“Hey, Jim, thanks for meeting me,” Sandburg said as he jogged down the steps of Hargrove Hall. As usual, he was bouncing with barely contained energy.
Jim shrugged. “No big deal. I had my physical therapy appointment this morning anyway.”
“Great!” Sandburg enthused. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”
Jim narrowed his eyes; he’d heard that tone of voice before. Sandburg used it right before he dropped something on Jim that he wasn’t going to like.
And, sure, Jim trusted Sandburg—he trusted that Sandburg had the best of intentions, but he didn’t always know best, no matter what he might think.
“Who is it?” Jim asked, unable to keep the suspicion out of his voice.
Sandburg waved a hand and led the way down the walk. “A friend of mine. You guys have a lot in common.”
Jim spotted the guy in the wheelchair a few seconds later, and he came to an immediate halt. “We have a lot in common, Sandburg? Are you fucking kidding me?”
At least Sandburg had the grace to blush. “Ah, hell. Sorry, man. That’s—look, Jack is ex-CIA. It’s not just about the chair.”
Jim sighed, because now this Jack had caught sight of them, lifting a hand to wave them over. “Yeah, all right,” he said, because he knew there’s no getting out of it now, not without being unpardonably rude. If it had just been him, Jim probably would have done it anyway, but Sandburg would spend the next couple of days looking hurt if Jim turned around and left now.
And since they lived together, Jim couldn’t even escape the reproachful looks by going home.
He followed Sandburg reluctantly, wheeling himself up the slight incline to the spot where Sandburg’s friend was eating his lunch.
“Jack Kelso, this is Jim Ellison. Jim, this is Jack Kelso. He used to be CIA,” Sandburg said.
Jim raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, you said that.”
Kelso had the hint of a smile playing around his mouth. “Mr. Ellison,” he said, holding out a hand. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
Jim shook his hand and glanced at Sandburg, deciding to mess with him a bit. “Funny, I haven’t heard anything about you.”
Sandburg shot him a dirty look. “Jim, you’re such a kidder. Jim here was an Army Ranger. He worked covert ops.”
Kelso met Jim’s eyes, obviously deeply amused, and Jim suddenly relaxed. He was glad that somebody else saw the ridiculousness of the situation. “So he thinks,” Jim said. “It’s not like I can talk about it.”
Kelso grinned. “I have to tell you, Mr. Ellison. The best thing you can do is write a moderately successful book. Then, even if you get run over by a car, people assume it’s the government’s fault even if it isn’t.”
“Good suggestion,” Jim replied. “But I’m pretty sure there are people out there who would kill me for my grammar alone.”
That drew a laugh out of Kelso, and Blair chuckled, too, making a show of glancing at his watch. “Oh, hey, sorry. I forgot I had a thing. I’ll let you guys talk.”
Jim rolled his eyes. “That’s your excuse?”
“Not an excuse!” Blair called, already walking away. “I’ll talk to you later, Jack! Jim, see you at home.”
Jim met Kelso’s somewhat sardonic gaze. “Did you know what you were getting into?”
Kelso shrugged. “Blair’s told me a little bit about your history.”
“Yeah, and it’s just that—history,” Jim replied. “I’m not sure what Blair wanted.”
Kelso didn’t appear to take offense. “Blair always has the best of intentions.”
“Yeah, he does at that,” Jim muttered.
“Look, this meeting doesn’t have to be anything,” Kelso said. “I’ll eat my lunch, we’ll chat—or just enjoy the day in silence—and then we’ll shake hands and you can go home.”
Jim hesitated, torn between turning around and leaving right now, and figuring out what he thought Jim would get out of this meeting, what Kelso might possibly say that Jim hadn’t already heard from a dozen well-meaning folks.
“Are you really ex-CIA?” Jim asked.
Kelso smiled. “Yeah, I was. I never expected to finish my career with a bullet and a chair.”
“Me neither,” Jim admitted.
“The real question is what you want out of your life now,” Kelso said.
Jim frowned. “Life is what you make of it?”
“The chair won’t stop you from living unless you let it,” Kelso said. “I had to seriously adjust my expectations, but I have a good life.”
Jim looked away, into the distance, thinking about Sandburg’s spiel on Sentinels, and how they were supposed to be protectors. “All I wanted to do was to protect people,” he muttered, mostly to himself.
“And you think you can’t do that now?” Kelso countered. “Look, no one makes captain in the Rangers without being bright, and the same could be said for a detective in Major Crimes. Use your brain, Ellison.” Kelso smiled. “Hell, you could go back to school.”
Jim snorted. “Me? A student? At this late date?”
Kelso raised his eyebrows. “What? Are you not up for the challenge?”
“I don’t know if I am,” Jim admitted, and he was able to admit that to Kelso only because Jim figured that if anyone would understand, it would be someone like Kelso.
Jim didn’t know anyone else who’d had to remake his life from the ground up. His therapist kept trying to convince him to join a support group, and Jim hadn’t quite understood why until just this minute.
Not that he’d do it. He didn’t see the point in talking his feelings to death, but he got why someone might find it helpful.
“I think you are,” Kelso said. “So does Blair, and he’s a good judge of character.”
“I guess we’ll see, won’t we?” Jim asked, but he wasn’t at all sure. Blair seemed to have great expectations, and Jim didn’t know that he could live up to them.
Blair poked his head into the loft cautiously. He figured he’d done his part by introducing Jim to Jack, and either they hit it off or they didn’t, but he’d wanted Jim to meet the one guy Blair knew who might understand where Jim was at.
Maybe Jim wouldn’t be going back to the police department, but that didn’t mean his life had to be over.
Still, he suspected Jim wouldn’t be too happy with him after setting him up.
“Jim? You here, man?”
“Where else would I be?” Jim called from the couch.
Blair heard the humor in Jim’s voice and judged that Hurricane Ellison would not be making an appearance this evening. “Well, I don’t know. You might be out on the town, picking up chicks.”
“Right,” Jim said slowly, his tone expressing his disbelief at that sentiment. Blair decided to let that go; he’d pushed hard enough today.
“Did you eat?” he asked.
“Stopped through Wonderburger on the way home,” Jim replied.
Blair came around the couch and sat down in the chair next to Jim’s head. “Sorry for dropping that on you.”
“You can quit freaking out,” Jim replied, muting the basketball game on TV. “I liked your friend.”
He breathed out a sigh of slightly exaggerated relief. “Good. I thought you guys would have a lot in common.”
Jim gave him a look that was an equal mixture of annoyed and amused. “Really? You’re going there? Again?”
Blair groaned. “Am I going to live that down?”
“Not in this lifetime,” Jim replied with a shit-eating grin. He turned back to the TV and said casually, “He suggested I go back to school.”
“Hey, that’s a good idea,” Blair said, as though he hadn’t talked to Jack about just that thing. “What would you do? What was your degree in?”
“Poli-sci,” Jim admitted. “Not that big of a deal, really.”
Blair gave him a sharp look. “Are you thinking of law school?”
“How’d you know?”
“Didn’t I tell you?” Blair joked. “I can read minds.”
Jim actually chuckled at that.
“But seriously, you’re thinking about it, right?”
“It’s stupid,” Jim replied. “I’m an old man.”
Blair rolled his eyes. “Please. My older students are usually the most motivated. I’d take one of them over a dozen 18-year-olds going to school on their daddy’s dime.”
“You’re barely older than they are,” Jim accused.
Blair grinned at him. “I’m an old soul.”
“You’re a punk,” Jim shot back.
Blair shrugged. “Your opinion.”
“Seriously, man, what’s stopping you?” Blair asked.
Jim stared up at the ceiling. “Because it’s an admission I’ll never be what I was. What’s that you’re always harping on about? Sentinels are supposed to be protectors?”
“So, you can be a protector in another field,” Blair replied. “Man, think about how easy you’d be able to read a jury! You could read them like books.”
“That seems like cheating,” Jim objected.
“And the lawyer who just has a knack for reading facial expressions and body language?” Blair countered. “You wouldn’t say he’s cheating.”
Jim’s expression didn’t change, and he didn’t turn to look at Blair. “I doubt I’m smart enough.”
“I don’t,” Blair insisted. “Jim, man, you’ll do great at whatever you decide to do.”
Now Jim did turn to look at Blair again. “I don’t think I can live up to your expectations.”
Blair frowned. “What—no! Shit.” He was literally speechless. “What the fuck are you talking about?” he finally managed.
“Your expectations,” Jim replied. “For a Sentinel. I don’t think I can live up to them.”
“I don’t—” Blair was still struggling. “Jim, you fight every day—for your independence, for your sanity, for everything. You’re the bravest person I know. My expectations were met long before you found me.”
Jim turned back to his contemplation of the television. “So, school. You think?” he asked, his voice suspiciously thick.
Blair didn’t comment on it. “I think it would give you something to focus on other than your recovery. Hell, I’ll bet you could get a job at the DA’s office easy with your background.”
“But would I be any good?” Jim countered.
“You’ll never know until you try,” Blair said. “And I think you should. Maybe your life is different than you wanted, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a decent life.”
Jim shook his head. “Maybe I don’t deserve that.”
“Who does?” Blair asked. “We don’t get what we deserve, and sometimes that’s a good thing. Sometimes it’s not.”
“I guess,” Jim replied dubiously.
“You’ve got some time to decide,” Blair replied. “If you do go to law school, you’re going to have to take the LSAT before you can even think of applying. And then you’re going to have to wait until you can apply, and you wouldn’t be able to start until the fall.”
“Oh, God,” Jim moaned. “I don’t think I’m up for this.”
“Sure you are,” Blair encouraged.
“Nobody’s going to hire a bald guy in chair,” Jim said.
“Don’t be negative,” Blair ordered. “And you’re not bald. Not yet, anyway.”
“Thanks,” Jim said sarcastically.
“I live to serve.”
Jim laughed. “You really think I could do it?”
“I think you could do anything.”
“Great expectations,” Jim sighed.
“But not unreasonable ones,” Blair said. “I’m serious.”
“I think you’re nuts.”
“I think you’re a Debbie Downer,” Blair replied.
Jim laughed at that. “I can’t keep collecting disability forever,” Jim admitted. “Nothing against it, but it’s just not me.”
“You could teach,” Blair offered. “Or, hell, be a physical therapist.”
“That would be like the blind leading the blind.”
“Or you could go to med school.”
“Hell, no,” Jim said definitively. “That’s one thing I don’t want to do.”
“Because almost every doctor I’ve had was an asshole,” Jim replied. “Other than Steadman, and he doesn’t count, because he’s a shrink.”
“Shrinks are doctors.”
“Too much science,” Jim insisted. “I hated chemistry in high school. I’d never make it through organic chem.”
“I’m surprised you know that exists.”
“I dated a couple of pre-meds,” Jim admitted with a grin.
Blair wanted to ask why Jim didn’t date now; in the six months they’d known each other, he was fairly sure that Jim hadn’t enjoyed any sort of company—male or female.
Another night, he told himself. He could ask Jim the hard questions another night.
“No expectations,” Blair finally said. “But you could do anything you wanted, man. Anything.”
“I guess,” Jim replied. “But I’ll never carry a gun again.”
Blair grinned. “Guns are for wusses. Real men kill with their bare hands.”
The bizarre statement was worth it when Jim started laughing, clutching his stomach, almost doubled over on the couch.
“Don’t be an ass, Sandburg,” Jim said. “Real men kill with their pinky fingers.”
And then they were both laughing, which was why Blair liked Jim so much in the first place. They could say the stupidest shit and they’d both crack up.
Plus, Jim might get pissed off, but he forgave Blair a lot of things, including thinking he and Jack Kelso would have a lot in common just because they shared a past and a disability—at least on the surface.
Jim didn’t hold stupid things against Blair, even though he got bent out of shape about the colors of Tupperware.
Maybe Blair hadn’t known what to expect with moving in with Jim, but what they had was good, better than Blair had with any other roommate.
“I gotta go to bed,” Jim said, sitting up and transferring himself from the couch to his chair with ease. “You okay with me taking the bathroom first?”
“Whatever,” Blair agreed easily. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Sure,” Jim agreed. And then he smiled, warm and sweet, and Blair could believe he was the only person in the world who was on the receiving end of that smile.
He had no expectations, but the yearning wasn’t so bad.