Sandburg crouched beside him, Sandburg fleeing, Sandburg grieving — Sandburg's expressions of relief, terror, loss. Abortion. Abortion. None of his fucking business.
He groaned and scrubbed at his face.
Sandburg was gone. The loft beneath him was still, quiet, lifeless. Not that he could blame the kid per se. Vivid gray flashes of memory were assaulting him. Chasing Sandburg across the floor in the darkness. Pinning him down.
Still, though, he'd gotten the laptop, and he was glad about that. The book was his, and he wanted it. The book, at least, was his business.
He got up, showered, shaved, dressed. He decided to give breakfast a miss — the remains of last night's dinner were still sitting there, caked over and disgusting, and he could get coffee and a donut at the station. He went through his closet, found a small black nylon bag, and carefully put the laptop into it. He slid the strap over his neck and one arm, so that the flat square of the bag lay hard against his side, and then he grabbed his coat and car keys, and headed out to the station.
He found, once he'd got there, that he was reluctant to put the bag down, and so he left it strapped to his chest as he sat down at his desk and turned on his computer. This morning, he'd banish the stink of failure — this morning, he'd write that fucking report come hell or high water. He loaded the Stonyground report, and reread his few meager lines: "...informant provided a description of the suspect..." and suddenly he knew just what came after that, knew exactly the right words. "Subject was described as 5'8, 170 lbs, stocky, Slavic in origin..."
Once started, he was unstoppable, and the words poured out of him.
He finished the report a couple of hours later, printed it, proofread it, printed it again. It had been a long case, and he'd produced a long report — but it was the best thing he'd ever written, the most descriptive, the most detailed, the most coherent. He stood over the photocopier proudly, hand idly stroking the nylon bag hanging at his side, as it flashed and hummed and spit out the necessary copies, collated and stapled.
Finally, completely done, he took the report to Simon Banks' office and knocked on the door.
Jim opened the door and popped his head in. "Sir? I've got the Stonyground report for the ADA."
Simon seemed surprised. "All done?"
"All done," Jim confirmed. He stepped into the office and handed the stapled pages over, then waited, one hand braced on the laptop, as Simon read through them.
"This is great, Jim," Simon said finally, looking up. "I'll get this to Katherine pronto — I'm sure she'll appreciate it."
"Send her my best," Jim said, and turned to go.
Simon's voice stopped him. "Jim? What's the word on Sandburg?"
"There's no word."
"But he's okay?" Simon pressed.
"He's...okay. He's...sort of in the middle of things. Trying to work some stuff out."
Simon nodded slowly at this. "I see," he said.
"Don't worry about it, Simon. I've got plenty of stuff to do right here. I'm just gonna get some lunch, and then I'll be at my desk, okay?"
He could see Simon weighing that in his mind. Completed paperwork on the one hand, no Ellison in the field on the other. "Okay," Simon said finally. "Sounds like a plan."
Jim opened the door, and was stopped yet again. "What the hell is that, anyway?" Simon asked. He turned — Simon was gesturing at the laptop with his cigar.
His mind went blank, blank, utterly blank as he stared down at the black nylon bag. "It's, um..." Word, word. "It's just, um..." You know. "It's Sandburg's," he managed. "I'm just holding it for him."
Simon raised an eyebrow. "Uh-huh. Right. Whatever."
He took himself to the diner where he usually grabbed quick lunches with Sandburg, ordered his usual, and ate it methodically, staring across at the cracked and duct-taped red vinyl bench where Sandburg usually sat.
Later that afternoon, the laptop heavy on his lap, he picked up his phone and tried to find out where Sandburg was. A metallic female voice informed him that the customer's cellphone was off, or that he was out of range. A warmer female voice, the anthropology secretary, informed him that Blair Sandburg wasn't holding office hours today, hadn't been seen, and wasn't expected.
He thought about calling Nina — what was her name? Rauchenberg? Rothstein? Roseman? — but decided he couldn't do that. If Sandburg was with Nina ("she doesn't love me") then Jim couldn't, shouldn't, interfere. If Sandburg was with Nina, maybe there was still chance that — still a hope that —
He slammed the receiver back into its cradle. There just had to be a hope. He couldn't bear it otherwise. By some freak miracle, Sandburg had — And now — And even if it meant losing him, losing both of them, losing the suddenly, miraculously split self, he could — would — manage.
So if Sandburg was with Nina — well, that was good, that was the best possible thing, really. He could make that work, he would survive that. He'd figure out the how with a why that strong — for a glimpse of that lolling, dark head on Sandburg's chest.
But if Sandburg wasn't with Nina — well, that thought was enough to make him lift the phone again. If Sandburg wasn't with Nina... He quickly dialed his own home number.
Four rings, no answer. The machine picked up and he heard his own brusque voice: "Leave a message." But the beep was uncommonly, encouragingly, long. Someone — maybe Sandburg — had called.
"Sandburg?" he said at the end of the beep. "Blair? Are you there?" No answer. "I'm on my way home, okay? If you're there — if you come in — wait for me."
He hung up the phone and reached for his jacket.
Sandburg was sitting in the stairwell between the second and third floors, staring down at his hands, looking dazed. He didn't look up as Jim approached, and that was frightening, because Jim was climbing with a steady thump-thump-thump that was clearly audible in the stairwell, that was even echoing slightly against the bare plaster walls. Which meant that Sandburg was choosing not to look at him, and that was fucking terrifying.
Blair stared down. "It's over."
"Blair — "
"I forgot my keys."
Jim slowly took the final two steps upward, grabbed Blair's arm and tugged. Blair came to his feet, and Jim nudged him toward the loft door. He held Blair gently, firmly, holding him up, holding him steady as he worked his keys and got the door open.
Blair seemed out of it — slow, drowsy, woozy — and to Jim's surprise, he didn't step away once they were inside. Instead, he just kept standing there, right next to him, far closer than he needed to be.
Jim took the hint and closed the distance between them, yanking Blair into his arms and hugging him tightly. Blair accepted the hug, sort of fell into it like a man drugged, like he was falling asleep. And so he tightened his hold on Blair, and let Blair half doze against his shoulder. "It's okay," he murmured into Blair's ear. "It's okay, it's going to be all right..."
Blair voice was warm and sleepy against his shoulder. "You think I made a mistake."
He didn't have an answer to that, so he said nothing.
"I don't think I feel anything. Am I supposed to feel something?"
Jim stared at the far wall. "You feel what you feel."
"Tired. I just feel tired. The whole thing took about fifteen minutes. She went in, she came out. An abstraction," Blair mumbled. "The whole thing was a fucking abstraction."
He didn't have anything to say to that either.
Finally, Blair lifted his head, and looked up at him with tired, pain-filled eyes. And it was weird, really, to be standing there, holding Blair in his arms, and seeing him like that. This close. Way close. Blair's face was utterly naked — naked, open, and vulnerable — and Jim wondered, not for the first time, if people were like that where Blair came from.
"You think I made a mistake," Blair repeated, holding his eyes. "Say it. You think I made a mistake."
Jim was incapable of speech.
"Say it." Blair's voice had gone hoarse. "I need to hear you say it."
Way close. Too close. He couldn't say anything, there wasn't anything he could say, now. And so he closed his eyes, let his head drop, and blindly took Sandburg's mouth.
It was only for a moment — the briefest sensation of heat, generosity, life — before Sandburg twitched his head back and away. Jim opened his eyes, and Blair was staring up at him as if he'd never seen him before.
Now it was his turn to hold Blair's eyes. "Don't say you didn't know."
Blair didn't. Blair didn't say anything.
He allowed himself a moment of hope when he felt Sandburg's fingers skate up his sides, but he remained still, utterly still. And then he felt Sandburg's hands groping for the black nylon bag, for the laptop still hanging at his side — felt Sandburg's fingers close around it.
"Can I have this back?"
He stared at Blair for a moment — considering, evaluating, wondering.
"Please," Blair added quietly, and that helped him make up his mind.
"Okay." He stepped back and pulled the strap over his head, then carefully extended the bag back to Blair.
"Thanks," Blair said, instantly taking custody. "I think...I want to work on it some more."
Jim nodded curtly. "Okay. You do that."
It occurred to him, as he sat on the sofa listening to the incessant click-click-click of Blair's typing, that he ought to be more careful of what he wished for. Not that he'd wished for this. Not exactly. He'd wished for something far more complicated, far more impossible. Or had it been this after all?
He surfed through the channels on the TV, paying attention only to the large green digital numbers in the upper right hand corner of the screen. 27. 28. 29. Behind him, Blair sat his in room and typed. And typed. And typed. And typed.
There had to be a name for this. Blair would certainly know the name for this. If he would just raise his head, just look up from that goddammed computer screen for a fucking moment. What was it called when you wrote for six and a half hours solid on the evening of the morning you aborted your child? What kind of psychological trip-wire had been tripped in Blair's head? Why wouldn't Blair at least tell him what this fucking headtrip was called?
At eleven o'clock the bright graphics of the evening news flashed at him, and he realized that he didn't want to see any fires, murders, or hate crimes. He didn't want any bad news at all. He switched the television off and stared at the dark screen for a few more minutes before rousing himself to get off the sofa. He paused at the door to Blair's room, saw Blair's head bent down over his keyboard, hair swinging forward and blocking his view of Blair's face.
"You okay?" he asked, and Blair's head jerked up.
"Yeah. Yeah. Great. Just — you know — " Blair looked down at the keyboard and waved at it like he couldn't exactly remember the name for what he was doing.
"Writing," Jim supplied.
"Writing, yeah," Blair agreed, looking at him gratefully. "It's...clearing my head. I feel — really clear."
"Well, that's good."
"Feeling really clear, here," Blair repeated, nodding to himself.
"You should eat something."
Blair shook his head. "I'm not hungry. Plus, it's almost time for bed. I'm just gonna finish this paragraph..."
"Right, okay," Jim said, though he didn't believe that for a minute. He detached himself from the doorframe and stretched a little. "You do that. I'm going to bed now."
But he'd lost Blair — Blair was already re-immersed in the words on the screen. "Okay, goodnight..."
"Blair," Jim said pointedly, and Blair's head jerked toward him again. "Go to bed."
"I will," Blair promised. "I just need to finish this paragraph..."
Jim sighed and nodded, and took himself off to bed, falling asleep to the soft pitter-patter of Blair's fingers on the keys.
When the alarm went off at 6:30, Jim ripped off his eyemask and hauled himself out of bed. Straightening his t-shirt roughly, he descended the stairs to the bathroom, and noticed that the French doors to Blair's room were still open.
Well, the kid had gone to sleep eventually, but he hadn't gone to bed. Jim sighed and shook his head — Blair had gone to sleep right at his desk, head braced on one arm. The laptop, smarter than its owner, had put itself to sleep.
He moved into the room and stood behind Blair's chair, trying to figure out the best way to get a grip on the kid. Finally, he decided to haul Blair up by the armpits. He curled an arm around Blair's chest, heaved, and kicked the wooden chair out of his way with one foot. Blair sort of came awake halfway to the bed, and looked up at him blearily.
"...you wan' me to come to the station..?"
"No." Jim grunted and dropped Blair down onto his futon, then bent and tugged Blair's legs straight. "I want you to go to sleep."
For a moment Blair looked like he was going to protest. "I...okay," Blair said instead, and his eyes drifted closed.
Jim shut the doors behind him on his way out.
"Jim!" Simon Banks called, and Jim groaned and stopped, already anticipating the question.
He went into Simon's office and closed the door behind him. "I don't know, Simon. He was up late — he was in no shape to come in today, believe me."
Simon looked concerned. "It's three days, Jim."
"Sandburg's been out for more than three days before," Jim objected.
"Yeah. But it was always stuff like — flu. Finals. Some effing thing."
"Fatigue," Jim suggested. "Faculty meetings. Favors for friends — "
"Yeah." Simon cut him off. "Point is, Jim — we always knew why he was away, and when he was coming back. And now we don't."
"He's working on his dissertation," Jim said, and that much, at least, was true.
"Wasn't he working on it before?" Simon asked, crossing his arms.
"Yeah. But he seems to have hit a new level of...inspiration."
"Great," Simon snorted. "I suppose this is a prelude to graduation — a job and more money."
"I don't know," Jim said with a frown. "It's a prelude to something, that's for sure."
Simon bit his lip. "He's gonna go, isn't he? I mean — this is it. He's gonna finish his dissertation and quit. That's what's bugging you."
"I don't know what he's going to do," Jim answered honestly. "I haven't a fucking clue."
"Well, if he goes — what happens? I mean, seriously, Jim — give me a sense of what that's going to mean."
Jim sighed, threw up his hands. "I told you — I don't know. Are you asking me if I'm capable of doing my job? Yeah, I think so. I've got pretty good control now. Will things go wrong? Probably. I'm sure he'll help out — "
" — if he's in town," Simon objected.
"If he's in town," Jim admitted.
"And he won't be in the field."
"No, he won't be in the field — look, what do you want me to tell you?"
"I don't know," Simon said with a sigh. "Look, I know you're fine day to day. I've seen it. But Jim, if something goes wrong..." He stopped and fixed Jim with his eye. "I mean, if you were an epileptic, I couldn't certify you for active duty, Jim. And you know it. We've had a deal in place here — you basically traveled with your own doctor, and I turned a blind eye to the problems."
Jim sat down slowly in a conference chair. "Yeah, I know."
"But if Sandburg goes — when Sandburg goes," Simon amended, "is there anybody who can be trained to replace him?"
Jim thought about that. "I don't know. It's possible. I'll have to ask him about it."
"Ask him," Simon said pointedly.
"I'll ask him. Maybe he can train somebody from the bullpen — Megan or Rafe or somebody."
Simon looked grave. "And if he can't?"
"If he can't, I've had four years of active duty that I wouldn't otherwise have had, right?"
"Well," Simon said with grudging admiration. "That's certainly seeing the glass as half full. I didn't think you had it in you."
"You'd be surprised," Jim said grimly.
Jim opened the door of #307 to a controlled sort of chaos — the kettle was whistling, Sandburg's printer was squealing and whirring, and Sandburg was doing a complicated sort of dance with a spring binder and a thick sheaf of paper. He was sort of in a crouch, the binder bent back and held open between his legs, and he was frowning and trying to stuff the paper into the narrow gap.
He looked up at Jim with a look of palpable relief. "Thank god. Help me, will you?"
Jim stepped forward quickly and took possession of the sheaf of paper. That left both Blair's hands free to hold the binder and yank both covers apart. Jim slid the papers into the gaping space and Blair let the binder snap closed. "Well, that's easy," Blair said tiredly, rolling his eyes. "If you've got a third fucking arm." He handed the binder to Jim and went into the kitchen to turn off the kettle.
Jim smirked. "Hey, I've seen some of your friends. Wouldn't surprise me one bit."
Blair looked at him through a cloud of steam as he poured hot water into a mug. "Yeah. They're from France. You want tea?"
"No. Wouldn't mind a cup of instant, though."
"Fuck instant." Blair yanked the carafe out of the coffee machine. "I'll make you a real cup of coffee."
"I don't mind instant."
"Instant is evil," Blair said in a tone that brooked no refusal.
"You drink cold coffee," Jim pointed out. "You drink cold, three-day-old coffee."
"Okay, whatever," Jim said, shaking his head. "I'm gonna get out of these clothes — I'm leaving this here on the table." He waved the black binder at Blair and then set it down.
Blair looked up from counting spoonfuls of coffee into the carafe. "That? That's yours."
Jim frowned. "Mine?"
"Yeah." Blair finished measuring out the coffee and turned away to put the filter back into the machine.
"Oh," Jim said. He picked up the binder, flipped the heavy black cover open and read the title page: THE SENTINEL by BLAIR SANDBURG. "Oh," he said, absently loosening his tie and moving to sit down on the sofa. He turned to the next page.
CHAPTER ONE, it read. THE HISTORY OF A MYTH.
"It's not finished." He looked up; Blair was standing there awkwardly. "Not by a long shot. Very much a work in progress, you know? In fact..." Blair disappeared into his room and emerged a few moments later with a yellow manila folder. "This is today's stuff," Blair explained, extending the folder to him. "Which is even less finished than that, but — I want you to have everything. As I write it. Absolutely everything."
He reached out and took the folder from Blair's hand. "Hot off the presses," he said quietly, and in fact, he could still feel the warmth of the laser printer on the pages.
"Yeah," Blair said with an embarrassed nod. "Exactly." He went back into the kitchen, picked up his mug of tea. "Coffee'll be up in a minute. I'm going back to work."
He looked at Blair, then down at the binder in his lap, then back up at Blair. "Blair. You don't have to."
Blair paused in the doorway to his room, then shook his head and shut the door behind him.
"You may find it difficult, in the context of the Peruvian mythos, to see your local police detective as a modern-day-tribal Sentinel. The police detective has been made familiar to us by repeated exposure — we see him on the nightly news, see him in our neighborhoods, in our local stores and bars. By definition, the supernatural, the paranormal, the preternatural is supposed to be beyond our lived experience. We're not supposed to be rubbing shoulders with our myths at the check-out line in the supermarket, or in the locker room at the YMCA. And yet, when you think about it, what better profession for a contemporary Sentinel? Where else would you find the balance between autonomy and hierarchy, between authority and grass-roots experience? Certainly it makes sense that a contemporary Sentinel, with all his genetic advantages, would find himself drawn to a profession that would allow him to make the best use of them. Add to that the fact that the Sentinel's biological make-up seems to create in him a concomitant need to protect and serve the individual, at the individual level, and where else in our contemporary culture would we possibly expect to find him?"
Jim closed his eyes, blocking out the page with its neat one inch margins and Times Roman 12 point font. He couldn't read any more of this. Phrases whirled and spun and refused to make any sense in terms of his own lived experience — though, according to Blair's argument, even his lived experience was bound to deny his own supernatural, paranormal, preternatural self.
What good was his so-called "genetic advantage"? He hadn't reproduced his genes and — face it — was unlikely to do so now. There'd been that one window, that small window, with Carolyn. And yet, the window had been narrower than he could ever have foreseen. Between their elaborate buildup and their elaborate breakdown there'd been maybe three months where it would have been possible. And even if it'd been possible, it almost certainly would have been a mistake.
Protecting the individual? Well, he'd just come slap-bang against the limits of his own protective impulses. He hadn't replicated himself, but somehow Sandburg had managed it. Sandburg, who had written a two hundred and forty page ode-in-progress to the miracles of genetic survival, had somehow neglected to value his own glorious genetic accident. Somehow, despite the privilege of rubbing shoulders with him at the supermarket, Sandburg had decreed the matter out of his jurisdiction, out of his purview — in short, none of his fucking business.
Jim shoved the book off his lap and onto the floor, where it landed with a thump. He could hit him. He could kill him. Really he could. And Christ! — if Sandburg didn't stop typing! — he was going to go out of his fucking mind!
He got up, paced across the living room, trying with conscious effort to filter out the clicks of Sandburg's fingertips against the computer keys. But he couldn't manage it — the sound kept bleeding through, the way Sandburg's heartbeat bled up through the ceiling on long nights when he couldn't asleep. And while he'd learned to accommodate Sandburg's biological rhythms, he couldn't manage the godawful artificiality of Sandburg's professional ones, couldn't stand the plastic, mechanical clack-clack of Sandburg fucking that machine.
Two long strides brought him to the French doors, and he knocked hard and then flung the door open. "You've got to quit it. You've got to quit it, Sandburg — I'm losing it, here."
Blair looked shocked. "Jim, I..."
Another two strides brought him to the computer, but this time Sandburg was ready for him — leaping out of his chair and whirling around, protecting the laptop with his body. "Nuh-uh! No way, man! That is mine, Jim — mine! — and you can't fucking have it!"
Jim thrust his chest out, crossed his arms over it, and gave Blair his best glower. "You said it was mine. That's what you said."
"It's yours, too," Blair replied instantly. "I gave you your copy already," he added and pointed out the door.
"That's not — It isn't — " He wanted to hit Sandburg; he wanted to kiss him; he wanted to kill him. "It's not me, Sandburg. That book. It's — -Jesus, talk about a fucking abstraction!"
Blair's eyes widened; he thought it was surprise, and didn't realize until Blair opened his mouth that it was anger. "Who said it was you?" Blair demanded. "It's yours, but it's not you! Fuck, if anything, it's me — it's me a hell of a lot more than it is you! It's me a hell of a lot more than Nina's — "
"It's a book, for Christ's sake!" Jim yelled. "It's not alive — "
"It is to me! Four fucking years of my life! Hell, it's my whole life — everything I ever thought and read and dreamed went into that fucking thing!" Blair stopped suddenly, raised his palms, took a defensive step back. "What do you want from me, Jim? I thought you — understood."
"I thought you did," Jim said tightly.
"You want me to say I'm sorry. About Nina's baby." Blair was already shaking his head no. "I can't do that. I'm not sorry about that. That's not — I didn't want — God, if this whole nightmare's done anything, it's helped me clarify what I care about. You've helped me clarify what I care about — "
"A fucking book."
Blair tilted his head and regarded him coldly. "Yeah, kids never turn out to be what their parents expect, do they?"
Jim stared at him for a second, then whirled and stomped out into the living room. "You're fucking nuts! You're a fucking monster."
Blair's voice chased him out: "Well, we didn't, did we?! Ask your father! Ask Naomi! You think they expected us? — Naomi sure the hell didn't!"
His foot hit something; the bound dissertation was on the floor, at his feet. He snatched it up, weighed it, debated throwing it across the room, or throwing it at Blair. He heaved it into one hand and turned toward Blair's room.
Blair was standing there, framed in the doorway. "Be careful with that," he warned.
"This, Sandburg, is a book. A bunch of paper. It can't be hurt. It can't be killed."
"No," Blair agreed. "But I can — so don't throw it!"
Jim sighed wearily and tossed the dissertation onto the sofa. It bounced.
Blair moved toward it, never taking his eyes off Jim. "I thought this was something you cared about. I mean, you sure acted like you cared about it." He reached the sofa and picked the dissertation up.
"Don't you have any priorities at all? Or are you just a total lunatic?"
"You want me to value something I made accidentally over something I made on purpose. You want me to value something that took ten seconds over something that's taken my whole fucking life — "
"No," Jim said sharply, clenching his hands into fists. "I'd like you to appreciate the difference between a piece of paper and a human being. I'd like to see you value a real, flesh and blood person for a change — any person, any living person on earth, take your pick!"
Blair reddened with anger. "Who died and left you God?"
Jim stabbed his finger at the dissertation. "You did. From Chapter Two onward."
"I — You — You don't know the first fucking thing about me, you asshole!"
And then Blair threw the dissertation at him.
"I'm sorry," Blair muttered for the eighth time, gingerly daubing the area above Jim's right eye with the towel-wrapped ice. It hurt like a motherfucker — even the light pressure burned, and the surrounding skin was all pins and needles from the cold.
"Reflexes aren't what they used to be." Jim winced at Blair pressed down again.
"I'll jot that down," Blair said wryly. "For the next revision."
"Great." He had to force himself not to yell: Ow. "You're a sociopath, a sadist, and a fucking good shot to boot."
Blair shrugged modestly. "I played a little baseball in high-school."
Jim groaned. "Great. My luck."
Blair pulled the icepack away and regarded him intently, his frown deepening. "Uh, I've got to say — you look terrible. Maybe we should go to the hospital after all. Get you a couple of stitches — "
Jim grunted and waved that suggestion away. "I don't need stitches."
"You sure? Think of all the fun you could have. You could file a report against me for assault."
Jim squinted at Sandburg through his one good eye — the other one, the one below the bruise, was starting to swell. "I admit, that's very tempting."
Blair's face contorted with guilt. "I'd go quietly."
"That, I don't believe." Jim sighed and closed his eyes. "You never do anything quietly."
He felt Blair's strong fingers steadying his chin, felt the cold burn of the icepack come back. "Jim, I really am sorry."
That made nine times. "I know."
"Just that...you don't seem to want to understand anything. You keep getting it wrong. You keep getting me wrong."
Jim took a deep breath and kept his eyes closed. "I could say the same thing, Sandburg."
Blair made a noncommittal sound and tightened his grip on Jim's face. Jim tried to focus on the warm, strong fingers, tried to forget about the throbbing, stinging pain at his temple. "You hate it that much, huh?"
"I don't hate it. It's fine. I don't particularly see what it has to do with me — "
Blair's voice was barely audible, even to him. "It has everything to do with you."
"I'm not a god, Sandburg. Or a myth, or a legend, or whatever the hell else you said."
"I know," Blair murmured.
"I'm not supernatural, paranormal, or prenatural — "
"Pre-ter-natural," Blair murmured.
"Sorry," Blair murmured.
"I'm just a guy. A cop. I come from Cascade, Washington. I drive a blue Ford pick-up tr — "
"I wrote it for you," Blair said suddenly. "Okay? Are you listening to me? I wrote it for you."
Jim sighed and opened his eyes; Blair was looking intent, pale, confessional. "I know," he admitted. "That's why I took it. That book's the only thing you really give a shit about. I wanted you to know what it feels like to lose something that — "
"You're not listening," Blair interrupted, irritably tossing the icepack onto the coffee table and reaching for sterile gauze and tape. "Again. I just told you — I wrote it for you."
"Only because I happened to show up."
He jerked his head back as Blair roughly taped one side of the sterile gauze over the cut — fuck, that hurt. "Oh, come on, Jim — "
"No, I'm serious. You're writing about Sentinels, a Sentinel shows up — it just happens to be me. Could have been anyone. It was just luck — an accident," Jim added, pointedly. "I turn up at the right hospital. You're screwing the right nurse. I guess I respect accidents a lot more than you do — hell, from where I sit, I've got to."
Blair snorted and finished taping the bandage into place. "Spoken like a true planner." He squinted to evaluate Jim's face, and then nodded to himself, apparently contented with what he saw. "You look like a pirate," he added grimly, flinging the tape back onto the table.
"Thanks." He raised one hand and gingerly traced the outline of his wound.
"You're welcome. Look, you only respect accidents because you've had so few of them, and each one has been pretty-damn-life-changing-important. For you, an accident is something that happens despite your best-laid-plans. For me, accidents are a fucking way of life — literally speaking, beginning to end. I began as an accident, and I'll probably drop dead when something heavy falls on me out of a tenth floor window. Believe me, not every accident is a blessing. Mainly, I try to roll with my fucked-up life, but every now and then I don't mind having a little choice, a little fucking control..."
"Well," Jim said, nonplused. "How totally unlike you."
"See?" Blair's eyes were glinting with triumph. "You don't know me at all." Then Blair raised his square hands to Jim's face, cupped his jaw, and kissed him.
Way to prove a point, Jim thought muzzily. It was all he could do to keep his hands down at his sides, to hold himself passively. He wanted to fist Blair's hair, plunder his mouth — tongue him, fuck him, make him come. However, that would be a world-class stupid idea, because face it — Sandburg was straight. Straight and stubborn and determined to prove his point — (however well: Jesus!) — because despite the feel of that generous mouth on his, despite the way Blair was diving in for deep hard kisses and then pulling back for whisper-soft ones, despite the way Blair was now forcing his tongue into Jim's mouth (God Almighty!) — -the kid frankly stank of fear. The acrid, bitter tang of it underlined everything. Wouldn't you just know that Sandburg would be the kind of guy who'd fuck you on a bet?
If he'd been a better man, he would have shoved Sandburg away. Unfortunately, he wasn't a better man, and it had taken four years for Sandburg — a gambler, by nature — to dare himself to this point. It was all gonna be over in a few seconds anyway, and so he moaned softly and let Sandburg kiss him, let himself enjoy it.
He felt a rush of cool air as Blair lifted his head. He opened his eyes — Blair looked flushed and kind of nervous. "So," Blair managed, and Jim totted up points. In Blair's place, he probably couldn't have gotten that far into a sentence. "How was that?"
"Great," Jim replied breathlessly. "Very daring. You're the man."
Blair frowned at him. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"I mean — you win, you're right, I don't know you. You're very brave and secure in your masculinity. I'm duly impressed."
Blair stared at him for a second and then started laughing. "God, you're a bastard and a half..." he marveled.
"Oh, hell — make it two. Round up."
Blair managed to look both amused and outraged. "What the fuck, man," he said, and it wasn't a question. "Is there any way on earth to make you happy?
"Oh, come off it," Jim retorted. "Yeah, I'm thrilled — I love coercing my friends into homosexuality. It's my mission in life."
"Excuse me," Blair said warmly, expression now sliding into total outrage, "but didn't I just kiss you?"
"Yeah, but come on — who're you kidding? You don't want this."
"I don't want this," Blair repeated.
"No. I mean, you pretty much had to kiss me — you just fucking hit me in the head. What else could you do?
"Hit you again?" Blair suggested in all seriousness. "You know, you're starting to make me sorry that I was sorry that I hit you."
Jim rolled his eyes. "What is that — some sort of anti-apology?"
"Yeah. Look, you're doing that thinking-you're-God-thing again. Can't I have, like, a little free will, here?"
"Hey, you said the God thing, not me."
"Yeah, well, and maybe I was right." Blair grabbed Jim's hand and pulled it to his chest, pressed it over his heart. "Use your senses — what do you feel?"
Blair's heart was pounding and Jim was surprised to scent arousal. "You're excited," he admitted. "But you're also half-terrified, Sandburg — you stink of fear, and you're doing the muscle twitch thing, and the contracting-pupil thing, and the looking like I'm going to eat you thing — "
Oh, fuck you!" Blair exploded, shoving Jim's hand away. "I've never done this before, all right? Excuse me for living — so I'm a little freaked out!" Apparently: Blair's hair was standing nearly on end, like he'd been shot through with electrical current. "I suppose you — Mr. Jumping Out of Airplanes — I suppose you've never been fucking frightened of anything in your entire life, but me, I — "
There was something strangely and truly endearing about Blair's hissy fit, and Jim found himself grinning.
"What?" Blair demanded, interrupting himself. "What's so funny?"
Jim's grin widened. "You are. You're cute when you're angry. You look like a terrier."
Blair-the-terrier squeezed his square hand into a large fist and pulled his arm back. "I swear, man — you watch it, I'm gonna fucking — "
Jim grabbed Blair's fist and yanked, toppling him forward, and slung an arm around his neck. "Oh, quit it already. I got it. You're macho."
"Shut up," Blair mumbled into his shoulder. "I hate you." This was belied by the way Blair shifted against him, sliding hard, flannel-covered arms around his midsection. "You're an arrogant asshole. And self-defeating. How the fuck am I supposed to make love to somebody who thinks I'm a sociopath and a sadist?"
Jim shrugged. "I did say you were a good shot."
"Great." Blair slid his face across the fabric of Jim's shirt until his nose and mouth found the open V of his polo shirt. Blair's breath was hot against his exposed skin. "I feel a lot better now — thanks."
Blair relaxed against him and began idly chewing and sucking at the flesh of his neck. Jim closed his eyes and let himself feel the wave of heat flowing over his body — he imagined he was slowly boiling red from tip to toe. He tightened one arm around Blair's shoulder and allowed his other hand to bury itself in Blair's thick hair. His neck was slick under Blair's mouth; he felt the nip of Blair's sharp, even teeth and shivered.
"Let me decide," Blair muttered into his neck, punctuating the sentiment with another lazy bite. "You wanted me to choose — let me choose, already. I get so few chances... I love you."
Jim opened his eyes and stared across at the opposite wall, which grew hazy and fuzzy as Blair gently gnawed at his pulse point, as Blair licked and sucked his throat. Choice. He had wanted Blair to choose. But Blair's choices terrified him. Blair's choices — when he made them, when his life wasn't being ruled by accident, serendipity, or plain dumb luck — were always unexpected, incomprehensible, under the sway of no rule or apparent logic. Blair chose to live in his 8 x 10 spare room, turned down expeditions that would help his career, and volunteered for undercover assignments that no sane cop would touch. He was dragging out a poverty-stricken graduate school career, planning to trash his dissertation and drop out without his degree. He'd aborted a real, living child in favor of a dead, metaphorical one. He'd —
Fuck. Blair might love him, at that.
"I need a say." Jim heard his own voice, heard himself negotiating, and blinked in surprise. The room came back into focus. He saw the television, the brick wall, the fireplace — he couldn't believe he was seriously considering this, even provisionally. "I mean, I really need a say from now on. I can't stand — " His snapped his mouth shut, because this throat was closing up, because there was a fucking hand tightening around his throat and strangling him.
Blair slid his mouth across Jim's jaw and over to his ear. He bit the lobe gently and then murmured, "I know. I know — I'm sorry," and kissed it.
"I can't stand — observing," Jim managed. "I can't just stand by and watch you — "
He felt, as much as heard, Blair's deep laugh. "Tell me about it."
"I mean it," Jim said vehemently — this was no laughing matter. "I swear, Blair — I can't do this again. I have to have a say in what happens to you. It has to be my business."
Blair pulled back to look at him; his eyes were serious. "Okay. I promise. I promise, Jim."
"Say it again," Jim demanded.
"I promise," Blair repeated, and Jim fisted Blair's hair, pulled his mouth close, and plundered it. Strong hands grabbed at his waistband and tugged, matching aggression for aggression. Jim spread his fingers across Blair's face, his thumbs caressing Blair's jaw; Blair rubbed the backs of his fingers roughly over Jim's fly.
Jim groaned and twisted his head away from Blair's mouth — that was good, good, almost too good. Blair dug his knuckles into Jim's erection and Jim gasped softly. "I...oh, Jesus, Blair..." Blair's fingers nimbly undid his fly, pulled down the zipper. "You okay there?" Blair whispered, and shit, Blair's fingers were caressing him through his boxers...
"Yeah," Jim breathed, shifting slightly, trying to move himself into Blair's touch. "You?"
Blair's fingers slid into the fly of his boxers, seared him with their touch and closed around him. The world went white behind his eyelids; he went down, he went blind. "I'm all right..." and Blair's voice was coming from very far away now, carried to him on a clean-smelling summer wind, "...a little weirded-out...I won't say it's not weird...touching you like this.... But it's good, too..." Blair's hand tightened on his cock, stroked him, and he felt the summer breeze blow against his face, through his hair. Except it was Blair's breath — mouth. On his face. Kissing. Blair was
such a summer clean
yellow sun burning — burning
"Jim?...It's okay...shhh — it's okay..."
blind cool hand on his forehead; green grass, green grass
"...hear my voice...come on back... slowly, now, nice and easy...breathe deep for me..."
He breathed deep for Blair and inhaled the scent of roses.
"Sandburg! You're here!"
Jim suppressed a grin as Blair nervously skittered backwards, thinking, no doubt, that Simon Banks was about to launch into a scathing, sarcastic attack.
"Simon," Blair said quickly, raising his hands defensively, "I'm sorry. Really. I've had a lot on my mind — it's been a hell of a week — I — "
Taking two long steps forward (Blair had taken at least five backwards) Simon closed the distance between them and clapped a huge brown hand on Sandburg's shoulder. Sandburg winced and quickly looked to Jim, extracting a silent promise for protection or vengeance, whichever would be needed.
"It's really good to see you, kid," Simon said, putting his cigar into his mouth and giving Sandburg an affectionate shake that nearly sent him reeling back against Jim's desk. "Place hasn't been the same without you. Scary as that is to me personally." Simon turned his head and beamed at Jim for a moment, and then said, airily, "Carry on," and strode back into his office.
Blair froze, a deer in the headlights, until the Captain's door closed, and then he turned to look at Jim. "Can I just say — ow?" Blair's hand moved to massage the shoulder that Simon had gripped, and Jim laughed. "Seriously," Blair said, sitting on the edge of Jim's desk. "What the hell was that?"
"He missed you." Jim raised his hand and rubbed Blair's leg affectionately.
Blair turned his puzzled gaze back toward Simon's door. "But I was only gone for a couple of days. I've been gone for longer than that."
"Yeah, but we didn't know when you were coming back. If you were coming back."
"Oh. And he really missed me?"
"Yup." Jim leaned back in his chair. "Believe it or not."
"I don't believe it," Blair deadpanned.
"Well, believe it," Jim said. "Now he can put me back on active duty."
"Oh, so tell the whole story. He didn't miss me, he missed you. It's a Sentinel thing."
Jim raised an eyebrow. "Isn't everything?"
"Come on already!" Jim yelled, slamming the empty frying pan back against the burner. "This shit sucks when it's cold!"
"One more second!" Blair yelled back, and Jim shook his head and sighed. "Just let me — "
" — finish this paragraph," Jim muttered along with him, switching off the gas underneath the rice. He raised his voice again and called, "That's what you always say — you're such a fucking liar." He sighed with relief as he heard Blair's printer churn into life. Thank god. He glanced at his watch — 8:30 — okay, not bad all in all.
He pulled a wooden spoon out of the dish rack and started lumping rice next to the pork chops on each of the plates.
"I'm coming! I'm coming!" Blair called back to him, and Jim smirked as he dished out portions of sauted string beans.
Blair'd said the same thing last night, but not in exactly that exasperated tone of voice.
He turned, a plate in each hand, as Blair rushed out of his office, carrying the familiar manila folder, hot off the presses. "I'm here — I'm here already. What can I do?"
"Nothing. It's all done." He moved to the table and put down the two plates. "Sit down and eat."
Blair glanced at the table, then put the manila folder down next to his plate and went to get napkins, knives, and forks. He came back and set the table, then looked up at Jim and said, "What do you want to drink?"
Jim sat down. "I dunno — what have we got?"
"What is that — pork chops?" Blair asked, sniffing.
"Smells good. How about some white wine? It's white with pork, right?" Blair was already rummaging in the fridge.
"I'd have a glass of wine," Jim said, grudgingly pleased. He wouldn't have thought of it.
Blair returned with a half-full, pale-green bottle and two glasses, and paused to absently kiss the top of Jim's head before sitting down. Jim smiled helplessly and felt his face grow warm. "Honest to god, it smells great," Blair said, sinking down into the chair next to his and tugging the cork out of the bottle. He took a quick sniff before apparently deciding it was okay and pouring out two glasses. "You've got a way with pig, man."
Jim shrugged modestly. "It isn't hard. Couple herbs, couple spices, little garlic..."
"Well, like I know," Blair said, picking up a knife and fork. "It ain't kosher, so it's officially beyond my culinary expertise."
Jim groaned. "Oh, hell — I didn't even think — "
"Don't be an idiot," Blair said with his mouth full. "I eat hot-dogs and lobster and slugs — it's great, it's delicious." He reached out and picked up the manila folder from beside his plate and swallowed. "The beans are good too," he pronounced, and then instantly segued into: "So, okay, this is today's stuff."
Jim, chewing, leaned forward and peered at the folder with interest.
"And I'm gonna need like an extra-special-close-read here, because I think we may be on to something pretty fucking fantastic."
Jim swallowed and reached for his wine glass. "Oh yeah? Like what?"
"Ok, so dig," Blair began eagerly. "Remember those tests we did down at the ophthalmology school? With all the different light frequencies?"
"How could I forget?" Jim made a face. "I'm pretty much just getting over the headache now."
"Hey — no pain, no gain," Blair said. "And see, an analysis of the results shows — well — that we may be able to train you to filter light." He sat back in his chair with a triumphant grin.
"Whoo-hoo," Jim deadpanned. "And why would I want to do that?"
Blair's eyes widened. "Why? Dude, we're talking about the potential for amazing fucking vision here — beyond the range of normally visible light! You could have — like — Xray vision, Jim!"
"What, like Superman? You're saying I could see women in their underwear?"
Blair blew out an exasperated breath. "No, I'm saying that you could see bones. Identifying marks, fractures, dental work — "
"Oh, great," Jim muttered. "Very attractive."
" — and on the other side of the spectrum you could maybe learn to see heat," Blair finished, glaring at him. "Oh, come on, you gotta admit — this could be way cool. And way useful," he added belatedly — "useful" falling, as it normally did, a few steps behind "cool" in Blair Sandburg's universe.
"Maybe," Jim said warily. "It could also be way disgusting. I'm picturing seeing — tumors — and God knows what else."
Blair snorted dismissively. "You always see the worst side of things first. Tumors — that would be like you saying that you didn't want your Sentinel hearing because you'd always be hearing people talk about how much they hate you."
"Mainly, they talk about how much they hate you," Jim deadpanned.
"Great, thanks," Blair sighed. "But seriously, Jim — you filter that stuff out. Private conversations — so the same thing would work here. You wouldn't have to see ultraviolet light or heat, but if you needed to — "
Blair stopped and grabbed his hand tightly, and he could feel Blair's enthusiasm shooting into his arm like an electrical charge. Hell, and maybe someday soon, he'd actually be able to see the electrical charge of Blair's enthusiasm. With his X-ray vision. Who knew?
"I mean — picture seeing heat!" Blair was transfixed by the idea, and Jim felt himself getting interested, starting to see the possibilities. "You could tell if a house was occupied — if a piece of machinery had been running lately — if a warm human hand had touched something."
"You really think I could learn to do that?" Jim asked.
Blair blinked himself out of his daze and grinned at him. "I dunno. Be fun to find out though, huh?"
Jim grabbed for the manila folder as Blair chugged back the rest of his wine. "Let me see those test results — " He flipped the folder open and frowned, because the first few sheets of paper weren't the laser-printed pages he was expecting. Instead there was a pre-printed form, neatly filled out in blue ink, in Blair's careful block print.
CASCADE POLICE ACADEMY APPLICATION FOR ADMISSION
"What's this?" Jim asked, looking up at Blair.
"What's what?" Blair craned his neck to look, and then said, "Oh, that. I wanted to talk to you about that. What do you think — should I do it?"
"The Academy?" Jim asked incredulously; the world was tilting again, tilting on its axis.
"Well, it was an idea. And if I want to go in June I pretty much have to apply now." Blair stared up at the ceiling, counted on his fingers. "Yeah, okay — because my grant money will last me till September, so if I go to June training, there'd be a near-perfect overlap. Renewals are this February and I think my luck's run out, there — I sure can't show them any of this X-ray stuff, they'd think I'm bonkers. So I think it's pretty much the end of the Rainier ride." Blair lowered his head, looked at him, and frowned. "Jim, man, come on — we talked about this. I told you — it's gonna come down to me and the non-academic job market, sooner or later. So I gotta start making some plans, here. It's this or grant-writing — and who's gonna cover your ass if I'm grant writing? I mean, I think we should at least talk about it. So what do you say, Jim? What do you say?"