The last place Blair expected to have an epiphany about his love life was over soup.
And yet, that was exactly where it happened. Watching Jim ladle beef barley soup into a bowl as they stood on the service line for their shift at Cascade’s downtown homeless shelter.
It was like being hit with a bolt of lightning. He winced at how clichéd that sounded, but it was the truth. One minute he was gazing at Jim, tall and lean, an apron tied over his jeans and blue flannel shirt… and in the next moment he was bowled over by a wave of understanding that this was IT. This was the brass ring, the winning lottery ticket, the million-dollar sweepstakes prize. This life, their life together – sharing the loft, working as partners, camping, going to Jag games – this was the thing, for him. The thing that made his life worth living. His life worth living. A life where they grew old together and retired to a cabin in the woods, where Jim puttered around the house while Blair wrote stories and they took long walks in the woods and—
“Sandburg!” Jim’s voice startled him out of his thoughts. He blinked a few times.
Jim was frowning at him, holding a bowl of soup in one hand. “You okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah, sorry, just… woolgathering.” He reached for the bowl and put it on a tray with coffee, fruit, and a roll, then slid it across to the man waiting at the window and grabbed the next tray.
He knew he loved Jim. Of course he did. Although Jim hadn’t been exactly friendly when they first met, over the years, as he’d helped Jim learn to use and control his senses, he’d seen the kind of person Jim was. Loyal, kind, compassionate, warm – to his friends, at least. He’d seen how Jim’s occasional bursts of irritability covered up his fears, and he’d come to understand that Jim put a greater burden on himself than anyone else did.
And there were all the things they’d survived together. Bombs and viruses and serial killers. Going to Peru to rescue Simon and Daryl. Helping the Chopec when they’d come to Cascade. More sieges and kidnappings and hostage situations than he could count. He knew that Jim had his back, and he hoped that Jim knew that he had his.
It was true, he thought, as he automatically filled the trays and slid them out to their waiting recipients, that he’d had a bit of a crush on Jim at the beginning. Totally reasonable. Jim was, like, the embodiment of the All-American hero. An athlete, soldier, and now a cop – who could resist that?
But Jim was straight, and Blair was flexible, and he wasn’t about to get hung up on what he couldn’t have. So he’d pushed it out of his mind and made peace with his role in Jim’s life as friend and guide.
That was, until Alex had entered the picture.
His hand shook as he thought of her, and the full coffee mug he was holding rattled against the tray, spilling coffee. He went to get a towel to mop it up, aware that Jim was shooting him concerned looks again.
Waking up in the hospital after being drowned in the fountain, recalling the vision of the panther and the wolf leaping into each other, and then realizing that Jim had had the same vision… well, he’d thought it meant something. Thought that something between them was going to change.
It had, he guessed. He just hadn’t anticipated that it was going to involve him trashing years of academic work.
The final tray served, they waved goodbye to the dishwashers, and headed out to the truck. Blair huddled in his seat, hands jammed in the pockets of his coat. There was a light snow falling, and he’d left his hat and gloves at home.
Jim turned up the heat as they headed out and Blair sighed in relief. “Thanks, man. I wasn’t expecting the weather to turn.”
Jim was silent for a moment. “Looks like we might have snow for Christmas, for once.”
Blair was distracted on the drive home, his epiphany still reverberating through body and mind like a gong. If you thought about it, they were practically married already. He and Jim worked together, lived together, even took vacations together. He could see that continuing, the vision warm and familiar. Coffee in the morning as they danced around each other in the bathroom, files and paperwork and crime scenes and interrogations of suspects during the day, and then a quiet evening at home, the fire in the stove flickering as they drank beers and watched the Jags or a movie. Spooling out into a bright warm thread that ran through all the days ahead of him.
But what did that mean for his sex life? Or kids? That wasn’t part of the vision. Not that he had a burning desire to be a parent. But it had always been part of that misty future vision of his life, some point in the not-too-close future, details not provided.
Was he even going to want to date anymore? If Jim was his soulmate, life partner, whatever, was he going to want to get into a serious relationship with someone else? Wouldn’t that sort of be cheating? And how was he going to explain his relationship with Jim to a woman – or another man, for that matter?
Not that sex was that important in a relationship. Trust, mutual respect, honesty – those things were important. Sex wasn’t really the issue, anyway. He’d never had a problem finding willing partners. Although as time went on, people were less interested in hooking up, and more interested in building a relationship. And, to be honest, he didn’t really fancy having an ongoing series of one-night stands.
And Jim. What was he going to think of this? Was he even going to tell Jim about it? He could barely explain it to himself, or understand it. He was pretty sure that any explanation that involved the word “soulmate” or “life partners” was going to result in a very irate and abrasive Sentinel.
He blinked, and realized that they were parked outside the loft. He’d been so wrapped up in his own thoughts that he hadn’t even noticed that they’d arrived.
His thoughts continued to spin in circles in his head as they walked up the two flights of stairs. What he needed was to meditate, get his center back. That would help.
Jim shot another one of those concerned looks at him as they were hanging up their coats. “Blair,” he said, “what’s going on? Are you okay?”
“Oh, yeah,” he said, deflecting. “Holiday stress, I think. Haven’t heard from Naomi in a while. Don’t know what her plans are.”
Jim looked faintly horrified. “Do you think there’s a chance she’ll show up?”
“No. No,” he said, raising his hands and shaking his head as he backed towards his room. “Not a chance. I promise, it’s going to be a nice quiet relaxing Christmas for the two of us.”
He took a deep breath as he closed his door. Sitting on the floor, he arranged his candles around him and settled into his meditation pose.
Blair juggled the grocery bags in his arms as he dug in his pocket for his keys, and managed to get the door open and deposit the bags on the table before anything spilled out. He went over to close the loft door and then began unpacking groceries.
His meditation session a few days ago had been productive. It had helped him remember to keep living in the moment. Worrying about what would happen was as unbalancing as spending time regretting the past. The only concern was the present. He still hadn’t fully understood what his realization meant or how it was all going to play out, but he’d gained a measure of contentment. All he needed to do was breathe, and be true to himself and his feelings, and everything would work out for the best.
And he’d come up with a plan to commemorate the epiphany, at least for himself. He still wasn’t sure how or when he was going to tell all this to Jim, if ever – that was part of staying in the now, not worrying about things like that. But he wanted to do something to mark the occasion, and something to express his feelings for Jim that wasn’t going to involve Jim raising his eyebrows or snorting sarcastically.
So he’d decided to make Jim dinner.
He’d gone all out – steak, potatoes for baking, the makings of a nice green salad, and fresh green beans. It was nice to finally have some money in his pocket to enable him to do things like this, and nice that he’d been able to get away from the station a little early to do the shopping.
He was just about to put the scrubbed potatoes in the oven when he heard the key turn in the lock. Jim sniffed as he shrugged his coat off and hung it up with his holster, then came into the kitchen. “What’s all this?” he asked.
“Dinner,” he replied.
“Did I miss something? What’s the occasion?”
“No occasion,” he said, feeling a slight twist in his stomach at the lie. “Or, well, nothing specific. Just the holidays. Thought it would be fun to have a good meal.”
Jim grinned. “Well, you’ll get no complaint from me.” He headed upstairs to change, but stopped when the phone rang.
He watched Jim’s face as he answered, a knot growing in his stomach. That frown didn’t bode well.
“Okay, Simon, we’ll be right there,” Jim said, as he hung up.
“Hostage situation at Cascade National Bank. Apparently the perp is one of my old cases who just got out on parole.” He gave Blair an apologetic look as he grabbed his coat and holster. “Can we put this on hold?”
“Yeah, sure,” he replied, switching the oven off. “I’ll just leave these in, they’ll cook slowly while we’re gone.”
It took them a while to get to the bank. SWAT had already barricaded the street and they’d had to park the truck a couple of blocks away and walk in, Jim flashing his badge several times. They got some nasty looks from the Feds and some muttering, until Jim caught sight of Simon standing next to the SWAT van with an older man and a young woman.
“Jim!” Simon said as they made their way over. Blair recognized the older man as Curtis Slane, newly in charge of Vice. He and Jim nodded shortly at each other – Jim’s reputation from his time in Vice still preceded him – and then Simon introduced the woman as Special Agent Park, with the ATF.
“So what’s the deal?” Jim asked.
“Ronald Duell, who got out on parole three days ago, has taken hostages in this bank and you are on his list of demands,” Park explained.
“I pulled his file,” Simon said, handing Jim a manila folder.
Blair sidled closer to Jim. The file pull was a ruse the three of them had come up with to allow Jim some time to scope out the situation. The file was real, but Jim didn’t need it – he had a remarkable memory of nearly all the perps he’d caught. But pretending to look through it gave him an opportunity to use his senses, and, more importantly, didn’t result in other people at the scene wondering why he was standing stock still with a blank look on his face.
Jim was long past the time where he needed Blair’s help to avoid a zone, but Blair put a hand on the small of Jim’s back anyway. He felt a pang as he realized that Jim’s ability to use his senses was getting stronger and stronger every day. Would there come a time when he didn’t need Blair’s help? What would happen then? Would he want to go back to not having a partner?
Breathe, he told himself. Relax. Focus on this moment.
Jim looked up. “Four hostages in the bank?” he asked.
Park frowned. “Yeah. How’d you know?”
Jim’s unfocused gaze told Blair he was listening again. “Lucky guess,” he said, covering for Jim’s lack of attention. “It’s close to closing time, probably not too many customers still around.”
“He doesn’t have any confederates with him,” Jim broke in. “I’ll go in through the front and keep him distracted; you guys should be able to get in through the back door quietly and surprise him”.
“It’s his MO,” Jim said, closing the file and handing it back to Simon. “We’re not exactly talking criminal mastermind, here. He didn’t think this out very well.” He pulled Blair over to the side of the support van as he stripped his jacket off.
“Tell me all that didn’t come from the file,” Blair said, speaking softly so Slane and Park couldn’t hear.
“No.” Jim replied quietly while he pulled on a Kevlar vest. “I can hear him talking in there, but it sounds like he’s talking to himself. The hostages seem pretty calm, based on their heartbeats. I’m not even sure he’s armed – it’s hard to tell with all this other ordinance around, but I’m not picking up a strong gun odor.” He fastened the straps of the vest around his sides. “Oh, and I’m pretty sure he’s drunk. That, I can smell.”
Blair chewed on his lower lip, stomach twisting in knots. Drunk people were unpredictable, and, while he trusted Jim and the information he got from his senses completely, there was always the possibility of surprises. “Want me to come with you?” he asked, trying to make his voice sound calm.
Jim shook his head. “No, I think that’s just going to make Duell more nervous. I want him to think he’s getting everything he asked for.”
“Are you sure? I could grab some medic gear and pretend to be going in for the hostages.” He couldn’t shake this nervousness. It felt like something was gnawing at his stomach. This was far from the most dangerous situation he and Jim had ever been in, but for some reason he couldn’t put himself at ease.
Maybe it was because of that epiphany. The stakes were higher now.
Jim finished fastening the vest, then unhooked his holster from his belt and handed it to Blair.
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” Blair said, hesitating. “You might want your gun, just in case.”
“I don’t want to give Duell any reason to get squirrely,” Jim replied, shaking his head. He put the holster in Blair’s hands and cupped his shoulders. “Hey. What are you worrying about? This is no big deal. We’ll be home before those potatoes have a chance to get cold.”
“Okay, just… be careful.”
Jim patted his cheek lightly. “I always am, Chief.”
Before he could think too much about it, he grabbed Jim’s vest and pulled him in for a kiss. It was fast and sloppy and brief, but even so, he felt a shock, like he’d been struck by lightning, traveling from his head down to his toes, lighting up every nerve in his body.
Regret surged in almost immediately. Well, not for the kiss itself – even as brief as it had been, that kiss had felt amazing. But now he was exposed. How was he going to explain this?
Jim took a step back. He touched his lips lightly and gave Blair a strange look, then took a breath, as if to say something.
“Jim!” Simon was striding towards them. “SWAT’s in position. Let’s do this before we lose too much more daylight.”
Jim shook his head sharply, like he was coming out of a dream. He looked over at the bank entrance, than back at Blair. “Okay, Simon, be right there.” Without saying anything else, he headed off.
The knot in Blair’s stomach became a stone. What the hell had he been thinking?
The plan went off without a hitch, as Jim had predicted. Duell was drunk, and unarmed, and too consumed with the idea of revenge to actually plan what he’d do when Jim showed up. He did manage to land a punch or two, but Jim had him subdued and cuffed by the time SWAT was in the door.
Simon insisted that Jim get looked over by the medics, so he told Simon what had happened as the medics were putting him through the concussion protocol. Blair stood nearby, feeling useless. Jim glanced over at him once or twice, but his expression was unreadable, and there was nothing much for Blair to do but feel his heart get heavier and heavier as his dread at the inevitable confrontation grew.
“All right, Simon, that’s it,” Jim said, finally. “That’s all I can remember. Can I go now? I’ve got a steak with my name on it waiting for me.”
“Fine,” Simon grumbled as he waved them away. “Relax, take it easy, and I’ll see you on Monday.”
The drive back was quiet, which paradoxically served to ease Blair’s nerves somewhat. Jim didn’t seem upset. He was humming Christmas songs lightly under his breath as he drove, and Blair began to hope that he’d dodged a bullet. Maybe Jim would just chalk the kiss up to the general tenseness of the situation. Maybe he didn’t even remember it – in all the excitement of the takedown, maybe it had just slipped his mind.
And Blair certainly wasn’t going to remind him. That had been a nice dream moment, there, kissing Jim, but it wasn’t going to happen again. He wouldn’t let it. He brushed his lips with his fingers, remembering the warmth of Jim’s lips, the way he’d felt that kiss down through the soles of his feet—
Stop it. He shook his head, and jammed his hand in the pocket of his coat.
When they got home, Blair tossed his keys in the basket and his coat over a chair, and headed for the kitchen. “Let’s see how those potatoes are doing,” he said, as he turned the oven on.
“Hang on a sec.”
He turned. Jim was hanging his holster on the hooks by the door, and giving him a raised eyebrow. “What’s up?”
“I think we’ve got a little unfinished business.”
Squelching a burst of irritation, he went over and grabbed his coat off the chair. “Right. Hang the coat up. Sorry, I for—”
Before he could finish the sentence or get his coat on the hook, Jim had grabbed him by the upper arms and had him pressed up against the door to the loft.
“Uh, Jim? Wh…what’s going on?” He tried to keep his voice from squeaking, he really did.
Jim lowered his head until his face was inches from Blair’s. All Blair could see were those blue, blue eyes, as cold and as sharp as the winter sky. “You kissed me.”
His heart plummeted to somewhere around his knees, which were wobbling pretty drastically. “Uh… listen. Look. That was… I was… y’know, you and that guy had history, and… and there was no telling… you can be pretty cocky sometimes, you know – you think you’ve got everything figured out, but what if he—”
Then Jim kissed him.
And it was a good thing that Jim was holding him up against something, because his knees had melted. And his fingers, his coat sliding to the ground. In fact his whole body felt like it was melting, warm honey coursing through all his limbs. He’d be in a puddle on the ground, just like his coat, if it wasn’t for Jim’s solid mass – oh, so solid and hard – holding him up.
A thought occurred to him and he pushed on Jim’s shoulders, creating a little space between them. “This… this isn’t some sort of weird Sentinel reaction, is it?” he panted.
“If by ‘weird Sentinel reaction’ you mean me noticing that that kiss wasn’t exactly brotherly, then, yes,” Jim said. “Don’t worry, Sandburg, I know exactly what I’m doing.”
And then his hands were in Blair’s hair and he was kissing Blair again, and that was good, really good, like orders of magnitude good, like discovering a heretofore unknown tribe in the jungle good, and thankfully his legs had managed to solidify a little, so he could start giving back a little of what he was getting, which Jim seemed to think was really good, so good that he crowded Blair up against the door a little more, pushing his thigh in between Blair’s legs, and good GOD Jim was all muscles and sinews, wonderfully, wonderfully hard, and especially THAT PART, my GOD that was hard, too…and Blair pulled his mouth away from Jim’s, his head spinning, gasping for breath.
“What’s the matter now?” Jim growled.
He was a little gratified to see that Jim was out of breath, too. “N-nothing, just… we’ve got to slow down a little, or… or this is going to be over before it’s begun.”
Jim gave him the wickedest grin he’d ever seen. “Sandburg, what makes you think this is going to be over after you come?”
He tried to stifle the undignified moan that drew out of him, but it didn’t matter, because Jim was backing up towards the stairs to his room, tugging Blair along, undoing his belt buckle, and Blair decided that he’d really, really had enough thinking for now.
It was the light that woke him, streaming in through Jim’s skylight. When he opened his eyes, he could see a square of clear blue sky. Unusual for Cascade in winter.
He blinked and stretched, wincing a little. He was sore – very pleasantly so – in areas where he hadn’t been sore for a long time. But it had been worth it. Totally worth it. Maybe he’d been underestimating the importance of sex in a relationship.
He turned his head to find Jim, head propped on one arm, watching him.
Grinning, he rolled on to his side. “You kissed me,” he said.
Jim ducked his head, a smile curving one corner of his mouth. Blair thought he could see a faint blush along his cheeks. “You kissed me first.”
He reached out, hungry to touch, hungry for the feel of Jim’s skin against his fingers, hot and sweat-slicked, hungry for the feel of muscles sliding and straining and clenching.
But Jim captured his hand before it got there, pinning it between them on the bed. “Why?” he said, and although the corner of his mouth was still crooked up, the smile didn’t reach his eyes.
The smartass answer rose to his mind first - I can’t resist a man in Kevlar - and he’d actually opened his mouth and drawn breath to respond, when he noticed Jim’s eyes. The look they held was serious, and a little lost.
It took him back, like déjà vu, to that moment in the soup kitchen, that moment that he’d looked at Jim ladling soup and realized that Jim was the love of his life. The moment he’d had his epiphany.
This moment had the same feel. It was important, heavy. Teasing and attraction and physical pleasure aside, Jim was asking a real question, and he deserved a real answer.
He exhaled, and took Jim’s hand in his, rubbing his thumb gently across the top. “I… uh… recently realized how important you are to me – how important our… relationship is to me. I didn’t want you to die—I didn’t want you to go into danger without knowing that.”
Jim was grinning at him, full on now. “Recently, huh?”
Jim shifted, bracing himself on his hands over Blair’s body. “Would that have been during a recent visit to the soup kitchen?”
“Not only gorgeous, but smart, too,” he replied, indulging his desire to touch Jim’s warm, smooth skin. “How did you know?”
“I think it was that look on your face,” Jim replied. “The one that looked like you’d been goosed by a cattle prod and gotten the last spoonful of ice cream all at once.”
He laughed. “I should have known I couldn’t get anything past you.”
Jim leaned down and kissed him. “And then that dinner you planned, out of nowhere—”
The thought hit both of them at the same time. Blair could only assume the look of horror on his face mirrored what he saw on Jim’s. The potatoes.
They both scrambled out of bed and down the stairs, Blair slightly ahead by virtue of the fact that he hadn’t stopped to grab a robe. He pulled the oven door open and a black, stinking cloud rolled out, revealing two small, charred objects within.
Blair grabbed the mitts, pulled the burned potatoes out, and dumped them in the sink. “Sorry, Jim,” he said, turning the oven dial to ‘off’, “I totally spaced those out.”
“I did, too, Sandburg,” Jim replied, surveying the inside of the oven. “It’s nothing a little oven cleaner and elbow grease can’t fix, though.” He slid an arm around Blair’s shoulder. “Tell you what – let’s get cleaned up and go out for breakfast, and on the way home we’ll get more potatoes.”
“Sounds good to me,” he replied, tossing the mitts on the counter.
Jim pulled him into a kiss. “And for the record, Sandburg, I love you, too.”