"All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another." --Anatole France
The man in front was holding the gun, but he didn't look like he really needed it. He filled the doorway with his presence and size, naked to the waist, heavy pectorals pressed together by his upper arms as he clasped the gun in both hands. The photograph was grainy black-and-white captured from videotape, cheaply printed on gray newsprint which did nothing to improve the quality of the picture. All subtlety of expression was lost, so it was impossible to tell what the smaller man, the one with the long, uncombed hair, shielded in the doorway by the muscular bulk of his companion, was really thinking. He might have been terrified, but it was just as likely that he wasn't quite awake yet. Both of them looked as though they had just tumbled out of bed.
"You see, Jim?" Blair muttered to himself in grim triumph. "You see? This is why there is absolutely no point in making a list." He dug through his pockets one last time, then pulled out his wallet and rifled through the contents of the long bill sleeve. Sure enough, his grocery list wasn't there either. All he found were six one-dollar bills and a five, a movie ticket stub, and the receipt from his last ATM deposit. He had to give Rainier credit for that, he reflected glumly, glancing at the balance and tucking it back into his wallet. At least the bursar's office had issued his last stipend check, even if even if they had prorated it from the date of his dismissal.
He turned the ticket stub over, trying to remember the last movie he'd seen. It was a generic red coupon like the revival house down on East Main used, so that meant it must have been *The Seven Samurai.* Yeah, that's right. He had gone with Jim. Come to think of it, the movie had been Jim's idea in the first place. He'd grumbled that Blair had been working too hard -- spending too much time hunched over in front of his computer. He needed to get out and live a little.
So they had gone to the movie a few nights before Naomi's visit, just before he'd finished the dissertation.
The last night he had seen Jim truly happy.
Blair crumpled the stub up into a little red ball and stuffed it deep into his jeans pocket, but the immediate problem remained. He leaned heavily on the handle of the shopping cart, and moved at a snail's pace down the aisle. Jim had insisted he write out a grocery list if he was going to the store, claiming they hadn't had mayonnaise or plain white sugar -- not that brown grainy stuff that wouldn't dissolve in a cup of coffee -- in the loft in months. Fine, so he'd made a list, but now that he was at the store he couldn't find it, and since he'd written everything down instead of just composing a mental list, he couldn't remember anything on it.
That was the whole problem with written language. It made people lazy, forgetful and careless. Made bureaucracy not only possible, but necessary, along with all its attendant woes. Slavery, taxation, standing armies, concentration camps, fast food, email, and graduate school. When you thought about it, mankind would probably be better off today if nobody had ever painted that first bison on the cave wall.
Blair Sandburg certainly would have been, anyway.
*Look, I didn't do this.*
*Right. You didn't write the book and you didn't put my name all over it.*
Blair closed his eyes and lowered his head, his knuckles whitening around the handle of the shopping cart. He couldn't figure out why it still felt like this. Like he had just stepped off a cliff. No, worse than that. He'd actually walked off a cliff before, and as terrified as he had been, Jim had been right there at his side, plummeting beside him. This was a free fall into darkness, and he was all alone.
He stood up straight, opening his eyes fast, blinking against incipient tears. He was *not* alone. James Ellison was at home waiting for his Miracle Whip and refined white sugar and whatever else had been on that list. And maybe Jim always seemed a little sad and distant these days, but that was only because they had been through so much recently. His leg was hurting him, and he wasn't resting like he should, hobbling around on that cane and daring anyone to say a word to him about it, and as if things weren't bad enough, a few TV people were still hanging on. Even no story was a story, apparently. Or maybe they were just waiting for him or Blair to break and deck a cameraman. It might still happen at that.
So, that damned grocery list. It was a pretty good bet that miso and mango-flavored kefir weren't on it, but he reached out and grabbed a carton of each anyway as he wheeled determinedly past the refrigerated section. Jim was going to be all right. They both were. The next class at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission started in six weeks, and Blair would be there. His calf muscles ached from his new ten mile a day regimen, and he could already tell the difference in his forearms and shoulders from the sessions at the gym. He had complained to Jim the way he was bulking up he could hardly manage the lotus position anymore, and Jim had smiled. Almost a real smile.
Sour cream. Definitely sour cream had been on the list, or should have been if it wasn't. Hadn't Jim been grumbling about not having any for his baked potato the other night? For Jim, then, sour cream. He picked up a full pint of the real stuff, since the last time he had come home with fat-free it had sat in fridge until it started to grow mold. Tossing it in the cart, he cut a sharp corner around the next aisle and nearly ran into a tall guy carrying a basket with nothing in it but ramen noodles and a box of Frosted Flakes.
"Whoa, excuse me." Blair pulled up short, and his old friend Rick Feldman lifted his head and looked at him.
"Rick," Blair said. "Hey."
Rick had always reminded Blair of a glass of skim milk anyway, pale and tall with white-blond hair and a guileless, sensitive face. He looked even paler under the glare of the florescent supermarket lights, and he was staring at Blair now as though he'd seen a ghost. It was a reaction Blair was getting so used to that his own response was automatic, even though he hated it even more than the way his own colleagues and classmates had been treating him. His bright, false smile, the patter of equally false conversation. He hated it, *hated it.* Maybe Jim could give him some tips on doing that strong, silent thing. Blair was obviously no good at it.
"So you doing okay?" he heard himself ask Rick. "You were gonna take your comps before summer term, weren't you? Or you did you decide to wait until fall? I say go ahead and get them over with, myself. No use prolonging the inevitable."
Rick's mouth twitched. For a moment Blair thought he wasn't going to be able to answer him at all, but then he said in a voice that was almost normal, "I'm waiting until fall. A lot happened this quarter."
"Yeah, I know, you're right, you've got a point about that. How's Jill? I heard they got Kari Gattis to take over my 101 class. I know it must have been tough, switching instructors mid quarter like that, but Kari's really good."
Rick started to shake his head but did not quite finish the gesture. He looked away over Blair's head and said in the same almost-normal voice, "Jill said the class went fine."
"Well, that's great." Blair felt as though his insides were turning to glass. Brittle and etched, chipped along the edges. "That's just great. I --" God this was stupid. "For pete's sake, Rick, it's just me," he burst out. "It's not like I grew horns and a tail overnight, is it?"
Rick shook his head again, for real this time. "I don't understand you at all," he told Blair, speaking very carefully in clipped, precise tones. He had an awful expression on his face. It was the heartbreaking look of a fundamentally gentle man who's been goaded beyond all endurance.
"Rick," Blair began a little desperately, holding up both hands as though warding off a blow.
"I just don't understand you at all," Rick said again. "You were ready to see me thrown out of school over that paper I wrote for Brad Ventriss."
"Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You know that's not the way it was."
"And the only reason I did it was to try and help Jill. What excuse did you have?"
"Are you even listening to yourself? Brad was a Grade A psycho. He killed a man, Rick! Do you really think you could have protected Jill by writing term papers for the guy?"
"You know what the crazy thing is?" Rick said softly. "I admired you anyway. Most people, you know, they just do what they have to do to get along. Not you, though. Not you. I thought you were the most --" Rick's voice rose and broke. "The most -- principled man I'd ever met. "
Blair closed his eyes.
"Pretty stupid of me," Rick whispered. "Sorry."
Blair was talking before he even got in the door. "I told you, Jim," he said, his shoulder against the door, one bag of groceries hugged to his chest. "I told you lists never work out for me." He'd set the second bag down on the floor outside, leaning precariously against the jamb. "I couldn't find the list once I got to the store, but I think I got everything anyway."
"You left it on the dining room table," Jim said. He had pulled himself to his feet with the help of his cane and was making his way to the door even though he knew what Blair would say to him about that. His leg had been aching all day, a dull throb deep in his calf muscle, far below the path of Zeller's bullet. Probably just sore from limping around on it. "Need any help?"
"No, I do not need help. Sit down, Jim, or you're never going to get better. It would have been nice if you'd told me."
"Sorry, Chief. I didn't see it until after you'd left this morning."
"Great. That helps a whole lot." Blair half knelt and scooped up the other bag of groceries, kicking the door shut behind himself. "I think I remembered everything anyway. Hope I did." He made his way to the dining room table and put down both bags again and started pulling stuff out. "Got your mayonnaise and sugar and olive oil and broccoli and shaving cream--"
"God *damn* it" Blair slammed both hands down on the table. He turned around furiously, as if he were trying to find something to take apart. "This stuff makes me crazy," he raged. "Feels like I'm losing my fucking mind around here." He felt in his back pockets for his keys.
"I think you left them in the door," Jim observed quietly, and Blair shot him a look wild with fury before whirling around and stalking for the door.
"Is there anything else you need while I'm out?" He spit the words out through his clenched teeth. "'Cause it might save a little time if you'd tell me about it now instead of waiting until I get back."
"Put down your weapon, Sandburg. It's not my fault you forgot the grocery list."
Blair gave a snort of anger, but he stopped, and after standing motionless for a moment, he turned around and shrugged. "Yeah, I know." He pushed his hair out of his face with both hands, still breathing hard, obviously trying to let everything go. The pulse throbbed in his throat, and with his hair back, Jim could see the glint of both earrings in his left ear. He'd been wearing his hair down a lot lately, after months of always keeping it tied back. The earrings had been gone too, but they had quietly reappeared after Blair had agreed to go to the academy. It didn't take a psych minor to figure out either one of those particular fashion decisions.
Blair suddenly seemed to realize Jim was watching him, and he dropped his hands. "Long day, I guess. Hey," Blair interrupted himself. "I swear, Jim, you're just like a little kid sometimes."
"*I'm* like a little kid?"
"Your leg's hurting you." Blair came marching back, took the cane away from Jim with one hand, in the same gesture slipping his arm around Jim's waist. "Don't bother to deny it." His forearm was warm and solid against the small of Jim's back, and his hip pressed gently but insistently against Jim's thigh, forcing him to let Blair take some of his weight. The relief Jim felt was so profound that a sigh escaped him. "Easy," Blair said. "One step at a time." He shuffled around, drawing Jim with him, his arm still locked tightly around Jim's waist. "Sorry about snapping your head off, man. I don't need to be bringing that stuff in the front door. I know that."
"What stuff?" Jim asked. "Did something happen at work?"
Within days of losing his fellowship, Blair had found a part time job with the Department of Human Services, on call as a translator for Cascade's small Nepalese immigrant community. It wasn't enough money to pay many bills, far less the looming student loans, but as Blair had told him, it beat the hell out of waiting tables.
Blair hadn't mentioned his other job opportunities, and Jim hadn't been able to bring himself to ask.
"No, it's not work," Blair said. "Actually there's some good news there. They put off Rokhung's immigration hearing until next week, when they can get someone who speaks Bahing down from Seattle to translate for him. He's from the Okhaldunga District, you know? He speaks enough Nepali enough for us to communicate, but I feel better knowing the hearing will be in his first language."
Sandburg's usual smokescreen, too much information rattled out in a rush, as though that could keep Jim from noticing that he hadn't answered the question. Usually Jim obliged and pretended he really hadn't noticed, but tonight he just wasn't in the mood. Maybe because his leg was aching so badly, maybe just because Blair was standing next to him and supporting Jim's weight while refusing to allow Jim to share any of his own burdens.
"C'mon," Blair was saying. He shifted around in front of Jim, holding his forearms in a fierce, gentle grip. "Sit down before you really do hurt yourself."
Jim locked his knees. "I don't get you," he said, and even though the coldness in his own voice startled him, he went ahead and said the rest anyway. He was more afraid of letting Blair slip any further away than he was of hurting his feelings. "Don't you think the secret life of Blair Sandburg has already caused us both enough trouble?"
Blair's head came up fast, and Jim wouldn't have been surprised if Blair had belted him one. The words hung in the air between them, ugly and unanswerable, and Jim found himself hoping Sandburg *would* throw a punch, anything to break the moment.
Blair didn't, of course. When he finally spoke, his voice was quiet.
"Yeah, I know." He sighed heavily. "It's really no big deal, but it's like I'm having trouble keeping stuff in perspective these days." Blair shook his head and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he was looking away from Jim. "I ran into Rick Feldman at the grocery store, and he's kind of freaked out by the stuff about my dissertation. That's all."
The name didn't mean anything to Jim, but it was easy enough to figure out who Rick probably was and what he might have said to Sandburg. Jim had gotten an earful the few hours he had spent on campus since Blair's news conference. "Sandburg, the opinion of people like that -- you can't let it get to you. They don't know. They don't have any idea."
Blair nodded, his eyes fixed on Jim. "I know," he said, his voice breaking under the weight of all the bewildered, frustrated rage he'd brought home with him. "None of the rest of it matters," he announced decisively, and suddenly both his arms were around Jim, and he was holding on tight. He didn't say anything more, but Jim felt it in the desperation of that fierce embrace, Blair straining up a little so he could fit his chin over Jim's shoulder, still clutching the cane he had taken from Jim, the rubber tip hitting the back of Jim's calf. Blair's breaths were quick and hot at the side of neck, and Jim held his hands above Blair's shoulders, uncertain as he had never been around Blair before. He finally put his hands on Blair's shoulders, intending to ease him away, but Blair sensed his intent and released Jim first, bringing his arms around to grip Jim's forearm again, telling Jim with his eyes averted, "How does this sound? I'll go ahead and take my run tonight, pick up a roll of TP from Ye Olde Quickie Mart on the way back, then fix us some dinner. Maybe I'll even be able to act like a human being by then."
The walls receded once Blair was gone again. They began to close in on Jim when Blair was too close, too present, fussing over the bullet wound, washing dinner dishes, sitting next to Jim on the sofa during the endless evenings after even longer days, the two of them watching CNN or even, god help them both, the weather channel because sometimes it was easier to just keep sitting there rather than face the silence once the TV was turned off.
So it had become shameful relief to him when Blair was gone, because the air was easier to breathe then, the ceilings were higher, even the goddamned couch was more comfortable. His leg didn't throb with every beat of his pulse when Blair wasn't here, and he stopped seeing Simon sprawled flat, eyes blank and astonished, blood pumping from the wound left by a bullet intended for Jim spreading across the floor of his office. He didn't hear the sound Megan's brother had made, a choked whimper, trying so hard not cry, when Jim had called to let him know his sister was going into surgery. He couldn't smell Naomi's perfume, amber and patchouli and myrrh, as sweet and dark as Naomi herself, intending nothing but the best for her beloved boy.
But most of all, when Blair was gone Jim could stop reliving the end of everything.
Jim rubbed his eyes with his hand. He had a dull, cruelly persistent headache. It had lingered for days now, and nothing really seemed to help. Blair thought it might be a reaction to the antibiotics, but Jim suspected something else.
Oxygen deprivation, Chief. When you're in the same room with me, it's like a weight on my chest.
Before leaving for his evening run, Blair had fixed Jim a tray and left it on the coffee table to tide him over until dinner. A glass of iced tea, a plate of cheese and crackers and most of a sliced apple -- Blair had helped himself to a couple of the slices, grinning at Jim as he munched, his eyes hecticly bright, like a man on the verge of tears. Fixing the tray had been yet another of those kind, protective gestures made without consulting Jim or requesting acknowledgment. One in a series that stretched to infinity, beginning from the moment Blair hadn't refused to go to the academy.
Or no, even earlier. They had begun at his press conference when he'd swallowed hard, a look on his face like he was Peter denying Jesus Christ, before finally blurting out that James Ellison wasn't a sentinel.
There would be no end to them now. Blair had shed his past like a refugee fleeing his homeland. Abandoned his life and almost everything he loved. What did he have left now but these kindnesses and accommodations? Shaping himself to the interstices of Jim's life.
It still wasn't enough. Blair could strip himself down to nothing, but he couldn't touch Jim's grief. Nothing Blair did could take away the moment the world ended. It was always with Jim, sometimes pale as a ghost, just raising the hairs on the back of his neck. Other times, like when Blair was near, it raged like burning coals. And the ridiculous thing, Jim had to admit, even as the heat consumed him, was that he had always known this moment would come. Right from the beginning. Blair had been honest, back then.
*I wanna write about you! You're my thesis!*
Just a matter of time, that's all it had ever been. Even without Naomi Sandburg's intervention, someday someone would have stuck a microphone in Jim's face and asked him what it felt like to be a Sentinel. That would be the end of his life as he knew it. Blair would get those extra letters after his name and leave him, and it would be the end of everything.
Three and a half years Jim had been waiting for it. The only grace he'd asked was that Blair allow him to read the dissertation first. Give him a little lead time, a chance to get his affairs in order, because that was the Mephistophelean bargain they had made. At the time it must have seemed worth it. Given the choice between ending up dead under a city truck the next time a shiny object caught his eye, and the far-away prospect of allowing himself to be the subject of a pitiless academic study, Jim had chosen life and Blair.
It had become an increasingly difficult choice as the years rolled away, though, and Jim had snapped first. Stolen the first chapter of Blair's dissertation in the hope of assuring himself that it wouldn't be as bad as he feared. Jim supposed it served him right that instead he'd discovered it was infinitely worse.
Aw, Christ, this was no good. He was making himself crazy running things around and around in his head. Like he'd told Blair at the time, it was over. There was no going back. So Jim needed to just let it go and try to enjoy these few minutes of peace and quiet before Blair got back from his run.
Blair had made sure the remote was within easy reach before he left. Jim clicked on the television, but the cable was bad today. The sportscasters on ESPN all had a slightly fuzzy look to them, and the air in the studio seemed to be solid, filled with tiny dots. Jim clicked off the set again without looking at any of the other channels. Trying to watch that would only have made his headache worse. He reached for the glass of tea Blair had left him, but when he lifted it to his mouth he smelled, under the aroma of fermented tea leaves and blackberry extract, more than a hint of the seasoning from last night's stew. Garlic and onion, bay leaf, black pepper and sage. Jim hadn't realized there were leftovers, but obviously there were. Sitting in the fridge and perfuming the tea and everything else with eau de beef stew. Even the ice cubes probably reeked by now.
He put the glass down and heaved himself to his feet. His leg still ached. The sobering reality was he was getting older, and his body didn't recover from these massive shocks to the system so quickly anymore. Like when that reporter had leaned in the window of his truck and asked him how the publication of Mister Sandburg's manuscript would affect his work with the police department. Jim had known, in an instant of pure hopeless horror, that the end he'd been waiting for had finally come.
He'd looked at Blair and seen horror on his friend's face too. But along with it had been that damning, frantic look of guilt. "Jim, I can explain," Blair had said, which could only mean that no explanation would ever be adequate. It was over. Done with. Jim's heart had broken in two, and the jagged shards were still hurting him weeks later, as slow to heal as the wound Zeller's bullet had left.
Jim stopped at the kitchen island, leaning his hip hard against it, and roughly rubbed the tears from his eyes. Then he made it the rest of the way to the refrigerator and pulled out the plastic quart container of leftover stew from the second shelf. There was the problem. Sandburg had used wrong sized lid, and it hadn't sealed. Sloppy. Not really like Blair to make a mistake like that. The one time he'd put an open bowl of leftover chili in the refrigerator three years ago, they had ended up throwing out everything from the frozen peas to a gallon of milk.
Blair was tired, though. Preoccupied. Probably because his heart was broken, too. Jim had watched it happen, as shocked by what Blair had done as he was horrified by the futility of it. Blair had tried to give Jim his life back by sacrificing his own, and it had been such a bitter, skewed calculus. It had gotten the reporters out of Jim's face, but it had left the two of them in a pallid limbo of frustration and grief.
Jim wondered, deliberately imagining the worst thing he could, if it was this bad for Blair too. If he could hardly stand to be in the same room with Jim anymore. If the air seemed thin and the pressure on his chest too tight when they were in the loft together. Because if it did, detective's shield or no detective's shield, Blair would be crazy to stay. Jim couldn't let him.
Knowing it was a mistake and going right on and doing it anyway, Jim lowered himself to one knee so he could look in the lower cabinet where the Tupperware was stacked. At one time in his life, the time before Blair Sandburg, every container had had its own lid, and they had all been stacked together. Now Jim was confronted with wobbling towers of odd-sized containers and sloping fields of plastic lids, any or none of which might fit. The muscles in his calf were burning as he sorted through the lids one at a time. He gathered up a collection of likely candidates, breathing shallowly through gritted teeth at the pain. When he forced himself to stand again, a gray fog hazed the edges of his vision, and he braced himself with both elbows on the counter, letting the cane fall, dropping his head because he was afraid he was about to faint. When the dizziness finally passed, he lashed out at his weakness. The open container of stew spilled across the countertop, and down on the street three flights below, Jim heard the sound of Blair's footsteps on the pavement.
Blair walked three blocks from the Seven Eleven back to the loft to cool down after his run, swinging the plastic bag that carried his exorbitantly expensive roll of toilet paper. He could've bought half a dozen rolls at the supermarket for the price of one at the convenience store. Might as well be wiping his butt with gold leaf.
Maybe next time he'd remember the goddamned list.
At least he wasn't angry anymore, and that was a relief. The dusk was cool and smelled like rain before morning, and although his legs were rubbery and his stomach very empty, his lungs felt clean. His whole body did, as though he'd sweated and panted the accumulated toxins right out. The things Rick Feldman had said, and the heartbreaking expression on his face while he'd said them. Gone. The way Blair had snapped at Jim when he got home -- banished like it had never happened. The way Jim had gone rigid in Blair's impulsive embrace --
All right. So that wasn't entirely gone yet. Neither was the look in Jim's eyes, so closed and resigned, as though he never expected to have any reason to smile again. Blair hadn't managed to run that particular toxin out of his system either.
For chrisssakes, Jim, he thought, his grief welling up darkly. I gave up my life for you. You said it yourself. So how much more is it gonna take?
He stopped dead on the sidewalk, his face burning as though he really had said those shameful words out loud. He didn't mean them. It was just that sometimes the weight of Jim's disappointment became too much to bear anymore. Blair had screwed up before, made mistakes, sometimes bad ones. He had even hurt Jim, but always before Jim had forgiven him, and they had gone on. Blair was beginning to think that this time would be too much. That even if Jim wanted to forgive him, he couldn't manage to look at him anymore without seeing a friend who had betrayed his secret to the world.
All at once, Blair desperately wanted to be home again. Looking up the block, he could see the lighted windows of the loft where Jim was waiting for him. Blair hoped he was resting his leg, but knowing Jim, he'd probably been stomping around since Blair left, taking advantage of Blair's absence to hurt himself in peace and quiet, the hardheaded idiot.
He jogged the last block, having to wait before he crossed the street for a new Volkswagen in a shade of green that looked black under the streetlights to pull up and park almost directly in front of him. A woman with amazing cheekbones and an even more amazing magenta flattop was driving, but he didn't look back when he heard her heels hit the pavement and the car door slam behind her. He had almost reached the outside door when she called, "Blair Sandburg! Blair, hold up a minute."
He recognized the voice though he hadn't recognized the woman herself. He stopped, his hand on the door, the bag with the toilet paper in it swinging against his thigh. Feeling a little sick, he was more than tempted to just run away from her. Jim was trapped upstairs, though, and Jim couldn't run. He might shoot Wendy Hawthorne if he was cornered, though. He'd threatened to before.
Blair turned to face her, his back to the door. "Wendy," he said, and didn't even try for a smile. "Please. Nothing personal, but I'm not talking to any reporters. Not me, and not Jim either."
She held out her hands as though to show she wasn't carrying a weapon, and her own smile was blinding. The last time Blair had seen Wendy she'd been working as the weekend news anchor on one of the local Cascade channels, as pretty and vapid as she'd ever been. Her hair had still been long and blonde then, and Blair had assumed she was well on her way to becoming head anchor. She'd certainly had the looks and personality for it.
She wasn't anchoring any local news shows with hair like that, though. Much less with the little jeweled hoop through her left nostril. "That sounds more like Detective Ellison than the Blair Sandburg I remember." She tilted her head as though she still had a curtain of blonde hair to sweep around. "How have you been? How's Jim?"
"Pretty shitty, actually."
"It's been rough for you, hasn't it? Actually, that's what I'd like to talk to you about. Can I buy you a cup of coffee?"
"No. Thanks, but no." Blair gestured vaguely to himself with his free hand, thinking his sweat-soaked tee shirt was surely excuse enough. "It's really not a good time."
"Then just hear me out. I'll make it quick."
Blair shook his head and felt behind himself for the door handle. "Look, it's late, I'm hungry, I'm tired, and all I want to do right now is get upstairs and get a shower. If you wanna leave me your number or something, I'll call you when things settle down."
"Five minutes," she pleaded. "You and Jim saved my life, not to mention my professional reputation. I finally see a way to make it up to you, so won't you please give me that chance?"
Shit. She still could make her voice quaver like a little girl's on the verge of tears. Jim had never fallen for it, but Blair guessed it worked on him all right, because he heard himself saying, "You don't owe us anything."
She recognized the capitulation. "Listen," she said immediately, "You know I'm working for the Free Press now, right?"
Cascade's weekly alternative rag. So that explained the hair and the nose ring. "I didn't know. Hey, uh, congratulations. It's not really where I would've pictured you."
"Are you kidding? Investigative journalism is dead on TV. That wasn't for me anymore, stuck behind a desk with that camera in my face like a hairsprayed mannequin."
So she'd gotten herself fired, Blair thought. He couldn't imagine Wendy Hawthorne ever actually objecting to being on camera. "I think I know where you're going with this, and I promise you, Jim doesn't have any interest in being the subject of an expose in the Free Press."
"Not Jim. You."
"No. Absolutely not." Blair turned and pulled open the door, but Wendy was there first, squeezing into the entry hall ahead of him.
"You said you'd listen to me, now come on, give me a chance."
"I don't mean to be rude, but would you please knock it off? I don't want anything to do with this." He could smell himself in the close quarters, and he switched the bag of toilet paper to his other hand, feeling self-conscious and faintly ridiculous, not wanting to start upstairs with her on his heels.
"I'm in a position to do you a whole lot of good if you'll just give me a chance. You remember in your news conference, how you said the thing you regretted most was the hurt you'd caused your friends and colleagues?"
He just couldn't deal with this now. He was exhausted and hungry and sweaty and gross and Jim was right upstairs, probably listening in, for god's sake. That thought made him push the door open again and step out into the night air. She followed him.
"See, that's what I want to write about. I've been there too, you know? I've had to start my life again after a public humiliation. That makes me the person to tell your story, Blair, and I'm not the only one who thinks so. My editors are really excited about this. It could be the lead article."
Blair heard himself give a bitter laugh. "Only on a really slow news week. C'mon, nobody's going to be interested in a story like that."
"Don't be so sure. The only thing that sells better than success is a story about self delusion and failure."
"And this is what you call doing a favor for someone? I hope I never end up on your shit list."
"I understand why you did it, Blair. I did the very same thing. I saw a way to make a story better, and I took it, just like you did. Maybe you even halfway believed it. Army ranger, cop of the year, not to mention that bod of his." She rolled her eyes and laughed. "Who can blame you for wanting to make Jim into some kind of a superhero? When the story broke I almost believed it myself. So that's the article I want to write, how a decent guy like you let himself get a little carried away and ended up having to pay for it with his career. See? I'm on your side, Blair. A story like this could generate a lot of sympathy."
"I don't want sympathy," he ground out.
"You may not want it, but you could sure use some. I've been where you are now, and it's not an easy road back. You'd be a fool to pass this up."
"I've been called worse. Thanks anyway, but I can't help you. Good night, Wendy."
She moved in front of him, and suddenly her voice wasn't nearly so accommodating. "I'm trying to give you a chance because I feel like I owe it to you and Jim. But there's another story I could write."
"Great, then write that one," Blair said wearily. "Excuse me. Like I told you, there's a hot shower upstairs with my name on it."
"Do you have the right to make that decision for Jim, too? This affects him just as much as it does you." Her voice shook a little.
"This has nothing to do with Jim," Blair said, but he felt an icicle chill of foreboding.
"I'm afraid it does. If you won't help me tell your story, then I'll have to tell the story of you and Jim together, and I don't think it's one either of you will like very much."
"There is no story of me and Jim together," Blair snapped. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"Only the obvious one. You're still living in his place, Blair. Anyone would think you'd be out on your ass after you made him a laughing stock. The Sentinel of Cascade? Give me a break. Whatever else he is, Jim Ellison isn't a man who tolerates ridicule. Yet here you are, going upstairs to shower and dinner in his home just like nothing happened."
"Stop. Just stop it right there."
"This is how I figure you two were working it. See, Jim pretends to participate in this bogus 'sentinel' research so the police department will okay ride-along status for his grad student lover. The university even pays you for conducting this so-called research. I don't think that's quite what the sponsors of your fellowships had in mind, do you?"
"You're insane," Blair whispered. He was so weak at the knees he had to lean against the side of the building for support. "You can't publish that. It's not true."
"I can be a little naive, you know, but even I noticed Jim couldn't stop talking about you long enough to get it up for me."
"Would you shut the hell up?" He glanced up at the lighted window three floors overhead. His head was so light and hot he felt like it might just come floating off his shoulders, and the way his heart was thundering away in his chest he more than half expected Jim to hear that even if he didn't hear their conversation.
Wendy's face wasn't entirely unsympathetic, but she didn't give an inch. "I've even got the pictures. I'll use them if I have to."
"*Pictures?*" Blair squeaked, his mind reeling. "There aren't any pictures."
"The video, Blair. When the two of you came to the door that morning, you'd just gotten out of bed. You could hardly keep your hands off each other, even with the camera rolling."
"But we hadn't gotten out of the same bed! You've got to stop this. The whole thing is nuts. Jim's been through enough, and I can't let you publish some crazy ass speculation about his personal life, especially not accusing him of fraud. I'm the one who screwed up here, not Jim. Jim didn't do anything except try to be the best cop he knows how to be. Jesus, Wendy, that's all he's ever done." Blair felt like crying. "The man saved your life, you told me that yourself. Please don't do this to him."
"Then give me another story to write."
Blair rubbed his hand over his eyes. He could feel himself shaking. "Whatever you want," he whispered. "Just leave Jim out of it."
"I thought you'd see it my way. Come on, Blair, it won't be so bad. Now how about that cup of coffee? You look like you could use it."
"Maybe a stiff drink would be better," he said as her taloned fingers closed above her elbow.
"Whatever loosens that sweet tongue." She laughed, almost giddy, and Blair was afraid she was about to kiss him. He remembered her giving him a kiss on the cheek once long ago. Blair had felt like some kind of Galahad then, being thanked for slaying a dragon. Now it turned out the princess and the dragon had been in cahoots all along, and he was so weary he didn't even pull his arm away from her. "We're two of a kind," she was saying happily just as the door behind them crashed open.
Oh, Jim, Blair thought miserably, before he even turned his head. When he did, he saw it was as bad as he'd feared. Jim's face was gray in the streetlight, his jaw set with anger. He must have heard everything.
"Sandburg is nothing like you." Jim's voice was soft and furious. "This interview is over."
"Jim!" Wendy cried with a bright, angry laugh. "What a way to say hello."
Jim made his way onto the sidewalk, leaning too heavily on his cane, the way he did when he'd stressed his leg. Blair pried himself free of Wendy and went to him, trying to give him an arm of support, but Jim ignored it. "You've got ten seconds. Then I'm arresting you for criminal harassment and attempted extortion."
"Are you threatening me, detective?" she demanded, her voice rising in outrage, and Blair saw the whole mess playing itself out again. Jim's face on the cover of the Free Press, the phone calls at all hours, to the loft, to the station, to Jim's father and brother, and through it all Jim withdrawing further and further, until Blair was never able to reach him again.
"It's all right," he broke in, babbling in something close to panic. "Jim, Wendy, it's all right. Just a little misunderstanding here. Look, Jim, just let me help you back upstairs, man, and Wendy, then you and I can talk. Okay? Everything's cool?"
"Five seconds," Jim said. "Then we're going downtown."
"You don't want to do this," Wendy said furiously, but she backed up a step. "Blair, tell him."
Blair looked at Jim's face in profile, and what he saw there suddenly calmed him. "There won't be any interview. You'd better go, Wendy."
"You're making a serious mistake."
"C'mon, Jim. Let's get you upstairs."
This time, Jim nodded a little. He put his arm around Blair's shoulders as Blair wrapped his around Jim's waist, allowing Blair to support some of his weight. "I tried to give you a chance!" Wendy called after them. "Just remember that, Blair. I tried."
The door shut behind them, and they made their way across the tiny foyer to the elevator. Jim punched the button and the doors opened at once, the cage still on the ground floor from Jim's trip down. As they got in, Jim said only, "What happened to her hair?"
Blair looked up at him, wonderingly. Then he ventured a tiny smile. "Maybe she's starting the Academy in six weeks too."
"Heh," Jim almost chuckled. The arm around Blair's shoulders tightened for a long moment as the elevator ascended. "Were you planning to warm up that beef stew for dinner tonight, Chief?"
"What?" It took him a minute to figure out what Jim was talking about. "Yeah, I guess so. Why?"
The elevator door opened on their floor. Jim moved slowly, trying not to limp. Trying not to lean on Blair too hard. "Because I just dumped it all over the counter."
Blair shook his head. The door to the loft was standing wide open. "If you don't like my cooking you could just tell me, man."
"Did you know that ribs place over on Market Street delivers?"
"No, Jim," he said, and almost let himself grin for real. "I guess I didn't know that."
"Well, they do."
"Uh huh." Blair swung the door shut behind them and tried to guide Jim to the couch, but he pulled away.
"I'll clean up the mess on the counter," he told Blair. "You can call for ribs. I like the Jamaican sauce on mine. Get extra."
"Has it occurred to you that it would make a lot more sense for *me* to clean up, and for you to go park your ass on the sofa and call for delivery?"
Jim continued to make his way carefully to the sink. "I spilled it," he said. "I'll clean it up."
It was aggravating, but Blair found he didn't have the strength to argue anymore. He leaned against the wall by the phone. "You know the number?"
"What's the name of this joint?"
Jim wrung out a sponge and began carefully sweeping the spilled stew into the sink. "It's that rib place on Market. You know."
Blair didn't know. He couldn't remember ever having seen a rib place on Market. He picked up the phone and put it down again. "How much of that did you hear?"
Jim didn't look up. "Enough. Most of it, I think. She's a piece of work."
"If she writes that article, it could really cause a lot of headache. You know that, Jim. For you, for Simon and the department, everybody. It might be better if I try and talk to her."
Jim shook his head. "We'll deal with it when and if it happens."
"I'm just saying, if I give her the interview she wants, let her write a story about a guy so obsessed with his research topic that he started inventing sentinels out of thin air, at least that would keep you out of it."
A long silence. Then Jim turned slowly to face him, leaning his hip against the counter to brace himself. "Sandburg, stop. No more. Just -- stop."
So Blair stopped. He didn't cross the half dozen steps to Jim. He just stopped and waited.
"You can't keep doing it," Jim explained, sounding a little impatient. "Making these decisions about both our lives."
Blair hung his head, suddenly on the verge of tears. "It's my mess," he whispered. "I'm trying to clean it up."
Jim snorted. "Chief, I love you, but everything you've done lately in that line has been an unqualified fucking disaster."
"Jim, c'mon," Blair protested, a little shocked.
"Just let me help, okay? That's all I'm asking. You're not alone here."
Blair swallowed hard, nodding. "Okay. I hear you."
"All right, then." Jim turned his attention back to spilled stew, but after one more pass with the broth-laden sponge, he dropped it in the sink, rinsed his hands and said quietly. "Actually, if you don't mind finishing up here, I'll call in the order."
"All right," Blair said, trying to keep his tone just as nonchalant. "Want some help getting to the sofa?"
Blair slid his arm around Jim's waist, and as he did, he saw and felt Jim take a long, deep breath, a profound sigh. It was on the tip of Blair's tongue to apologize for the way he smelled, but Jim was practically smiling as he sighed again, breathing like a man who'd been shut in a small room for a very long time and has suddenly been let out into the open air.
When Blair opened his eyes the next morning, the loft was filling with water. He could hear the slow shush and susurration of it pouring across the floorboards, lifting the stacks of files and notes which had been piled up beside the sofa since the night he finished his dissertation, then flopping them up against the walls. They made a wet, slapping sound, like waves beating against a pier. He lay motionless on his bed and listened. There was something soothing about the sound of water. Comforting and inevitable. He need do nothing but lie here while the waves rose. He heard little splashes as rivulets dashed against the outside walls of his room and fell back upon themselves, the sound changing timber as living room slowly filled with water. After a time there were heavier sounds. The furniture was floating, thumping up against the walls and the staircase. If he could turn his head, he would be able to see the love seat or maybe one of the bookshelves serenely floating past his bedroom window.
He imagined how the sunlight must look in the living room, shining in the windows and through the depths of the water. Filtered and refracted, green gold and heavy. Light was reflected across the ceiling of his room too, moving with the waves outside.
Then something bumped against the wall, hard enough to shake the glass in the window and make the watery light on his bedroom ceiling shiver. Another thump. Thinking about the kinds of things that bobbed and sank in floodwaters, Blair's drowsy lassitude was replaced by a sense of slow dread. It bumped a third time, and now it seemed to Blair that there was something purposeful in those fumbling, blind thumps. The ripples of light on his ceiling flowed around a shape he almost recognized.
It bumped against the wall once more, then hit his windowpane. The patterns of light and shadow on his ceiling shattered, then slowly came back together again. The violent shaking of the glass subsided into a regular lap and splash, as though the floating object had been caught in a little eddy that swept it back again and again to Blair's window.
Blair wondered how long the glass would hold, and what would be swept into the room when it finally broke. If he turned his head, he would see it, but he wasn't sure he could bring himself to do that.
He wondered if it would still be floating at his window when he finally forced himself to wake up.
When Jim walked out of the bathroom that morning, still damp from the shower where he'd lingered too long because the hot water felt so good on his sore muscles, he found Blair sitting hunched on the sofa, apparently just out of bed. He was still in the sleeveless tee and boxers he'd slept in, and he hadn't started coffee, or even turned on NPR. He didn't raise his head until Jim said, "Hey."
"Hey," Blair said then, his voice scratchy. His hair was still a tangled mess, half-hiding his eyes.
"Yeah," Blair said, and Jim knew he was lying. He sat down on the couch opposite him, the bath robe damp under his thighs. "Don't get too used to that bed. Soon as I can make it up those stairs in under half an hour, you're back on the futon."
"I hear you," Blair said, baring his teeth in something that couldn't quite manage to be a smile. His muscles were tense, body folded in on itself, head resting on his hands and knees. Jim looked at him more closely, felt more closely, heart rate and respiration, perspiration, and some scent, slightly off, slightly sour. Slightly sad.
Sadness washed over Jim as well. Last night had felt a little better, as though banishing Wendy had banished other demons too. Finding that nothing had changed after all was a startlingly cruel disappointment
At last Blair took a deep, shaky breath, saw that Jim was still watching him, and tried again for a smile. "Weird dream this morning," he said. "I'm having a hard time shaking it."
"If it was about Wendy --"
"Nah." Blair shook his head. "I don't think so, anyway. It was just one of those funny things. I dreamed I was in my own bedroom, and the loft was filling with water. I didn't even know it was a dream at first."
Jim waited for Blair to say something more, hoping his next words would give Jim a clue, somehow let him know what he could say or do to make things better. He couldn't go on like this, simply waiting for the life they'd both loved to somehow miraculously return. But when Blair spoke again it was only to say, "I think I could use some coffee. Do you mind espresso roast? The stronger the better today."
Jim reached out and slid a curl off his forehead. "Blair."
Blair started at his touch. Or perhaps it was at the use of his first name.
"A few weeks ago, before all this started, you told me about some library back east." Jim could hardly believe what he was saying. Once he'd begun, though, the words came so easily he had to wonder if he hadn't been rehearsing this suggestion for a long time now, at least in some private corner of their shared misery. "You were gonna check it out, see if they had some new stuff on sentinels."
"Yeah. Notre Dame." Blair smiled grimly. "Can't very well go now."
"Why not? 'Cause, uh, 'cause, why not? What kind of question is that?" He glared at Jim, suspicious.
"Have you started believing your own press releases? Why can't we go? I'm still a sentinel, and you still need information to help me, right? And there might be information there, right? So, as I see it, you kinda owe me."
Blair stared at him, trembling a little. "Why can't *we* go? You wanna go, too?"
Jim looked at Blair, really looked at him, cataloging the circles beneath his eyes, the skin there fragile and translucently blue, the lines bracketing his generous mouth, lips now thinned in concentration, and the few strands of gray gleaming among the chestnut tangles. How long since he'd slept without nightmares? How long since he'd truly been happy?
Jim already knew the answer to that, yet as he watched, Blair's face relaxed and he rubbed his eyes. He took another deep breath and said, "You're still on medical leave."
"So? They got doctors in Indiana, don't they?"
"Just go. Just pick up and go."
"Just pick up and go."
The two men watched each other carefully from across the coffee table. At last, Blair nodded. "Let's go," he said, as if calling Jim's bluff.
"Well, all right. " Jim smiled, and found the expression came easily to him. "Pack. I'll call Simon and the airline. We'll leave tonight."
Blair's eyes widened. "You're serious? But, where'll we stay? What'll you do while I'm at the archives?"
Jim shrugged. He felt oddly light, untethered. "Does it matter? We'll find some place. I'll find something to do." He grinned. "If nothing else, I'll help you in the archives." Blair rolled his eyes, but he was only pretending. Jim could smell his pleasure and surprise, his relief. "Let's get the hell outta Dodge, little buddy."
"Okay, Marshall Tucker."
Now Jim rolled his eyes. "You mean Marshall Dillon. Or Chester," he added ruefully.
Blair waved a hand. "Whatever. I'll start packing. You stay off the leg and on the phone."
Jim listened to Blair as he pulled his duffel bag out from the tiny closet in his room; his breathing was more regular, and he was humming under his breath. Some minor key song Jim thought he remembered from a tape he'd found in the truck's player a few day's ago, when he'd hobbled out to check on the gas level. While he recovered, Blair had to do all the driving, but he didn't want him paying for the truck's gas. Actually, he didn't want Blair to pay for anything; he'd already paid too much.
"Call United first," Blair called from his room, his voice muffled. Jim surmised he had his head in his closet. "I think they have the most flights to Chicago from Cascade."
"Yeah." He appeared in his doorway, hair tousled, but his color better and his eyes brighter, though still rimmed with red. "We'll have to fly into Chicago and rent a car, drive to South Bend. It's a couple hours away."
"How do you know this? Have you been there before?" Jim asked, scooting carefully over to the end table where the phone book was stored.
"Yeah, but also the archivist -- his name is Robert -- told me. Either fly into Indianapolis or Chicago, and Chicago's closer. But you can check Indianapolis."
"Jesus," Jim muttered, but happily, or as happily he could under the circumstances. They were really going to do this. They were really going to leave. He caught sight of Blair's round backside as he bent over digging through a pile of laundry. "Jesus," he said again, and picked up the phone.
"Tonight?" Simon asked thirty minutes later, disbelief coloring his voice.
"Yeah. The flight leaves at eight, so we need to be there by seven. We can take the truck and leave it in long-term parking --"
"No, no, I'm happy to take you. Just a little surprised. Something happen?"
Jim glanced at Blair, who had moved upstairs and was packing for him. He could hear him rustling around in his chest of drawers, the slip and slide of cotton over cotton, the chink of buttons and the clink of jean rivets. "Just some stuff," he murmured, and Simon sighed heavily.
"You can't talk in front of the kid, huh."
Simon sighed again. "My god, what a mess, Jim. No one at works believes it, you know. They've seen too much; they know Blair too well; they're good detectives."
"Yeah. Maybe. Or maybe it's okay. They're all pulling for you guys. But, hell. I can see where you might need to get away. I assume you'll tell me the full story eventually?"
"Eventually," Jim agreed mildly, still watching Blair above him.
"I guess that'll have to do. Yeah, I'll take you. I'll pick you up at six; that should give us plenty of time to get to the airport no matter how clogged the roads."
"Six," Jim shouted up to his partner, then, "Oh, sorry, Simon."
"Cover the phone next time you scream," he said sourly. "I'll see you tonight."
Blair leaned over the railing and looked down at him as he pressed off and tossed the little phone aside. "We all set?"
Jim nodded. "Am I packed yet?"
"Not your bathroom stuff. I'm taking enough clothes for a week; I figure we can always hit a laundromat and drugstore if we stay longer."
"Sounds good. I'm gonna pay Darryl a few bucks to check on the loft, bring in the mail. I canceled the paper. Can you think of anything else?"
After a few seconds, Blair said, "You might want to unplug the answering machine."
Jim thought about some of the messages they'd received and nodded. "Yeah. I'll do that."
That afternoon, Jim took the opportunity of Blair's inattention while he did last minute packing to sneak out onto the balcony. He stared out over Cascade, the late afternoon's light popping like solar flares against his sensitive retinas, worsening his headache, worsening his pain.
What choice did he have, he asked himself, and swallowed. He'd never been to Indiana before, although he'd been through Chicago several times. Hot and humid, he remembered. So different from Cascade. So different from home.
Noises behind him reminded him that Blair was still frantically tossing things together. He wondered what he'd end up with, with Blair packing for him. He wondered where he'd end up, after everything that happened.
But getting away never sounded better. Like when he'd left home to go to school, and when he'd left school to join the military. Sandburg might notice a pattern in his behavior, he supposed, but it was too well-entrenched for him to change now. He couldn't breathe in Cascade, in the loft. He couldn't be here anymore.
The flight was long but at least not delayed. Jim had never really cared for flying, and since his senses had grown so acute, liked it even less. The noise, the vibrations, the crowds, the stale air, all combined into one enormous sensory overload. He found himself leaning on Blair, grounding himself in his friend's presence, and Blair responded like a phototropic plant, turning always toward Jim just as Jim turned toward him. As they sailed further east, into the darkness and away from the fading light of Cascade and the gleam of the Pacific Ocean, Jim felt as though he were going toward something as much as he was leaving behind him the mess of Wendy and the dissertation and Blair's and his public humiliations.
He stood by the plane's lavatories for a while, stretching his aching leg, and let his gaze rest on the back of Blair's head. He was asleep, pillow squashed between the window and his temple, his long hair tangled. No one on board had recognized either of them, all too busy getting to or from someplace else, all too self-absorbed to notice others. For once he was grateful for the general obliviousness of people, letting his friend rest undisturbed, happy to be away from their ringing phone and the pounding on their door. Grateful he had a moment in which to stand, sentinel-like, and simply watch over Blair.
When at last he limped his way back to his seat, he was careful not to wake Blair, but tucked his jacket closer around him. Blair turned in his sleep and murmured softly, nothing even Jim's hearing could catch, and then slept again. Jim rested his head near his friend's, letting Blair's breath warm his face, and he thought it hadn't been Blair's presence that had been suffocating him during these endless weeks after the press conference at all, but the terrible distance which had opened up between them. Then he slept, too.
It was two in the morning, Chicago time, when they landed at O'Hare. Blair was groggy but managed to guide Jim off the plane, blinded as he was by the sudden fluorescent lights, their hum, the clatter of people hauling bags and baggage from overhead compartments and from under their seats. His leg ached even more and he knew Blair was observing him closely. "Sit down," Blair instructed him when they finally reached the baggage claim area, and for once he obeyed without complaint. Wiping sleep from his eyes, he watched as Blair efficiently snagged their duffels from the belt and brought them back to leave at Jim's feet before standing in line for their reserved rental.
"You stay here and I'll bring the car around," Blair said, checking in with him, and Jim caught his arm. They stared at each other for several seconds.
"Help me outside," he said at last, reluctantly releasing Blair. After a brief hesitation, Blair agreed. He carried all the bags, refusing even to let Jim wear his old backpack, and kept one arm around Jim's waist, moving slowly over the ugly tile and out the sliding glass doors.
"My god," he said, and Jim agreed. After the chill of a Cascade evening, he felt overwhelmed by the heavy wet heat pressing down on him. It was like being back in the jungle: a dense fragrant atmosphere weighing him down, only this smelled like exhaust and asphalt and jet fuel. He quickly tugged off his jacket and took Blair's to hold. "Lean up against this wall," Blair suggested. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
Jim tracked Blair's hike to the shuttle bus for rental cars. "Wait," he called, and again Blair paused. When Jim didn't speak again, he slowly came back toward Jim, obviously puzzled. "I just, it's -- let me go with you, Chief." He suddenly felt that he couldn't risk losing Blair in the crowd; it was too dark, too far from home. Too alien. To his surprised pleasure, Blair smiled, and picked up the bags again. "We'll take this nice and slow," he told Jim firmly, and again Jim relaxed into his support.
"No other way to take it," he grumbled, but he was sure Blair knew how he really felt.
He permitted himself to be navigated through O'Hare's late night heat and crowds, and later through the vicissitudes of Chicago's torn-up streets, relaxing the further they got from Cascade. By the time Blair found I-80 and headed east, Jim was fully reclined in the passenger seat, a little groggy from lack of sleep. They could've, he realized belatedly, taken a room in Chicago and driven in the morning, but somehow he didn't feel like suggesting it and, if Blair had thought of it, he didn't seem inclined to act on the idea, either. So east they drove, stopping periodically to feed toll booths various amounts, Blair muttering to himself as he came to confusing exits, until finally they escaped the city and found themselves driving through the heavy humidity of a midwestern spring night.
It was with surprise that Jim found himself roused a couple hours later by Blair pulling into a parking lot and shutting off the rental's engine. He fiddled awkwardly with the seat until it permitted him to sit upright and then looked around. The Inn at Saint Mary's, a large sign informed him, and he looked questioningly at Blair.
"Across the street from Notre Dame," he explained, and Jim nodded. "Stay here. I'll get us a room. You've been on your leg too much these last couple days."
As he watched Blair head into the lobby, Jim wondered that fewer than twenty-four hours ago he'd had no idea he'd be sitting in a parking lot in a rental car in South Bend, Indiana, at -- he checked his watch -- nearly four in the morning. There should be something profound in the realization, but he was too tired and a little afraid to examine it further. Instead, he waited patiently, imagining a cool bed in a cool room, room service, and Blair to wait on him. He smiled. A vacation.
He refused to remember why he was on vacation just then.
By the time Blair had half-carried him into their third-floor room, with two double beds and a small sofa and desk, he was bleary from exhaustion. "They have what they call a 'complimentary deluxe breakfast,'" Blair told him, but he just fell onto the nearest bed, mindful of his leg, and put his face into a pillow. He felt Blair pull off his shoes and wrap the spread around him like a burrito, but then he remembered no more.
Blair sat heavily on the other bed, feeling grubby and hungry and weird. How the hell had they ended up more than half a continent away in just a few hours? What Looking Glass world had he stumbled into when Naomi had emailed his dissertation? And would he ever return?
Well, he admitted ruefully, right now he didn't much *want* to return. He was happy sitting in his travel-stained clothes listening to Jim snore here in this nice new hotel room. Food first, he decided, and leaving Jim a note, headed downstairs. Then a bath, then bed, then blessed oblivion. Or so he hoped.
For once, his small wish was granted, because he woke up clean and cool, lying under smooth sheets, watching Jim stare out the window as he sipped steaming coffee. When he sighed and cleared his throat, Jim glanced at him.
"Sit down," he croaked, and Jim smiled and obediently sat in the chair he'd pulled to the window. He cleared his throat again and asked, "What's so interesting out there?"
"Gonna be a hot day," Jim answered, and then held his hand a few inches from the window glass, fingers outspread and slightly cupped, as if touching something invisible. Blair understood this was a gift: Jim was illustrating how he knew what the temperature would be today, by capturing the molecules bouncing off the window, warmed into agitation by the morning sun. He felt a sudden relaxation, as if he'd been tensing his muscles unconsciously.
"Come here, Sandburg," Jim said suddenly, sitting up straighter. Blair dropped his head back into the pillow, groaning audibly, but climbed out of his comfortable bed and stood next to Jim, idly tugging at his boxers, then scratching his scalp.
Jim nodded toward the window and he stepped to it, not touching because he knew his handprints on the glass would bother Jim, but as close as he could get. He was looking east; the sun was high in the whitened sky. Rooftops gleamed in the light, sparking behind a dense tree cover. Nothing else. "So?"
"So you're looking at the flattest landscape I've ever seen in my life."
"Glaciers," Blair told him, continuing to stare out the window. "Glaciers scrubbed the land down to its bone, left nothing behind."
After nearly a minute, Blair became aware that Jim was staring at him. "What?" he asked again. Jim looked away, picking up his coffee cup and taking a sip.
"What's up for today?" he finally asked.
"You stay off your feet, that's what up. We've got cable, I'll buy some newspapers, and there's room service. Oh, hey, I brought some apples and bananas and muffins up earlier."
"Yeah, thanks. I found them. Where'd you get them? The muffins were fresh."
"I went down last night. This morning. Whenever. The restaurant was closed but the cooks took pity on me and gave me some muffins just out of the oven, and some fruit. You found the coffee." He paused, and said, "You really need a shower, Jim."
He grimaced. "I noticed. Didn't want to wake you, though."
Blair nodded, and started polishing an apple. "So, listen, we'll just stay in today, okay?"
Jim awkwardly started to rise from the chair; Blair caught his arm and helped pull him up, then handed him the cane. "Okay. I guess." They staggered a bit, and then Jim caught his balance. "I'm okay. Just need that shower, and then more food."
"Eggs this morning?"
Over his shoulder, standing in the doorway to the bathroom, Jim said, "Eggs? This isn't some bait-and-switch, where you offer me eggs and then insist on muesli." The tone of his voice implied that Blair might suggest mainlining wheat germ for breakfast. Blair shook his head, smiling slightly.
"Shout if you need help."
Jim didn't answer, which surprised Blair a little. He expected a little more snap this time of day, after everything that had happened. But Jim was tired, he reminded himself, and not nearly recovered from being shot by Zeller. Blair went back to the window Jim had been staring out of and took a long look himself.
It was flat, flat as far as his myopic eyes could see, and apparently flat as far as sentinel vision could see as well. Lots of trees; more than Cascade, he thought, or maybe it was that Cascade was hilly and had the Sound. But South Bend looked like a city of shady walks, which pleased Blair.
There was a river, too, he thought, and found a map of the city in a desk drawer. Yes, the Saint Joseph. Coming down from Michigan and then turning north again to empty into Lake Michigan. It seemed to run right through the center of town and, if his internal compass wasn't completely off, which it might well be, the river also ran behind their hotel. Maybe he'd walk out and look at it, if he could persuade Jim to stay behind.
Well, probably not. Another time, then, when Jim was recovered.
He sat in the chair Jim had vacated and rested his head back. He was still tired, too tired. Certainly too tired to think about why they'd dropped everything and fled Cascade. Too tired to consider what he'd do next. What Jim and he would do if Wendy followed through with her threat to publish. He just needed to make it through the next meal and then take a nap. Keep doing that, one small task at a time.
He must've dozed a bit, because he woke while Jim was dressing, awkwardly pulling up a pair of jeans. "Hey," he protested, getting up quickly. "Look, you had to wear trousers all day yesterday. Give yourself a break; wear sweatpants today."
"Can I go down to breakfast here in sweats?"
Blair nodded, not really sure if it was appropriate at this hotel, but Jim was injured and needed to take care of himself. Wrestling into a tight pair of blue jeans, no matter how good they looked on him, wasn't going to help. He pulled one of the several pairs of sweat pants he'd packed for Jim from his duffel and handed them to him along with a white tee shirt. Then he headed into the bathroom to take care of his own needs.
Jim rolled carefully onto his side and watched Blair sleep in the next bed. He was abandoned when sleeping, arms outflung, hair wildly curling, mouth open and, Jim could see when he focused, slightly drooling. He smiled.
Yet there wasn't a whole lot to smile at right now. Not really. They both were exhausted, more exhausted than Jim had permitted himself to realize until this morning. A few days in a nice hotel, being cooked for and cleaned up afterwards, was exactly what they needed. He was sorry that Wendy's threats and Blair's misery had been the impetus to get them the hell of out of Cascade, but he couldn't regret being here just now.
But what were they going to do next? They'd had a quiet day, napping and snacking and watching baseball. Blair had bought a South Bend Tribune, which Jim had read thoroughly, happy to discover no mention of them in the paper. They'd read aloud to each other snippets from the books they'd brought, and had found a movie on cable to watch.
Tomorrow, Jim decided, would be a repeat of today. His leg still hurt, not that he'd admit it to Blair, and both men still wore their exhaustion like tattered clothes. Another day and they'd feel better. Then they'd contact this Robert person at the library and set up a schedule to review the Burton material.
Beyond that, Jim couldn't see. For the first time in his life, he didn't have his week planned out for him. First by his father and school, later by the military, most recently by his superiors at the police department. He could do what he wanted when he wanted. It felt good. Better than good. He felt a weight off his back. No one -- no boss, not even Simon, no journalist, not even Wendy, could touch him or Blair right now.
Another day of this and he'd start thinking about their futures. But for now, this was good. Lying on clean-smelling sheets in a darkened room, the brilliant sun glowing behind the heavy blinds and the scent of fresh fruit filling the air, he could pretend this was just a much-needed vacation.
He turned his head to study Blair again. He noticed, as he had earlier this morning, how thin he'd become. As if glaciers had scrubbed him down to the bone, too. The gray in his hair frightened Jim; Blair simply couldn't age, couldn't grow old or change. Blair was the stability that made Jim's life possible. He felt as if the bed were shaking for a moment at the thought of Blair leaving him behind, going off to do something else, something not so damaging to his health and his career. Something his mother might really approve of, might really have brought him up to do.
He wiped his hand over his forehead. It hurt too much to think of Blair leaving. He needed to rest now. Just rest. And so he did.
By Monday, they were ready to leave their hotel, no matter how nice it was, and see more than the gift shop and restaurants it offered. Jim's leg still ached more than he'd admit to Blair, but it was better, not nearly as red and puffy as it had been when they'd first arrived. He was still taking the ibuprofen and pain meds and using the cane, though, and could tell he would have to for a while longer. He promised himself to take better of the leg and to let Blair help more; he was anxious to do so, and obviously needed the distraction. Still. It went against Jim's grain to have someone wait on him; he found thanking Blair difficult, an admission of his own need and disability. But Blair's self-abnegation since the dissertation made Jim more determined to proffer the gratitude Blair no longer seemed to expect.
Monday morning, Blair phoned Robert James, the archivist at Hesburgh Library with whom he'd corresponded. The collection of material had arrived a couple weeks ago, but had been given only a cursory examination. Robert was, Blair explained on the short drive to the library, either unaware or uncaring of what had transpired in Cascade. Jim sent a prayer of thanks out for that.
So they had a meeting with Robert at ten. After a good-sized breakfast, they left a bit early, to drive through the campus and get a feel for it, as well as find the library and parking. Blair had tried to persuade Jim to be dropped off at the library, then let him park and walk back, but a single glance from Jim had stopped that argument cold.
It was a long walk on a hot day. Blair had insisted Jim wear a hat, and he was reluctantly grateful he'd done so. Both men wore loose shirts, baggy shorts, and flip-flops; it was just too hot for clothes. By the time they'd reached the enormous glass doors to the library, they were sweating, and Jim was beginning to regret his mulishness. Once inside, they were immediately chilled by the sharp air conditioning, though Jim refused to complain.
"Jesus," he muttered, looking around at the high ceiling and long marbled hallways.
"Touchdown Jesus," Blair replied somewhat cryptically as he herded Jim through the turnstiles into the library proper. Jim could hear or feel the magnetic field surround him as they passed through the security system; it made the hair on his arms rise. Once inside, they wandered around until they found a map, and from there made their way to the fifth floor, where Robert's archives were.
Robert James turned out to be a shortish white man, gay to Jim's practiced eye, with dark hair and eyes and a soft southern drawl. "From New Orleans," he answered when Jim asked where he was from. "My family's lived there for over a hundred years." Hunnert years, Jim thought, smiling to himself. "You know the city?"
"No," Jim started, but Blair instantly said, "Oh, yeah, I lived there in, uh, seventy nine and eighty, I think," and that started an intense discussion of neighborhoods and mutual friends. Jim permitted himself to list slightly into Blair, jolting him into the present. "Listen, Robert, Jim is injured; could we sit down somewhere?"
"Oh, forgive me." Robert looked genuinely pained. "You all just come with me. It's time for coffee, don't you think?" He led them to a corner room with a view into the football stadium. There were comfortable chairs, a battered couch, and a coffee maker scenting the air. "I make a mean pot of coffee, if I do say so myself," he said, looking pleased, and Jim collapsed onto the sofa, smiling up at him.
"With chicory?" Jim asked, anxious to show off the small bit of Southern trivia he possessed.
"Lord, not that bitter stuff. No, just good Arabica beans."
And the coffee was good, he thought, sipping at it in a few minutes, staring out at the stadium and the impossibly green grass captured in its oval. He sat quietly, listening to Robert and Blair discuss New Orleans politics, mardi gras, jazz, and finally Richard Burton. "I'm really not any kind of expert," Robert said. "I just got stuck with the assignment because I have a specialty in nineteenth century missionaries, especially muscular Christianity. Since Burton lived around the same time as Livingstone, I guess it was assumed I was the right person.
"But I don't have much time to spare, so the only ones who can inventory the material are student assistants. I'm delighted you volunteered to help. I've assigned a student to work with you, although he won't be here for another week or so."
"Jim will help," Blair announced, and Jim heard a tiny bit of malicious pleasure in the words, but he nodded.
"Can't do much right now with this leg," he explained. "But I can sit and look at book titles as well as the next person."
"This is so generous of you both. Uh," Robert looked a little shy. "May I ask how you were injured?"
Blair looked at Jim, who nodded almost imperceptibly. "Jim's a police officer. He was injured in the line of duty."
"Oh, my! I'm so sorry! Oh my gosh." Robert appeared to believe he had committed some horrible social gaffe by asking.
"It's okay," Jim assured him. "I'm better, but I need to keep weight off my leg. Since Sandburg had already made arrangements to come out here, I kind of invited myself along. I hope that's okay."
"Yes, of course. Oh my gosh," he repeated, looking stunned. Jim wondered what on earth he was imagining had happened. "Well, you see where the coffee room is, and when we've finished, I'll take you down the hall to the storage rooms."
"What exactly will we be doing?" Blair asked curiously.
"Really, it's embarrassing. Nobody has had a minute to look through the cartons we were sent. I have a preliminary inventory that came from the attorneys for the estate -- the gentleman who left this material to us died without issue -- but it looks to me mighty incomplete. I'm hopin' you'll find something *wonderful*," he added, smiling conspiratorially, and Jim had to smile back. "But probably it's nothing but old family bibles and tax returns."
"Oh, now that sounds exciting, Chief." Blair made a face at him, but Robert looked worried. "No, Robert, it's okay. The job sounds perfect for me right now. I'm happy to help."
"Well, no use puttin' off the inevitable," Robert announced, setting down his coffee cup. "Let's take a look at the damage."
Damage was the word, Jim thought a few minutes later, leaning against the door frame and watching Blair and Robert peer into and over the boxes stacked haphazardly in the windowless storeroom. The estate's executor had had a moving company box up the library, and clearly they'd simply stuck every last thing in a box and sealed it. Already Blair had found two candlesticks, a half dozen used candles, a pencil, and a crumpled piece of paper with the word "ham" on it.
"I'll have some trash cans brought in," Robert said upon viewing the useless note. "Also a desk and a couple chairs."
Jim counted sixty-seven cartons, all labeled "library" and smelling of mildew. The summer looked as far from exciting as South Bend was from Cascade. He felt a moment's regret for what they'd left behind, but squelched it immediately, reminding himself that what they'd left behind was notoriety, publicity, and humiliation. This looked like a fine job for an injured cop and an injured anthropologist. Best job in the world.
"Listen, Robert," Jim interrupted their pokings through the cartons. "Do you have any suggestions about how we can find a place to stay while we do this? We're staying at the Inn at Saint Mary's."
"Lord, lord, that's too expensive to stay long. Hmm." He gazed into space, his kind face creased into thought. "Let me call Off-Campus Housing, ask around a bit. Oh, the men's room is just down the hall here, and there's a drinkin' fountain, too. Why don't you look around a spell and I'll come right back."
When he'd gone, Blair asked, "You really wanna do this?"
Jim studied him carefully, calling all his senses into play. Blair's heart was a little fast and he was sweating, but that might've been the heat. His eyes were clearer than they'd been since the press conference, and the lines around his mouth a little less evident.
Blair nodded, smiling ruefully. "Sorry, man, but I'm in heaven. A real treasure hunt. I feel like a little kid."
"Sandburg, you *are* a little kid," Jim told him, but smiled back at him. "Yeah, I wanna do it. If we can find a place to live, I can think of worse ways to spend my medical leave."
"Uh, Jim." Blair stopped smiling and stared at the marble floor. "I, uh, don't have any income." He laughed, a gasping sound. "I don't have anything but a shitload of student loans coming due."
"Fuck that, Chief," Jim told him earnestly, feeling himself blush. "I'm on medical, I got my full salary. And the cost of living is supposed to be a lot lower here than on the west coast, right? So we can manage for a while. We'll figure, figure things out later."
Blair nodded, and Jim heard his heart slow again. He sighed deeply. "Thanks, man." He turned back to the carton he was investigating and stuck his head inside it.
Robert came back, carrying a chair for Jim. "You just sit right down," he told him. "I called Cheryl over at Off-Campus Housing and she's looking around for something for you. A lotta faculty don't live in South Bend during the summer; in case you hadn't noticed, it gets pretty hot and humid here. So she may find something for you. And I'll ask around for you, too. There's a staff meetin' tomorrow, so somebody may know something.
"So. Not that it matters, but what hours do you wanna work?"
Blair looked at Jim, who shrugged. "Up to you, Chief. You're the expert."
"I think this kind of work gets tedious pretty quickly," he said to Robert. "How about we work nine to noon, break for lunch, and then one to three? We can get a lot done in five hours, and still have time for a vacation ourselves."
Robert nodded. "That's great. I really appreciate this, Blair. I can't believe you wanna spend your vacation here in the archives, but I sure am grateful. And you, especially, Jim; it isn't even your area."
"I've lived with Sandburg long enough that I think it is my area," he joked, but to his surprise, Blair nodded.
"Yeah, he's picked up a lot. He knows Rainier's library almost as well as I do now."
"Only because I've had to hunt for you in it so often," Jim defended himself weakly.
Robert patted his arm. "I'm sorry you were hurt," he said seriously, "but I'm glad you came out with Blair." And Jim was glad, too.
That night, over dinner at a deli Robert had recommended, Jim laid the South Bend Tribune's want ads down in front of Blair. Several ads were circled. "What?" Blair asked, nibbling on a carrot stick.
"I'm gonna buy an old beater. Cheaper than the rental car."
Blair stared at him, carrot forgotten. "You're going to buy a car."
Jim shrugged. "Yeah. It makes sense. Who knows how long we'll be out here. That's a lotta boxes to get through, and I'm not in a big hurry to get home to Cascade."
Blair nodded, his eyes moving past Jim to the long windows into the deli's bakery section. He nodded again. "Okay. I can understand. It's just -- Jim." To his embarrassment, he had to blink away his emotions.
Jim rustled the paper and cleared his throat. "Here, look at this. It's a 1969 Ford F-150. You think that's a good omen?"
Blair nodded yet again, focusing back on Jim's worried face. "Yeah," he finally said, his voice rusty. "It's blue, right?"
"Uh, well, red, actually. But there's a blue Suburban for sale."
"Nuh-huh. I'm not driving anything called a 'suburban.' My mom would kill me."
"I don't think they make a car called 'alternate lifestyles,'" Jim said wryly.
"Sure they do. They're called Volkswagens."
Jim groaned. "Get outta the sixties, Sandburg."
"Actually, if you're gonna do this, you should get a big car, like an old Buick. Something you can get your leg in."
Jim stared at him and for a moment, Blair wondered if he'd said something rude or stupid. But then Jim's eyes flickered away and he said, "Yeah. Maybe you're right." He rustled the paper again and disappeared behind it.
So, thought Blair, later that night as he brushed his teeth, we're gonna buy a car. Maybe rent a house. I think this is called running away from home.
He spat and rinsed his mouth, then turned his head and peered out of the bathroom at Jim, sitting propped against the headboard watching a baseball game. He looked tired, and Blair could tell by the way his left leg was stretched out at an angle that it hurt, but he looked better than he had in a while. Well, god knew Blair was a big believer in running away. He'd been brought up to it, and it was something he was good at. Maybe it was time to try it again.
He looked back into the mirror. He hadn't meant to take Jim with him this time, was all. And then a thought that had been hovering at the back of his mind ever since they'd taken this crazy road trip finally crystallized, or maybe he simply let it come into focus: in six weeks, the next class at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission would start. Six weeks. For a moment he froze, toothbrush still in hand. Then he heard Jim sigh and move restlessly on his bed, and he focused on Jim's needs instead. They were easier to deal with: more concrete, more immediate.
Instead of a big car, Jim bought an old Toyota pickup. White with black smudges and a long scratch over the right rear bumper. "My wife backed into the mailbox," the seller explained, and indeed, the mailbox looked backed into. By the time the transaction was completed and the rental returned to the airport, Blair was exhausted and Jim was clearly not well.
"You're running a fever," Blair accused him on the ride back to the Inn.
"Fuck off," Jim said, his eyes closed against the late afternoon sunlight. It had been another broiling day and both men were sweat-stained and dirty. The Toyota didn't have air conditioning so the windows were open, and Blair's curls were mashed into a ponytail that was coming down. It would take him a half hour to comb it out, he knew from experience, and then Jim would yell at him for shedding.
But Jim went straight to bed, sweaty and dirty as he was. Blair persuaded him to take two ibuprofen and drink a glass of water, but nothing more. He also put ice in the shower cap he'd found in a tiny package in the bathroom, wrapped it in a damp towel, and laid it on top of Jim's wound, which was warm. Jim lay on top of the covers, eyes closed, skin drawn into tiny goosebumps from the air conditioning and ice pack. "You dialed down?" Blair whispered, and he nodded minutely. "Then go to sleep," Blair instructed him, and Jim sighed deeply. As if given permission, he fell into a deep sleep, snoring slightly. Blair turned on the white noise generator and shut himself in the bathroom to take a cool shower and drink a gallon of water.
They stayed in again the next day; Blair called Robert to explain that Jim wasn't quite well yet. Robert was effusively worried and wanted to run errands for them. It was with difficulty that Blair persuaded him that Jim only needed rest and quiet. They had room service wait on them, and Jim napped several hours, then read quietly, while Blair wrote another email to his mother, saving it to his harddrive but not sending it. He hadn't sent a single one yet.
Around seven that night, the phone in the room rang. "Hello?" Blair asked curiously.
"Hi," a young woman's voice said, sounding uncertain. "This is Tina Watson. I'm a music major at Notre Dame. My friend's cousin is Robert James, and he suggested I give you a call. He says you're looking for a place to stay this summer."
Blair caught Jim's eye; he sat up straighter in bed, obviously listening in. "Yeah, we are. Do you have a place?"
"Well, I don't, but I'm staying in one you might be interested in. It's way out in the country, about ten miles west of South Bend. It's a real nice place," she hastened, "but it's too big and too isolated for me by myself. A girlfriend is gonna let me stay with her, but I need to find someone to take care of this place. Professor Wilde from Notre Dame lends it to his students in the summer. Do you think you'd be interested?"
"You say it's a big place? More than one bedroom?"
"Oh, yeah. Five bedrooms, and a big study the professor uses, and a great kitchen. He's a wonderful cook. Um, a two-car garage. A big screened-in porch so you can sit out at night and not get eaten by mosquitoes."
"It sounds great," Blair told her, and Jim nodded, looking better than he had in two days. "When can we see it?"
"Well, I'm spending the night with my girlfriend here in town. I could come by tomorrow and take you there."
"That'd be great. What time?"
She laughed, still sounding shy and now a little embarrassed. "Well, I was going to a party tonight, so I'd like to sleep in. Would noon be okay?"
Blair had to smile; it wasn't that long ago he'd been partying all night and sleeping till noon. "Noon would be fine. We'll meet you in the lobby."
"Great," she enthused. "What a relief. I really couldn't stay out there much longer. See you tomorrow."
"Have a good time at the party," Blair told her, and hung up. He looked at Jim, whose eyebrows were raised.
"Why do you suppose she can't stay there?" he asked Blair, who shrugged.
"To far from town to party and get home?" he suggested, only partially facetiously. "You can ask her tomorrow."
He went to bed feeling happier than he had in a long time. A house, a car, and a job, although a non-paying one. And Jim, he added as he drifted into a contented sleep. And Jim. For six weeks, he reminded himself, but he fell asleep deciding how to approach the task of inventorying all those cartons.
Aside from the slight smell of manure and a slow oil leak, the Toyota seemed to be working out fine, Blair thought, as he followed Tina along a narrow, pot-holed road to the house in the country the next day. Jim was leaning half out the window like a dog trying to cool off in the breeze. The land was as flat as if ironed, covered by tall gold grasses that stood motionless in the early afternoon sun. It was over ninety degrees, with ninety percent humidity.
At last they pulled into a graveled driveway. "I saw that house from miles back," Jim told Blair, sounding a bit awed. "I couldn't figure out what it was -- the light and flatness must distort my vision somehow."
"We'll have to test that," Blair said promptly. "What else do you see?"
"Nothing. Really, not a damn thing. Just the house, the grass, and those trees over there. It must be miles to the nearest neighbor."
The driveway was long sweep of gravel, leading to a two-story brick home that looked like something out of Life magazine in the fifties: red brick, wide front porch, two enormous elms on either side. Blair pulled into the open garage, which stood separate from the house and slightly to its rear, with a lightning rod and a tiny satellite dish on the roof; the shade was a blessing. He staggered from the truck, and hurried to the passenger side to help Jim out. The truck really was too small for someone Jim's size, but the price had been right and it was an automatic, which meant Jim could drive it in an emergency, something Blair sincerely hoped did not occur.
Tina climbed out of her Taurus. She was a pretty girl, tall with long dark hair, Blair had noticed, and had also noticed that he'd started flirting with her right away, almost on auto-pilot. He didn't even know why; she was too young for him, and it wasn't as though he were looking for a relationship right now. Right now, his relationship with Jim was all he could handle, and some days, even it was too much.
"Well, let's go inside," she said, and Blair thought she sounded a bit hesitant. However, she strode off toward the steps up to the veranda, leaving Blair to follow with Jim at his side.
"I don't know," he murmured as he helped Jim up the steps. "This is awfully isolated. And it's two stories. How are you going to manage stairs? This is nuts."
"Chill out, Sandburg," was all Jim said. "Let's just take a look first before we panic."
Well, I wasn't exactly panicking, Blair thought, but kept silent. Instead, once they'd made it to the top of the steps, he said, "This place is huge."
Jim didn't answer; Blair looked up at him, so near that he could feel the aura of sweat escaping from Jim's shirt. He was looking away from the house, into the sea of grass and, beyond that, fields of tall crinkly corn lined up row on row for as far as Blair could see. He watched Jim for nearly a minute, ignoring Tina's chatter as she unlocked the door, until he grew concerned that his friend had fallen into a zone. "Jim?" he murmured, and gently squeezed his waist. Jim sighed heavily, almost a gasp, and then dropped his eyes to look back at him.
"It's hypnotic," he said hesitantly, but Blair understood. The flatness distorted his own mundane vision, and the heat made the gold and green fields shimmer seductively. The quiet, the heat, the humidity, the isolation -- it was as though they'd stepped into another century, one in which electric motors and gas engines hadn't yet been invented to foul the air and disturb the peace.
"Guys?" Tina asked, sounding a little annoyed, and Jim and Blair turned toward her. She stood in the doorway, the interior of the house dark to invisibility behind her. A smell of camphor and citronella and eucalyptus rolled out, strong enough that Blair could sense them. "Home, sweet home," Jim whispered, and it was his whisper, not the words, that made Blair laugh as they followed Tina across the threshold into what might become their summer home.
Six weeks, a small voice reminded him. Only for six weeks. But Blair ignored it and concentrated on his surroundings.
The house *was* huge, Blair rapidly discovered. The ground floor consisted of a long glassed-in foyer leading into a living room with a handsome baby grand piano and a massive fireplace. Not something they'd probably use this summer. Beyond it was a formal dining room, with an elaborately looped design of leaves molded into the ceiling. Then the kitchen, which, as Tina had told them, was like something from the Starship Enterprise, the gleaming black stove claiming center stage. Above it hung a cluster of copper-bottomed pots and pans. The double-door fridge and the dishwasher were also black. And beyond the kitchen was what could only be called a breakfast nook, an extrusion of the building into a bay window with padded seats built in and an octagonal table. Through the windows, Blair could see an unkempt lawn with a swing set and a, a glider, he thought it was called: a free-standing swing under its own canopy.
On the other side, the kitchen let out onto a utility porch with old-fashioned glass shutters over the window screens. A washer and dryer sat side by side under the windows, and there was a large enameled sink with an expanse of counter space on one side. Jim made his way to the back door and looked out through the curtained window. "Is that a lake?" he asked.
Tina laughed. "Yeah. A pond, I'd call it. There's a beat up old pier, half falling into the water, and a little rowboat tied to it."
She shrugged. "I wouldn't know, but it couldn't hurt to try."
"You are not climbing into a boat with that leg," Blair said sotto voce, not wanting to embarrass Jim, but already envisioning arguments about this.
To his surprise, Jim nodded. "Probably not," he agreed sadly. "But I could fish from the shore. Maybe take a lawn chair down there."
"Over here's the tv room," Tina called, and Blair realized they still hadn't seen all of the first floor. There was a hallway running from the main living room behind the dining room; off it branched several more rooms, including a large bathroom with an old-fashioned tub, the tv room, and what Tina referred to as the Professor's Study.
He liked that room immediately. It had a friendly, homey feeling to it, he thought, helping Jim sit on the deep maroon leather couch that ran the length of the room under the windows. There was a big desk, its surface clear except for a banker's lamp, and built-in bookcases, crammed with music dictionaries and reference books and bound sheet music.
"This sofa folds out into a bed," Tina explained, lifting a back cushion to show them the strap that pulled the bed out. "I started sleeping down here because it's cooler. You get a good cross breeze when you open these windows and the ones in the kitchen." These windows were shuttered against the brilliant heat of the day; Blair flicked a louver and saw the driveway leading to the garage and, beyond that, more fields leading into a forest. Gingkos and black walnut trees, he thought, squinting against the light.
"Can you get upstairs?" Tina asked Jim solicitously.
"No, he can't." The two men glared at each other, but Jim obviously knew Blair was right. He settled back into the sofa and took a sip from the bottle of water they'd started carrying with them everywhere in defense against the heat.
"Okay," she said, and turned to Blair.
"Before we go, Tina. How much is the rent?"
"Oh, Professor Wilde doesn't charge rent. You just have to pay the utilities. Doesn't come to too awful much. It's mostly electricity; the water is from a well. He just doesn't want the house sitting empty for three months. It's so isolated, no telling what might happen."
"I think we can afford that, Chief."
Blair nodded. Well, it didn't matter if they liked the house or not, which he did; if he was going to sponge off Jim, he wanted to do so as cheaply as possible. Free rent would help.
"Why aren't you staying?" Jim asked her.
She blushed. "Well. Like I said, it's awful isolated. And to be honest, I get a little scared at night. You know how houses settle? And creak. Sometimes I wake up --" she laughed nervously. "It's ridiculous, really. I'm embarrassed to talk about it."
"It can be hard to live alone," Blair assured her, remembering the warehouse and its rats scuttling in the night, and how much happier he'd been once he'd moved into the loft. How much safer he felt knowing Jim was just a few feet overhead when he'd awaken from his own nightmares.
Then for the first time since they had left Cascade, he remembered the dream he'd had the morning of their departure. It bothered him to think of that odd little nightmare hanging around in his head, all but forgotten. As though it could have gotten up to mischief while Blair's attention was elsewhere.
Ridiculous, he thought, and followed Tina out of the Professor's Study, leaving Jim behind.
The stairwell was a narrow, old-fashioned one set off the kitchen. As Tina set foot on the first step, Blair noticed the door next to it. "Where's this go?"
"Oh, yeah," she said, backing down and turning around. "To the basement." She hesitated for a moment, then opened the door and they peered down. "There's nothing much down there. You can go down if you like."
He shook his head. "Later. Let's see upstairs first."
"Good." She shut the door firmly behind her; he noticed that she locked it, too.
Upstairs were four large bedrooms and one bath, this one a bit more modern. "This is the best bedroom, I think," she told him, letting him enter the bedroom at the rear of the house. There were windows on two walls, low wide ones with gauzy drapes floating over them, dimming the luminous day beyond them. A king bed was set kitty-corner between the windows, with tables on either side and a matching chest of drawers against an interior wall.
"It is nice," he agreed, looking around. The walls were white, the ceiling a very pale pink. The bed was an island of white: white bedspread mounded with different shapes and sizes of white pillows. There were small lamps on both tables, and full bookcases under the windows. He could picture himself sleeping here, drifting off as a breeze riffled the pages of his book.
"Yeah. I used to sleep here. It just gets so hot some nights, though, and downstairs stays cooler."
"Yeah," he said idly, staring out one of the windows, the one away from the road they'd driven in on. It looked out over endless fields of corn standing nearly motionless in the heat, the broad, identical corrugated leaves flashing in the sunlight. The air smelled rich and thick; he wondered, as he had so often, what it smelled like to Jim.
He dropped his gaze lower and realized there was a small vegetable garden in the side yard. "Hey, are those tomato plants?"
"Yeah." Tina stood next to him and pointed. "And summer squash and eggplant and sweet peppers and some cucumbers and see the posts? Those'll be string beans. I was raised on a farm in Michigan and miss having fresh veggies in the house. My dad still comes to the farmer's market every Saturday."
Blair turned, one hand on the warm window sash. It was a lot warmer up here than downstairs, and he could feel sweat trickling down his side, pooling at the elastic waist of his shorts. "Farmer's market?"
"Yeah. Every Saturday. You haven't been?" He shook his head. "Oh, I'll draw you a map. It's great this time of year. Wait till you try the blueberries."
Blair was sure he heard Jim moan downstairs, and smiled. "Yeah, please, draw us a map." He followed her down, happy to escape to the cooler parts of the house.
"So," Tina asked a few minutes later, sitting in the Professor's Study, "do you think you want to stay here?"
Blair turned to look at Jim, who was sprawled on the couch, empty water bottle lying next to him. Thin bars of sunlight fell over him through the louvered blinds. As he had for the last few weeks, Blair focused his attention on Jim's left upper calf, where Zeller had shot him. The wound was healing well, but the damaged muscle would take a while to regenerate. The scars weren't terrible; Jim wasn't frightening children in the streets, but the skin was still red and shiny. When he was on his leg too long, it would swell a bit and grow warm.
But right now, he looked well and comfortable. After a few seconds had passed, Blair murmured, "Jim?"
He nodded, and sat up straighter. "Yeah, Tina. Are you sure it'll be okay, though? I mean, this professor left you here, not two strangers from across the country."
"I can write him -- he's in England for the summer -- but I think it'll be okay. I mean, yeah, you're strangers, but you're grown-ups," and she blushed a little when she said that, "plus you're cops, plus you're working at Notre Dame."
Well, it wasn't entirely correct, Blair thought, but close enough. He liked the house, its size and location, but it was isolated, and there were all those stairs. Unless Jim came to school with him each day, he'd be pretty much stuck here.
"I checked out the tv," Jim finally said, looking a little sheepish. "They must get a couple hundred channels."
"Yeah, and there's a vegetable garden out back," Blair told him. "Plus that pond. Maybe some fresh fish for dinner one night."
Jim looked at Blair, really studying him. Blair was accustomed to these investigations by now; hell, he'd trained Jim to do them. So he sat patiently, letting Jim check his heart and lungs and, he had a suspicion, his synaptic firings. At last Blair said, "Tina, the thing is, we're only here for a few weeks, so we can't take it off your hands for the summer. But we do need to get out of the hotel --"
"That's okay. That would give me time to find someone else. It's just -- I just would like to get out, you know?"
The two men stared at each other again, gauging each other's feelings. Finally, Jim said, "Yeah. Yeah, if you're comfortable leaving things to us, we'll take good care of the place till you can find someone else."
"Oh, that's *great*," Tina said, bouncing up. "What a relief! Normally I go home for the summers, but I'm taking a couple classes and needed a place to stay. I thought this would be perfect -- I can practice piano here all day and nobody can hear a thing -- but it's just too lonely for me, you know?"
Blair nodded, looking at her. She looked so relieved and pleased; he was glad Jim had agreed. Already she was pulling the keys off a ring, handing them to Jim, explaining what went where. "The water's on a well," she told him, "so when the power goes out, you need to be careful. I keep bottled water in the kitchen; you'll wanna replace it regularly. It goes kinda flat after it's sat in the heat for a while."
"How often does the power go out?"
"Well, pretty often, but not for long. Sometimes after a storm, and sometimes for no reason. Oh, the candles and matches are here." She babbled on. Blair let Jim handle the arrangements. He wandered into the kitchen and looked around. They'd be cooking here, and eating. Jim sitting at that table, reading the paper, talking over their day. He smiled at the image. The kitchen was on the north side of the house and a tall cottonwood stood just outside the windows, its shade falling on the house that early afternoon. Its leaves made a cool rustling sound, a lot like rain pattering on dry ground.
He caught a slight movement from the corner of his eye and turned to look out the breakfast nook's windows. Nothing there but the tomato plants, shivering in the heat.
"Chief?" He hurried back to the study. "I think we're ready to go." Blair understood this as an embarrassed plea to help Jim out of the couch, so he stood next to him and put his hands on Jim's upper arm.
"One, two, three," he whispered, and pulled. Using the cane as leverage, Jim pushed his good leg into the floor and stood, then stretched.
"Thanks," he said quietly, and Blair patted his arm before letting him go.
"You wanna spend the night here?"
Jim nodded. "Tomorrow, if you don't mind."
"Sounds like a plan," Blair agreed, and they started back toward the front door.
"Um," Tina said in a hesitant voice, standing near the piano in the front room. Jim planted the cane and stood nearly at attention. She lightly touched the piano's keys, a ghostly melody welling up from its body. "Just. This is really silly," she said in a rush. "But one reason I'm leaving is I. Well. Sometimes I think -- it's like someone's trying to get into the house."
"Someone's tried to break in?" Blair asked, concerned. "Have you reported it?"
"No one ever really broke in. It's just a feeling. Being all alone out here, you know." She looked at them, pink in her face. "Like I said, it's silly."
Blair glanced back at Jim, who nodded. "It's okay," he finally said, and Jim nodded at that, too.
"Yeah, it's okay, Tina. We'll be fine."
"Good. Yeah. Of course." She turned and practically ran out the door and down the steps. Jim looked at Blair, one eyebrow raised. Blair shrugged.
"Maybe it's haunted," he suggested lightly, Jim rolled his eyes. "Been there, done that?"
"Come on, Sandburg," was all he said, and they got themselves back to the car, the interior baking hot even hidden in the garage from the sun.
They agreed to move out the next day, after working at least a few hours in the library, "Since that's ostensibly why we're here, man." Jim agreed, smiling sadly at him from across the cab of their new pickup. Blair was tired, and feeling a little anxious, as though something were pressing against his heart. He knew it was the dissertation mess, and Wendy's threat. "Jim," he started, but then he pulled into the hotel's parking lot and found he couldn't say anything else. There was nothing else to say.
Robert was happy to see them the next day, and fussed over Jim, getting him settled in a comfortable chair next to a desk he'd dragged in from somewhere in the library, making them coffee, asking about the house. "You're sure you're up for this?" he asked.
Blair watched them, mildly irritated with Robert's attentions but equally grateful for them. A little case of hero worship, he diagnosed; he suffered from that himself. Jim looked like the hero he was, and with the cane and limp, he was even more affecting. It would do Jim good to be fussed over by someone other than Blair, he supposed. Still.
"Look, I've been worried about your, about your injury," Robert said shyly, and held out a small square of plastic to Jim.
"What is this?" he asked, taking it and turning it over in his hand. "Oh, wait, Robert."
"No, please. It's just a temporary one. Just till you feel better."
"What is it?" Blair asked.
Jim flushed, and Blair saw he was a little annoyed. "Handicapped parking pass."
"Hey, Robert, great! Thank you."
"I just didn't want Jim to have to walk too far in this heat. You can park right outside the front doors on the east side of the library."
"You didn't have to do this," Jim told him, his voice rough.
"I know. But you're helping me by doing all this. It's the least I could do."
Jim nodded his head; Blair could tell he was trying to be grateful. Or at least appear to be grateful. He knew he'd be hearing about this later.
When Robert finally returned to his own work, Blair leaned against the boxes and said, a little maliciously, "Robert likes you."
"Well, I like Robert," Jim said primly, sipping Robert's coffee.
"Not like he likes you."
"How do you know?" Jim raised his eyebrows.
"How do I -- you goof." They grinned at each other, for a moment, back to their usual selves. One of the best surprises about Jim, in Blair's mind, was his dry sense of humor and his deadpan delivery. It made him a great cop and poker player; it also made Blair laugh. But then, as always, the weight of everything that had happened crashed down on Blair and he turned back to the boxes. "Listen, I've been thinking. We need to do a straight inventory -- just find out what's in here. How about I call out to you the book title and author and you enter it into my laptop?"
Jim nodded. "I can do that. Just get me all set up." So Blair booted up the laptop and arranged some boxes as a table for Jim, then launched Excel.
"Just type in the author in this column and the title next to it. That way I can do an alpha sort. Oh, and what box it's in. Once we know what's here, we can figure out how to organize it, and then what it's worth."
"Why would that change what a book is worth?"
"Well, some of them might be part of complete sets, and they'd be more valuable than books from incomplete sets. Or there might be several editions of the same book. Won't really know until we see it all."
Jim nodded. "Gotcha, Chief. Just remember you'll have to spell out some of the names. And get yourself something to drink; you'll be doing the thirsty work, and you shouldn't get dehydrated in this heat."
"It's cold in here," he said, even as he pulled quarters out of his pocket. "You want anything?" Jim shook his head. Blair kept his own head down as he left the room to buy a bottle of water from the vending machines on the next floor down. He was genuinely touched by Jim's simple observation, but told himself that Jim was a decent man who by his very nature took care of those around him. Even Robert. It was just who he was.
He'd calmed somewhat by the time he'd returned, water bottle slippery with condensation in his hand. Jim had organized a template, labeling the columns and giving the document a header, he saw. Thorough. Jim was always thorough.
So they started the actual work that had brought Blair all this way. Jim insisted he start with the box labeled "1," which took some time to find and then had to be disinterred from beneath three other heavy boxes. "Jesus," he grunted, trying to rearrange the cartons, "this'll be my new work out."
Once Blair finally opened the box and started unpacking it, Jim had to create a second document to list the stuff the movers had packed away. Little knickknacks, mostly, and tchotchkes. Some might be valuable, but Blair had no way to judge. Candlesticks, ashtrays, vases, little containers made of wood or papier-mache, a bottle of eau de lavender, still half full. On and on that list grew, annoying both men. "What kind of library *was* this," Jim growled when Blair had pulled from the box a bouquet of faded plastic flowers. Blair stuck a phony poinsettia in his curls and struck a pose.
"Is it me?" he asked, and Jim grinned and shook his head.
"Oh, it's you all right. You just need a rose between your teeth and we'll be set."
By noon, Blair was getting hoarse. "Enough," Jim decided. "Let's take the rest of the day off, get moved in." They'd checked out of the hotel that morning, so all their luggage was in the Toyota. They needed to do some grocery shopping, but Tina had assured them they wouldn't need anything else. "Get some lunch, head on out there. Start fresh tomorrow."
Blair was easily persuaded.
Their first night in the house, Jim sat in the kitchen reading the local paper while Blair steamed rice and veggies on the supersonic stove. It was gas, which he was used to from the loft, but the flames had digital controls and temperature gauges. Blair was a little concerned about the Mauviel copper-bottomed pots; he wasn't sure how to clean them, but figured Jim would know.
After dinner, they sat quietly together at the table. Blair thought Jim looked tired and promised himself to take a good look at the gunshot wound in his calf. He was tired himself; it had been a big day. Starting the new job, moving into the house. Everything felt surreal. He couldn't figure out how he'd gotten here, how his life had turned upside down so quickly. He closed his eyes for a moment, just to rest. Slowly he became aware of how quiet it was. No neighbors, no passing cars, no television noises seeping into the house. It was just Jim and Blair and several hundred acres of corn.
When he opened his eyes, Jim was studying him thoughtfully. For a moment, he thought they'd talk, but then Jim was pushing himself away and up from the table, using the table and the chair back to help himself up. "No, wait, Jim," Blair protested, jumping to his feet. "I'll clean up. Just sit there and keep me company."
"You can't do everything, Sandburg," he growled, but sat obediently, and Blair thought again how tired he seemed.
"Look. I'll just rinse these and stick them in the dishwasher. Then you can shower and get to bed. Oh, hell," he added. "I'll have to get you upstairs to a shower, or else you'll have to use the bathtub. Do you think you can get in and out of it?"
"I've been bathing myself since I was two." But behind the irritation, Blair heard concern.
"Yeah, yeah," he said lightly, flipping the dishtowel over his shoulder and ferrying their dishes to the counter. "I'll help you in and out, but beyond that, you're on your own." He would have sworn that Jim blushed as he turned to rinse the dishes.
"Shit," Jim muttered, "shit, shit, shit, *shit*," as Blair had to steady him while he lifted his bad leg into the filling tub. "I can't believe this."
"Well, we could've waited for another place . . ."
"No, I wanted to get settled." He was standing nude in the tub, flushed from exertion and embarrassment, Blair assumed.
"Uh, call me when you need to get out," he said and turned.
"Chief." When he looked back, Jim was fire-engine red. "I can't sit down."
"Oh, man, I'm sorry," Blair started babbling, and grabbed Jim's arm to act as a counterweight as he slowly bent his knees. "Does it hurt much?"
"No," Jim grunted, his tone belying his words. "Oh, fuck." Blair shook his head but held on until Jim was finally seated and had stretched out his legs in the tub. "Christ, Sandburg. I'm sorry."
"No, no. Man, you're a hero, you saved Megan and Simon, don't be stupid, it's an honor to help you, I'm just so sorry --"
"Chief. Sandburg. Blair." At last Blair released Jim's arm and stood up. "Thanks."
"Yeah. Call me."
He went into the kitchen and sat down at the table. It still needed wiping, but he was so tired. For a moment, he thought he might cry; the pressure in his throat made it hard to swallow, and his eyes burned. He put his hands over his face and sighed heavily. Shit. How had everything gone so wrong so fast? What the hell was he doing in Indiana?
And he was worried about Jim's leg. They needed to find a doctor, get it looked at. It looked okay to Blair, and Jim had been trained as a medic, so presumably he'd recognize a problem, but frankly, taking care of himself wasn't one of Jim's strong points. Blair would feel a lot better if someone with the letters MD after their name reassured him.
At last he rubbed his face and looked around the strange kitchen. His home for the next five and a half weeks. Just until the academy starts, he whispered to himself, and felt his stomach turn over. He shut his eyes again and started counting his breaths, trying not to hyperventilate. It's okay, it's okay, he chanted. He suddenly wanted to call his mom, hear her sweet voice. Tomorrow, maybe. Right now he needed to tidy up, haul Jim's ass out of that tub, take his own shower, oh, shit, he had to make up Jim's bed in the Professor's Study. He pushed himself up from the table, as wearily as Jim had, and started to work.
Jim sat in the tepid water, staring into space, and wondered how the hell he'd gotten to Indiana. He splashed his face and rubbed it, then tried to relax back against the tub. Now that he was actually in the water, it felt pretty good, although getting in had been mortifying. Thank god Sandburg was so calm and accepting about these things.
His leg hurt. He wouldn't admit it to Blair, but it just fucking *hurt*. And he was pretty sure that limping on it was pulling on the muscles in his calf and in his back. Even his neck ached. Well, he'd have a good soak, take some aspirin, and sleep until he woke up tomorrow. At least the wound itself looked good and seemed to be healing well.
He cast his thoughts back over the day. Their first day at the new job, if it could be called a job; their first day in the new house. The work they were doing in the library wasn't bad; he'd enjoyed playing on Sandburg's laptop, watching Blair stare in amazement at some of the shit he was pulling out of those boxes. The plastic flowers, in particular, had amused Jim, and he smiled, remembering them in Blair's hair.
He was a little embarrassed at Robert's attention, but also flattered, he admitted. The way Robert looked at him -- as if he really were the hero Blair called him. Although he was a little annoyed about the handicapped parking permit. He wasn't *handicapped*. Just not entirely well at the moment. But if it meant not traipsing miles across campus in the heat, he supposed it'd be worth it, to save Blair the effort.
He could hear Blair out in the kitchen, putzing around. Making tea, it sounded like, and then walking back and forth through the house. He listened carefully, trying to decipher the sounds. The floor creaking. Fabric over fabric. A soft metallic sound. Coming from the study, he thought. Making up the bed, that's what he was doing; Jim could hear the sheets being shaken out and settling onto the mattress.
He splashed around a bit, washing himself, trying to get the residue of the day off his body before crawling into bed. He was so tired. He couldn't imagine how Blair was doing it, working so hard to take care of him. It was embarrassing; that was the only word for it. And he'd never been a gracious patient. But Blair deserved better, right now. His whole life discarded like an empty candy wrapper, left in the gutters of Cascade.
Perhaps it was the ache of his leg and or just the frustration of still being so dependent that brought back emotions he'd tried to leave behind in Cascade. More probably, though, it was thinking about Blair in the library today. So happy, doing the work he'd been trained for. How could Blair have been so careless about work he loved so much? It still made Jim a little crazy to realize that apparently Blair had never thought any of it through. Not once in four years. He'd spent all that time writing a dissertation about one man -- one freak, Jim thought, embracing every ugliness his psyche suggested -- with no idea what would happen when he finished. Apparently he really had believed he'd be able to protect Jim's identity. How could he have thought that? Jim had known better all along. He was no anthropologist, but he knew damn well that if you told the world you had the holy grail buried in your backyard, then you'd better be prepared to dig it up when the photographers came around.
Jim had even taken a perverse sort of pleasure in imagining the laboratory tests and experiments which would be sure to follow the publication of Blair's thesis. As excruciating as they would have been, the process would have delayed the inevitable for just a little while longer. Blair would have stayed by his side through it all, Jim knew that. He wouldn't have left Jim for that tenure-track job. At least not until his dissertation had been validated.
It had been a bigger shock even than that first microphone stuck through the window of the truck to discover Blair had never seen their future that way at all. He really had imagined that he could come up with a way to publish without compromising Jim's identity. Without impacting Jim's life at all. Just assumed that somehow things would turn out okay, both he and Jim perfectly happy. Nothing had ever shaken that blithe optimism. Not Lee Brackett, not Jim's reaction to the introductory chapter of his thesis, not even Alex Barnes. Through everything, Blair had never stopped believing the world was saving a place for him in the sun.
Jim felt a dull pain somewhere in the region of his solar plexus, and his eyes and nose prickled, as though he were on the verge of tears. Blair's naivete had infuriated him. In the first hours and days after the dissertation had been made public, the realization of just how foolish and innocent Blair had really been all along had made him so angry he'd barely been able to stand being in the same room with his partner. But now, sitting in a bathtub full of rapidly cooling water somewhere in the wilds of Indiana, Jim realized that if it had lain in his power to return any one thing of all that Blair had lost, he would give Blair back not his career or his academic standing or even his reputation, but that infuriating, childlike optimism.
He was ready to climb out, his fingers pruning from the water. He grabbed one edge of the tub with both hands and pulled his legs under him. Then, using his good leg, he tried to stand up, but the tub was slippery and his body was twisted awkwardly; he couldn't get any leverage. He sat down heavily, splashing water onto the tile floor. Sighing, he decided that discretion was the better part of valor tonight, and shouted, "Chief!"
The door flew open and Blair was there, hair falling out of his ponytail and sticking to his sweaty face. "Yeah, you okay? Ready to get out?"
Jim nodded. Blair came up behind him and slid his hands under Jim's arms. "Get your good leg ready to push off, okay? Now, one, two, and *three*," and Blair pulled Jim upright. For a little guy, he had a lot of power, and Jim rose like Neptune from the rolling bath water. "Towel," Blair said, handing him one, and then slipped back out the door. The process hadn't taken a minute, and Jim hadn't had time to be embarrassed. Well, any more embarrassed than he already was.
The study was made up for him, the couch opened into a bed and pale green sheets neatly tucked in. A glass of water stood on the end table and one light gleamed. The windows were open and the louvers raised a bit so a warm breeze could float through the room.
"Hey, look," Blair said, coming into the study behind him. "I found a stash of candles. I'm putting a couple in here in case we lose power like Tina said. Some in the bathroom and kitchen, and a couple up where I'm sleeping."
"Where are you sleeping, anyway?"
"Master bedroom. It's warm, but there are lots of windows plus a fan, so I should be okay. If not, I'll come down here and sleep in the living room."
"Does that couch make out into a bed, too?"
"Naw, but it's long enough for me to sleep on. Don't worry about it."
"Leave a light on, would ya, Chief? In the hallway or bathroom or something? I don't want you to break your neck the first night here."
"You got it." Blair looked up from the end table where he'd sat two candles in glass votives and a box of Diamond matches. "I'm gonna go up now, take a shower and go to bed. You need anything before I go?"
"No." Blair started to leave; before he reached the door, Jim said shyly, "Thanks, Chief."
Blair looked back at him. In the dim light, he looked tired, with circles under his eyes and lines around his mouth. "Not a problem. You call if you need anything."
Jim nodded, and watched Blair go. He lay down in the strange bed, trying to get comfortable. It was queen size, so he had some room, but the mattress was a little thin. Still, the sheets were cool and smelled faintly of lavender, and the breeze coming through the windows above him was nice. He listened to Blair climb the stairs and then, a few minutes later, the water start up. He turned up his hearing and followed Blair into the shower, making sure he was okay. Blair was sighing deeply and repeatedly. The sighs of a man who had found out the hard way that things didn't always turn out for the best, no matter how smart you were or how hard you worked. A few minutes more and the water was silenced until Blair brushed his teeth, and then Jim heard him climb into his own bed, the mattress springs creaking like a honeymoon joke.
"Good night, Chief," Jim whispered, sorry that Blair couldn't hear him.
Blair was awake at dawn, and he lay in bed staring up at the pale pink ceiling that seemed to glow a little with the yellow light of the sunrise. It was going to be another scorcher. The air was still and cool, but it smelled of yesterday's hot earth and humidity. Blair had the impression that a sound had awakened him, perhaps Jim moving around downstairs, but as he lay quietly and listened, he heard nothing but bird calls floating in his open windows. He'd slept well, dreamlessly and hard. He hoped Jim had, too.
He got up and went to the windows to look out at the world that would be their home for the next five and a half weeks. The morning light softened the edges of the landscape, and there was a faint mist clinging to the ground, too faint for him to really see except for the way it made the fields of corn look like a vast body of water stretching out on all sides. As though this house were a ship, the gauzy curtains its sails, hanging windlessly now, marooned upon a green Sargasso Sea.
Blair headed downstairs in search of coffee. It occurred to him that they had come a hell of a long way for just a good night's sleep, but he wasn't about to say it hadn't been worth it.
He found that Tina had left them a handful of coffee beans sealed in a plastic baggie and tucked on a shelf in the freezer door. Sending his silent but heart-felt gratitude out to her, he dumped them into the electric grinder before it occurred to him that if Jim were still asleep, the noise of a coffee mill would certainly wake him up. Back at the loft, Blair had long since settled into the routine of grinding their coffee the night before, but set adrift as they were now, he was losing track of their habits.
He walked as quietly as he could to the door of Jim's room. Every floorboard seemed to betray him, but when Blair peeked in at Jim, he was still asleep after all. He lay sprawled on his back, his face pale and unlined in the morning light that made it through the shuttered windows.
Coffee could wait.
He went back to the kitchen and out through the utility porch. The washer and dryer reminded him that he and Jim only had clean clothes through Thursday. He'd better run a load of laundry when they got back from the library this afternoon. He looked out the windows over the machines. The shaggy lawn and geometric vegetable garden were lush and inviting in the morning light. The rising sun shone on the surface of the pond. He swung open the back door, and freed from the mediation of the glass shutters and the fine wire mesh of the window screens, the colors of the back yard were overwhelming, green and gold shimmering as the last of the fog burned away.
Blair took a deep, grateful breath and then went down the back stairs, his flip-flops slapping against the wooden steps. A cement walk led around the house to the front, but Blair set off across the lawn to the garden. The grass was wet with dew, and after the first few steps his feet were just as wet. The grass hadn't gone to seed yet, but it was getting pretty long. They'd have to see if there was a lawnmower around here this weekend. The thought tickled him. Mowing the lawn. How suburban. How *domestic*.
Far more tidy than the lawn, the garden was laid out in a neat grid of raised beds, deeply mulched pathways in between. Little wooden stakes like popsicle sticks bore the names of the crops and a date -- the date it was planted, Blair supposed. The names weren't enlightening. Purple Peacock? Sweet Million? Patty-pan? Okay, that last one he recognized, once he caught sight of the flattened, round vegetables sheltering among the lush vines. White summer squash. Good when steamed, exquisite if stewed slowly in a little herbed butter. He wondered if there were herbs as well, and was happy to find one of the raised beds was planted with chives and tarragon and basil, sage and a creeping thyme that spilled over the weathered boards at the end of the bed.
Blair ran his finger along the stalk of a tomato plan that bore tiny green tomatoes in clusters like grapes. The distinctive smell of the plant made him smile, and he wondered who had planted all these vegetables. It must have been Tina, since it wouldn't have made sense for Professor Wilde to do it before leaving for the summer. Now that he thought about it, he did remember Tina saying she had planted the garden because she missed home grown vegetables. It made him a bit melancholy to think of her having gone to so much trouble only to abandon her little garden.
And not only the garden, but the piano and her peace and quiet as well. Everything she said she'd wanted out of a summer house. Yet she'd been so eager -- happy, even -- to leave it all behind when he and Jim had agreed to stay here.
Blair looked back toward the house. The rising sun reflected blindingly on the windowpanes. It was getting warmer, and the glare of the sun on the glass made it seem hotter still. The garden would need water. Already some of the plants were looking a little limp. He pushed aside the lower leaves and found narrow black hoses laid in a zig-zag pattern across the beds. That simplified matters. He walked around the garden looking for a spigot, and found one at last hidden in a little hinged metal box set flush with the ground and almost invisible under the overgrown grass. Excellent. He crouched down and gave the knob a cautious half-turn. For a moment nothing happened, then he heard a hissing sound, and he smelled water before he saw it, tiny rivulets spilling from the irrigation lines.
Blair straightened up with a pleased sense of accomplishment. He understood why Tina hadn't been able to resist setting out vegetable plants with such nice beds already in place, though he did wonder who had constructed the garden and laid the irrigation lines in the first place, if Professor Wilde spent every summer in Europe. The previous owners, perhaps. Maybe the same people who had built the swing set at the end of the lawn. It was no pre-fab model from Toys-R-Us. Instead, a substantial length of pipe had been affixed high up between two black walnut trees, and three swings with wooden seats were suspended from rusting chains. It must have been built years ago, for the tree trunks had grown bulging knots over the bolts through the pipe.
Blair walked over, the soles of his feet sticking wetly now to the rubber of his flip flops. He was tempted to kick them off and run barefoot through the grass, which grew as thickly under the swings as everywhere else. Obviously no one had played here for a long, long time. He tested one seat with his hand, leaning to put some weight on it. The wood was worn smooth and weathered, but aside from a little shower of rust from the chains, it seemed sturdy enough. Unable to resist, he turned and sat down. The chain groaned as he pushed himself off. Forward and back, having to stretch his legs out straight to keep from hitting the ground at the nadir of his careful arc. The wind in his face was cooler than the warming morning air, and he imagined some child's long afternoons here. Swinging in the heat of the summer sun, hour after hour flying by as the world rose and fell, and everything seemed possible, and everything was good.
He dropped his feet and stopped himself hard, half-stumbling up out of the swing. Maybe he should go wake up Jim, be sure they had time to fix some breakfast and unpack what few belongings they'd brought with them in their hasty departure.
And what a dumb idea that was. If Jim wanted to sleep all day long today, then that was just fine too. Better than fine. Jim was here to rest, and he'd done precious little of it so far. Those boxes in the library would still be there on Monday. Probably a year from now. They were just things. Nothing like fragile, changeable human lives. Those could fall apart in the blink of an eye, and nothing you did could ever put them back together again.
Blair took off fast, walking for the lake. Five and a half weeks, he thought as he reached the edge of the lawn. He had exactly that much time to pretend that his whole life consisted of this house in the middle of a cornfield, vegetables ripening under the summer sun and Jim inside, sleeping late and without nightmares. So he'd better make the most of it.
A narrow path led down through the meadow. Tall grasses brushed his legs high up on either side, and thoughts of chiggers and ticks made him feel itchy and determined to take a hot shower before getting dressed. The sun was warm on his shoulders, even through the fabric of the tee shirt he'd slept in, and the air was very still.
The pond which had looked golden from the house turned stagnant brown once he reached it. It had been a dry summer evidently, for the pond had shrunk within its banks, leaving a wide shoreline of dried mud. Blair followed the muddy beach around to the little pier of weathered gray wood. The rowboat Tina had told him about was moored at the end. It floated nearly five feet below the pier, which rose from the flat surface of the dying pond like the skeleton of some great, drowned beast. A gingko grew at the edge of the meadow, but cast no shade on the dock in the slanting dawn light.
Blair walked out and sat down at the end of the pier, his legs dangling high above the water. The wooden planks were already hot under his thighs. He could smell the water, which seemed as choked and thick as the motionless air above it. He didn't think Jim would want to fish here, which was a shame -- he'd looked so wistful at the possibility. Blair remembered the flashing clear rivers where Jim had taught him to cast a fly, and couldn't imagine wanting to eat anything that emerged from these unwholesome waters. He wasn't even sure there was anything alive in this pond. It looked muddy and dead, so different from the golden shine he'd glimpsed from the kitchen windows.
A lot of things which seemed promising from a distance looked very different when you got up close, he thought, and this shit-brown pond suddenly seemed a fitting symbol for his life. One aspect of his life, anyway. The one that had risen up in a dirty, frothing tide and washed everything away.
He'd fantasized about finishing his dissertation from the day he met Jim. He'd found a Sentinel, and Burton was right. He, Blair Sandburg, was right too, and he was gonna get the chance to show the whole world. In the early days he would lie awake at night in the loft, Jim sleeping overhead, and imagine the future shining like the sun ahead of him. Publication, the accolades of his peers, grant money to search for other sentinels -- actually, just landing a teaching job after he got his degree was a bright enough dream for a new anthro Ph.D., and he'd enjoyed that fantasy just as much as the more elaborate ones.
But as he began to write, the golden gleam started to fade and tarnish. The sun had gone behind the clouds after he finished the introductory chapter, and after that, with every word, practically, the future had grown darker. He hadn't been able to understand it. He was doing good work, he *knew* it. So why had every period he typed felt like another nail in his coffin? There were still some problems to work out, sure, but everything else had always come around sooner or later in his life. He'd never stopped believing that eventually a way to protect Jim's confidentiality would suggest itself, too.
But god, when Naomi had suddenly appeared behind him after he'd finally typed, 'the end', he'd nearly jumped out of his skin. And it hadn't been just the surprise of her sudden presence. You know, it was no wonder his mom had thought he was having self-esteem issues. He sure hadn't been acting like a man who'd just reached the culmination of the last six years of his life that evening. More like a murderer caught red-handed, trying to hide the corpse.
Something splashed, very quietly.
Blair started back violently, scraping the back of his knee on the rough wooden planking and losing his left sandal. It hit the surface of the lake with a splat and disappeared for an instant before slowly bobbing back up again.
Ah, great, just great. No way was he going in after it. Especially now that he knew the pond wasn't so dead after all. He scanned the surface, looking for some sign of what had disturbed the tranquility of the morning. He couldn't even see bubbles, but as he looked out across the pond, he realized the mist had returned. It covered the surface in a drifting white cloud, obscuring the far shoreline.
All at once, Blair decided he'd had enough. He got up and walked back quickly, watching where he placed his bare foot and hoping Jim was awake by now. The meadow had come alive during the short time he'd been out on the pier, and the insect song on both sides of him was brassy and loud enough to cover any other splashes that might have come from out on the muddy little lake. He looked up toward the house, and the reflection of the sun on the windows blinded him for an instant. He shaded his eyes, blinking, and saw that Jim was sitting on the back steps, still in a tee shirt and boxers, one cup of coffee in his hand, and a second on the step beside him.
Blair thought he'd never seen such a beautiful sight in his life. He grinned and waved at Jim, who raised his coffee cup in return, smiling back. When Blair was close enough from them to converse without shouting Jim said, predictably, "Lost a shoe?"
Blair mounted the stairs and picked up the coffee cup so he could sit down beside Jim. "Is that how you made detective?" he answered, being just as predictable and delighting in it. "The coffee smells great. Thanks."
Jim shrugged. "Beans were a little stale. Maybe we can do some grocery shopping this afternoon."
"Sounds like a plan. We need to get some laundry detergent too." Blair slurped happily at his own mug, which tasted pretty good to him. Of course by this point, even Maxwell House would have been welcome. "Did you sleep all right?"
"Like a log." Jim swung his good leg out, bumping his thigh against Blair's. "How about you? You were up pretty early."
"I slept good, too," Blair said, and then was content to sit in silence beside Jim, listening to the rattling, sonorous clamor of insects and birdsong. He raised his eyes at last to look out toward the lake, and saw it shining golden hot in the sun. "I think this is going to work out all right," he blurted out, half-panicked, and turned to look at Jim's face in profile.
Jim nodded and pointed out into the yard. "One of the swings is moving," he said, sounding faintly puzzled. "Do you feel a breeze?"
He was right. The middle swing was swaying gently. "Oh, that. I tried it out this morning."
"Ah." Jim didn't quite grin at him, but as he turned to Blair his eyes were happy. "So that's why you wanted this place. It has a playground."
"You bet, man." He stood up and stretched, then offered a hand to Jim. "You up for some breakfast?"
Instead of taking his hand, Jim touched the back of Blair's thigh. "You're bleeding."
Blair craned around, trying to see the back of his own leg. "It must have happened out on the dock. I'll wash it out when I get a shower. Does it look like I got any splinters?"
"Not that I can see," Jim pronounced after a moment.
"You can't see it, then there aren't any." He offered his hand again, and this time Jim allowed Blair to help him to his feet. He looked to Blair like his wound wasn't troubling him so much this morning, and that made Blair happy, too. "Let's see what Tina left us for breakfast," Blair said, and Jim slung his arm companionably around his shoulders as they went up the stairs together.
Later that morning, Blair went out back again to turn off the irrigation hose in the garden, and he saw, as the water oozing from the lines slowed to less than a trickle, that the middle swing was still moving ever so slightly in the windless morning air.
By the end of the next week, Jim realized he was trying to carve a routine for himself. He liked routine; he found it comforting, especially after their hasty flight from Cascade. Occasionally he would wonder about Simon or his co-workers in Major Crime, about the loft; even more rarely, he wondered what would happen if Wendy carried out her threat. But he argued the possibility away. She'd seemed sincere enough when she told Blair that she owed her life and career to them. Despite her threats, he couldn't believe she'd really write a story that would damage his and Blair's own lives and careers so irreparably. She was ambitious and thoughtless, Jim knew, but not cruel. Surely she could see that Blair had been through enough.
So he was up early, before the heat, to fix breakfast and watch the tomatoes and peppers grow. He told Blair he thought he could *hear* the corn growing, especially at night, a shivery groaning that trembled through the air and earth. He'd remind Blair to turn off the irrigation hose in the vegetable garden before they left -- Blair forgot, every morning -- and then Blair would drive them to the library. They would spend the morning cataloging the contents of the boxes, all kinds of books and papers, but stranger things too, even metal frogs and salamanders and a collection of stones and chipped seashells.
Wednesday Jim packed them a lunch, and they sat in the basement of the library where there were vending machines and booths padded with patched, fake leather seats and an entire wall of old-fashioned phone booths. Thursday Robert took them to the South Dining Hall, an enormous room with bizarre murals Jim thought he would zone on if he looked too closely, so he concentrated on his food instead, having no desire to risk becoming lost, even momentarily, in the strange two-dimensional world depicted there on the walls.
Robert also got them swimming passes so Jim could exercise his injured leg. They went for the first time on Friday. The pool was in an air-conditioned room and had music playing underwater; neither man had ever seen anything like it. Jim took the first two laps slowly, getting used to the sensation of exercising his leg without the drag and pain of gravity. It felt good. Better than good; it was wonderful to move with something like his old freedom, even if it was only through water. He stood up at the end of his third lap, wanting to tell Blair, but Blair turned and pushed off again, swimming half a dozen strokes more before he realized Jim was no longer beside him. When he did he stopped and stood up, looking back with concern.
"I'm fine," Jim called to him. "It feels good." His voice echoed strangely in the room, and the sounds of other swimmers seemed louder than his own voice, as though the water swallowed up everything else.
Blair's face lit up, and he swam back to Jim, talking before he even had his head all the way out of the water. "That's great," he said, beaming. Hair had escaped from his ponytail and drizzled over his face. "Be careful you don't overdo it, but this is great, just what you need." He bent his knees and dropped his head backwards into the water to wash the hair back off his face, and when he stood up again, Jim had a sudden, terrible memory of Blair emerging from water on another occasion, bedraggled hair streaming, his sodden clothes weighing him down, his eyes closed peacefully, as though he hadn't struggled at all.
"Jim?" Blair asked in concern.
"Nothing," Jim lied. He wanted to pull Blair into his arms at that moment, feel Blair's naked chest against his own, reassure himself that the wet skin was warmed by a strong heart beating underneath. Instead he took off on another lap and then swam half a dozen more, pushing himself so hard that when he finally heaved himself up out of the pool, the muscles in his injured leg were singing with strain and he had to lean heavily on Blair to make it back to the showers.
That evening they ate at dusk, slices of cold roast chicken Blair had cooked the night before and a simple green salad. It was too hot for a regular meal. Afterwards, Blair found a blender and ice crusher in the kitchen and made them margaritas, which they carried out to the screened in porch to sip as they watched the fireflies glow, dim, and glow again. The oscillating fan turned from one to the other, and the cicadas whirred in the meadow.
"I'm going to get up early tomorrow morning and mow the lawn," Blair announced. "I figure if I start right at dawn I should be able to finish up before it gets too hot."
Jim nodded. "Good plan. Is there any gasoline in the garage?"
"I'm not going to use the gas mower. There's an old reel mower back there too. I'm gonna use that one instead. No gas fumes, no racket."
Jim snorted. "Have you ever tried mowing a lawn with a reel mower? It'll take you all day."
"I've never mowed grass with anything."
"Nope. Naomi didn't usually stay in places with front lawns, you know?"
"I can't believe you've never pushed a lawnmower before. Sandburg, that's so un-American it's practically communist. Of course, I don't know what else I'd expect from you."
Blair snorted. "Two weeks, Jim. I've told you before, it was precisely two weeks that I lived on a commune, and the only reason I was there was because Naomi was helping friends network with some of the restaurants in San Francisco. Get higher prices for their organic produce than they ever could selling at a cheesy little roadside stand."
"People living on communes 'network'?"
"Well, yeah." Blair rolled his eyes. "It's sort of the whole point."
"Right, Chief. Whatever you say."
Blair made an exasperated noise. "There's no hope for you, man," he said, but he sounded happy, and Jim realized he was happy, too, or very close to it. Contented. Glad to be sitting out here in the still of the evening with Blair at his side. He took another sip of his drink, savoring it. Ice, salt, lime, and the mellow woodiness of unexpectedly good tequila.
"What do fireflies look like to you?" Blair asked suddenly.
Jim shrugged, then focused his attention on one. "It's weird," he said after a while. "Like -- trails."
Blair chucked softly. "I see trails, man," he slurred, and mimed puffing on a joint. Jim sat up straight, a little stung, but Blair's expression was gentle, and he reached out and laid his hand, cold from the margarita glass, on Jim's forehead as if in apology. The coolness felt so good that Jim closed his eyes. A tiny drop of condensation rolled down his cheek. Blair caught it and wiped it away with the side of his crooked finger, then dropped his hand.
"Don't know how else to describe it," Jim said, and finally opened his eyes again. "As though they're leaving part of themselves behind as they fly."
Blair didn't laugh again. He peered avidly into the night, and Jim knew he was trying to capture what Jim saw. At last, he leaned back in his chair and turned his eyes to Jim, who saw that the happiness he'd glimpsed on Blair's face and heard in his voice was only transitory. He seemed a little tired and sad as he shrugged. "Can't see it," Blair said, and that made Jim a little sad, too.
In his dream that night, Jim was sitting in the Professor's Study and listening to Blair play the piano. He'd had no idea that Blair played, but there he was, out in the living room, caressing the keys of the baby grand that had tempted Tina to move into this isolated white elephant of a house. One of the Gymnopedies of Erik Satie, Jim knew, though he didn't know which one, and wasn't sure how he knew.
The music was as slow moving as their life these days. Jim sat on the pulled-out sofa bed, dressed only in boxers and a light-weight tee, his elbows on his knees, head dropped. It was as though the sounds were heavy, weighting him down, slowing his heart and breath. He knew he was dreaming, but it was mixed up with memories that felt real, like seeing Blair sit down at the piano for the first time
"Do you play?" he had asked, not really curious, not really believing he did, but Blair had smiled a bit and said, "A little," and then played an arpeggio to illustrate. "Not much," he'd added, and tapped lightly at a single key, the A, Jim saw, above middle C. And then he'd begun to play.
Not concert hall quality, of course, but competent. Jim had stood next to him for a few minutes, feeling surprisingly shy and intrusive, and then had retreated to his bedroom to listen.
But he couldn't stay away. This was Blair, after all, slowing filling the house with the delicate sound, and Jim stood again, then moved down the hall to the living room. In his dream, his leg didn't hurt him, and his stride was comfortable and easy. He leaned against the wall and crossed his arms and shut his eyes.
The piece came to a close, pianissimo, molto pianissimo, the final note floating in the air. Jim could almost see it hovering, the vibrations stirring currents. Then Blair sighed and the vibrations dissipated.
"Play it again, Sam," Jim said, but he was serious and Blair knew it, so he did, and this time Jim stayed, soaking in the sounds, the lesson, the knowledge. When for a second time the music ended, he focused intently on the vibrato of the final note, tracing its movement from the body of the piano into the air as it filled the room and floated to the ceiling, brushing against Jim's body. He should tell Blair that, he knew, but not right now. Everything felt so tenuous, as tenuous as the music through the atmosphere.
"I had a piano in the warehouse," Blair said shyly. "But you know . . ." And Jim had known. Destroyed along with so much else of Blair's in the explosion. "It's funny, isn't it?" Blair went on, his voice thoughtful. "Sometimes we lose things in fire, and sometime we lose them in water."
Jim saw suddenly that Blair's hair was streaming wet, and he could not stand to remember what he had lost in the water, not anymore, so this time he gave in to the impulse he had resisted in the swimming pool, and he pulled Blair up off the piano bench and held him clasped to his breast to reassure himself that Blair was alive. One hand cradled the back of Blair's head, and both of them were getting soaked now, rivulets of water running down the back of Jim's arm and dripping on that beautiful piano. But Blair was alive, so nothing else mattered. He wrapped his arms around Jim's back and snuggled in closer, his heart beating strongly against Jim's chest. Jim tilted his head and Blair looked up at him, heavy-lidded, an exquisite smile just touching the edges of his lips.
Is this part of my dream? Jim wondered. Or is this real? And hoping it was real, he dropped his head and kissed Blair's mouth.
He awoke to yellow sunlight heating the room through the shutters, and a snick-snick-snick that he didn't recognize until he smelled cut grass, and realized Blair was pushing the reel mower across the lawn. Jim touched his lips, imagining that he could still feel the warmth of Blair's mouth against his own. In his dream, Blair had been kissing him back, straining up on tiptoe, his arms wrapped around the back of Jim's neck, his body pressed hard to Jim's.
You're getting too old for this, Ellison, he thought, and curled over slowly on his side, running one hand across his chest, slipping the other under the waistband of his boxers. His own touch made him shiver despite the warmth of the room, and it wouldn't have taken much. The thought of jerking off in this sun hot room while Blair doggedly pushed the lawnmower past his window seemed funny instead of erotic, though, and just a little sad. The regular snickety-snick of the reel mower stopped with a sudden chunk, and Blair cursed wearily. Jim imagined him bending over to pick out whatever tiny stick or extra-thick clump of grass had jammed the blades, and he decided he should get up and convince Blair to just use the gas mower already before he gave himself heat stroke.
Jim sat up slowly, giving a rueful look down at his still-tented boxers. He could smell coffee in the kitchen, just on the verge of going stale from sitting on the burner too long. He wished he could take a shower, but getting up the stairs alone felt like too much work. Instead he made his way to the first floor bathroom, walking carefully and slowly, not using the cane. The muscles in his injured leg were sore from yesterday's swim, but it was a good kind of soreness, the ache of honest exertion, not the frustrating, grating pain of muscles strained by limping. He splashed cold water on his face and then relieved himself, the dream becoming no less vivid in his mind, but somehow less urgent. Then he went to the kitchen to pour a cup of coffee before it became undrinkable. He fixed a glass of ice water for Blair, and carried both out the back door, just in time to meet Blair as he came around the house, still manfully pushing the mower. Three steps forward, then two steps back to catch the blades of grass missed on the first pass.
Jim wondered how long he'd been at it. Blair's white tank was translucent with sweat and glued to his back. The few strands of hair that escaped his tight ponytail were stuck to his face, and sweat darkened the red bandana he had tied around his brow. His face lit up when he saw Jim. "Hey, I hope I didn't wake you up. I was afraid if I waited too much longer it would be too hot to get this done."
"Already getting there," Jim observed. He held out the glass of water to Blair who abandoned the mower and came to take it gratefully. He gulped the water down, then fished an ice cube out of the glass and rubbed it over his face.
"God, thank you. That's great."
"How much you do you still have to go?"
Blair grinned faintly, ice water and sweat dripping from his face. "You mean you didn't even go out front to check on my progress? I'm hurt, man. Uh, I've got half the front yard, the small half beside the drive, and the side yard, and just about to start this. What does that add up to? Little less than a third, I guess."
"Uh huh," Jim said, noncommittally.
"You think I should just go power up the other mower, don't you?"
Jim set his coffee cup down on the step so that he could spread his hands innocently "I'm not saying a word here."
"You don't have to," Blair pretended to scowl. "Actually, I tried it a little while ago when I realized I was going to spend the whole weekend mowing the grass at this rate, but I couldn't get the starter to catch. If I push it around here, you think you could give it try?"
"I can do that," Jim said, rather idiotically pleased to be asked. He was tired of feeling helpless. He was even more pleased when the problem turned out to be a simple one -- Blair hadn't primed the engine first. When Jim yanked on the starter cord, the motor roared satisfyingly into life. Blair raised a fist of triumph and took off.
Jim finished his coffee as Blair mowed the back yard in decreasing concentric circles, then he went back inside and fixed himself a bowl of cereal with a banana sliced on top of it. He remembered Tina's mention of blueberries at the Farmer's Market, and made a mental note that he and Blair should go there some time soon. After he finished his breakfast he rinsed the bowl out in the sink, and following the sounds of the lawnmower, he walked out the front door this time, carrying another glass of water. The smell of gasoline and cut grass made him nostalgic for things he didn't even know he had missed. Blair was just finishing up, a few more long passes beside the front walk before letting the engine die at the steps and bounding up to take the glass of water from Jim. He drained it in a long gulp and Jim found himself watching his Adam's apple bob with every swallow.
"I still think it's a smelly, polluting, massively inefficient use of fossil fuels," Blair announced when he put the glass down, sitting heavily next to Jim on the steps. "Sure is faster, though."
"Thanks for doing it."
"No problem. My first time, like I told you. Hey," he raised his eyebrows at Jim. "Does this make me a real man now?"
"Little late for that, Sandburg." Jim grinned back at him.
"Yeah, well." Blair leaned back on his elbows and sighed in exhaustion, or perhaps it was satisfaction. He was dripping with sweat, and he smelled like gasoline and perspiration and cut grass. Fire and water and earth, Jim thought, and without thinking anything else, he leaned over Blair and kissed his lips, which were still wet and a little cold from the ice water.
It was better than the dream. Blair trembled and pressed back against Jim's mouth at once, making a quiet, ecstatic sound deep in his throat. Jim slipped his hand around the back of Blair's neck to support his head, and he knew by the way Blair's lips parted under his own how much power he had in that instant. He supposed he'd already known that he loved Blair. What he hadn't known was that he could give Blair such happiness. Even now, when they had fled half way across the country, leaving Blair's life in tatters behind them, Blair still yielded everything to him so easily, without a single question.
Jim broke the kiss in the next instant. This wasn't fair and it couldn't be right, not when Blair was dependent on him for everything from his future in the PD to the check for next weeks' groceries. Jim knew from a lifetime of bitter experience that making love never solved anything, not in the long run. Usually not even in the short term. Blair deserved so much more than temporary solutions and distractions, no matter how sweet.
"I'm sorry," Jim heard himself mumbling as he released Blair and sat up. "I'm sorry."
Blair straightened more slowly, shaking his head. "No, man. Jim. It's all right. It's okay." Blair even managed a tiny smile. "It was nice," he said softly, and looked away from Jim, across the newly mown lawn to the fields of corn beyond. The two of them sat in silence for a moment more, their breathing becoming regular again, and then Blair knocked his elbow gently against Jim's and said, "Just gonna put the lawnmower away and get a shower. I'm feeling pretty ripe about now."
Jim let him go without another word.
Late Sunday afternoon, and Blair was sitting on the glider in the backyard with a paperback Terry Pratchett novel. His friend Dorothy from the department had given it to him, telling him he really ought to relax and read a book just for fun every once in a while before he ran himself into an early grave.
That had been nearly two years ago, and this was the first chance he'd had to pick it up. Apparently he should have listened to her. Not that he would call this summer in Northern Indiana an early grave, exactly. But as stupid and melodramatic as the conceit was, he couldn't help but think of the press conference and the renunciation of his work as a kind of dying.
No, that wasn't right, he decided at once. He wasn't dead. He'd seen death up close and personal, and this wasn't even in the same neighborhood. The press conference had been more like chewing off his own leg to escape a trap. To help someone *else* escape a trap. One that he'd lent an unwitting hand in setting.
He dropped the book onto the lawn and turned on the glider so he could stretch out on his back. A cicada's empty shell clutched at the underside of the canopy overhead. There was no wind, and the heat and humidity were so oppressive Blair imagined he could feel the entire weight of the atmosphere bearing down on him, pressing him flat down on the inadequate foam cushions beneath him. Might be more comfortable on the porch with the fans blowing, or even inside. Until the sun set, it was always a few degrees cooler inside the big house than it was out in the yard.
Jim was inside right now. The last time Blair had seen him, maybe an hour and a half ago, he'd been in the Professor's Study, sitting at the huge empty desk with a volume of Melville he'd checked out of the library and a pitcher of ice water on a breakfast tray at his side. He'd told Blair he'd always wanted to read *Typee*.
That would be the same Jim Ellison who had bent over Blair yesterday with an expression of ineffable tenderness on his face. The same Jim Ellison who had held his head and kissed him on the mouth. Then let him go and apologized, and now seemed intent on never saying another word about it.
So, okay. They wouldn't talk. The rest of the day yesterday and all day today, Blair hadn't said a word about it. He hadn't even thought about it, much. Not when Jim was so close, and could read Blair's every expression so easily. Besides, compared to some of the things he and Jim had faced together, a stolen kiss on the front steps of someone else's house didn't even rate a footnote. And Blair understood, he did. Jim was a long way from home -- they both were -- and they had both been pretty damned unhappy for a long time. And now all at once, Jim wasn't quite so unhappy anymore. And Blair was close, and Blair was his friend, and it must have been such a relief not to be hurting anymore, that kiss must have simply seemed like the right thing to do.
Maybe it wasn't much of an explanation, but Blair clung to it because it had felt like the right thing to him, too. Thinking about it now, he couldn't remember even having been surprised. What he did remember was how it had felt to have Jim look at him that way. Then to touch him like that. Like he'd been waiting his whole life for a kiss from this big, vulnerable man with bristles on his face and coffee on his breath.
Blair closed his eyes and just for a moment allowed himself to truly remember what it had been like to have Jim's hand supporting the back of his head and Jim's lips open over his own. His heart did a lazy barrel roll in his chest, and he had a sudden moment of vertigo so profound it felt as though the glider were violently rocking. His eyes flew open, and he saw the canopy overhead motionless against the hazy blue sky, and the cicada's exoskeleton still clinging, as it probably would all summer unless Blair reached up and knocked it off. The colors all seemed a little off, though, the sky too bright and newly mown grass too vividly green, and he wondered if he'd fallen asleep for a few moments. He was horribly thirsty, his back was sweaty, pressed against the canvas-covered foam cushions, and the mosquitoes were eating him alive. He should go in.
Lying out here in the heat seemed to have sapped all his resolve, though, and instead of getting up, he rolled over on his side so he could reach the ground with one hand and push off to start the glider rocking. He'd thought moving might generate a little breeze, but the hot, still air moved over his body without bringing any relief.
Jim had been happy yesterday morning. Must have been a strange sensation for him, because it had been such a long time. Not since before the dissertation fiasco, maybe. Before Alex, before Jim had even read that damning first chapter. Before even then, and Blair should have known, but he just hadn't wanted to see it. He remembered Jim's tight, frustrated words when he and Simon had finally caught up to him in Clayton Falls.
"You've made this sentinel thing work, and I appreciate that. I wouldn't change a minute of it," Jim had told him, and Blair wondered if that's what he had sounded like talking to Carolyn as they signed the divorce papers. "But you're always there in my face. *Observing.*"
Blair hadn't heard him. Or rather, he had heard him, and had gotten it all wrong. The next time Jim had complained about needing his space, Blair had given it to him, and that decision had nearly destroyed them both.
Nearly, but not quite, because here they were. It was almost funny when you thought about it. The two of them had gotten more second chances than anybody had any right to expect. Jim should have died in the fiery crash of his unit's copter, and Blair should have died in two feet of water in that fountain in front of Hargrove. There was an odd kind of symmetry to their survival, and he had to wonder how many chances any one person was allowed in a single lifetime. Much less two lives, intertwined. Did that double the odds or halve them? It was too hot for thinking. Blair groped under the glider for the dropped book. He was looking toward the house in that position, and the sun was shining all the way through the glass shutters on the laundry porch, but the other windows on this side of the house were all dark squares in the brick. The dimness looked cool and inviting, except for one basement window, where a face like a waning moon in a starless sky was staring back at him.
Blair froze. Despite the heat, he could feel his scalp prickling with ice. What in the name of -- "Jim?" he whispered, speaking to the only person who could possibly be inside looking out at him. Blair sat up too fast and his head spun, and when he blinked and looked again, the face was gone. He put his hand on his chest, his tee shirt wet with sweat. What the hell was Jim doing going down the basement stairs?
He got up and ran clumsily past the garden and up to the back of the house, crouching down to peer through the small window. He had to shield his eyes with the sides of his hands curled against the glass to see the dark interior. Even then he couldn't see much. Smooth cement floors, unfinished plaster walls. No sign of Jim or anyone else, but there was a doorway off to one side. Apparently the basement was divided into more than one room. The thought of going from window to window trying to catch sight of Jim illicitly prowling the basement should have been funny, but instead Blair felt vaguely horrified at the idea. He forced himself to walk around to the outside basement door on the far side of the house. It was down half a dozen concrete doors, and locked up tight, as Blair discovered when he tried the knob. What else had he expected?
It must have been an optical illusion, he decided as he made his way up the back steps and into the house. A flash of sunlight reflected from somewhere else. After all, it wasn't as though he'd been able to make out any features. Just a pale, smooth shadow of a face, watching him.
"Hey Jim," he called as the back door slammed behind him. "You around?"
A grumble answered him. Blair followed the sound back to the Study, where he found a very sleepy looking Jim propped sideways on the couch, *Typee* upside down on his lap.
"Hey, sorry to wake you up."
Jim yawned hugely. "Wasn't asleep."
"I thought I'd go explore the basement," Blair said, instead of asking Jim if he could hear anyone or anything downstairs. "You want some more water or anything first?" The pitcher beside the desk was almost empty.
Jim raised both arms above his head, grasping one wrist with his opposite hand to stretch his shoulder, then the other. "Nah. What I really need now is to take a leak."
"Right." Without being asked Blair scooted to the side of the couch and helped Jim to his feet. It was a sign of how drowsy Jim was that he leaned hard on Blair as he got up, making no effort to pretend he really didn't need the help. When Blair handed him his cane, Jim actually smiled and said ruefully, "This is getting old, isn't it?"
"No," Blair said, releasing Jim as he took the first step with the cane, obviously still stiff from his nap. "Besides, you're getting stronger every day. I can tell."
"Yeah." Jim sounded unconvinced. "Just keep telling me that."
"Not a problem. It's true, man," Blair said honestly.
Jim grumbled, but Blair thought he seemed pleased, and the problem of the face in the window receded even further. Was there any real need to go look for nonexistent people in the basement? Yes, he thought immediately, a little ashamed. They'd been living in the house more than a week without checking out the basement. Regardless of what he had imagined in a heat-dazzled moment of vertigo, it really was way past time to take a look at the rest of the house they were living in. Hell, afterwards maybe he'd even tackle the attic.
Standing at the basement door, though, he remembered Tina carefully locking it up tight during their first tour of the house. How relieved she had been that she didn't have to show him the basement. Or had that just been his imagination?
Definitely his imagination, he thought, and turned the deadbolt and opened the basement door.
Sturdy wooden steps led down into the shadows under the house. The air that rushed up was noticeably cooler and smelled of earth. He found a switch on the wall just inside the door and flipped it on, and reassuringly bland incandescent light banished the shadows. Blair took the stairs quickly, one hand on the banister.
Though the basement wasn't finished, it was evidently dry. Propped against one wall were a set of cabinets, probably left over from the last time the kitchen had been remodeled; on the wall behind the stairs was the circuit box. Good to know where that was, Blair thought. See? Already his little expedition was paying off. A hot water heater stood in the corner, and copper pipes crossed the underside of the floorboards over his head.
There was a door in the wall across from the stairs. That must be the room he had looked into from outside. He walked over, his feet dragging a little, and stuck his head in.
The second basement room was much smaller than the first, long and narrow under the back of the house. There were rusty shelves along one wall, stacked with yellowing magazines and a row of sadly deflated basketballs. Blair let out the breath he didn't know he'd been holding and stepped into the room. There was the window he'd looked into from outside. He stretched up on tiptoe and looked out, getting a grass-height view of his newly mown lawn, the vegetable garden, and the glider he'd spent half the afternoon on.
He turned around, and the lights went out.
He stood stock still, refusing to let himself panic. For chrissakes, it wasn't even dark. Sunlight was pouring though the basement windows. There were just a few more shadows down here now, that was all. He held his breath, listening hard, then yelled, "Hey, Jim, I'm still down here, man. You wanna turn the lights back on?"
If anyone would know he was still downstairs, it was Jim, of course. Jim hadn't turned off the lights, and Blair knew it. Power went off a lot in this old place, Tina had told them. That's why they kept bottled water in the kitchen. At any rate, there was nothing and no one down here. That's all he had come down here to establish. Case closed. He should go check on Jim anyway.
As he was leaving the little back basement room, though, he saw the stain on the wall for the first time. He stopped with a sense of foreboding that annoyed the hell out of him because it was so inexplicable, then crouched down to look at the stain more closely. It was on the plaster near one of the outside brick walls, an irregular patch of rusty red with a feathering of dark green along one edge. A foot across, maybe, and just a few inches above the floor. He held his hand out in front of it. The wall under the stain seemed soft, as though it would yield to his touch. He couldn't bring himself to actually touch it, though.
Mildew, he thought with a sinking heart, or some kind of fungus. The house hadn't smelled musty to him, but the spores could play hell with Jim's allergies, maybe even make him really sick. He'd have to see if Jim had noticed anything, watch him more closely for the next few days.
Maybe think about trying to find another place to live.
In the sharp bite of disappointment, he thought suddenly of old, old words, read laboriously when he'd been just a boy.
*Behold, if the plague be in the walls of the house with hollow strakes, greenish or reddish, then the priest shall go out of the house to the door of the house, and shut up the house seven days.*
Upstairs, he heard the toilet flush, then the rush of water in the pipes overhead. More proof, as if it had been needed, that Jim hadn't been the one who had turned off the lights.
*And if the plague come again, and break out in the house, after that he hath taken away the stones, and after he hath scraped the house, and after it is plaistered; Then the priest shall come and look, and, behold, if the plague be spread in the house, it is a fretting leprosy in the house: it is unclean.*
A fretting leprosy, Blair thought. Hell of a way to describe water stains and mildew. It gave him the creeps all the same. On his way back through the basement, he stopped and examined the basement door he'd tried from the outside. It was locked up tight with a lock that Blair didn't think they had the key to, as well as a deadbolt. Grey cobwebs misted the corner between the door and frame. Clearly no one was in the habit of going in and out that way.
*And he shall break down the house, the stones of it, and the timber thereof, and all the mortar of the house; and he shall carry them forth out of the city into an unclean place. *
Well, they weren't quite ready for that yet. It was just a patch of damp on a basement wall. Professor Wilde's problem anyway. Blair bounded up the stairs. He supposed it was no problem at all during the winter months when the heat would be on all the time. Too hot and too dry for spreading damp, then
He checked the light switch at the head of the stairs. It was flipped down. He couldn't remember if he had pushed the switch up or down to turn on the lights the first time. He pushed it up and nothing happened, flipped it down again, and the lights came on once more.
Blair turned off the lights for the last time and locked the basement door behind him. He found Jim in the kitchen, standing in front of the open refrigerator and examining the contents thoughtfully.
"What were you yelling about?" Jim asked when Blair came in behind him. "I didn't turn off the lights."
"I know." Blair stood behind Jim and surveyed the contents of the contents of the refrigerator with him. "Power must have blinked for a minute."
"Not up here, it didn't."
"Huh. That's weird."
"Anything in the basement?"
"Not really. I found a bad water stain or something on one wall."
"It's a basement," Jim said, disposing of the issue. "What's for dinner?"
"The thing is, I was thinking you might be sensitive to the spores from mildew. Have you noticed anything? You'd probably be aware of it first just like a kind of musty smell."
Jim swung the refrigerator door shut. "Sandburg, come on, please. All I'm interested in smelling right now is dinner."
"Sorry, okay. We can talk about it later. I was thinking while I was outside this afternoon that some of the stuff in the garden looks almost ready to eat. I could stir-fry the pole beans with summer squash and green tomatoes and onions, season them with herbs from the garden, too. I think it'd be good."
"Hm," Jim said, noncommittal. "That's a side dish, not dinner."
"Right. Well, we've got leftover chicken."
Jim looked faintly pained, but he shrugged and said, "All right," and started back toward the living room, leaning heavily on his cane. "Let me know if I can help." Blair was fairly certain Jim was exaggerating his limp ever so slightly.
"Or I guess we could drag that charcoal grill out of the garage like you've been wanting to and have burgers tonight."
Jim turned with remarkable spryness for a pitiful injured guy who could barely walk. "If we started the charcoal now, we could be eating in an hour," he said eagerly.
Blair had to laugh, and he felt a wave of emotion sweep over him. He really was in love with this man, no matter what that meant, regardless of whether they ever kissed again, no matter what happened next. "Sure, okay," was all he answered. "Hamburgers sound pretty good to me, too."
The last time Jim had seen a sunrise on a Monday morning, he'd been on a stakeout with Taggart in the warehouse district right off the docks. It had been toward the end of those gray months after Alex, when Blair had been so consumed with his academic life that he was seldom at the station. The only times Jim seemed to see him at all was early in the morning or late at night, hunched over the laptop on the dining room table, his hair wet from the shower, maybe, or the remains of a sandwich beside him.
He was on the home stretch now, he'd told Jim. Time to quit screwing around and write this damned thing already.
It wasn't the beginning of the end. It was the end itself. And even though the inevitability of this moment had been implicit in their friendship ever since Blair had walked into Jim's examining room wearing a purloined lab coat, that didn't make it any easier to take now that it was really happening.
That morning at the docks Jim had found himself trying to explain -- as much as he could, anyway. It had started with Taggart remarking innocently that he hadn't seen much of the kid lately, and before Jim could stop himself, everything was spilling out of him. Blair was finishing up his dissertation and that was the only reason he'd been riding around with Jim all these years. Didn't Joel understand that? As soon as it was done Blair would be up and out of here, no reason to hang with a bunch of cops anymore. He had his own life to lead.
Taggart just watched, and when Jim finally wound down, he simply asked, "You really think he'd leave you, Jimbo?"
The ocean had been gray and cold that morning, the air foul with diesel and seaweed rotting under the docks, the sun a colorless white disk through the clouds, dim as the moon. Had it been anyone but Joel Taggart, Jim probably would have gotten out and walked away. But since it was Joel, Jim tightened his fists around the steering wheel and managed to get out between gritted teeth, "What the hell else have I been talking about all morning?"
Jim couldn't remember now if Taggart had even answered him, but something must have stuck, because the next time he saw Blair, almost a day later, he had pushed and bullied and nagged and threatened until Blair had finally agreed that yeah, maybe he had been spending a little too much time over the computer lately, and it might be nice to get out and see a movie together. He'd never seen *The Seven Samurai*.
Jim could hardly believe it. Sandburg could talk about the cultural antecedents and cinematic impact of that movie until the cows came home -- or at least he could for the amount of time they spent standing in line, first for tickets, then for burnt, greasy popcorn and flat sodas, then all through the previews as well -- and had never taken an evening off to actually see the movie itself. Wasn't that just like Sandburg?
It had been a good night, though. The best Jim could remember in a long, long time, and just before Naomi arrived, he knew he'd been thinking that maybe Joel had been right after all.
And now it was another Monday morning, another ugly dawn, weeks later and a world away from Cascade. The sun was an angry red glow through the morning mists, and it was already hot. Blair had left twenty minutes ago for a morning run, sticking his head in the door of the Study on his way out to let Jim know he was going and breezily telling him to go back to sleep; they had at least a couple of hours before they needed to leave for the university.
As if Jim could have gone back to sleep then. The sheets under his back felt sticky, the pillow under his head hot and damp. Besides, he'd been having uncomfortable dreams, and now that he was awake, he felt a strange reluctance to even try and sleep alone in the house.
Instead he was on the screen porch now, the fan moving the humid morning air over him, waiting for Blair to get back. It was too early even to be hungry for breakfast. He could have handled coffee, he supposed, but it was easier to sit here and watch the sun rise over the misty cornfields and listen to the world come to noisy, croaking life all around him. Blair had turned on the sprinkler in the garden before he left, and Jim could smell the water sinking into the hot soil. Mostly, of course, it smelled of charcoal and grilled hamburger meat and burned fat out here. It smelled like that inside, too. The smell was on their clothes, in Blair's hair, on their skin. Jim didn't care. It had been worth it. Those had been some damn good burgers.
He wondered how long and far Blair intended to run this morning. He must be pretty serious about this Academy thing after all. Jim didn't think he would be so gung ho himself about running in this weather.
He almost smiled at that. Who was he trying to kid here? The old Jim Ellison would have been out before dawn and then again at four in the afternoon, nothing but silent or not-so-silent contempt for anyone who couldn't handle ninety percent humidity and ninety degree heat. You never knew when your life or someone else's might depend on your strength, your stamina. Jim would never have settled for anything less.
And neither would Blair. He had stuck with Jim through firefights, car chases, and kidnappings, jumped off cliffs and out of planes. The only time he had ever left was when Jim had told him to. He had persisted in writing that fucking dissertation no matter what, dogged and absolutely unshakeable. That's the kind of cop he would be, too. Jim felt a stab of pride, but it was twisted with an almost unbearable ache of sorrow, and he opened his senses to find Blair, trying to follow the heat and smell of the asphalt road to avoid getting lost in the endless fields of corn. Last thing he wanted was for Blair to come back from his run and find Jim zoned on a cornfield.
It became more difficult the harder he pushed. He tried to relax, to allow the smells and sounds, the very texture of the air to form a picture of the road in his mind's eye, the way Blair had taught him to do. It seemed to be working. He felt vibrations in the asphalt, the rhythm of running feet, and he knew he was close to finding Blair. Another moment, and he'd be able to scent him.
Then a crack of sound exploded behind Jim, and he doubled over in his chair, hands clamped over his ears, gasping in shock. He staggered to his feet as soon as he could, ears still ringing. In the first concussive shock he thought maybe the house had blown up behind him, but once he got over the first, most painful impact, he was able to process the sound waves still vibrating through his skull. Wood on wood. A door had slammed violently somewhere inside the house, and his senses had been so wide open it had hit him like a bomb blast.
His moment of relief didn't last long. Who the fuck had slammed a door? Had Blair somehow come back unnoticed while Jim was following his senses over hill and dale looking for him? He didn't believe that for a second. Blair wasn't in the house. Nobody was in the house, and there wasn't enough of a breeze to slam doors. The mystery made Jim furious. He grabbed his cane and stomped angrily inside, trying to figure out which door it had been. Maybe Blair had left the back door open when he watered the garden this morning. Wouldn't have taken much, maybe just a faint wind from off the pond that Jim couldn't feel on the other side of the house.
The back door was unlocked, all right, but when Jim pushed it open to see if could have been hanging open on its hinges, it immediately swung quietly closed again. Okay, so it hadn't been that one. He made his way through the rest of the downstairs. There weren't any closed doors anywhere. Had it been upstairs he wondered, standing at the foot of the stairs and looking up. A pale shaft of morning light illuminated the head of the stairs. Somehow he didn't think so. It had felt closer than that.
Oh, he realized with a sinking heart. There was another door. The one that led down to the basement.
When Blair had awakened him this morning, Jim had been dreaming about this house, about the basement. In his dream, he and Blair had been eating last night's hamburgers in the formal dining room, on fine linen and china, sipping good wine from crystal goblets that felt like silk against Jim's lips. Blair had been in dress blues, every inch the new graduate. His hair had been shorn, buzzcut to a quarter of an inch, and his face seemed so bare, eyes as large and innocent as a baby's. "Zeller's downstairs," Blair had said suddenly. "In the basement. I can hear him."
Jim tried to stand up, but in the dream he was paralyzed, helpless to do anything but watch as Blair pushed back from the table and stood up, drawing his weapon as he did. He turned, gun held up, forearm against his chest, and the naked curve of his throat and jaw were so vulnerable that Jim had whispered, "Don't go. Sandburg. Wait for backup."
Blair hadn't heard, or paid no attention if he did hear, and although Jim had no sense of having moved, he had somehow been at the basement door with Blair, watching as he eased the door open and Jim heard for the first time the slow lap and splash of water around the foundations of the house far below.
That had been all. Not even enough to qualify as a nightmare, and you didn't have to be Sigmund Freud to figure out where all the elements of that little dream had come from. Nevertheless, standing at the basement door now, the memory made him shudder as he stretched out his hand, fingers spread wide, and then carefully touched the smooth, polished wood.
When Blair got back from his run fifteen minutes later, Jim was sitting in the kitchen, and half the new pot of coffee was already gone. Jim was grasping his second cup tightly, and though he didn't tell Blair, his fingertips were still tingling from having touched them to a tightly locked door. A door that still thrummed with residual vibrations, as though it had been violently slammed only moments before.
Blair stared into the shiny reflection of the vending machine as he held down the button that made the shelves turn. Strawberry yogurt, an aged apple, cottage cheese, a ham and cheese sandwich. Yuck. Serious yuck. There must be something down here. He moved to the next vending machine. This was more like it: ice cream. He popped in a couple quarters and was rewarded with a drumstick. Throwing the wrapper in the trash, he settled at a booth to enjoy a few minutes respite from all the dust and junk of his current work.
And it was work. Good work, by and large; he was pleased Jim had persuaded him to come out here. He liked the routine, and he really liked having time to do things thoroughly. Always before, he'd worked so many jobs, had so many things going on at the same time that he wasn't able to give his best to any of them. Not even to Jim.
Especially not to Jim.
But here and now, everything was different. He had time to do the work well and thoroughly. Not just a quick run-through, but a preliminary investigation, and then close and systematic examination of every document. As long as he could focus on the work, he could forget why he was here.
He licked at the ice cream, sucking his finger into his mouth to catch a stray drop. He glanced around, hoping he hadn't been observed. Jim was upstairs. He should get back to him pretty quickly, or he'd be hobbling after Blair, worried as he so often was these days. He decided to bring him back an ice cream.
Blair leaned back into the booth and relaxed, noticing for the first time how many other people were in the snack room today. Summer school must've started. A woman was speaking passionately in the booth behind him, saying, "The scandal of Freud isn't the unconscious sexual Oedipal drama; it's that a woman *cannot* grow into a moral agent!"
"Hey, hey," a male voice protested, but she carried on.
"No, just think, Brian. Without the fear of castration -- because it's already a fait accompli -- there's nothing left to persuade her to leave the Oedipal stage. She can never develop a strong superego."
Blair tuned them out; he'd had enough of Freud during his years minoring in psychology. Two men were leaning against the wall not far from him, also in intense conversation. "Experience is a matter of tradition," one was saying earnestly, while the other shook his head. "It's a, a *convergence* in memory, of accumulated and frequently unconscious data."
"That's such bullshit," the other guy interrupted. "Experience is this," and he thumped the wall next to them firmly enough to catch other people's attention. "Bull*shit* that's unconscious data."
"You are missing the fucking point," his friend responded. "There is a radical dissociation of the symbolic and the semiotic."
"Oh, puke," the second guy said, and punched the guy this time. They both laughed.
Blair looked away again. He felt nearly sick to his stomach. He got up quickly and dumped the remains of his ice cream into the trash and headed toward the elevators. But it was too late; something had happened. It was as though he had suddenly acquired sentinel hearing, and all he could hear was a type of conversation he would never have the luxury of participating in again. "How useful is a model of women's writing that in practice excludes every woman writer in history except Colette, Marguerite Duras, and uh, excuse me, *Jean Genet*?" someone was asking as she left the elevator.
The elevator stopped again at the second floor and three people crowded in without a break in their conversation. "If it isn't rational, it's marginalized as madness, not listened to, not recorded in history." The speaker looked confidently at Blair as though he fully expected Blair to take his side in the discussion.
Instead Blair bolted, letting the elevator door close behind him, and stalked toward the stairwell. He could not listen to this, far less participate. How could he have imagined it was possible for him to work here, to do good work here? He could never do this work again. It wasn't possible to reconstruct his past life, his intellectual life.
He wondered, despairingly, if he would always miss it this badly. Would it always hurt this much? Or would he start to forget and lose the skills he had spent a lifetime honing? Both alternatives seemed intolerable, and whichever happened, he imagined the bitterness seeping into his heart like a water stain on a plaster wall, fungus turning it black until the whole was unsound, unclean. Despoiled by the fretting leprosy of disappointment and regret.
He stopped on the stairs. He couldn't go back to Jim in this state. But if he didn't, Jim would be worried, would start hauling his decrepit knee all over the library hunting him out. Blair took a deep breath and then sat on the stairs, resting his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. He just needed to calm down a bit. He took another deep breath, held it for a few seconds, and then slowly released it. Focused on his heart, pounding in his chest. "It's okay," he murmured, and wrapped his arms around himself. He was going to be a cop, he was going to be Jim's partner. He *loved* Jim, and that was all that mattered. Everything else would work itself out somehow. "It's okay." He found he was rocking very slightly and found it comforting. "Okay, okay, okay."
After a few minutes, he felt ready to face Jim again. He still felt a bit anxious, but not ready to bolt into the brutal heat of another summer day. One more deep breath and he stood up. Anything Jim noticed, he could attribute to climbing the stairs. "Overdid the run this morning. Just need to get back in shape," he practiced in his mind, and smiled. Jim would buy that; he was feeling out of shape himself, after so many weeks with a bad knee.
By the time he reached the fifth floor, he had locked his disappointment and fears away again, more tightly than he'd ever locked the first draft of his dissertation. He stepped into the storage room and found, as he'd expected, Jim returned to their task.
"Hey," Jim said without looking up. "What's wrong?" He carefully laid the papers out, almost as if laying out a deck of cards, and turned in his chair.
Blair shook his head slightly. "Nothing. Why?"
"Don't bullshit me."
He shrugged. "Just came up the stairs too fast." He grinned. "Guess I'm getting outta shape, not chasing after you."
But Jim didn't smile in return. He continued to stare at Blair, his face unreadable. The face he used when trying to talk to someone he knew was lying. Like a thief. Not the face he used with Blair's obfuscations.
Blair fidgeted uncomfortably, finally entering the room and crossing to the desk. "How's the work going?"
Still Jim didn't answer; just looked up at Blair. After a few seconds, he said, "It's going fine. And we'll talk later."
"Since when did you get so hot on talking shit over?" Blair demanded, a little angry, thinking of that moment on the front porch after mowing the lawn that Jim seemed so bound and determined to never talk about again.
But Jim just turned back to the documents and continued to sort them. "Since we agreed you wouldn't make any more unilateral decisions without talking to me first."
Blair bit his lip, the anger fading away, and nodded to himself. "Here," he said, gently extracting a sheet of fragile paper from the pile in Jim's hand. "I think this goes here."
"The wound is healing nicely," Doctor Sutcliffe told him, gently prodding it. Jim winced, but more out of habit than hurt. He wished Blair were with him instead of sitting impatiently in the waiting room. "Rate your pain on a scale of one to ten, with ten being unbearable."
"Um. Most days, one or two. If I push it too much, a three."
She nodded. "You're doing very well." At last she stepped back. "You should probably see a physical therapist, except the muscle tone and flexibility seem to be better than what I'd expect this soon after the shooting. What are you doing?"
"Swimming for exercise. I still use the cane," he said, nodding toward it. "Mostly try to stay off it."
She nodded again, jotting notes on her clipboard. "I think you're ready for something a bit more rigorous. I recommend you continue to swim, but also start some strengthening exercises. You look like you know your way around a gym?" He nodded. "Good. You know that machine where you sit, bent kneed, then raise your feet knee high? Try that. But just *try* it. Don't go all macho on me and re-injure yourself."
"I know what to do," he said a little testily, thinking that Blair would never let him hurt himself.
"I'm sure you do. Need any pain medication?"
"No. Ibuprofen seems to work. Ice if I need it."
"Okay." She straightened up and smiled at him, and he realized she was an attractive woman. He hadn't been able to see past the white coat until then. "Go hence and heal. If you feel any pain above a three, come back in right away, and I'll set you up with a physical therapist."
"I can do this."
"I'm sure you can." She shook his hand and left him to climb back into his clothes.
"I'm doing fine," he told Blair as they made their way back into the stifling heat toward their pickup. "She wants me to join a gym."
"Wow. You are doing better, then. That's great."
"Yeah." Blair opened the truck's passenger door for him and he settled into the seat, grateful that Blair had thought to put towels down, to keep the plastic seat covers from burning their bare legs. He watched Blair circle around the truck and climb in beside him, wondering if he should mention how long it had taken him to notice how pretty his doctor was. Wondering what, exactly, that meant.
Instead, he continued to watch Blair wrestle the little truck out into traffic and head back toward Notre Dame. Back to their work.
Blair pulled a messy handful of papers from box number twenty-two. "It's handwritten," he murmured, squinting at them, pushing his glasses up his nose with his shoulder. "Jesus, Jim. I think this is Burton's handwriting." He looked up; Jim could hear his heart rate and respiration increase.
"Let me see."
Blair obligingly walked the papers to Jim and sat next to him; together, they began trying to read them.
"The ways of doing it to women are numerous and variable. And now is the time to make known to you the different positions, which are usual. God, the magnificent, has said: 'Women are your field. Go upon your field as you like,'" Jim read, then looked at Blair. "What the hell is this? Burton wrote pornography?"
"Not pornography." He looked up at Jim, who saw he was nearly vibrating with excitement. "Oh my god. This is a translation of *The Perfumed Garden*. Oh my god." He turned his attention back to the papers, flipping through them.
"What's *The Perfumed Garden*?"
"A book. Burton translated it from the French, but it was originally Arabic. A sort of Kama Sutra. See, look: 'Let her lie down, and put her legs on your shoulders; in this position your member will just face her vulva, which must not touch the ground. And then introduce your member.'"
"Jesus Christ." Jim felt his face blushing. "This is what you've been looking for? I thought you'd find something for," he caught himself and lowered his voice, "you know, for the sentinel thing."
Blair nodded, abstracted. "Yeah, I'm sure we will. This is the first thing by Burton we've found; there's probably lots more." He continued to read the papers, sorting them as he went. Jim wondered if the sentinel stuff would be pornographic, too. He tried to imagine what he'd do or say if they found something like, "Put your sentinel's legs on your shoulders and introduce your member." His face got hotter and he shifted in his chair.
"This is definitely Burton," Blair said at last, resting the papers in his lap and looking up at Jim. "There just has to be something we can use here. I'm gonna bundle this up and find a place for it, so as we find more, we can combine it."
"How should I enter it in the spreadsheet?"
"Oh, damn, good question." So they brainstormed that for a while, settling for a long description and the number of pages. "I'll get a copy of *Perfumed Garden* from the library, so we can compare what we found to it, figure out what chapter this is from. Maybe the whole thing is here."
Jim shrugged. he wasn't sure what to say, in light of the book's contents. Somehow he didn't expect to find stuff like that in a Catholic university library. The next day, they found more, and then an entire box of Burton's books, including some first editions. Then another dry spell.
The laundry twice a week was one of their shared chores. Blair loaded the washer and dryer; Jim folded. They might have gotten by with doing it once a week, except in the sticky heat and humidity, neither man was willing to forgo the luxury of freshly laundered sheets. Jim probably would have been happy changing linens daily, but Blair had other things to do besides changing bedclothes every day. He hadn't voiced that defiant little idea, which was probably just as well, he thought, bent double over the side of the washing machine to dig out a pillow case which had plastered itself to the very bottom of the basin. The truth was he didn't really have anything better to do. The late afternoons when they got back from the school were long, quiet times. The two of them usually caught a nap in the fiercest heat of the late afternoon before arising groggy and dull around four and stumbling around the huge house, trying to decide whether it was too hot to cook a real dinner or not.
Usually it was, and they would read or watch television, drinking ice water and nibbling snacks for the next couple of hours, doing whatever meager chores around the house needed to be performed. Like mopping the kitchen floor, or in this case, doing the laundry.
The last pillowcase tossed into the dryer, Blair emptied the lint filter and turned on the machine, then started a load of tee shirts and underwear. The thing was, a little bit of housekeeping didn't really keep his thoughts from wandering. He just wasn't used to this kind of free time, and for everything he was enjoying about this lazy summer with Jim, he was beginning to believe too much time for introspection wasn't necessarily a good thing. Take, just for instance, this whole deal of going to the academy and becoming a cop, full time, Jim's partner for real. It was what he'd decided to do. It was what he *wanted* to do, and he wasn't going back on that.
But there was just too much time for thinking around here, and he kept coming up with annoying, inconvenient ideas about the academy, about police work. For instance, you'd think the idea of the firing range would be keeping him up nights, but no, he had decided early on that if he was going to be carrying a gun he wanted to know how to use the damned thing. And although he still believed that allowing every citizen and his dog to own a handgun was one of the more monumentally stupid civil liberties, that didn't mean he was opposed to an armed police force, despite the way Jim willfully persisted in misunderstanding his position whenever the issue of gun control came up.
Instead, what Blair kept thinking about were scenes he'd witnessed in interrogation rooms over the years. Watching Jim talk to suspects. Convince poor, stupid, brutal sons-of-bitches that they really didn't want to sit silently until their lawyer showed up.
He remembered watching through the one-way glass with Simon in amazement as Jim had coaxed Art Landis, a man as cruel and cold blooded as they came, to confess that he'd been with Monique Brackley when she'd shot Jack Pendergrast down like a dog. Amazing. He'd willing confessed to being an accessory to kidnapping and first degree murder, even though as far as the state of Washington was concerned, it didn't matter that Art hadn't actually pulled the trigger. He and Monique were both up for the death penalty now.
Jim hadn't told Art that, of course. Instead, for hour and after hour, Jim had harped on Monique. That bitch was selling him out right now. Making a deal with a D.A., her and her high-priced attorney, selling her lover down the river just as fast as she could. She'd probably be sleeping in her own bed tonight while Art shared a bunk with a guy named Big Daddy down in the county lockup.
It wasn't true, of course. None of it was. Maybe the part about Big Daddy was all. The truth of the matter was Monique had placed a call to her lawyer and hadn't said another word, not even to ask for a glass of water. Art had swallowed Jim's story whole and had made his confession defiantly, relieved and happy almost, as he signed the typed statement that might eventually put that lethal IV in his arm. "Yeah, of course she pulled the trigger. I was right there. I saw her do it. It was all her fucking idea in the first place."
That much Blair didn't doubt. It was pretty clear who the brains of the outfit had been.
And Blair just wasn't sure he could do it. Or actually, he was more afraid that he *could* do it. Probably be pretty good at it, too. Talking to people was one of his strong points. He was friendly, physically unintimidating, probably a happy sight to some terrified slob who was being questioned about the sloppy murder he'd committed a few hours ago. Blair could project I'm-your-friend vibes like nobody's business. Useful talent when you were an anthropologist trying to convince a grumpy cop to open up about weird sensory phenomena. Invaluable for a detective trying to convince a suspect to waive his Miranda rights.
Blair dropped the last tee shirt into the wash and shut the lid, leaning heavily on it for a moment as he looked out toward the lake which seemed golden red in the sunset. He wasn't ready to face Jim again just yet. He wasn't sure why the idea of using his people skills to get bad guys off the streets bothered him so much. It wasn't like he'd had any real qualms when Jim had lied to Art Landis after all. The son of a bitch had murdered Jim's partner.
So was that the problem? He didn't care if somebody else walked on shaky ethical grounds to secure a conviction; he was just unwilling to dirty his own lily white hands? What kind of a hypocrite was he?
Something moved out on the lake and Blair tensed like a bird dog, trying to see what it had been. The glare of the sunset blinded him. Probably just a bird hovering above its dead surface for a moment before realizing there was no supper to be found in those muddy waters and flying off for more promising parts.
Still feeling faintly disgusted with himself and more miserable because he had no idea how to say any of this to Jim, he wandered back to the screened porch and asked Jim if he'd really mind having salad with cold marinated beef strips for dinner tonight. It was just too hot to even consider turning on the stove, especially with the dryer already running, too.
Jim had agreed.
It turned out to be an especially hot and muggy night, and they sat up longer than they normally did, a little tipsy on tequila, the fan blowing on them on the porch. Thunder grumbled off in the distance, and Blair's curls were wilder than Jim had ever seen them. He stared at them in admiration and awe, wondering how he ever got a comb through them.
Out of the blue, Blair asked, "You ever think about Cascade?"
"Yeah." He took another sip of his margarita. "Miss it?"
Jim was more hesitant to answer this. "A little. I guess," he finally said. "But then I remember why we left. And then not so much.
"Yeah." Blair settled himself in the molded plastic chair, plucking at his shirt where it stuck to him. He sighed heavily and said, "The academy starts in three weeks."
Jim stared out into the darkness, dialing up his sight until he could see the shaggy lawn, the gravel drive, and the corn stalks bordering the property. The corn was starting to swell under the leaves, and he thought he could smell it, sweet in the night air.
He hadn't thought about the police academy since he'd left Cascade. Wendy's threat and everything that had happened since had pushed it out of his mind. Now Blair was saying they'd have to go back, and soon, to face it.
He closed his eyes and tried to imagine Blair at the academy. He'd do well, Jim knew. More than well. He'd outclass everyone there. That was a given.
But did he belong there? Watching Blair in the library, acting as Blair's assistant as he organized the material, joked with Robert, ate in the Faculty Lounge, he wondered. They'd met a few professors teaching summer school, some students working in the library under Robert's direction, and it was clear to Jim how much Blair was in his element here. He spoke this language as fluently as he spoke English. As fluently as he spoke Jim.
The silence between them stretched on. Jim continued to stare into the fields, watching as a slightly breeze rippled through the corn, eventually reaching them. He could smell rain on it. Maybe tonight the drought would break. He breathed in the slightly cooler air, and took another sip of his drink.
"What if we postponed it," he found himself asking Blair.
He looked at his friend, who seemed genuinely puzzled. "Your going to the academy. You don't have to go now." Jim dropped his eyes, looking at Blair's bare feet on the wooden floor of the porch. "Hell, Chief. You don't have to go at all." He looked back up at Blair. "Tina would be happy to have us stay on here, and we haven't finished all those boxes yet." The quality of the silence changed, grew deeper and darker. Jim was shocked at his own suggestion, and stunned at the rightness. "Why go?" he whispered, almost trembling in an excess of some emotion he couldn't name.
Blair stared at him, then swallowed. "You don't want me as your partner?"
"No!" Jim roared, standing up too quickly. His calf cramped and the damaged nerves around the wound felt like an electric shock. He half-fell forward, grabbing at the screen, hoping he wouldn't pitch right through it. Blair jumped up and seized him, brute-forcing him into an upright position. Jim put his arm around Blair and felt him shake beneath his touch. "No, Chief. I want you as a partner. I already told you that. Just, maybe . . ."
Once Jim was balanced, Blair tried to step away, but Jim wouldn't lift his arm. "Don't hurt yourself," he said mildly, but Jim could tell he was distressed. "Sit down, okay? Did you hurt your leg?"
"No, not really. Maybe pulled a muscle, but that's all." Jim sighed. "Sorry, Chief. I guess you have to go to the academy, huh."
Blair still didn't answer, getting Jim seated again before sitting himself and draining his margarita. "I don't know. It's late. I'm a little drunk. Maybe we should talk about this tomorrow."
"Talk to Simon," Jim suggested, suddenly convinced this was the right thing to do. Call him before we leave for the library. See what he thinks."
"Jim, I love Simon, but I don't give a fuck what he thinks." Blair turned burning eyes onto Jim. "What do you want?"
And what did he want? he asked himself. The two men stared at each other. Jim was tired, too tired for this. "If you were happy, I think I'd be, too," he finally said, embarrassed by his own words. "So what do you want to do?"
Blair smiled. "Stay here for a while longer. Keep hunting for more Burton stuff."
It suddenly seemed clear to Jim. "Okay. I can call Simon. See if we can't postpone this whole thing. But, uh, Chief . . ." He felt another blush and had to look away. "I can't believe I'm going to say this, but we need to talk about this."
Blair laughed, a dry sound in the moist night air. "Yeah. I hear you."
Jim rolled his head back, resting it against the top of the chair. "Time for bed."
"Oh, god, I'd kill for a shower. You think I could get up those stairs?"
"Not tonight, after jumping up on that leg. Rest it another day and then we'll try."
"Don't you get tired of hauling my ass in and out of that tub?"
Blair's laugh sounded significantly better to Jim this time. "Hey. I make it a policy not to discuss my partner's ass with anybody, including my partner."
Jim pulled a few grains of crushed ice from his glass and threw them at Blair. "Bed. Conversation's gotten too scintillating for me."
Jim lay on his back in the mess of hot sheets. He'd pulled them down; it was too sticky to have anything on him. He was sleeping nude these days. Even a pair of boxers was too much. The fan turned one way, paused, and then turned back, but all it did was move the hot air over him. He sighed and stirred restlessly, seeking a cool spot. His leg was aching more than it had in a week, the muscle in his upper calf twitching and pinging.
He was finally relaxing into something like sleep when he heard Blair moving through the house. Cautiously stepping, so as not to disturb him. He thought about calling out, but was too relaxed and comfortable to do so. He just listened to him move from room to room, as if searching for something.
He woke a while later, aware that someone was in the room with him. Blair, he would have thought, except he was bone-sure it was not. Blair's presence didn't carry the sense of, of . . . He tried to turn his head to see who was there, but he couldn't move. He lay quiescently in his bed, awake but unable to move. Who are you, he wondered. Blair doesn't feel like that, smell like that. Blair's presence is reassuring and calming, not . . .
The awareness of another's presence grew, swelling in his consciousness until it was all he knew. Someone was there, someone not Blair, not friendly, not loving, not caring. The air was heavy with moisture, almost liquid with humidity; his hair stuck to his head, and the sheets were sweaty beneath him. Suddenly he realized he was nude and that some evil presence was in the room with him, approaching him, coming nearer. He could hear himself gasp for breath, shallow pants, almost asthmatic. It was too hard to catch his breath, and he felt himself losing consciousness, falling into a stupor of fear and heat and finally sleep.
He woke at first light, a little after four in the morning, the noise of a hard downpour disturbing his sleep. A pale creamy light filtered through the louvers, and the slight breeze was thick with moisture. He was tired and achy; he must've slept wrong, or maybe when he'd jumped up last night, he pulled more than a leg muscle. Jesus, he was getting too old for this shit.
He shifted in bed, pulling the sheets over him. His bladder was full, but he was too tired to get up. Just sleep another minute. Just a minute.
When he woke next, he wasn't sure he could make it to the bathroom in time. He heard Blair in the kitchen humming tunelessly, and smelled fresh coffee dripping. He groaned as he sat up and carefully swung his legs over the side of the bed. Shit. He used his cane to lever himself up and limped to the bathroom.
While he washed his face and brushed his teeth, the memory of someone moving in the house returned to him. Jesus, that had been a creepy nightmare. No margarita for him tonight, and a couple of extra laps in the pool. Right now, he just wanted some ibuprofen and a big mug of coffee, black.
The rain promised by the thunder in the night had finally arrived, and Blair had awaken to a steady downpour. It was cooler, too, but still too muggy for anything but shorts and a tee shirt. No running today, he decided. He'd been pushing himself pretty hard lately, and he didn't want to end up with shin splints before he even got the academy. He almost sleepwalked into the kitchen and made coffee, then sat at the kitchen table to watch the rain while it dripped.
The day was a sullen silver, the ceiling low and threatening. He could tell it would rain all day. Above the rain, he could hear frogs croaking, trying to seduce each other before the rain ended. He was still sleepy, and the steady thrumming on the roof and the gurgle of the water circling down the rain gutters half hypnotized him. He propped his head up on a fist and closed his eyes.
He jerked awake when Jim thumped into the kitchen, looking nearly as tired as Blair felt. Even though the coffee was still dripping, Jim grabbed a mug from the dishwasher and pulled the glass pitcher out of the coffee maker to fill it up. He leaned against the kitchen counter, staring out the window above the sink, and sipped the coffee, sighing happily.
"You okay?" Blair asked him, his voice still hoarse from sleep.
Jim shrugged. "Guess so. Had some bad dreams last night."
"Jesus. Me, too." They looked at each other. "You gonna be all right?"
"Sure. You?" Jim really looked at Blair now; he could tell he was getting the sentinel once-over. At last Jim nodded and took another sip of coffee. The coffee maker sighed and stopped dripping, so Blair shoved himself out of the chair and got himself a mug, too. "I was thinking about last night," Jim said after a few minutes of satisfied coffee consumption.
"What about it?"
Jim took another sip and Blair began to watch him carefully. Normally, if Jim had something to say, he just said it, a calm announcement as if stating a fact. He was more hesitant today, which caught Blair's attention and concern. Finally, Jim said, "The academy."
The silence between them grew as Blair considered all the possible permutations of "the academy" that Jim might mean. He put his face as close to the coffee mug as he could and breathed in the fumes. He took another sip and then looked at Jim, tilting his head slightly. "Yeah?"
Jim continued to stare out at the rain and steadily drank his coffee. Blair watched him silently, concerned, even a bit fearful. Then Jim put down his mug and straightened up. Looking into Blair's eyes, he said, "I don't think you want to go to the academy at all."
Blair felt his hackles rise. "You don't."
"No. And I want you to tell me what you want. Just a simple yes or no."
"It *isn't* simple, Jim; you know that."
Jim sighed. "No. You're right. It isn't simple. But Blair . . ." He fell silent, falling back into the laconism that so frustrated Blair. Time had taught him it was best to remain silent, so he schooled himself not to annoy Jim with encouraging noises but just to wait. When he'd finished his coffee, Jim said, "If everything were different, would you go to the academy?"
"Everything isn't different." Jim just looked at him. "Jim, don't press me."
"I'm pressing you, Sandburg." Again the silence swelled between them, filled with the sound of the rain against the house, the coffee maker sighing to itself, the refrigerator humming quietly. "Tell me, Chief," Jim said softly, and Blair sighed heavily.
"I have to go. I don't have a choice."
"Pretend you do."
Jim took the mug from Blair's hand and refilled it, then his own. He put his hand on Blair's elbow and gently tugged him back to his chair and pushed him into it, then sat across from him. "Pretend you do."
They stared at each other. Blair felt as if he were standing on a precipice, and the wrong word would send him hurtling down. "If I don't go," he finally whispered, "what would we -- what would I do?"
"What would we do?" Jim responded thoughtfully. "Anything. We could do anything."
"Tell me the truth. Could you be a cop without me to help with your senses? With the zones?"
Jim looked into Blair's eyes; Blair felt studied, considered. As if he were the subject of an analytical paper, instead of the author of one. Jim's eyes were pale in the grey morning, slightly red and puffy, and the fine laugh lines a bit drawn. He looked as tired as Blair felt. Jim sighed unhappily and said, "Yeah. I think so."
Hearing the unhappiness in Jim's voice, Blair found himself able to ask the next question. "Do you *want* to be a cop without me to help you with your senses?"
And that, Blair thought, slightly breathless, was the crux of the matter.
Jim just sat there, slowly blushing, mug forgotten in his hand. Then he shook his head. "I don't think so. Not anymore."
Blair nodded, and felt his mouth twitch into a small smile, and inside his heart swelled in relief and satisfaction. Perhaps he had succeeded after all, despite all the mistakes, all the misunderstandings. Jim could do it on his own if he had to, but he wanted Blair there at his side all the same. Blair's smile grew larger, and to his relief, Jim smiled back. "Don't let it go to your head, Sandburg."
Blair just grinned at him. "How about eggs for breakfast?" he asked happily.
"Too hot. Cereal and bananas."
"Hey, Saturday let's go to that farmer's market Tina told us about," Blair suggested, "and get some blueberries. They'd be good on cereal, too." And with that, the topic was dropped. Blair knew that Jim would take care of everything, and they would be together. Blair wasn't going to think about it. He was going to fix some breakfast, get dressed, go to work at the library, and spend the day in Jim's company. Beyond that, he couldn't, he wouldn't imagine.
Nothing had been decided, really, except to postpone the academy for a while. Just a while. If Jim didn't want to be a cop without Blair as his partner, then Blair would have to be his partner. The smile returned to him as he ate his shredded wheat and granola.
The rain continued all day, a steady drizzle, warm as a bath. Their handicapped parking spot put them right next to the library, so they didn't have far to walk in it, but they were still instantly chilled when they hit the air conditioning. After an hour of so, Blair was literally shaking.
Jim must've realized it at the same time Blair did. "Here," he said, pulling out his wallet and handing a startled Blair two twenties. "Run to the bookstore and buy us an umbrella and you a sweatshirt. You're going to catch pneumonia, and then I'll be stuck here cataloging all by myself."
"Jim, man," Blair started, but Jim gave him The Look, the one that said that this matter is non-negotiable. He sighed dramatically, but took off, leaving Jim to hobble down to the break room and Robert's excellent coffee.
He was glad to be outdoors in the fresh air. It was still muggy, but significantly cooler than the last few weeks. He ran lightly through the rain, jumping over puddles, heading toward the bookstore. Which wasn't, he thought, much of a bookstore, in that it carried a lot more merchandise than it did books. But they had enormous umbrellas, big enough for both men to share, and a grey sweatshirt with the interlocking ND on the front. He also bought Jim a blue and gold tee shirt, paying for that out of his own rapidly dwindling supply of cash. But it was worth it, he told himself, strolling back to the library under his new umbrella, enjoying the sound the rain made on the taut fabric.
"You didn't have to do that," Jim told him, frowning at his purchase, but Blair just shrugged and helped himself to the last of the coffee.
"I know. Just wanted to."
Jim smiled ruefully, and held the tee shirt up to his chest. "Looks like it'll fit."
"Hey, double-extra large? It better."
When they got back to work, the first thing he pulled from box thirty-six was a bundle wrapped in a coarse fabric, something that made Jim wrinkle his nose. He squatted and carefully set it on the floor to unwrap. "What is it?" Jim kept asking, but he ignored him to focus on his task. The material -- which he thought might be papyrus -- folded back to reveal folio-sized paper of an unusual texture. Certainly not recently made. The handwriting was, he thought, Burton's; it was in Arabic and English. He studied the first sheet, then took off his glasses and brought it up to his eyes.
"What is it?" Jim asked again, sounding almost anxious.
Blair shook his head. "More Burton, I'm pretty sure." He turned his attention to the next few pages, then delicately lifted half the pages up and read from the middle of the package. When he set the bundle back down, he looked up at Jim, smiling faintly. "I'm not sure yet, but I think this is more of *The Perfumed Garden*. It looks as though Burton copied out the original Arabic version and was translating from it."
Jim shrugged. "Can't you get a copy of that book anywhere? Is it valuable because it's in Burton's handwriting?"
"Well, yes, of course, that adds value to it. But there were parts of the book that Burton didn't translate. Or rather, when he translated it the first time, from the French, the original French translator hadn't translated part of it. Then Burton went back to the Arabic and made a more complete translation. My guess is that this," and he stroked the bundle, "is part of that complete translation." He looked at the remaining boxes. "My god, Jim, do you have any idea of the significance of that? What it would mean to scholars to have the complete translation by Burton? His wife was supposed to have burned it --"
"After he died, yeah, you told me the story." Jim tapped a couple of keys on Blair's laptop and then worked his way out of the chair he was using to limp to Blair's side. "Help me down," he said shyly, but Blair shooed him away and brought the manuscript to the desk, closing the laptop and moving it to the top of an already-inventoried carton.
The two men stared at the pages, Jim refusing to touch them although he did sniff them thoroughly. "Tobacco," he told Blair, who watched curiously, proudly. "Some kind I'm not familiar with. A musty smell. The smell of that wrapping. Dust, and mildew."
"Wonder if Robert would let me take this home tonight, so I could study it," Blair murmured, when he realized Jim was through cataloging scents.
"I don't think that's a good idea. But you could do it here. I could work on the boxes by myself, or with that student assistant. Or take a day off, stay home and watch TV."
Blair looked at him suspiciously, but he seemed to be serious. "Shit, Jim. You should've told me. You don't have to drag your ass in here every single day. My god, you've done so much --"
"Stop, stop." Jim glared at him, and Blair immediately felt better. "I don't have to do anything I don't want to, so if I'm dragging my ass in here, it must mean I want to." Blair nodded, smiling slightly. "I just meant that it's okay for you to do something else."
Blair took a deep breath, flashing onto the idea of the academy. It's okay for you to do something else, Jim kept telling him. What did that mean? Jim wasn't always successful at saying what he meant; Blair knew that from long experience.
"If you ask me again if I want you to be my partner, I'm going to hit you with my cane," Jim whispered fiercely, and Blair blushed at his own transparency.
"It's Friday," Blair finally said. "Let's pack all this in and get something to take home for dinner. Tomorrow I wanna go to the farmer's market; you can stay home and watch TV then."
"No way," Jim protested, but accepted the change of topic with unusual equanimity. Blair scrupulously rewrapped the manuscript and tucked it back into the box, then sealed it. He needed time to review his notes about *The Perfumed Garden* so he could better understand their discovery.
The deli that Robert had recommended had turned into a favorite of theirs, so even though it was a little out of their way home, they stopped by and picked up dinner, its aroma filling the little pickup. It had started to rain even harder, and Blair noticed that Jim was staring fixedly at the slanting lines ahead of them. "Hey," he said quietly, and Jim jumped. "You zoning?"
Jim started, and then shrugged. "Maybe a little," he admitted, and kept his eyes on Blair or their dinner for the rest of the drive.
Walking into the kitchen, Blair stopped so suddenly that Jim bumped into him, and they danced a moment while Blair tried to keep Jim from staggering onto his bad leg. "Shit, Sandburg," he said when fully upright again.
"Sorry, sorry. But look," and he pointed at the floor by the backdoor.
Jim immediately stood up straighter and reached for the small of his back, where for so many years he'd kept his gun. "Shit," he said again when he realized it wasn't there. "Go outside and wait in the truck."
"You big dummy," Blair said, affectionate and anxious. "Like I'm gonna leave you to face an intruder when you can't walk." He carefully stepped around the puddle of water on the floor that had caught his attention and tried the back door. "Still locked," he said absently, looking around the kitchen.
"The windows are open," Jim pointed out, and Blair checked each one.
"There's no more water here than what you'd expect on a rainy day," he said. "Just a mist that came through the screen."
"Help me down," Jim said, and with some effort, he was able to kneel next to the puddle. He stared at it intensely, Blair leaving his hand on Jim's back. Then he put his head down to the floor and sniffed thoroughly. Finally, he put his finger in the water, but Blair grabbed his hand.
"Crap, Jim. Don't taste that."
"It's just water, Sandburg," Jim growled, and pulled away. He tapped his forefinger to his tongue, eyes closed. "It's water from that pond," he said confidently. "I knew I recognized that smell."
"Not rain water?" Jim shook his head. "Forgive me for asking the obvious --"
"Yeah, I'd like to know that, too." He began to struggle to his feet; Blair grasped his forearms and pulled. "We need to look around the house." Blair dumped their dinner onto the kitchen counter and, one hand on the small of Jim's back, they prowled through the entire downstairs portion. When they returned to the kitchen, Jim started toward the stairs.
"Hey, hey," Blair protested.
"Just help me up there," Jim insisted, and grabbed the railing.
"Fuck," Blair said, but got behind him and pushed. It took them a long time to get to the second floor; any intruder with sense would've heard them and escaped long before. Jim was sweating with the effort, and Blair could tell his leg was hurting again. "You keep pulling that muscle, you're never gonna recover."
But Jim's protective instincts had kicked in, and he explored all the upstairs rooms as thoroughly as he had the first floor. No mysterious pools of water anywhere else; no unwelcome guest. Just an empty house with a puddle of pond water on the kitchen floor.
Jim had started toward the stairs again when Blair said, "Hey. Take a shower while you're up here. In fact, why don't you stay up here? You can sleep in one of the bedrooms; I'll get it fixed up. Rest your leg. I'll mop up the water, bring dinner up here, and we can watch the TV in my bedroom." He could tell by the emotions crossing Jim's face that Jim was torn. "I'll be fine," he assured him. "Just rest your leg, okay? I'll get you some ibuprofen."
They ate dinner in the pink bedroom Blair was using since it had a TV on top of the chest of drawers, Jim making rude comments about men who sleep in pink rooms with organza curtains. "And you know the word 'organza' because?" Blair asked, raising his eyebrows suspiciously.
"Because I was married," Jim said smugly, staring at the local news anchor, but Blair noticed he was coloring slightly.
The rain grew heavier as the evening progressed, thunder rumbling in the distance. "It's heading our way," Jim told him, so they hurried through their showers -- or Blair did; Jim enjoyed his too much to hurry, after days of struggling in the oversized tub downstairs. But he got out quickly when the thunder boomed loudly enough to rattle the glass shower walls. "Thank god there are lightning rods on the roof," he told Blair when they met again in Blair's bedroom to watch Jeopardy, Blair winning as usual.
"Lightning rods? Jesus. I don't think I've ever been in a house with lightning rods during a storm. They really work?"
Jim shrugged. "Double Jeopardy," he said. "What're you gonna bet?"
Jim settled in what was clearly a teenage boy's room, but it had a double bed instead of the bunkbeds in another bedroom or the single in the fourth. "I hope Meatloaf gives you good dreams," Blair said, nodding at the poster on the wall when he brought Jim a glass of water, a candle, and a book of matches.
"Wasn't he in Rocky Horror? Hey, remember who you're dealing with; I don't need no stinkin' candles."
"Oh, excuse me, you hulking neanderthal throwback." But he left them on the nightstand, just in case. "G'night, Jim."
"Night, Chief. See you in the morning."
Blair lay in his bed, feeling oddly relieved to have Jim just down the hall from him. He'd been having nightmares, probably from all the stress and weirdness in his life, and he always found Jim's presence comforting. Not that he'd ever admit it, either the nightmares or the comfort, to Jim. Nonetheless, he rolled over and stared out the window into the storm, consoled by the knowledge that a shout would bring Jim running. Or at least hobbling quickly.
Jim listened to the rain; the heart of the storm was coming nearer, its power growing by the minute. He could feel the thunder like tiny earthquakes, shaking the molecules of the air around him, seeping into the foundation of the house, rolling the mattress. He could smell ozone, a sharp blue scent, each time the lightning flashed. When he focused his hearing more sharply, he could listen to Blair's even breaths and steady heart beat, comforting grace notes to the violence of the storm.
He rolled onto his back and stared at the cottage cheese ceiling. Someone liked to jump on his bed, he surmised from the smooth dents and fine hair strands directly above him. He remembered doing that himself, with Stevie, when they were kids. They'd hold hands and jump, laughing their asses off until Sally or Dad caught them. He missed that camaraderie with Stevie so much. The free and easy laughter, the inside jokes, the shared glances that conveyed so much so silently.
Well, he had a lot of that back with Blair. Another brother, in a way. They'd shared so much these past few years; that forged a kind of brotherhood. Certainly he loved Blair, and now, here he was, in fucking northern Indiana, in a stranger's bed, listening to the kind of storm the Pacific northwest never got, with Blair just down the hall.
What were they going to do? Would Wendy really carry out her threat to publish? What would that mean to them? To him, personally? Would his dad and Stevie believe it? Would Simon? And what would it mean if they did? Would they care? Hell, Jim knew most folks assumed he and Blair were lovers. Jim had almost allowed himself to assume it, too. He let himself think about that one stolen kiss, Blair sweating in the sunshine, smelling of cut grass, and the memory made his heart ache like a glimpse of a future too sweet to ever really be his own.
But Blair had kissed him back, he thought defiantly. Despite everything, Blair had kissed him back.
Jim rolled again onto his side, careful of his leg. It didn't do any good to think about it, not with their future in pieces. Hell, he was still in pieces. He was grateful Blair had suggested he stay up here tonight, rather than take the stairs again. His leg was healing; he knew that. But it got tired easily, and when he limped, his back and neck would ache from the strain. I'm too old for this shit, he thought yet again, and that reminded him of Blair in the academy.
Was Blair too old? Certainly he'd be older than the other cadets. For a change; at the station, he'd always been one of the youngest there. And shortest. Well, that wouldn't change at the academy. The shortest, most likely, and the smartest, and one of the oldest, and the one with the tarnished reputation.
Fuck. It really wouldn't work. The more Jim tried to picture Blair going through with it, the less he could see it.
He rolled onto his back again, sighing. What would Blair do? If he couldn't be a cop, what could he do? Continue on with that crappy job at Cascade's Department of Human Services? That was only part time work. There had been other opportunities, Jim knew, but Blair hadn't mentioned them to Jim, and Jim had been too afraid to ask. Like that late-night call from an old colleague of Blair's with Physicians for Human Rights who had just returned from six months exhuming mass graves in Srebrenica. He'd telephoned Blair less than a week after the press conference, and he hadn't cared that Blair had switched from forensic to cultural anthropology after getting his MA, and he cared even less that Blair hadn't completed his degree. The work was so brutal and dehumanizing not many could stick it out for more than a few months, and they needed a constant supply good people in the field. They needed a man like Blair.
Jim had lain downstairs in Blair's bedroom in the dark during the whole conversation, his leg aching, and he imagined Blair leaving Cascade for Bosnia, leaving Jim for mass graves. Blair Sandburg, who still hung back at murder scenes, even after years as Jim's partner. Blair had said little for his part during that endless conversation, only asking his friend to email him more about the job. And the next morning at breakfast, neither he nor Jim had said a word about it.
Or the letter Jim had found on the coffee table from some San Jose dotcom once they had given up on trying to get Sandburg on the phone. They wanted to interview him for the position of market research analyst or some damn thing, and they hadn't cared about his tarnished reputation either. All they had seemed to care about was his ability to attract media attention, and incidentally, that photogenic face of his.
Blair hadn't said a word to Jim about that, either, and the next time Jim had looked, the letter had been gone like a guilty secret. Those were only the opportunities Jim knew about. There had undoubtedly been others, and Blair had still been running ten miles a day and working out at the gym, continuing to prepare for the police academy as though there was nothing else he could do with his life.
That wasn't true at all, and Jim knew it. It was simply the only job that would allow him to remain at Jim's side.
Was he really that selfish? Jim pondered the question miserably, already knowing the answer. Did he really want to keep Blair as his partner no matter what other opportunity arose? He remembered Blair asking him if he wanted to be a cop if Blair couldn't be there. No, he'd answered, and no, he answered again. That isn't a world I want to live in without his help.
And at that thought, Jim realized that there didn't exist a world he wanted to live in without Blair at his side.
Oh, god, he moaned silently, and rolled onto his stomach, carelessly, twisting his leg so the muscles started cramping. "Shit, shit," he chanted, trying to sit up so he could massage his calf. "Goddammit." He felt near tears from the sudden realization and the sharp pains pulsing through him. The lightning flashed, blinding him, and instantly the thunder crashed into the house, deafening him, and he sat alone, isolated, devastated. He pulled his right knee up to his chest and rested on it, both hands on his left knee, just above the injury, and gasped for breath, waiting impatiently for the pain to subside.
"Jim, Jim," he finally heard, and felt soft hands patting his back, rubbing his leg. "Talk to me, will ya?"
"I'm okay, Sandburg," he lied, and wiped his eyes. A flashlight sat on the floor, its beam shooting toward the ceiling. Blair crouched next to it, holding on to Jim, his face creased with worry. He smelled afraid. "It's okay," he said again more gently, and eased back some.
"Take a deep breath," Blair told him, and he obeyed, trying to relax his shoulders and leg muscles. "That's good."
"The storm wake you?"
Blair nodded, his hand now rubbing wide circles on his back. "I was worried about you."
Jesus. He was worried about Jim. "I'm okay," he said, and this time meant it. As always, Blair's presence had been enough. Jim stared down at his anxious face, the lines deepened by exhaustion and the weird lighting. "You need to get to sleep."
"Oh, like I could sleep in this storm. Besides, I've got nothing to do tomorrow. I can sleep during the day."
This is just fucked, Jim thought again. How did this happen? He couldn't take his eyes off his friend, comparing how he'd looked when they first met, cataloging the changes time and experience had wrought. Older, sadder. They both were.
The lightning flashed again and Blair instantly jumped up and put his hands over Jim's ears, bending to rest his forehead against Jim's. They stayed that way throughout the shuddering reverberations of the thunder, and having Blair right there, his scent in Jim's nose, made the explosive noise bearable. When he pulled back, Jim said, "Thanks," and saw, to his dismay, Blair's eyes widen in surprised pleasure.
"It's going," Jim told him, and it was true; he could hear the storm moving to their southeast. The worst was over.
"You sure?" Jim nodded, and Blair patted his back again. "Get some sleep," he said, and, picking up the flashlight, headed back toward his own room. He looked fragile to Jim, wandering through the big house in his boxers and tee, alone and so far from home.
But not alone, Jim thought. You're not alone. When he finally heard Blair drift into sleep, he cautiously got up and made his way to the phone sitting on a desk in his bedroom. It was nearly one; that meant it was almost eleven in Cascade. He called Simon.
"My god, Jim, I didn't think I'd ever hear from you again. What's up? Where are you? How's the kid?"
"He's fine, Simon. We're staying at a house just outside of South Bend, spending our days in Hesburgh Library at Notre Dame. It's not bad."
There was a long silence from Simon's end, and then a sigh. "You comin' back?"
Jim was taken aback by the question. He settled more comfortably into the wooden chair and adjusted the phone so it sat squarely on the desk. "Eventually," he finally said. "Dunno when."
"I can't imagine what you guys are going through," Simon said thoughtfully, and he sounded sad.
"Hey, how are you? Still in the wheelchair?"
"Still in the chair, but I've got an appointment with my doctor on Monday, so I'm hoping to be on crutches that afternoon."
"How's everybody else? Joel? Rafe? Megan?"
"They're fine. Megan's doing really well. Rafe had a little trouble, but he's back half-days now. H was paired with Joel till he came back; now that was a team." They laughed at the impression the two big men must've made on suspects and victims. "Give me your number, Jim," Simon asked.
After Jim had read off the digits, he hesitantly said, "I need your help, Simon."
"Well, it's about Blair going to the academy." He paused, trying to formulate his words.
"He's not gonna go, is he," Simon said.
"Well, I don't know that. Just, we were wondering if he could postpone the start. Maybe start the next session. Can you fix that?"
"Sure. Yeah, it would be better. Let more publicity die down. You guys getting out of town was a good idea; you're just a nine day wonder. A few more months and nobody will remember a damn thing."
"You think so? Really?"
"Oh, yeah. Sure."
There was an awkward silence. At last, almost shyly, Jim asked, "Do you think he should go?"
Simon sighed gustily into Jim's ear. "Ask me an easy one, would ya?"
"No, it's okay --"
"Jim. I think he's a great cop. I already think of him as a cop. But that doesn't mean he should be a cop. What does he want?"
"He doesn't know. Or he isn't telling me," he added a little bitterly.
"Well, that's typical Sandburg. Obfuscation is his middle name. Have you asked him?"
"Only a dozen times."
"Then keep asking him. He'll get pissed and tell you eventually." He sighed again. "Yeah, just stay out there for a while longer. Sounds like you're keepin' busy, keepin' *him* busy, and that's important. Don't let him pull a Darryl and brood about this stuff. And you don't, either. For a change, talk to your partner. Don't make anymore decisions without his input."
"Christ, Simon, you sound like you think I'm the problem here."
"Don't get me wrong, Jim. You're a great cop and a good friend. But you don't always, uh, sometimes you can be a little . . . Just talk to him, okay?"
"Okay." Jim felt himself blush in the warm dark. "You'll take care of everything? I can tell Sandburg that?"
"Yeah. Tell him I said hi, too. Hell, tell him I miss him. He won't believe you and it'll mess with his mind." The two men laughed, and then, reluctantly, Jim said goodbye.
He yawned. Time for bed. Maybe he'd sleep now.
The rain had gone when Blair woke again. He lay in bed, listening for Jim, hearing only the cottonwood tree sighing in the light morning wind. It was humid after the night's heavy rain, the air thick and slow, sodden with rich smelling moisture. He wondered idly what Jim would sense.
Today was Saturday, he remembered. Farmers' market day. He wanted blueberries, and fresh lettuce, and early tomatoes. No need to water the garden today, after the last day or so of rain. He smiled as he imagined how much the corn and tomatoes must've grown.
At last he got up and wandered downstairs, starting the coffee, rummaging through the refrigerator for breakfast. Nothing heavy today. It was just too hot, even this early.
He heard the floorboards above his head creak and realized Jim was up. "Hey," he called out softly. "Don't try those stairs without me, okay?" He heard Jim's cane rap twice.
He lifted his night tee shirt away from his body; it felt almost damp. How on earth did people live here? How did such a miserable area get settled? When the coffee stopped dripping, he poured the entire carafe into another pitcher and set it in the fridge for later that day, then started another pot for this morning. Iced coffee on a hot Indiana afternoon. Sounded pretty good. He heard Jim moving upstairs again and climbed back up.
Jim was already dressed, wearing loose-fitting shorts and the oversized tee Blair had bought him at Notre Dame. He looked cool and comfortable, a far cry from Blair's sticky morning. "How'd you sleep?" Jim nodded, eyes on the rubber handle of his cane, his fingers working it nervously. Nervously? "You okay?"
Jim nodded again. "Listen, Chief. I, uh, I called Simon last night."
After a few seconds' silence, Blair said, "Yeah?"
"Yeah. I asked him about what we talked about last night, about waiting a bit before you start the academy. He said he thought that was a good idea. Give more time for, for . . ."
"For things to die down."
Jim met Blair's eyes for the first time that morning. "Yeah. To quiet down. That okay?"
Blair nodded. He was a little puzzled by his reaction; he felt both pleased and disappointed in Simon's response. There must be some part of him that wanted vindication, or maybe exculpation, he decided, swallowing. "Okay," he finally said. Jim's face was set, perhaps in pain, perhaps in concern, the lines around his eyes and mouth deeper than Blair remembered them being. "You okay?"
"Yeah." Flat. Then Jim sighed. "Shit, Blair. I just wish --"
"Me, too," Blair interrupted him, not wanting to hear any more. "Let's get you downstairs for the day. Anything up here you need right now? No? Okay, buddy. Hang on to the railing and on to me. Lead with your right leg, okay? Good. Good." So they thumped their way downstairs. As soon as Jim was settled in the kitchen, a cup steaming in front of him, Blair knelt to peer at the wound in his upper calf.
"I'm okay, Sandburg," Jim said gruffly, and Blair could see he was. The wound itself seemed to be healed, although the scar was still red and the skin around it a bit puffy. Probably his muscles were tight from trying to protect the calf muscle. Blair got him two ibuprofen and a glass of water before asking what he wanted for breakfast.
When dishes were rinsed and set into the dishwasher according to Ellison's Rules of Order, Blair said, "What do you want to do today?"
"Aren't we going to the farmers' market?"
"Well, yeah, I am, but you don't want to do that."
"I don't? Why the hell not?"
"Well . . . Your leg, Jim." Jim gave him a quelling look. "No, I'm serious. It's too hot to sit in the car, and you shouldn't be walking around on it as much as you have been."
"I'm sure there are benches I can sit on."
The two men stared at each other. Blair knew he'd lost; he'd known before he'd said a word to Jim. And he had checked; the leg was looking better. He sighed heavily and shook his head. "Okay. But you sit, okay?"
"Yes, mother," Jim said smugly. "Let's go. Sooner we go, sooner we get back, sooner we can eat blueberries."
So he bundled Jim into the Toyota, making sure he had his hat and a bottle of water, checking compulsively for Tina's directions to the market. "Blueberry *short*cake, blueberry *pan*cakes, blueberry *muf*fins," Jim chanted beneath his breath, and Blair started laughing.
"So who's gonna do all this baking?"
"Hey, I'm injured. Blueberry *ice* cream, blueberry *cob*bler, blueberry *cust*ard, blueberry *crisp*, hmm."
"Run out of recipes?"
The farmers' market was organized in two large sheds, roofed but open-aired, and very crowded. Blair pulled the Toyota up next to it and looked meaningfully at Jim, who after a moment's hesitation got out to wait for him indoors. He ended up having to park a block away and was glad Jim wouldn't be using his leg more than he had to.
By the time Blair got back to the market, he was dripping with sweat and had pulled his hair back into a pony tail higher on his head than usual. It probably looked weird, he admitted to himself, wiping his face with the sleeve of his tee shirt, but the weight of his hair on his neck was too much in the insistent sultry morning air.
Jim was, surprisingly, waiting for him, seated on a battered bench along with a grey-haired woman and three kids holding a box of kittens. "Kitty, mister?" a little girl asked Blair as he walked up to them. He stared into the box. They were a mixed bunch; apparently their mother got around a bit. Two marmalade kittens, a tabby, and a splotchy black-and-white one that appealed to him. He glanced at Jim, who shook his head, and said, "No, thank you. Good luck finding homes for them."
He helped Jim up and they plunged into the crowd. There were Amish families, dressed suffocatingly in the heat, the women wearing bonnets and the men long curly sideburns. East Indians in saris and turbans. A Mexican family selling freshly made tortillas and salsa. Blair had had no idea that South Bend was so diverse, and listened happily to the polyglot of languages and accents.
They came to a stand of big clear plastic bins filled with different salad greens, and he carefully maneuvered Jim to one side, where he could lean against the counter out of the way of most of the crowd. "Whatcha got?" he asked an older man pouring a bag of baby romaine into a nearly-empty bin.
"Okay, this is romaine, and red oakleaf; here's arugula, dandelion, Reine de Glace, Boston, Bibb; this is tatsoi, radicchio, spinach, purslane, and mache. And here's baby spinach, frisee, and lamb's quarters."
"Oh my god," Blair moaned, and began scooping handsful into plastic bags. He glanced at Jim, who smiled and shook his head tolerantly. "I hope Professor Wilde has a salad spinner," he muttered.
"Professor Wilde?" the lettuce man asked.
"Yes? You know him? We're staying at his place for a few weeks."
He put out his hand, and Blair finally took a good look at him. Tall and slim, a little older than Jim, with graying dark hair worn longish. "I'm Tina Watson's dad, Ev. You must be the cops from California."
"Washington," Blair said, shaking his hand. Jim had started to move toward them, but Blair gestured for him to stay. "This is my partner, Jim Ellison."
"Jim." Ev and Blair moved to the side of his stand, and Jim and Ev shook. "I'm glad you two took that place off my little girl's hands. I didn't like her being that far from town, and then with all the stuff that happened . . ."
"What stuff?" Jim looked, Blair thought not for the first time, like a hunting dog on point.
Ev shrugged. "You know. She was sure someone was trying to break in. Even called nine-one-one, but they couldn't find anything. She didn't tell you?"
"Well, she mentioned it, but no details," Blair explained.
Ev nodded. "Yeah. She was a little embarrassed about it. Personally, I'd just as soon she'd come home, but you know how kids are." He waved his hand; Blair wondered if he'd know what the gesture meant if he were a parent. Maybe some secret sign language you had to reproduce to learn. "Anyway, she's staying with Melanie now, who's okay, I guess. But at least she's in town." He looked at Blair and then Jim with interest. "You fellows have any problems?"
Blair shook his head, and watched as Jim looked thoughtful. "Jim?"
"No. No trouble." Blair decided he'd ask Jim about his hesitation later.
"Well, for letting my little girl get out of that house, these greens are on my house."
"No, Ev, we can't," Blair tried to say, but he insisted.
"Won't take your money. Next week, now. And here," he licked his thumb and tore a printed sheet of paper off a small notepad, "here's my wife's recipe for Parmesan and Lemon Vinaigrette. Really good on the romaine. My favorite is to add pecans, but it's good with croutons, too."
"Thanks, Ev. I don't know what to say."
"Just eat up the greens before they get bruised and soggy."
"What are you gonna do with all that lettuce?" Jim asked as they sidled past folks buying corn and squash and enormous bell peppers.
"Well, salads, of course; it's so hot. But I have a recipe for lettuce soup that's really good."
Jim scrunched his face up. "Uh-huh. Can't wait." Suddenly he stopped. Blair followed his gaze.
"Cherries. Oh my god. Cold cherry soup."
"Enough with the soup, Chief. Let's buy a couple pounds."
Their fingers were sticky and red before they got much farther in the crowd, as they nibbled the cherries, dropping the pits into a small paper bag the grower had given them for that purpose. "You want fresh corn?" Blair asked after he'd spit one out.
"Too much corn," Jim said. "Smell it all night and all day out there. But let's get some lemons, for that recipe, and I smell garlic nearby."
"Any blueberries yet?"
"Oh, yeah. We're coming to them." And then stand after stand seemed to be selling nothing but blueberries, the crowds like flies buzzing around them. Some were big and fat and some tiny, but Blair sneaked tastes of each and everything was sweet. He bought five cartons, figuring they could bring them to work for lunch as well as eat them on cereal for breakfast and as dessert with dinner. He piled the bags into his arms, unwilling to let Jim try to juggle them along with his cane and the crowd.
"That's enough, Sandburg," Jim told him when he staggered back to where he was resting against a pillar. "Let's go."
So even though Blair saw lots more produce he'd've liked to try, he followed Jim to an exit and then put the bags on his lap once he'd sat, lettuce and blueberries and cherries and lemons, so much produce that it overflowed Jim's legs and spilled onto the bench on either side "You know Jim," he said, "There's a real argument to be made that the adoption of agriculture was one of humanity's worst mistakes. It makes sense when you think about it. Agriculture made permanent settlements possible and out of those came social and sexual inequalities, disease and despotism, most of the plagues of so-called civilized existence. Did you know the Kalahari Bushmen only spend twelve hours a week gathering food, while the average New Guinea rice farmer spends up to twelve hours a *day* in the fields? What did our species really gain by embracing agriculture but a lot of pain and a lot longer work day?"
Jim just smiled at him, and popped another blueberry in his mouth.
Blair grinned back. "Riiight. I'll get the truck. Just be a minute."
Jim was still placidly eating blueberries and cherries when he finally pulled up, wishing they'd gotten a car with air conditioning. He jumped out and opened the passenger door, then dropped most of the bags into the bed of the pickup, leaving Jim with only the cherries.
"Do we need anything else before we head back?" Jim shook his head, and Blair saw that he was tired after the hour they'd spent out. Well, shit. And here he'd promised himself that Jim would rest this weekend.
He would, Blair swore. If he had to tie Jim up to do it, he'd see that he rested this weekend.
Once they were out of town and headed back toward their summer home, he asked as casually as he could, "So what's happened?"
Jim put a cherry in his mouth, then spit out the pit. "What d'you mean?" he asked indistinctly, and popped another one in.
"You, when Ev told us about Tina, I got the idea that you knew something."
"Naw." He ate another one. "Just. Had a bad dream."
Blair sat up a bit straighter, and glanced at Jim. "Yeah?"
"Yeah." Jim shrugged. "Really. Nothing."
"You dream that someone was breaking in?" He ate another cherry. "Did you know that too many cherries will give you diarrhea?" Jim scowled at him. "No, really. Been there, done that."
"Way to spoil my fun, Sandburg."
"Well, I could've let you find out for yourself." After a few minutes more, Blair said again, "Did you dream that someone was breaking in?"
"You sure it was a dream?"
Jim was silent. He tied off the bag of cherries and set them on the floor at his feet. At last he said, "It had to have been a dream. We'd know if someone had been in the house."
"There was that water." Both men sighed at the memory.
"Yeah. I dunno, Chief." He finally looked at Blair. "If I really thought someone had been in that house, I'd've told you, you know that. I wouldn't put you in that kind of danger."
"But, there is something. At night. I dunno." He sighed again. "I'll tell you when it happens again."
Blair nodded. He knew that was all he'd get out of Jim right now.