As Usual

by Kass

Thanks to Justine and Destina for the read-throughs, and to Sihaya, without whom this story would still just be unconnected scenes in my head.

The first thing Jim noticed was the breathiness in Sandburg's voice. It always sounded thinner from two floors away, but this time it sounded squeezed-out.


Not like he was in trouble; just like he was...straining.


And that wasn't English.

Jim wasn't entirely sure he wanted to know what was going on, but his half-curiosity pulled him up the stairs slightly faster than usual anyway.

He opened the door to find Sandburg doing push-ups on the living room floor. Barefoot; dark t-shirt stained with sweat over a pair of cut-off sweatpants that left nothing to the imagination.

Jim held his jacket awkwardly in front of his crotch as Sandburg lowered himself to the floor and wriggled to a seated position. Something about the smell of sweaty Sandburg gave him an immediate hard-on. Not Sandburg on a hot day with no air-conditioner; that kind of sweat didn't do much for him. But a Sandburg who'd been doing something physical was the olfactory equivalent of a warm mouth on his dick. He reminded himself not to moan.

"Hey," Sandburg said, pausing to twist his torso back and forth. Somewhere in his chest a vertebra popped and he sighed.

Jim clenched his teeth. "Push-ups?" he asked, unnecessarily, moving stiffly to the kitchen to stand behind the island.

Sandburg shrugged. "Start class next week. Figured I might as well start getting in shape."

"And you were counting in...?"

"Japanese." He swung his legs out in front of him and bent to grip his calves. "Last time I really did pushups was high school, in the dojo." When he sat back up his face had reddened slightly. "Counting in Japanese helps me feel like the pushups have a point."

"I didn't know you studied."

"What, Japanese or martial arts?"


"Didn't really do Japanese - I just know numbers and the names of ways to hurt people."

"And how to order raw fish," Jim pointed out.

Sandburg grinned at him from the floor. "Yeah."

"If you liked martial arts, why didn't you find a school in Cascade?" Could've kept you out of some nasty scrapes, he thought.

"Never found a teacher I liked as much as my old Sensei." Sandburg stood and, having seemingly decided to change the subject, made a show of sniffing himself. "Man. I'd better shower - this must be driving you nuts."

You have no fucking idea, Jim thought, but simply nodded. As usual.

Sometimes it blew his mind that Sandburg could be so observant about everything else in the universe, and yet never notice Jim's interest. Never notice the diamond-cutters Jim sported every time their sleeping bags came into alignment. Never notice the hundred casual touches that Jim didn't bestow on anyone else. Never notice a damned thing.

How could he not notice that Jim had to camouflage his crotch every time his partner emerged from the shower? Obviously Sandburg just wasn't in the habit of checking out other men's dicks. Which was kind of depressing, when Jim thought about it. Because if Sandburg wasn't taking note, then Jim didn't have any idea how to get the point across.

Or even whether getting the point across was a good idea. Which his brain insisted it wasn't. Which was why, instead of following his partner into the shower the way his body was demanding, he went upstairs and unzipped his khakis and bit his lip to keep silent as he brought himself off.

The edge off, he pulled on a pair of jeans and went downstairs to think about dinner. By the time the bathroom door opened, releasing invisible clouds of Sandburg-soaped air, Jim had his libido under control. As usual.

Dinner wound up being rice noodles and strips of beef in a sauce made from coconut milk and Thai curry paste. Tricolored jars of curry paste were among the many things Jim Ellison would never have predicted might grace his refrigerator shelves, but he had to admit Sandburg had found a good one, there. No point in eating cheapo curry powder with *his* taste buds.

After dinner Sandburg flipped channels for a while and settled on a martial arts flick. He watched attentively, and Jim noticed his heartbeat change tempo slightly during the scenes with the martial arts master, the ones that were supposed to be sappy. Looked like they were working.

Jim basically ignored the movie in favor of watching his partner. Nothing new there. Midway through a commercial break, he impulsively muted the television. "You miss having a Sensei."

Sandburg seemed to understand that it wasn't a question; he nodded.

"Short on mentors at the moment," Jim offered.

"My life doesn't exactly offer a lot of mentoring relationships." Sandburg's voice was dry, but Jim wondered how much was hidden beneath it. He was long past thinking his partner was transparent.

"Academia did." Jim held his breath unconsciously, waiting.

Sandburg chewed on his lip for an instant, then shook his head. "Getting a PhD isn't really like that. Shit, if I'd had a mentor at Rainier, maybe somebody would've stuck up for me after I declared fraud."

He laughed, not entirely happily, and Jim lost himself in trying to figure out whether the unhappiness had to do with Rainier and its failings or with the prospect of the Academy. From PhD to PD. What a difference an "h" makes.

He was jarred when Sandburg tossed the ball back to him.


"There's Simon." Jim thought about it for a moment, pictured himself reporting to Simon, tried to put himself inside the way that felt. "He's kind of a friend, though."

"That doesn't mean he isn't a role model." The movie had come back on, but neither of them made a move to bring back the sound.

"Maybe you'll find something like that at the Academy," Jim said, knowing it was untrue but wanting to offer it anyway.

"What, someone who became a cop as a second career for unorthodox reasons?" Sandburg's tone was light, but there was something underneath it Jim couldn't quite place. "Already got one."

Jim was baffled. He felt his forehead crinkle.

"Hello? Cop of the year? Spent eighteen months in Peru? Any of this sound dimly familiar?" Sandburg stood, hit the volume-up button on the remote control, and headed for the kitchen. "Want a Coke?"

"No, thanks," Jim said automatically. He was trying to stretch his brain enough to fit the idea that he was...some kind of role model. That Sandburg looked up to him.

It wasn't the same as Sandburg suddenly noticing Jim had a thing for him and professing undying love, but it pretty much made his night anyway.

The next night, after work, Jim and Megan went out for a few beers and shot a little pool. They finally seemed to have reached an amicable truce, which was an improvement over snarking at each other all the fucking time. It did occur to Jim that he would rather have been out with Sandburg, but Sandburg seemed to have decided to give the PD a miss until he was safely ensconced in the Academy, and when Megan invited Jim out for a beer he could hardly say, "Wait, hang on, lemme call my room-mate," could he?

But it was actually fun, and Jim stayed out later than he intended to. When he got home the apartment was dark. With a hint of effort he could hear Sandburg's even, sleeping breaths.

He could also smell the faint residue of his partner's sweat again. As he went upstairs and took himself in hand, he thought grimly that this wasn't how he'd planned on staying sexually active after forty, but at least it beat impotence.


Wednesday he was on stake-out, sitting in a dusty old Buick watching for some little drug-dealing prick to come out of his sleazy apartment, which of course he never did. The street light nearby was fritzing in and out, its chalky orange light sporadic, and the failing wires buzzed in Jim's ears like Air Force planes overhead.

The stakeout merged straight into work on Thursday, and by the time he came home on Thursday evening he was exhausted and grouchy. More so when he hit the stairs and realized the loft was empty, although Sandburg had left a box of Kraft dinner on the counter with a note ("Didn't know when you were coming home, I'm at the movies, took my cell, call if you need me.")

Jim stared at the note for a while, contemplated calling, realized there was no good reason he could give for why he wanted Sandburg home, took a shower and went to bed.

Friday morning he was tip-toeing around the kitchen when he heard Sandburg's breathing shift into waking. A few minutes later his partner appeared, still warm from sleep, hair tousled.

"You didn't eat." Sandburg shuffled over to the stove, past the telltale unopened macaroni box, and put on the kettle for tea.

"Wasn't hungry when I got home," Jim lied. He hadn't felt like cooking alone. "Had a granola bar."

"That's not dinner." Sandburg rolled his head in a circle and cracked his neck. Jim tried not to wince at the sound. "Sorry. Umm - you coming home at a reasonable hour tonight?"

Jim shrugged. "No reason why not."

"'Kay. Dinner's at seven-thirty." With a practiced motion Sandburg turned off the heat and opened the nozzle on the kettle just before it whistled, then rummaged for a teabag.

Jim tried not to smile, but failed. "Sounds great." He could feel his day brightening. Pathetic, Ellison, he told himself, but even his internal censor couldn't tamp his pleasure entirely down.

Jim smelled risotto the minute he got out of the truck. Wild mushrooms. Fresh basil. Jesus - imported parmesan. He took the stairs three at a time.

"What'd I do to deserve this?" he asked as he hung his coat.

"You don't have to *deserve* Italian food, man. It's just one of those good things that comes to you." Sandburg smelled like shiitake mushrooms, an earthy smell that prickled up Jim's spine.

"Thank God for small blessings," Jim said, and meant it.

They didn't talk much over dinner - the food was too hot and saucy to want conversation. It wasn't until they were wiping their second bowls clean with chunks of baguette that Jim opened his mouth for a purpose other than shoveling food inside.

"So you're really not tempted to find a dojo again." Jim wasn't sure why he was pushing this, but he couldn't let it go. He was hovering on the edge of some kind of awareness he couldn't quite put a finger on.

"No." Sandburg drained his wine glass.

"But there've got to be teachers-"

"Not like the one I had."

Sandburg's scent changed slightly when he said that, and Jim bit down on the exclamation that threatened to push out of his mouth as he identified the smell. No, Jim thought. No fucking way. I'm making that up. But he let his vision tighten, and sure enough, Sandburg's face was heating up. To go with the very faint, but very distinctive, scent of arousal.

Jim's head swam with possibilities. The critical question: was Sandburg's Sensei a woman, or a man?

"I'm sorry," Jim said, quietly. "I didn't mean to push."

Sandburg's arms were folded, but he nodded. "S'okay."

"I just - it sounds like she was important to you. I wish I could've known her."

"Him," Sandburg said, automatically.

Holy shit. If he was reading things right - and he was suddenly completely, entirely sure that he was - there'd been more to that relationship than Sandburg was letting on. Excitement danced through his body.

"Tell me about him?" Without looking at his partner, he reached for the bottle of wine, refilled both of their glasses, took his glass in his hand.

"Nothing much to tell, really." Sandburg took a sip of wine. "I started studying when I was fourteen. I was starting to be a total pain in Naomi's ass, and she threatened to make me study meditation, and I figured martial arts were the surest way to piss her off, so I enrolled as fast as I could."

Jim allowed himself a chuckle.

"Yeah, yeah. She was actually pretty thrilled, although she didn't let on for a while, and by that point I was hooked."

"The structure," Jim guessed.

"Structure, and strength, and discipline."

"I hear that." Jim glanced at his partner and had to force himself to hold still. Face slightly pinked from wine, or from the conversation (Jim couldn't tell), Sandburg looked as edible as Jim had ever seen him.

"I guess you would, wouldn't you?"

Jim shrugged. "What do you think I joined the army for?"

"All the right reasons, obviously."

Jim thought he saw admiration in Sandburg's eyes, and it made him look down, self-conscious. He changed the subject. "Tell me more."

"He was incredible. Totally magnetic, you know? And *sure*’—like he knew his place in the universe in a way no one else did."

Jim let himself glance up again, then let his eyes linger: Sandburg was staring into his wine glass like he expected to find his Sensei there.

"I wanted to be the best student he'd ever had."

Jim's breath caught. Here was his chance. As carefully as he could, he said "There was more to it than that, wasn't there."

Sandburg looked over at him, but this time he let himself blush. He took a deep breath. "Yeah."

Jim gave a small shrug, hoping more than anything that his lack of condemnation was showing in his face. "Lucky you," he said.

Sandburg's head tilted slightly, as if he were taking in this new information. "Not really," he said, laughing a little, and Jim could see the tension starting to seep out of him. "I had a total thing going, but he had rules against that. I was his student, y'know? It wasn't right." He smiled, ruefully.

"Like dating a CO."

"Yeah, but it wasn't just rank. He was so important to me - if it hadn't worked, which I can see now that it wouldn't have, it would've fucking crushed me. Not a good idea to date someone you look up to like that."

The excitement that had been building in the pit of Jim's stomach suddenly dropped to negative levels. It wasn't that Sandburg hadn't noticed his interest, necessarily; it was that Sandburg looked up to him. And therefore had insisted to himself that the interest couldn't be there. Because it wasn't okay to date someone you look up to.

Jim put his head in his hands.

"Jim?" There was concern in Sandburg's voice, but Jim was too busy kicking himself to respond. He'd been so happy when his partner had let on that Jim was a role model - he'd completely missed the boat.

"Jim." More insistent now, and a hand reaching for Jim's wrist, trying to unobscure his face.

"I'm fucked," Jim said, to himself more than to his partner, and sighed. He let Sandburg pull his hands away, sat back up in his chair, tried to look normal. Whatever that meant.

"What just happened here?" Sandburg looked wary.

Jim rubbed one hand across his eyes. "Never mind. Y'know, I'm still pretty beat from the stakeout Wednesday. I think I'm turning in." He stood, ignoring Sandburg's "What the fuck?" as best he could, and walking up the stairs with what he hoped was a semblance of calmness.

Once upstairs he took off his clothes, folding them without giving the activity any attention, and climbed into bed. He felt bleak, bereft. He hadn't realized how deeply he'd been clinging to the notion that someday Sandburg would want him - that, even if his interest were unrequited now, it was just because his partner was clueless, not because the romance couldn't actually happen.

Now he realized he'd been wrong. All the waiting, all the secret hoping, all the fantasies had been for nothing. He'd gone from the thrilling heights of discovering Sandburg liked men, to the...the rocks of despair, he thought, disgusted at the clichˆ©s in his own brain. God. He was miserable and he sounded like a soap opera. And, to add insult to injury, Major Crimes was still short-staffed and he'd been called in to work on Saturday. Obviously it was time for sleep.

Sleep was a long time coming.

The next morning on the way to the PD Jim almost hit a silver Mercedes. He leaned out the window and yelled obscenities at the guy driving it, who fortunately didn't seem to speak English, although his gestures conveyed that his response was along the lines of "Fuck you, too, asshole" in some five-tone Asian tongue.

Work was wretched. It was three weeks since the shit had hit the fan, and Jim had ditched the cane by the end of the first week, but not everyone had recuperated so fast: Simon still wasn't back, and the bullpen resounded with voices and strange cologne. He had a headache by ten-thirty. The day was all paperwork, and it was long.

That night he sat with a book, trying to immerse himself, but when Sandburg came in from the gym Jim's concentration went out the window. He could smell the sweat clinging to the hairs under Sandburg's armpits, but this time it just made him want to weep.

"What'cha reading?"


"There's a book in your hand," Sandburg said, patiently, shrugging out of his jacket.

"I'm not reading it." Jim stared at the television, as if he could will it to turn on. The remote was nowhere to be seen. He stood and went to flip the power switch, hissing a quick breath when the tension in his back blossomed beneath his left shoulderblade into a nasty spiral of pain.

"Hey," Sandburg said, concerned.

"Shoulder cramp," Jim managed, reaching around to rub the tight snarl of muscle. Light footsteps moved around the couch and then there were hands on Jim's back, warm and insistent, rubbing circles.

"Ow. Ow, fuck, Sandburg," he started, but something his partner was doing was working: the pain subsided. Jim stepped away and shook his arm out, experimentally.


"Yeah. Thanks." He didn't look at his partner, but he heard Sandburg moving across the room and kicking off his sneakers by the door.

"I'm gonna shower, okay?"

"Yeah," Jim said, absently. Once the bathroom door closed he looked up, turned off the television, and went upstairs. He couldn't face the prospect of making conversation.

Some time later he heard the shower shut off, the towel rasp over Sandburg's body, the door open. There was a momentary silence as his partner took in the deserted living room.

"Jim," Sandburg said.

He didn't answer.

"Jim, would you come downstairs? You can't be sleeping yet."

A pause, and the sound of bare feet moving across the floor nearer the stairs. "There's something I want to talk to you about."

When Jim didn't answer there was a frustrated exhalation. "You're such a prick sometimes." Sandburg sounded annoyed by Jim's silence, although not especially surprised. Jim heard him put on sweats, settle into the couch, flip on the TV. The sound was muted, but of course it carried.

His back retained the memory of his partner's hands, but he was too depressed even to jerk off. A sorry state indeed.

Sunday he looked through the pantry and didn't make breakfast, spilled a cup of coffee and spent far too long on the floor with a dishtowel mopping it up, and then settled on the sofa where he did nothing but stare blindly at his book and ache.

Until he became aware of Sandburg standing in front of him, waiting. Taking a breath to steel himself, he put the book down. "Yeah."

Sandburg's heart was beating fast, but his voice was calm. "I think I might know what's upsetting you." He didn't comment on why he thought Jim *wanted* to discuss what was upsetting him, but Jim didn't have the energy to put up a fight. "If I'm wrong, I'll just about kill myself, but anything's better than watching this fucking storm cloud hover over your head."

He perched at the other end of the sofa, moving into Jim's space but evidently waiting for some kind of permission to speak. Jim nodded, wary of the tiny thread of hope weaving its persistent way through his chest.

"Unless it's that you don't want me to -" Sandburg stopped, his brow creasing. "You *do* want me to start on Monday, don't you? You're not regretting this?"

Jim was startled into responding. "Jesus, Sandburg. You're already my partner, it's just nobody knows it. That's - you know that's what I want."

Sandburg nodded. "Good. Okay." Pause. "I've been thinking a lot about my Sensei lately."

An apparent non sequitur, unless Sandburg really *did* know what was bothering him. How likely was that? Before the thought had a chance to get going, Jim boxed it away and tried to focus on what Sandburg was actually saying.

"I wasn't going to tell you I had a thing for him, except it seemed like you already knew. Which made it easier to say it."

"What's the big deal?"

"Not everybody in our world takes declarations of bisexuality without batting an eye." There was an appreciative dryness to his tone.

Well, those of us who are also bisexual tend to be okay with coming-out announcements, damn it, not that you have any fucking clue what I am, Jim thought, but said only "mm."

Sandburg shrugged. "Whatever. Look. The thing I've been thinking about is why we could never have dated."

For an instant Jim mis-took the "we" to mean Sandburg and him, and sorrow flared beneath his ribs. He fought it down and nodded.

"It wasn't just the age thing. He was everything there was in my life at that point. Just..." Sandburg's hands flailed for a moment, trying to speak for themselves. "Everything," he said finally, as if at a loss for other words. "Bang," and there was a rueful sadness in his tone. "Holy grail time."

"I know." Did Jim really sound that pitiful? Jesus Christ.

"And I was just one of his students," Sandburg continued, as if Jim hadn't spoken. "And a scrawny one at that."

Jim's heart picked up pace to match his partner's. Where was he going with this?

"The problem wasn't that he was important to me. I mean, why would you want to date someone peripheral, right?" Sandburg grinned, although the nervousness in his heartbeat belied the easy expression on his face. "The problem was that I wasn't important to him."

There was a pause.

"Is this - am I - am I on the right track at all, here?"

"Go on." There was a hoarseness in Jim's voice that he couldn't have quashed if he'd tried.

"Not much more to say, I guess. Just that I'm not fourteen anymore. And I could imagine dating someone who was that important to me." His voice got quieter but remained steady. "If I were that important to him."

Jim looked up to find his partner, sitting perfectly still, looking him right back in the eye. Waiting for a response. Obviously talking about him. Calm as a meditation manual.

"Jesus, Chief," he said, throat suspiciously thick. "You're..."

Giving up on words, he moved the short distance between them and touched his lips to Blair's.

Some time later they pulled back for more than a breath and grinned at each other stupidly. The couch was solid beneath Jim's back; Blair was just as solid atop him. Especially where it counted. Thank fucking *God*.

"What do you do?"

His partner's voice was lower than usual. The timbre made Jim shiver happily.


Blair's chuckle reverberated through Jim, the vibrations transferred at the point where their legs and groins were intertwined. "Funny, that makes two of us." Beat. "Can I suck you?"

"What the hell kind of question is that?" Apparently it was possible to communicate both sarcasm and extreme joy at the same time, since Blair's eyes both laughed and softened for an instant. Then he was scrambling back, unfastening Jim's jeans, pulling him free.

It was over too fast. No real surprise; after spending so many hours fantasizing about that very warm mouth, Jim figured it was only willpower that'd kept him from going off the minute Blair's fingers touched his dick.

Shifting around so Jim could return the favor wasn't as easy as Jim thought it would be - after he almost knocked Blair off of him, Blair rolled his eyes and stood up so Jim could move. Which could have been awkward, but it reminded Jim of a long-cherished fantasy involving kneeling at the altar of Sandburg, so it worked out okay.

Afterwards they both zipped their jeans up again, and Jim made scrambled eggs and turkey bacon and sourdough toast for brunch, and they spent the afternoon tangled on the sofa half-watching the Vikings-Packers game. Which the Pack won, as usual. But which Jim wasn't paying much attention to, because he was too busy watching his partner, as usual.

This time, at least, his partner was watching him back.

The End