Just another wild week in Major Crimes, Jim thought, casting a glance around at his colleagues. Except that the world had suddenly turned upside down, and nothing was where it ought to be, including Sandburg. He eyed the box on top of his desk, hoping Sandburg planned to unpack it when he returned from Personnel.
Jim sighed and repositioned his aching leg. Everything was supposed to be returning to normal, one patched hole and piece of replaced glass at a time. One way to help that along would be the little celebration he had planned for later that night. The fact that Simon was willing to find a niche for Sandburg among the elite in blue was, at the very least, cause for a cold beer or two. The rest of the detectives had agreed enthusiastically - any excuse for a get-together.
The only one who didn't seem totally enthused was Sandburg.
His partner had laughed, had let Jim kid him fondly about cutting his hair so he would fit in with the other cadets, and Jim could see that Blair was proud and pleased that he still belonged. Pleased didn't translate to enthused, though - underneath the smiling faade, Blair was as subdued as Jim had ever seen him.
Not that Blair didn't have compelling reasons for his introspective mood, starting with the carnage of his academic career, followed by a chaser of public humiliation and the complete upheaval of his life. It was foolish to expect Blair to just pick up the few scraps left to him and trudge right into some weird alternate universe where none of it had happened, where he had always been meant to be a police officer.
Jim fingered his badge, tracing the ridges of smooth metal. Blair wasn't the only one who'd been knocked off kilter when the circus came to town. Jim had been watching when Sandburg had fought off the media like a champion lion tamer, speaking softly and carrying a big stick labeled fraud. A champion act of obfuscation - Blair had practically set his dissertation on fire and then thrown himself on top of it.
The thought made him curiously uncomfortable; he'd been skirting the edges of it for days, trying not to think about the most obvious interpretation. If he really worked at it, he could see that Blair might have done it out of guilt, that he felt it was his fault and so he was setting the record straight. The argument lost steam in the face of the monumental hole Blair dug for himself - after all, Blair had tossed away everything he'd ever worked for with nothing to gain, and everything to lose.
So really, it just boiled down to the option hardest to accept - the option that was scaring the shit out of Jim, since it was easier to ignore when there was no tangible proof.
Blair loved him. And probably loved him a hell of a lot more than Jim deserved. More than he could reciprocate, or understand, or accept.
"All done," said a voice above his shoulder, causing him to jump nearly out of his skin. Blair grinned at him, obviously tickled at having managed to sneak up on him for a change.
"About damn time," Jim answered, bracing his weight against the cane and levering his body out of the desk chair. "What's the verdict? They taking scrawny strays like yourself these days?"
"Maybe," Blair answered. "Have to pass a polygraph, a physical..." He began to tick the items off on his fingers. "...A background investigation - they seemed a little skeptical about that one, actually - a credit review, and some other stuff...they waived the written test."
"That was kind of them." Jim smiled. "Why the problems with the background? You've led a pretty clean life. Unless there's something you're not telling me."
A shadow passed across Blair's expression. "Aside from the fact that I'm a fraud and a liar, there's not much to find."
Jim was at a complete loss for words. Sandburg would never be free of it; the taint of the lie he'd told would overshadow everything from that moment forward. No going back, as he must have known when he had made his choice. The enormity of it overwhelmed Jim, sapping away his capacity for speech.
Awkwardly, he reached for the box, dragging it closer, and began to unload the contents.
Blair frowned. "Don't you think that's a little premature, Jim?"
"Absolutely not." His answer was a little too fast, perhaps, but heartfelt. "This'll all be here, ready to go, when you earn that badge. It's only a few weeks away."
"True," Blair said absently, watching as Jim made careful stacks on the desktop.
"How'd you ever fit all this into one desk, Chief?" Jim wondered aloud. Ostensibly, it was his desk, but nine tenths of it had been taken over by Blair's various papers, books and notebooks. He began attempting to stuff things back into the narrow drawers without much success.
"Hey, careful!" Blair exclaimed, snatching a dusty volume from his hands. "That's a first edition Montcall; I've been researching tribal..." His voice trailed off, and he froze for a moment, eyes dropping to the ground. "I guess that's not really important anymore." He laid the book gently on the desk, running his fingers wistfully over the cover. "I need to get that back to the university."
"Sandburg..." Jim began, but Blair looked up at him, and the earnestness there almost broke his heart.
"It's okay, Jim. Really. Things will be all right. I just have to...get used to it."
"Does getting used to it mean that you want to be a cop, or not?" Jim asked the question before he was really able to pull it back; the words seemed to jump to the end of his tongue, anxious to be said.
Blair pulled off his glasses, folding them carefully between his fingers. "Things change," he said slowly. "I guess it's just a matter of degrees."
Jim nodded, and his hand brushed across Blair's, retreating quickly. "It's your decision. No pressure."
"Sure, right," Blair agreed, rolling his eyes. "No pressure. I got that earlier when my mom was here, glowing with pride." It was said with only a faint trace of irony, observation without humor.
It suddenly occurred to Jim that perhaps being a cop wasn't at all what Blair wanted, that perhaps he'd rather just slink off somewhere and lick his wounds and find a less memory-saturated place to start his life over. The thought of it sent pangs of selfishness through him. Because he didn't want that - he didn't want that at all - and he wasn't planning to put his suspicions into words. Just in case he'd be giving Sandburg a new idea.
A small smile caught the corners of Blair's mouth; Jim tried to make his expression neutral, but it was far too late. "I chose what I wanted." He fixed Jim with a gaze so brilliant, so utterly without disguise, that Jim stopped breathing. "Now I have to figure out what to do with my career. Since it's clear now that it wasn't about the job anyway."
It took a moment to register, to sink past the heavy protective layers Jim had built up against just such an admission. By the time his heart caught up with his brain, Sandburg had stuffed the remaining papers into the overflowing desk and retreated to the middle of the bullpen.
Blair loved him. Well, no kidding. So he was back to square one, wasn't he? And the next move was his, which was sad and sorry because he knew, he was sure, that he completely lacked the courage to make that move. He was going to lose out, and he hadn't even had a chance to get to the down and dirty issues yet, like "Since when have you felt like hitting the sheets with me, Chief?" and "Do you know what the fuck you're doing, Sandburg?" Nitpicky little questions he'd really like the answers to, but he wasn't going to be asking them, because he was a coward, and because he liked things the way they had always been, simple and easy to figure out.
Only they weren't simple anymore. And he was a spineless bastard for wanting everything back the way it was half a minute before.
"Ellison!" The barked command came from the direction of Simon's office. He turned his head to see his boss standing in the doorway, beckoning him impatiently with a large file folder. "My office." He sighed and caught Blair's eyes, inviting him along without words. Blair fell into step just behind him, but stopped short when Simon shook his head. "Not today, Sandburg. I just need Jim. You'll be darkening my doorstep soon enough."
"Sure, Simon," Blair agreed affably, shrugging his shoulders in response to Jim's apologetic look.
Jim closed the door behind him and stood in his accustomed place in front of the desk as Simon maneuvered behind it. It seemed strange already not to have Blair there, hanging back just out of sight, perched next to the door or leaning against the conference table. Soon enough. Just a few short weeks of training and Blair would be back with him.
"So, Jim. I've got the ballistics report on the Devereaux case." Simon broke the wrapper off a new cigar and set it between his teeth.
"Anything interesting?" Jim was immediately focused on the information, the chase. Devereaux had been a suspect in more than one local drug deal, and then he'd turned up dead. With gunshot wounds, stab wounds, evidence of strangulation.
"Turns out the gun is registered to a perp in Seattle. PD there picked him up this morning. He's protesting innocence, threatening to sue, the whole bit. He's linked to organized crime in the area, two-bit enforcement stuff. Looks like a solid case for prosecution."
"Well, that's one we can close," Jim said, smiling. He shook his head at the victory cigar Simon offered him. "Pass, thanks."
"You doing all right?" Simon gestured with the cigar, indicating Jim's leg.
"Fine." Jim shifted his weight, proving the point.
"How's the kid?" Simon's glance flickered over toward the window, then back to Jim.
"He's doing as well as can be expected, I guess."
"Is he ready for the pressure?" Simon folded his arms across his chest. "Are you?"
"Come on, Simon," Jim said, deflecting the question.
"Maybe you and Sandburg should have a little talk about that. Just to be on the safe side, before he commits the next few weeks of his life to learning a career he never wanted."
Simon's tone made Jim look up sharply. "What are you talking about?"
"Instinct, my friend. That's what I'm talking about." Simon grinned. "And tell the kid to kiss that hair goodbye."
"He mentioned the haircut last night," Jim said, and that same strange sinking feeling overtook him for a moment. "He seems okay with it."
"Good. How about you?" Direct, to the point. Jim had a momentary sensation of the feel of Blair's hair against his fingertips, and it raised goosebumps on his arms.
"Hey, it's his hair," Jim muttered, looking away.
"That's the attitude I like to hear. Have that case closure form on my desk by tomorrow, first thing."
"Yes, sir." Jim smiled briefly and let himself out of the office. With effort, he shook off the sense of impending doom and looked across the room, finding Blair at their shared desk.
"This isn't right," he muttered, making his way back to Blair, who turned to him with a small smile.
"Let's get out of here. I'm starving."
"Good plan, Chief. Now if we can just figure out who's cooking, I might be able to get my stomach to cooperate." Jim laid a hand on Blair's shoulder, noting with detached fascination that his hand always seemed to find its way to Blair's back almost without his control, and pulled it away slowly.
All the way home, all through chopping the vegetables for the stir-fry and teasing Blair about the menu, all through selecting his clothes for the evening, Jim kept thinking about how wrong it felt, how backwards and completely convoluted his life suddenly seemed to be.
He stood in the shower, wondering when exactly his happiness had become so dependent on Sandburg's, and how he'd missed it. There was no question that Sandburg had hinged everything on Jim's happiness; he'd obviously been aware, alert to the needs inside himself, in ways Jim had only just started to comprehend. But Jim hadn't asked him to go to extremes. He hadn't asked him to fix the unfixable. He hadn't expected Blair to go off and do something noble and self-immolating, for Christ's sake.
Or at least, he hadn't expected it to happen without warning. Blair's sacrifice had thrown his life off balance, too, had made Jim into an awkward mother hen, trying to piece things back together that had been blown apart. Their relationship, his career, Blair's future.
His vague resentment of the world was due in large part to his shifting place in it, and the thought made him instantly uncomfortable. Because he really wasn't the center of the universe, was he? Of course, if you asked Blair, he might say something completely different in answer to that question. Jim had never wanted Blair to give up everything. He'd never have asked for it.
But he'd wanted it, and that was just as bad as asking for it. Maybe worse.
Frustrated and feeling more than a little guilty, he tried to think it through, but random thoughts kept disrupting the process. It made his head hurt. He realized that the water had grown cold without him noticing. Stunned, he turned off the water and stood dripping and shivering in the bathroom, zoned on possibilities.
"Jim?" Blair's voice, concerned and a little urgent, in that tone that warned of impending invasion of the bathroom.
"I'm okay," Jim said quickly, wondering how many times Blair had called his name. He reached for a towel. "Just...thinking."
"You sure?" Now Blair sounded genuinely worried.
"I'm sure." Jim quickly slung the towel around his hips and opened the door, letting out the remainder of the steam. He smiled briefly at Blair. "Dinner ready?"
"Yep." Blair looked at him with a deeply skeptical expression. "What's up, Jim?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," Jim said, attempting to limp past him, but Blair's hand was on his stomach, and the contact of skin to skin caused a distinctly different kind of friendly feeling, one that was stirring something underneath the towel.
"Like hell you don't. C'mon, Jim. Give."
Jim gently removed Blair's hand from his belly. "Let it go, Sandburg." He headed straight for the stairs, climbing as fast as he dared, but his injury gave the determined would-be cop on his heels a chance to catch up.
"Oh, no you don't. This whole shutting me out thing has to stop, man. It almost destroyed whatever was left of our friendship before, and I don't know about you, but I'm sure as hell not willing to go through that again." The firm resolve in Blair's voice was about more than the past situation, Jim realized.
"What are you saying? That if I don't, what, conform to what you think I should do, you're gone?"
"Maybe. Yeah. I think that's it." There was no anger in the tone, just a resigned sort of patience, wavering thinly on an edge of grief and dismay.
Jim stared at him, trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Blair loved him; he'd given up everything for him; he'd decided to become a cop because of him - and now he was threatening to leave if Jim didn't talk to him?
Seemed pretty reasonable to Jim.
He sat down on the edge of the bed, nodding slowly. "I should have trusted you enough to give you the benefit of the doubt, Chief. But I didn't, and so now I'm wondering - how much of this could I have prevented?"
"A lot," Blair said honestly, leaning back against the railing, hands curling around the bar. "But not all of it. I mean, look at it this way - I'd already lost my objectivity. My research would have been questioned, and it never could have withstood academic scrutiny. I was crazy to think it would."
"That's not the point," Jim said patiently. "Is it?"
"Maybe not," Blair answered, humor gleaming in his eyes. "Are you wondering if I decided to become a cop because there was nothing else for me to do with myself?"
"Yeah, I guess I am." Jim searched Blair's eyes for some truth and found it immediately. And the recognition of it made his legs feel a little weak; he was glad he was sitting down.
"I happen to be pretty good at this detective stuff. Maybe it's not what I want to do forever, but it's a start, and I'll do the best I can while I'm doing it."
"Looking for something else down the road?" Jim asked quietly.
"Probably. I guess it depends on where the road goes," Blair answered, extending the cautious metaphor.
"Don't know," Jim said, answering the unasked question. "I don't know where it goes."
"Yeah, I figured." Blair smiled at Jim, that same brilliant, joyful smile. "But that's okay, Jim, you know? We're good." He released the railing and made his way down the stairs, calling back over his shoulder, "Now get your ass down here and eat dinner. We have to get back to the station by seven to meet everybody."
Jim smiled, and the smile widened into a grin. Maybe things would be all right, after all.
Seven o'clock, and Riley's was brimming with cops and detectives milling about, joking and grinning and waiting for the rest of their number to arrive. Blair and Jim wandered in right on the hour, amid much handshaking and backslapping, and were separated immediately by cheerful cops who wanted very much to give Blair a hard time about the Academy while they still could.
Jim pulled Simon aside, watching Blair for a moment more as he disappeared into a group of soon-to-be-co-workers. "I had that chat with Sandburg," he said softly, taking the bottle Simon handed him with a grateful nod.
"And?" Simon's eyebrow rose.
"He's okay with this. It's what he wants, for now."
"Good. Because I hate to say it, but I dread to think what would happen to your sorry butt without the kid to lead you along."
"Very funny. Thanks so much," Jim said, smiling a thin, sarcastic smile as Simon chuckled.
"Don't mention it." Simon checked his watch. "Well, this shindig is on its way to becoming a real party. The rest of the day shift'll be here soon. I'm going to go call Daryl before it gets too noisy in here for a man to hear his son whine." He shot a look across the bar; an odd expression crossed his face. His eyes flickered back to Jim for a moment, but before Jim could ask what was up, Simon was swerving through the crowd on his way to the payphone by the door.
Puzzled, Jim turned in the direction Simon had been looking, and saw Sandburg sitting on a barstool at the back of the bar, talking a mile a minute and gesturing animatedly. Rafe was lounging against the bar, grinning from ear to ear, obviously completely entertained by Sandburg's story, and his hand was resting lightly on Blair's shoulder.
That is, it was resting there right before it did a slow, easy slide over to Blair's neck, and down to the middle of his back.
Blair set down his drink and looked up at Rafe, a slow grin lighting his face, and conversation stopped for a moment while they took a little survey of one another. Jim stared, having a hard time connecting the dots, but the body language was clear.
Well, fuck. Or more precisely, someone else was going to, but it wouldn't be Jim.
Disbelief dropped his stomach into his shoes as he observed that hand dropping lower, gliding to the small of Blair's back, and damned if Blair didn't arch up against it like a cat in heat.
A flare of irrational jealousy spiked through him, hot and angry, tightening his jaw and tensing his spine. It seemed vaguely unfair that just now, he wasn't able to separate his awe regarding Blair's brand of selfless love from the need to rip Rafe's hand off Blair and replace it with his own. Preferably underneath the t-shirt, where he could have access to all that skin...
He knew he shouldn't do it, knew it was beyond the most blatant breach of trust, but he couldn't help himself; he tuned in. He opened his ears and let it all flood past the filters, sorting out the laughter and the voices, the clinking of glasses, the hoarse crooning of Joe Cocker on the jukebox , and just listened with all his might to the nuances of Rafe coming on to Blair.
"We'd have to keep this on the QT," Rafe said quietly, his words meant just for Blair's ears.
Soft sounds of Blair swallowing hard, and Jim could scent the arousal, the speculative need washing across both men.
"No kidding. Can't you just see Simon's face?" Blair's chuckle was soft and wary.
"It's worth it." Low, and brimming with invitation. Jim's hand clenched around the hilt of his cane hard enough to crack it in two. "Let's give it a try, Blair. What do you say?"
"I don't know, Rafe." There was hesitation in Blair's voice. "I'm not sure. Too damn much has happened today."
"This isn't what you thought you'd be doing, is it?" Now there was sympathy, and insight. Perfect - right to Blair's insecurities, like a bullet to a target. Jim shook his head angrily.
"Hell no. Well...not this, exactly. I got into all of this because of Jim, and now that's all changed."
"So you and Jim...are you-?" The unfinished question hung heavy in the air and was met with a soft snort.
"No." Shades of regret, layered through with longing. It was too much; Jim was drawn to that sound like a spark to kindling, and he turned his head, focus drawn down to the sound of his partner's voice. His eyes sought Blair across the room, and slowly, slowly, the curly head swiveled, the knowing blue eyes connected, and it was all over, then, Blair knew he was listening, and was playing to his audience. Softly, just an exhaled breath away from truth, Blair said, "It hasn't been like that with us."
Jim was gone, then, slipping away down a path toward a place he'd considered distantly but had never booked tickets for, a place he wasn't sure he could ever navigate with grace or ability. The zone came over him with such force that he couldn't have drawn himself back, no matter what, not even to keep up appearances, to be nonchalant and pretend.
He was sick of pretending, anyway.
"Jim. Jim..." Hissed words, close to his ear, and fingers curled strongly around his arm, squeezing with an urgency he couldn't quite understand. "Not here, man. Not now. Get with the program...come on!"
"Sandburg," he murmured, shaking his head with a little snap. Blair's hands were tugging at him, propelling him toward the back of the room and into the hallway near the bathroom, and they got just that far before Jim's brain engaged. Overdrive. He knocked Blair's hand away and caught his wrist. "What the hell were you thinking?" he demanded, something inside him rising to the challenge of Blair's narrowed eyes. "In the middle of a bar full of cops? What the fuck was that about?"
"What's got you pissed off, Jim? That somebody else might want me, or that I had enough balls to admit it ought to be you instead?" The brittle edge of Blair's voice scraped at Jim's nerves. "Or is it that you just might have to get a clue, after being so fucking good at being clueless?"
"Not here," Jim said firmly, shutting down, walls clanging into place with maximum efficiency, closing everyone out.
"Fine," Blair said, equally determined, and Jim could see that Blair had one toe underneath his defenses, and was dismantling that damn barrier faster than he could throw it up. "Let's just take this back to the loft. But you'd better be ready, Jim, because this has gone as far as it's going to. I thought..." Blair gritted his teeth and wheeled away, walking back toward the crowded room.
"What?" challenged Jim, charging after him down the hall, not caring who might be picking up threads of their argument. He stopped Blair with a hand on his shoulder, spinning him around. "What, that I was just going to do a somersault into the middle of the room and throw my arms around you?"
"No," Blair said, sliding out from under Jim's grip, eyes narrowing dangerously. "But I thought at the very least that you might want to."
"Who says I didn't?" Jim asked clearly, distinctly.
Now it was Jim steering Blair into the bathroom, Blair whose face registered his surprise. Long seconds passed as the door slammed closed, seconds where Jim considered just how insane the world had become when he was thinking about how long he could manage to kiss Blair Sandburg before he lost all control over his cock and came standing up in a public place.
And then Jim's hand tangled with Blair's reaching for the deadbolt on the door, and his body weight carried them both crashing back against the wall, where his mouth found Blair's and Blair's lips opened for him as if it were the most natural thing ever, inciting a tiny riot in his body like nothing he'd ever felt before. He was way past asking nicely, so he just pushed those lips apart and took a little more, dropping his cane so he could get his hands deep into that hair and his fingers onto that skin and pull Blair closer, getting as much of him as he could before time stopped and the world ended, which was the natural conclusion to such apocalyptic events.
Blair made some sort of noise that went straight into his blood and set him on fire. He was melting, and he didn't even care that they were wrapped around each other so tightly that he was probably going to have bruises everywhere Sandburg was clutching him, or that somebody was bound to notice that they'd disappeared into the bathroom together and came out looking debauched. None of it mattered. Not anymore.
Finally, he came up for air, practicality winning out over lust, and he pressed the palms of his hands to Blair's shoulders, pushing him back, pinning him to the wall. His reward was a sated, self-satisfied grin, as Blair touched his wet, swollen lips with one hand.
"That'll work for now, Ellison, but this isn't over."
"I just have to...get used to it," Jim murmured, grinning in spite of himself. "Things'll be all right."
"Yeah," Blair agreed, yanking him forward and canceling out the rest of what he'd planned to say, devouring his words with a slow, sensuous kiss.
It didn't look as though getting used to it would be much of a problem after all.