He thinks the other half of being strong is being strong. ...
How would he know that standing on one foot at a time
Is the way everyone walks?
-- Patricia Goedicke, "Mea Culpa"
You told me everyone can be a rock and
Roll like a river too.
--Mary Chapin Carpenter, "Tender (When I Want To Be)"
Tenderfoot (noun): An inexperienced beginner
Sandburg's reaction to police academy was the one that Jim least expected. But then, Jim reflected, the one thing that you could predict about the guy was that he would be unpredictable.
In his worst moments Jim had imagined that the academy might defeat his partner. The rest of the time, he figured that Blair would take it on as he had taken on so many other challenges: gamely, good-naturedly, without undue strain, never showing by any sign that he felt himself to be out of his element.
The one thing Jim never anticipated was that Blair would find the police academy ...
"Fun? Sandburg, no sane person has ever called CLETA fun."
"Oh, but you have no idea." Blair was bouncing again, every molecule that touched him vibrating with energy. "In a very real way it's a whole new culture, Jim, and I am going native in a big way. I'm learning it from the inside out. It's been so long since I got to do this, get into a new way of life and study the way people live. And I mean, here I am in a class called 'Interpersonal Communication,' and I'm observing at first hand the passing down of the law enforcement language from one generation to another. Sometimes you can almost hear the drums."
"Fun among the primitives, huh."
"Hey, it takes one to know one, man. And this time for once I'm an outsider because I'm older instead of because I'm younger, which is really nice for a change, not to be, like, group mascot. And --" Sandburg was gesturing furiously, pushing his shirtsleeve up above his elbow, theatrically flexing his biceps -- "for the first time since high school I am in fucking gym class, which is hilarious, and I haven't been in such good shape for years."
"I hadn't noticed," Jim lied.
"Naw, probably not that impressive to anybody but me," Sandburg said cheerfully. "But Jim, man, you gotta understand, it's like how it felt when you were, oh, eleven, and the air started to get that chill to it, and you knew ... fall was coming, something new was beginning. I love it."
"Well, good," Jim said uncharitably, meaning the opposite. Sandburg was thrilled to be moving out of his sidekick role, that much was obvious, and Jim wasn't so out of touch with himself that he couldn't tell that he was jealous. To make matters worse, his subconscious insisted on feeling that his own juvenile response was in some way Sandburg's fault. There were only so many times a day that he could tell himself, Grow up, Ellison. It made him surly.
"So, Dr. Livingston," he said now. "Think you could take a break from back-to-school to do some of those dishes?"
Tender (adjective): Marked by, responding to, or expressing the softer emotions
Being a Sentinel ought to mean never falling over anything in the dark. But case details were chasing each other like squirrels in Jim's mind, so the backpack on the living room floor nearly sent him flying.
"Goddammit, Sandburg," he said out loud, but the backpack's owner was long gone. Jim knew what he'd done. He'd seen it a hundred times: Sandburg, shirt untucked and hair flying, muttering under his breath, barreling out of his room with three minutes to spare for a date, then darting back in to fish some necessary item (keys? wallet? breath mints?) out of the backpack, dropping the pack wherever he happened to be when he found what he was looking for.
Jim picked up the backpack to take it back into Sandburg's room (where he would lean it against the bedside table, just like always, though he was sorely tempted to place it on the floor just inside the door and hope Sandburg came home a little late and a little drunk). A sheaf of papers fanned gracefully down to the floor like a well-executed card trick. Jim scooped them up and began to stuff them back into the pocket.
Outdated student I.D. Three half-punched coffee club cards. Realtor's business card. Coupon that would have saved him 15% on something called Morning Thunder at the health-food store if it hadn't expired in June. Two overdue book notices ...
Realtor's business card?
Jim fished it out of the stack. Red-and-blue logo: MacMillan Realty. Blue type: Condos, Co-ops, Townhomes. On the back, Sandburg's handwriting: Jamie, ext. 22.
What the hell?
Condos, Co-ops, Townhomes.
Sandburg was looking for someplace else to live.
But he can't do that. He can't.
Jim was a little surprised at the vehemence of his internal voice. He talked back to it a bit: This surprises you? Thirty's a little old for a roommate. He was supposed to stay for a week.
But I can't let him move out, the other voice insisted.
You knew sooner or later it was going to happen, he told it. Hell, you threw him out yourself once. You're telling me you can't let him go gracefully if he's ready?
Nuh-uh, the other voice insisted. Because ... because I wanted ...
That's what he wanted?
Well, what the hell was he going to do with that?
I mean, friendship was one thing. Appreciation, warm affection. Objective awareness of Sandburg's visual appeal, oh yeah. A crush, even -- he would even, if pressed, have been willing to admit to a little crush.
But this. This "stay with me and never go away" shit. This "this is your home, dammit, and it's the only one you'll ever need" shit. What the hell was he going to do with this?
I wish, he thought wearily, that repressed things would have the decency to fucking stay repressed.
Because what was he going to say, really? "Oh, by the way, you know what, after four years I somehow just noticed that I'm in love with you." Or, better yet, "Hey, Sandburg, you've been showing signs of an independent life lately, but a declaration of eternal love should drag you right back into my shadow where you belong." Oh yeah, that would be fair.
All right. All right. He could deal with that later. For now, the question was, just how far had Sandburg gone in his plans to find a new place? And what would Jim have to say to him to change his mind?
Jim looked down at the backpack on his lap. Then, quickly, before his mind could stop him, he unzipped the main section and removed all the contents, sorted through them, and put them back. Poked his fingers into the inner pocket. Unvelcroed the outer pouch and looked through it.
Then he took the backpack into Blair's room, leaned it against the bedside table, and opened the table drawer.
Tender (adjective): Susceptible to impressions or emotions ("a tender conscience")
One of the drawbacks of Sentinel sight was that it brought in more visual data than the human mind could interpret. So Blair had taught him what he thought of as the Snapshot Technique: homing in on an object in a series of ever-closer freeze-frames, which stayed in his memory so he could sort through them later.
Which was why, much later, after he had traced the sound and scent of Blair coming home and undressing and going through the peculiar doglike process that tore his bed apart every night before he could fall asleep, Jim was still wide awake. While he lay in the dark, eyes open, his mind obediently cued up snapshots of his own hands, opening Blair's drawers, sorting through his wardrobe, lifting box lids, pushing aside clothes.
Picking up from the floor of the wardrobe the folds of fabric that had curtained off the room before Jim had installed the French doors.
(What a shit you are, Jim Ellison.)
Replacing in the bedside table no fewer than three half-empty bottles of various kinds of lube (raspberry? raspberry lube? he's used raspberry lube?) and a well-thumbed copy of one of the more lurid volumes of The Arabian Nights, Burton translation.
(He trusts you.)
Turning over photographs to read the jotted notes on the backs.
(Well, if he trusts me, then that's his mistake.)
Opening book after book to look at the items (two magazine subscription cards, a maple leaf, a twenty-dollar bill) that were serving as makeshift bookmarks.
(Because I can't stop.)
There were, thank heaven, no property descriptions, no faxes with photos of co-op buildings. None of the handwritten notes on the desk looked like square footages or interest rates. No movers' phone numbers.
But you could never be sure, could you?
Condos, Co-ops, Townhomes.
No matter how many times you searched, you could really never be sure.
Tender (adjective): Sensitive to insult; touchy ("tender pride")
"So, see, man, my contention is that you can build a sort of statistical profile of a culture by looking at the way it allocates scarce resources, right?" Blair was working up to full-scale lecture mode, and Jim's mind, as always, wanted to wander, but he ruthlessly dragged it back. You pay enough attention to his stuff, he told himself sternly. The least you can do is listen to what he says.
"Right," he was saying now. "And of course in any student-mentor relationship, whether you're talking about shamanic training or a class full of rookies in blue, the most precious resource is time. So you tell me, Jim: What conclusion do you draw about the police community if I tell you that we're required to take two hours of training on 'Dealing With the Emotionally Disturbed' while 'Report Writing' gets twenty-four?"
Blair was laughing delightedly now. As always, Jim caught himself starting to smile at the almost conspiratorial inclusiveness of his friend's laughter, his irrational bad mood lifting a little. "You think that's bad," he said. "They had to do some adjusting after my class year. Someone on the editorial page got wind of the fact that they were devoting four times as many hours to 'Fish, Game and Wildlife' as they were to 'Domestic Violence.'"
"No way!" Blair crowed. "Fish, Game and Wildlife? You lie like a rug, man!"
"Oh, this from Mr. Full Disclosure," Jim snorted -- but it stung, it really did. He has no idea, he reassured himself again. And you haven't actually told him a lie. And if he asked you right out -- if he came right out and said, "Hey, Jim, have you been searching my room every couple of days?" -- well, then you'd tell him the truth. So it's not really a lie.
Tenderloin (noun): A strip of tender meat. Also: A district of the city devoted to vice (so called because it offers a corrupt police officer a luxurious diet)
Even before he set foot in Paddy O'Toole's, a sadly misnamed dive in the sadly misnamed Brighton section of Cascade, Jim knew that the cocaine deals the anonymous caller had been so confident about were going to be nowhere in evidence. The tiny whiff of the drug he could pick up was consistent with the citywide usage pattern -- not enough to suggest that it had changed hands anywhere near the bar, much less been stored there in large quantities.
The Friday night manager, whose name was not O'Toole but Valachovic, was calm and confident under questioning (carried out at a shout over the pounding heavy metal and the blip and ping of pinball machines). But as Jim casually swept his eye over the crowd around the pool table, Valachovic got a little jumpy. Noting the man's heart rate and respiration, Jim began to look for anything out of place. Ah. No drugs, but an awful lot of drinkers who should have been able to grow better beards than that if they were really twenty-one.
Underage drinking, Jim thought wryly -- that's the kind of Major Crime I want to be dealing with.
Especially, his inner voice said, if I'm going to have to take it on with Rick Goodall instead of my real partner.
But it wasn't to Goodall that Valachovic spoke. Waiting until he had Jim's attention, Valachovic popped the cash drawer and lowered his voice and said, "Listen. You look like an understanding kind of guy ..."
Tender (noun): A public expression of willingness to buy
And maybe it would all have been all right if Blair hadn't picked that afternoon to drop his backpack in the middle of the living room floor. Again. Because in addition to the genuine inconvenience of the thing, there was also the memory of that business card mysteriously floating to the surface of the mess. And suddenly Jim's irritability crystallized into genuine anger. "Goddammit, Sandburg, is this a home or a hotel to you?"
"What?" Blair was already in the kitchen pouring rice into a measuring cup.
"What?" Jim mimicked unkindly. "The backpack in the middle of the floor, that's what. You think I'm your fucking maid or something?"
"Hey, hey, hey, sorry, man!" and Blair was already halfway there to pick the offending backpack up. The placating voice and the I'm-no-threat-to-you-mighty-pack-leader gestures -- He might as well roll over and show his belly, Jim thought disgustedly. He won't fight, but he'll fucking run, won't he. Jim stepped into his path. "I'll just, I'll just," Blair was saying, and Jim forcibly restrained himself from placing a palm on his chest and shoving him.
"You'll just leave your shit all over the place for me to trip over, is that it?"
"Hey!" Blair's posture changed, subtly -- he seemed to get a couple of inches taller, and he met Jim's eye steadily. "I said I was sorry," he said, in that even voice that meant he was getting angry. "I'm going to take care of the backpack. What's the real problem, Jim?"
"Right," Jim said tightly. "Of course it's not possible that what I say is the problem might actually be the problem. No, there's got to be some deep underlying drama, because your damned backpack --"
"-- is a harmless inanimate object, Jim," Blair said. "Which you, the Sentinel, are more than capable of spotting. And you, the guy with the forty-inch stride, are more than capable of stepping over. Now, you know I can't read your mind, but if I'm doing something that makes you angry, man, just say so and I'll fix it."
"Must you always be so fucking rational?" Jim said through clenched teeth.
Blair's face held its angry look for a moment longer, then crumpled into laughter. "Rational? That's the trouble?" he sputtered. "Hey, no problem, man. You want irrational, you got it --" and then he began to look around jumpily, squeaking, "Weasels! Weasels! The U.N. took my bus tickets!"
"Sandburg ..." But faced with his roommate staggering backwards and tearing imaginary weasels out of his hair, Jim was powerless to sustain his anger. He sat down on the couch with a whuff and covered his face with his hands.
"Jim, man, what is it really?" Jim felt the couch dip as Blair sat down beside him. He didn't look up. "Is it something with your senses?"
Jim's senses obligingly presented him with a snapshot of his hands putting a pair of Blair's boxers back in a drawer, trying to approximate their original crumpled state, after finding nothing underneath them but two buttons and a shark's tooth. "No," he said dully. "Senses are fine."
"Then what?" Blair's hand came down lightly on his shoulder, and it took all Jim's remaining willpower not to lean into that touch. "You're so jumpy these days, man, and it's even worse since ... oh, hey." Jim lifted his face at the new tone of voice. "Does this have anything to do with that meeting you had with Simon this morning?" Jim looked away. "Jim." Blair's voice was affectionate but firm. "Tell me about the meeting you had with Simon this morning."
Jim couldn't meet his eye. "It was nothing," he said. "Just ..."
"Just ...? Come on, man, you know you'll feel better if you tell me."
You think so? "Just, somebody thought I was on the take, is all."
"What?" Blair sputtered. "OK, OK, look. I'm going to go turn the burner off, and you're going to tell me the whole story, OK? Don't --" and he was already in the kitchen, "no excuses, man, you're going to tell me the whole thing from the beginning."
And amazingly enough, Jim did -- starting when he spotted the pool players at Paddy O'Toole's with their weedy beards, and ending with Valachovic's startled look when Jim informed him that it was a crime to offer a bribe to a police officer. Everything, that is, except what passed through Jim's mind when Valachovic made the offer, which was, What, is 'Sneaky Bastard' written all over my face?
"So you're telling me that this guy just somehow thought you looked like a guy who would take money?" Blair looked honestly bewildered. "What is he, nuts?"
" 'An understanding guy.' Those were his very words. And I suppose he would know," Jim said. "You know the whole story, 'A guy's gotta make a living, I'm not asking you to do anything dishonest, Officer, just maybe you could be looking at something else, Officer ...' What?"
"Waaait a minute. Who were you with?"
"Goodall," Jim said irritably. "You know I'm riding with Goodall while you ... what?"
Blair's mouth had that tight look that it got when he was suppressing a smile. "Rick Goodall. Has he gotten that tooth capped yet?"
"No, he ... oh."
"Yeah, oh. Where were his handcuffs?"
"Wrapped around his fist like he always ...oh."
"Yeah, oh, you big goofball." Blair was grinning openly now. "So what you're telling me is that you and Goodall walked into -- no, excuse me, you walked into a bar; Goodall lumbered into a bar -- you with your 'sir' and your nice firm Boy Scout handshake, Goodall with his one and a half front teeth and his little beady eyes sliding around like the Godfather might be lurking in one of the dark corners ..."
"Yeah, I'm getting the picture, Sandburg," Jim growled over the relief that was loosening the fist in his chest for the first time in ... how long?
"... and you wonder," Blair went on, oblivious, "why he picked you for the appeal to sympathy? I mean, man, he was probably just thinking, OK, if this one hits me at least he won't leave chain marks on my face!"
Jim sighed. "OK," he said. "I may have overreacted a little bit."
"Oh, just a bit, huh." Now Blair was looking at him with frank curiosity. "Jim. Did you really, seriously think that anyone was going to believe you would take a bribe?"
"Valachovic did." It tasted like ashes in his mouth.
"Valachovic doesn't know you from ... well, from Goodall," Blair said decisively. "He probably figured, hey, worth a try, no harm no foul -- it probably never occurred to him that you'd have to --" Then his mouth shut with an audible "click."
"What is it?"
"Jim, you did report this, didn't you?"
"What? Of course I did. What did you think the meeting was all about? I told Simon about it as soon as I got back, and he bitched at me all the way down the hall to Criminal Investigations and all the way back up. Like it was my fault some idiot barman thought I needed a payoff more than I needed a job."
"Well, good." And then Blair looked down, and when he looked up his face was wiped clean of any expression. Jim's gut clenched. It took a lot to get Sandburg angry enough that his face showed nothing at all.
"But you couldn't tell me."
Tender (noun): One that tends
Oh shit. "It just ... didn't seem important," he said lamely. Because what was he going to say? If I talk to you about this, then I'm going to have to tell you why I think I might have a dishonest face, and that will lead to a conversation where I tell you why I'm pawing through your sock drawer every night, and then you'll say, oh, well, now that you mention it, the lack of privacy around here has been getting to me anyway, and I've found this great little co-op in the parish district ...
"Not important? Jim, anything that affects you is important to me. What do you think, I just stick with you because of this high-class address here?" Blair was gamely trying a joke, but Jim could see anger tightening the edges of his mouth. "Jesus, snipe at me for hours because of some stupid shit and you can't even tell me about it?"
"You've been busy," Jim said. "You've got your own stuff to deal with. I didn't want to pile all mine on you."
"Oh, no, you didn't want to pile anything on me by doing anything so rude as to talk to me, man. No, much better to go around accusing me of using the place as a hotel, that's a much more humane strategy here."
Then Blair suddenly turned on the couch to face Jim fully. "Hey, and you know what, that's really pretty ironic, Jim, that you should make an accusation like that. I mean, here I am saying, 'Eat this, Jim,' 'Drink this, Jim,' 'Maybe you'd feel better if you went to bed early, Jim,' 'I'll get the dishes so you can go relax, Jim' " -- and it was true, Blair had been looking after Jim like a mother hen while Jim worked through his problems and waited for Blair to leave so he could go search his room -- "and all this time you had a problem that you couldn't lower yourself to talk to me about, so you tell me, man: Am I your friend or am I a fucking nobody?"
And for a minute or so there was no sound but Blair's slightly fast breathing and the aftershocks of those words.
And just as Jim was drawing breath to say something, anything, apologize, confess, Blair dropped his face into his hands and said, "Oh, god, Jim, I'm sorry, I didn't mean that, I ask too much, I know that, I'm so sorry," and Jim's brain was so slow and his mouth felt numb and all he could say was, "What? Blair, I ... What?"
"Look." Blair turned back again, and now his body language was all openness and gentleness, "I'm sorry, I was out of line, I know better than that. Can we just forget I ever said that? Please?" But he barely gave Jim time to open his mouth before he went on, "Jim, man, I know better, it's just, sometimes I forget, you know? Forget how it is with you."
"How it is?" Why was his mouth working so slowly?
"You know. You're not like me, you're not into this big emotional openness trip, you're ... just you. You know? Like, Jim's from Mars, Blair's from the Oort Cloud. And I know that, man, I don't mind, it's who you are. I can't demand that you talk to me about every little thing, I don't have the right. I'm sorry. Just ... I'll go finish making dinner, OK? Can we forget all this shit?"
And Blair looked so hopeful that though Jim knew it wasn't what needed to be said, he wound up saying, "Yeah, Sandburg, we've both had a rough couple of weeks, let's just forget it." The look of relief on Blair's face was a thorn in his heart.
Tender (verb): To present for acceptance ("tender my resignation")
It was funny how he'd never noticed it before, but now, with the memory of Blair's surrender (I ask too much, I have no right) fresh in his mind, Jim saw everywhere the traces of Blair's efforts not to demand too much of him.
He had always felt that it was just the opposite, that Blair was continually pushing outward, demanding more space, more time, more participation in his life. One look around the loft -- hell, one look at their grocery list -- was enough to confirm that surface impression. But keeping in mind the expansiveness of Blair's nature, his tendency to spread out into every cranny available to him (like spray-in insulation, Jim's mind offered helpfully), Jim could look at all their interactions and see nothing but retreat, retreat, retreat.
Music bothering you, Jim? Sorry, I'll turn it off. Hate the smell of my breakfast, Jim? Sorry, I won't eat that stuff any more. Don't want to sense the slightest trace of my sex life, Jim? Sorry, I'll take it elsewhere. Annoyed by my efforts to get close to you, Jim? Sorry, I won't be so demanding.
All right, so Blair was demanding, no matter how hard he tried. But Jim had never noticed before just how hard he was trying.
It shamed him. He knew a vow of total openness was beyond him. But he could take it one step at a time.
So the next night, as they sat around the ruins of dinner and made amiable, superficial conversation, Jim said, "Chief, I have a confession to make." And he reached into his pocket and handed Blair the MacMillan Realty business card.
Blair gave him a questioning look.
"It, uh, fell out of your backpack a week or so ago. When you left it on the living room floor --" and at Blair's flinch he held up a hand to forestall another apology -- "anyway, I, uh, picked it up, and I saw the name on the back, and I ..."
"You know Jamie? So what are -- whoa, a love life appears on the horizon! Way to go, Jim!" Blair was grinning. "Hey, you want to have a territorial battle for the female? Naw, man, go ahead and ask her out if you want to, I don't care. I mean, she was cute, but I never called her because she was a little too intensely entrepreneurial for my tastes, you know? Too goal-oriented. I mean, she's all, 'Hi, I'm Jamie, take my card, here's a pen, write down my number, 'cuz I can really see you and me together,' and I'm like, 'OK, Jamie, you really didn't need me to be involved in that interchange at all, did you?' "
Jim was blinking as his mind furiously rearranged all the things he was certain of.
"But hey, you and she might be able to have a good time together. I mean, two organized people, two people with a purpose in life. I think you should go for it, man. You never know until you try, you know?"
"Yeah," said Jim distantly. "Maybe I will."
Tender (adjective): Not cold-hardy
But of course he had no intention of calling Jamie-the-realtor. When an opportunity presented itself to acquire tickets to the long-sold-out world music festival, it was Blair that Jim hauled along to the riverfront park to listen to the bands and shop at the stalls and eat greasy street food that, no matter how exotic its culture of origin, always seemed to be a variation on the burrito theme.
It was a good day. It was one of the first days in a long time when the silence between Jim and Blair didn't feel filled with reproaches for the confessions that hadn't been made, but instead was just the comfortable silence of two friends who knew each other too well for nervous chatter.
So his heart was warm and his belly was full, and it was a damn shame that his feet were damp in the heavy mist and his neck was chilled by the deceptively playful breeze that had sprung up as soon as the sun went down. Blair was shivering in his thin shirt as they carried their burden across the parking lot, keeping up a steady low murmur of half-jesting complaint: "We would have been closer if we'd left the truck at home and walked, Jim. Jesus, I'm gonna collapse if I have to take another step."
"Sandburg, I am not carrying you, no matter how tragic you get." Then he relented. "Oh, all right, gimme the seats, you wimp."
"Hey, I am not a wimp. I just figure it's more fair and equitable to parcel out the bundles on a pro-rated basis, allowing for the difference in our body weights."
"How about on a pro-rated basis allowing for who, exactly, felt compelled to buy two wood carvings and a moolah?"
"It's a mola, Jim, and it's just a wall hanging, it doesn't weigh more than a couple of ounces. What's heavy is the chairs, man, can't you just sit on the ground on a blanket like normal people?"
"If we had, both our backs would hurt and you'd be bitching about carrying the blanket." By now they had reached the truck, but at a glance it was obvious that parking in the farthest corner, right up against the trees, hadn't saved them from being hemmed in by cars waiting to exit the parking lot. "Damn. Guess we'll have to wait for the crowds to thin out after all." Jim threw the stadium seats in the back of the truck, then unlocked Blair's door and dumped the other packages on the floor
The air inside the truck wasn't warm, but it was dry and still, which was something. Blair was rubbing his hands over his flannel-clad arms. "Vrr. Wish I'd bought that Irish sweater."
"You'd have put it on, and it would be wet," Jim said reasonably. He started the truck so the engine could warm up and then moved to take his leather jacket off.
"Whoa, whoa, what are you doing?"
"What does it look like I'm doing, Sandburg?"
"Man, I hate it when you do stuff like that!" Blair pushed at Jim's hand. "You've got, what, a T-shirt on under there? Not even a heavy one? Come on, man, I'm supposed to be comfortable when you've given up your jacket and you're freezing?"
Jim sighed dramatically. He slid down a little in his seat, and stretched out his arm, holding up the side of the jacket like a wing. "All right, Sandburg, slide over here and we can both get some warmth out of it. Maybe we won't have to wait for long." He squinted through the windshield. It was raining in earnest now and much darker than it had appeared from outside, and there was still a row of headlights and taillights between the truck and the exit.
After a moment's hesitation, Blair slid under Jim's outstretched arm, and -- "Shit! You're wet!" Jim almost pushed him away again, but Blair burrowed under the coat in search of warmth.
"See, man, that's why you make the big bucks. Nothing gets by you," Blair said contentedly.
Tender (adjective): Delicate or soft in quality or tone
It was a big coat, but Jim was a big guy, and he hadn't bought it in anticipation of needing to get a whole other body into it. But it was surprising how well they fit, like the snick! of two halves of a hinge coming together. Blair turned toward Jim and slid down in the seat far enough to fit his shoulder under Jim's armpit. Jim's arm, still holding out the coat, hovered against the back of the seat for a moment, and then he wrapped it around Blair, cupping the surprisingly bony shoulder through the damp flannel, cherishing the rare opportunity for a more-than-fleeting touch.
At times like this, the flow of time usually seemed to speed up. Jim's memory of his first kiss, for instance, was a blur in which the only thing that stood out was an irrational fear that he was going to belch. But when Jim focused intensely on sensory input, he could almost feel time slowing down, allowing him to take as much of it in as possible. It was a little Sentinel bonus that had saved Jim's life more than once, but he'd never been more grateful for it than he was now, when he could savor the brush of Blair's hair against his cheek and the sound of the rain hitting the windshield and the exotic, spicy scent of the tissue paper that Blair's Costa Rican wood carvings were wrapped in.
After a brief hesitation, Blair slid his arm around Jim's waist. Another moment, and he rested his head against the hollow of Jim's shoulder.
Such a small movement, but it was enough to completely sweep away all the stern lectures Jim had been giving himself about how unfair it would be to push something on Blair right when his life was changing so much, about how he needed to wait for Blair to make the first move toward anything beyond friendship.
As if in slow motion, Jim turned his head, rubbed his cheek against Blair's face, and then kissed Blair's forehead.
Blair drew a quick breath and his body tried to go in two different directions, his shoulders pushing backward a bit while the arm around Jim's waist tightened. Jim moved his lips softly against Blair's forehead, his temples, his eyes.
Blair sighed, then turned his face up, and Jim's next pass brought their lips together.
Their mouths touched, parted, touched, gently and silently. Then Blair sighed again and Jim felt (oh god) Blair's tongue brush over his upper lip. The signal that Blair wanted him too was almost as intoxicating as the contact. Jim's lips opened and he sank into the taste of his friend -- swept his tongue into Blair's mouth, retreated to brush his lips, angled his head for a sweeter connection, nibbled gently, swallowed Blair's breath and breathed it back to him. All the while the hand that wasn't cupped over Blair's shoulder was stroking Blair's cheek, brushing back his hair, gliding down along his jaw and then over his throat to find by feel the hollow between his collarbones, then a fraction lower, over the rough hair, to the first button of the flannel shirt. Blair's hand ghosted over the back of Jim's neck, inside the coat, followed the collar of his T-shirt around, then turned to drag a thumbnail along the line where neck met shoulder, making Jim shiver.
Jim turned his head and kissed Blair's moving hand without opening his eyes, and Blair began running his fingertips over Jim's face as though it was braille. Wonder what he's reading there, Jim thought distantly. Blair's hand smoothed over his hair and came to rest again on the back of his neck, pulling him into another, deeper kiss.
Blair's knees bumped against Jim's leg, and Jim caught himself in the second before he would have pulled his friend into his lap. There were some things too important to do for the first time in a truck. He brushed a kiss over the corner of Blair's mouth, then pulled back a bit and rested his forehead against Blair's.
Blair opened his eyes slowly. "Oh, god."
Blair pulled back to look at him, face full of desire and wonder and fear. "Jim, man. What are we going to do with this?"
And Jim smiled a bit, because that question, at least, he had an answer for. "We're going to take it home, Chief. We're going to take it home."
Tender (adjective): easily broken or damaged; delicate
After the bright lights of the elevator and the hallway, the loft was very dark. Jim and Blair moved through the darkness in a sort of slow motion, without speaking, without touching, until Blair came to rest standing uncertainly at the corner of Jim's big bed. And Jim, moving with the certainty of someone performing a long-rehearsed ritual, sank to the bed and wrapped his arms around Blair's waist and pressed his face into his belly.
Then, centered by his friend's familiar scent and unfamiliar warmth, he pulled back and drew Blair down to lie on the bed beside him, and pushed up on his elbow, and ran his hand gently over Blair's shirt. He wasn't trying to arouse -- wasn't trying to do anything at all except touch as much of Blair as possible for as long as possible -- but Blair was breathing hard and scrabbling at the buttons of his shirt. Jim stilled those fluttering hands and moved over Blair to kiss him briefly. "Let me," he whispered.
Blair nodded, wide-eyed, and lay still while Jim undressed him. When Jim came down next to him on the bed, Blair shrank back as the zipper of Jim's leather jacket touched his bare skin, and Jim sat back and pulled off the jacket and his T-shirt, impatiently, and then pressed against him, skin to skin, and moved into a kiss, as though that kiss in the truck had been going on, somewhere in the background, during the whole long drive home, and all Jim had to do was turn his attention back to it again.
Blair's hands stroked over his back in a soothing rhythm until Jim pulled free of the kiss and began to move down Blair's body. He ran his mouth along Blair's collarbone and his hand along his ribs, drawing a shiver from the naked body, then pressed his face to the center of Blair's chest to inhale his scent and feel the coarse hair tickle his face as Blair's chest rose and fell. Jim turned his head and nuzzled Blair's nipple. When that got him an encouraging gasp, he ran his tongue over it. Blair said "Jim" in a breathy, dreamy voice and brought his hands up to caress Jim's shoulders.
Jim worked the nipple until he couldn't tease himself any longer, then moved lower, tracing the edge where Blair's chest hair thinned out along his belly, brushing lips over his navel, licking the hollow of his hip, then closing his eyes in bliss and taking Blair's wet cock into his mouth.
This time the "Jim" wasn't dreamy but urgent, almost uncomfortable. Jim sensed that Blair was going to object. He didn't want Blair to object, didn't want him to think at all. So he took it deeper, and deeper still, using some well of inspiration to do the things that he somehow knew would give Blair pleasure, would make Blair come, would make Blair his. The sound of his own name, the taste of Blair coming in his mouth, were like promises. He wanted to believe they were promises. Promises were what he needed.
Tender (adjective): Showing care; considerate ("tender regard")
"Jim," Blair's voice floated down plaintively, "you've still got fucking jeans on, man." Soft chuckle. "And I am ready for the boneless chicken ranch here, I couldn't sit up if I tried. Take 'em off for me, will you?"
Jim did, then pressed up against Blair's side. Blair turned to look at him in the dim light, reached to touch his face. "We can do anything you want," he said.
"I want you to come again," Jim whispered. "I want to see your face."
"Ah, Jim." Blair closed his eyes. "Then you're going to have to give me a little while, man, I usually can't have the top of my head blown off more than once every half-hour, you know?"
"Yeah, OK," Jim said. "Can I, uh ..."
"Can I rub your back?"
Blair smiled. "Maybe just as a favor to you," he said, and rolled to his side.
Jim watched his hands on Blair's skin, storing up Sentinel-vision snapshots as he learned the spots that made Blair laugh, made him sigh, made him groan. Firm touches first, then gentle ones. Feather of fingertips over the base of the neck, the bottom of a shoulderblade, the spot right above where the waistband would ride. And lower, when Blair didn't object, smoothing his hand over Blair's buttock, down the back of his leg, over the bottom of his foot.
And apparently Blair had been exaggerating about needing a half-hour, or else Jim's time sense was warped again, because when Blair turned back to face Jim he was hard again, and he pulled Jim into his arms and rolled them over so that Jim was on top of him. "Yeah," he said when Jim hesitated, "I want it." And Jim prepared him so slowly, so gently, that Blair was trembling when Jim finally moved back over him, fitting so sweetly into the cradle of his thighs, sliding into him while his gaze held Blair captive, pinned, immobilized by the intensity of the worship in his face.
And even afterwards, Jim watched him, swaddled him in a silence so intense and unbreakable that Blair could only escape into sleep. Jim watched over his exhausted slumber, wondering why even that felt like a retreat.
Tenderhearted (adjective): easily moved to love or pity; impressionable
But Blair was still there in the morning when Jim woke up -- was, in fact, sprawled out in a crumpled mass of sheets and blankets and taking up far more than half the bed. The sight of Blair's closed eyes made Jim feel oddly anxious. He scooted closer and wrapped him up in his arms, and Blair sighed "Jim," and Jim could feel his body temperature start to climb as he moved up out of sleep.
And when Jim had to have more kisses, heedless of morning breath, Blair seemed happy to oblige. But soon he was pushing back a bit, cupping a reassuring hand on Jim's cheek while he looked at him curiously.
"What?" Jim said.
"Jim," Blair said again. "Man, what was all that?"
"That was sex, Sandburg," Jim growled. "Maybe you've heard of it?"
"Seriously, Jim," Blair said. "Look, I'm not trying to torture you here, man, but I need to understand what's going on. And incredible as last night was, I need you to tell me with words, you know?"
"I know," Jim said miserably, "but I just ..."
Blair looked at him sympathetically in the blue early-morning light. "Would it help if I didn't look at you?"
"Yeah," Jim said gratefully. Blair turned his back and pushed back against Jim's body, then lifted his head and pulled his hair under his neck. Jim pressed his face into the warm, fragrant skin at the back of Blair's neck. Yes. This was easier.
"OK, go for it, I'm listening."
It felt like standing on the high dive, getting ready to jump. "I'm ... afraid of getting left behind."
Blair's muscles tensed under his hands. Then he shifted closer, and a hand curled over Jim's. "Ah, Jim, man, you keep on surprising me. OK, go with that, say more about that."
Jim sighed. "It's just that you've got all these new beginnings going. For so long your life was on hold while you looked after mine -- no, no, don't tell me, I know, but still -- everything's changing now. And we never see each other. And I don't need the same things from you now, and I don't see that you ever needed anything from me ..."
Jim could feel Blair deciding not to respond to that yet, though of course it would come up later. For now, Blair just settled for an encouraging "Mmmm?"
"You remember that business card? That Jamie person?"
Blair lifted his head again, put it down, but his voice was curious. "Yeah?"
"The day that fell out of your backpack, I ... thought you were condo shopping. Looking to move out."
"What? You thought -- and you thought I wouldn't tell you? What, that just one day you'd come home and here'd be all these boxes, and 'Hey, man, you've got your spare room back, it's been real, see ya around?' "
Very softly: " 's what I'd do."
Blair rolled over to face him. "You would not." Jim had never heard him sound so certain. "Oh, you'd want to, I know, you'd want to hide so you could duck the unpleasant conversation. You'd put it off. But sooner or later, you'd tell the truth. You'd do the honorable thing."
Shit. Bullseye. How did he do that? Because now Jim had no choice but to justify his good opinion, to live up to his expectations.
"Blair ..." Go ahead. Do it. Whatever happens, you'll feel better if you come clean.
Blair had to know something was coming now -- even his ordinary senses would be able to read the muscle tension, the shallow breathing. "What is it?"
"Could you turn back around?"
Jim buried his face in Blair's neck again, but he wasn't going to mumble like a guilty child. He forced himself to speak slowly, audibly. Cold feeling under his breastbone: This, surely, couldn't pass by with that same easy acceptance. "I've ... been ... I've been going through your things. In your room. Searching. Your room."
Quick intake of breath. "You -- why?"
That was a good question, an excellent question. "I'm not sure. Really sure. I think ..." Deep breath. "I did it at first when I found the card. I thought I'd find ... I don't know. A contract, a listing, something to tell me for sure you were looking. I wanted to know for sure."
"But when you didn't find anything ..."
"I don't know, I got kind of ... obsessed. I mean, it's not like anything I found was going to tell me for sure that you were staying, right? Just like science class -- you can prove a hypothesis is false, but you can't prove it's true, just that nobody's disproven it yet. And then I realized how little I knew you. How little I really saw you, when you come right down to it. So then I kept picturing myself finding something, I don't know, a letter, a picture, something that would let me know for sure ...
"Know for sure what?" Very soft, a little breathless.
And now that he'd come this far out on the high dive, it was surprisingly easy to jump. "If you could stay with me." That wasn't quite it. "If you could love me."
Every muscle in Blair's body went tense, then relaxed. All but his hand on Jim's, which continued to grip tightly. "Ah, Jim, you -- all you had to do was ask, man. You only ever had to ask."
It was an answer, of course -- already Jim could feel his heart lighten, his chest expand, the muscles around his eyes smooth out. But Blair needed to hear him ask, and he owed him that much.
Blair rolled over and pushed up tight against Jim, pressing Jim's face to his throat. "Yes," he whispered. "I can. I do."
Jim's "Me, too" was barely audible, but he could feel it being heard.
Long silence now, and Jim would have been happy to stay like that forever, cocooned in his friend's warmth and scent, but Blair pushed back to look him in the eye and said, "Listen, listen, listen, man. I want you to be sure of that, you understand me? I want you to be confident of it. No more of this trying to --" a wave of his hand took in the bed, last night, this morning --"to win me or something, you know? You got me, man, you got me, you don't have to be so fucking careful with me! Man!" He was half angry now and half laughing. "No wonder -- it all makes sense now -- no wonder!" Laughter was apparently winning -- Blair gave Jim's shoulder a shove with the heel of his hand and grinned. "Now, I'll tell you what's gonna happen here."
"Jeez, a little bit of true confessions and you think you're in charge," Jim growled happily, and Blair's grin got bigger, delighted.
"Exactly. So listen. We're going to be, like, civilized people here, Jim. We're going to drink some water, and eat something, and take showers, and brush our teeth, and then -- and then we're gonna come back up here and get naked together and do it right, without you so panicked that it's like it's half a wedding night and half a fucking deathbed scene, man!"
Well, what was there to say to that? Damn the guy for being right all the time. "You go ahead," Jim said. "I'm gonna have to change the sheets."
"Again," Blair smirked, and ducked down the stairs just in time to avoid getting hit by a pillow.
Tender (adjective): Sensitive to touch ("tender skin")
After breakfast, coffee, and a belated flurry of concern for personal hygiene, Jim came up the stairs and found Blair in the same spot as the night before, standing by the bottom corner of the bed. He was grinning.
"What?" Jim said, or tried to, but before the word was out of his mouth, Blair was all over him, tongue deep in his mouth, using his grip on Jim's robe to pull Jim around and push him down on the bed. "You got all selfish last night," Blair said against his throat. "All this, this, this skin, man, you kept it all to yourself. Didn't let me enjoy it at all." He dragged Jim's robe open and attacked Jim's body with what Jim could have sworn were several mouths and at least five hands, until it became obvious to Jim that he was either going to have to stop him or come on the spot, a problem Jim solved by simply using his greater body weight to flip them both over.
"Will you slow the fuck down?" he said, but he was smiling and panting as he said it, and Blair grinned back at him. "Whaddaya think this is, a rodeo?"
"I was thinking more like 'Wild Kingdom,' " Blair said, pulling him down for another kiss. "And I don't know how we could go any slower, Jim, I was ready for this five minutes after I met you, man, years I've been waiting for you to get there -- "
"Well, OK, maybe it was a little longer than that, but not much," Blair said, running his hand meditatively over Jim's throat and down his chest. "I mean, you pushed me up against the wall -- and no, I do not get off on being dominated, don't even think about it -- but you were so lost and so strong and you smelled so good ..."
"You like my smell?"
"Mhm. Like your taste, too. Like a little more of it. Right. Now."
Tenderize (verb): to make tender by applying a process or substance that breaks down connective tissue
And if Jim had any ideas about continuing the conversation, they were burned up in ten seconds flat as all his consciousness was pulled up to the surface of his skin by Blair's lips, Blair's tongue, Blair's teeth. By the time Blair raised his head again, he had taken Jim to the buzzing edge of orgasm three times, and Jim's ass was loose and sensitized and slick with what felt like about half a bottle of lube, and when Blair said, "You ready now?" it took all Jim's mental resources to say, intelligently, "Huh?"
Blair's grin was so irritatingly smug that Jim made a silent vow that someday, no matter now long it took, he was going to turn the tables on him and deprive him of the power of intelligent speech. Right now, though, the best he could do was to nod in a way that he hoped didn't look too desperately eager.
Blair surprised him by rolling over on his back. "Come on up here," he said. At Jim's questioning look, he said, "I want you to be the one in control."
Jim closed his eyes. "God, Blair, don't get me so close and then say shit like that." He followed Blair's urging hands, straddling his hips and moving until he felt the tip of Blair's cock pressing against his hole. Jesus, it felt as big as a tennis ball. Jim took his lip in his teeth and began to press down.
Blair pushed at his arms. "Stop," he said. Jim stilled and looked at him questioningly.
"You're dialing down, aren't you?" Jim nodded. "Bad idea, Jim. Your body gives you pain for a reason. You haven't done this much, have you." He rubbed Jim's thighs reassuringly. "Look, here's what I want you to do. You move as slow as you need to, and when you start to feel that pain, stop a second and breathe deep and concentrate on relaxing those muscles. Sometimes it helps to bear down."
And it really was easier that way, once he got used to it -- agonizingly slow, to the point where his thigh muscles began to feel like they were in the gym, but with only a ghost of the bright pain he remembered. When he was all the way down, he paused for a moment, leaning back a bit against Blair's bent legs, until he felt Blair's hands moving over his belly and up his chest. He opened his eyes to see Blair looking at him with a fierce expression of lust and longing.
"You are so ... fucking ... beautiful," Blair said hoarsely. "You're never doing this with anybody else, you hear me? Just me from now on."
"Yeah," Jim breathed. "Make it worth my while."
Blair stroked down over Jim's cock, which was lying against his thigh as though it knew the action was elsewhere. It made Jim self-conscious.
"Blair," he said. "I'm sorry it's ..."
"Normal," Blair said. "Sometimes you can come without ever getting hard again. Still feel good when I touch you?"
"Oh yeah," Jim said, and he began to move, and they both groaned.
And Jim had sworn he was going to take it slow, but that turned out to be impossible, because as soon as he got used to applying the familiar rhythm to this unfamiliar movement, he found himself going faster and faster, leaning down closer to look at Blair's open mouth and closed eyes, moaning and sighing and oh god growling as the pleasure caught him and he looked down in time to watch himself come all over Blair's hands, all over Blair's heaving chest, and Blair opened his eyes and said, "Please," and moved his wet hands to Jim's hips to urge him into continued movement and said, "Please, Jim, god, so close, please," and Jim dialed up to feel Blair's cock throb inside him as he came.
From somewhere Jim found the presence of mind to catch himself on his elbows as he fell. Blair's cock slipped out of him much too soon, before he was ready to lose it. But Blair's arms wrapped around him and dragged him down until they were side by side and wrapped up tightly together. They stayed like that until they could breathe a little again, and then before Jim could stop him Blair used the sheet to wipe them both down. Even knowing that he was going to have to change the sheets again wasn't enough to knock the stupid grin off Jim's face.
Tender (noun): an unconditional offer in satisfaction of a debt
Jim was usually the earlier riser, so he was surprised the next morning to wake up and find Blair already gone. He lay in bed for a while trying to figure out what struck him as strange about this, and when he figured it out, he had to smile: The dramatic inner monologue about What This Could Mean was silent. For the first time in months his brain was taking what Blair did at face value again.
When Jim went downstairs, he found coffee, a big unhealthy blueberry muffin, and a note:
Pursuing shapely coeds with trust funds
Picking up plane tickets
Might be back
"Shit," Jim grumbled out loud as he put the coffee mug in the microwave, "you let a guy in on your insecurities and you'll never get a minute's peace." He was grinning.
An hour later, when Jim had finished the breakfast dishes and gone upstairs to sort the laundry, he heard the door bang shut and Blair came in in a crackle of plastic shopping bag noises. Jim looked down over the railing. "Whatcha got?"
"Show you," Blair said, and bounded up the stairs. He upended the bag, spilling brightly colored rectangles all over the bed.
"What are they?" Jim picked up the nearest one, which was a pleasant light-gray tweed pattern -- sheets. Blair grinned at him.
"If you're gonna be changing the sheets three times a day from now on -- and I sincerely hope that you are ..." He sat down on the bed. "I tried to get them light-colored enough that they wouldn't have that dye smell," he said.
"That's really ... Blair. That's so nice." Jim couldn't quite account for why a bag of white-sale bargains would give him a lump in his throat.
"Anyhow." Blair's voice didn't sound quite normal, either. "I like the blue ones and all, but those are your sheets, Jim. These --" and his hand came down emphatically on a slab of olive green -- "these are our sheets."
And Jim felt that that summed it up nicely.