What You Wish For
by Jack Reuben Darcy
Author's disclaimer: They're not mine, I'm just borrowing them etc, etc - but if somebody doesn't start looking after them real well, reall soon, I'm taking them and keeping them. I know where they'll find a very nice, comfy home. Together.
What You Wish For
Jack Reuben Darcy
I never realised before how quiet the loft was. I know I lived here on my own before and I know part of the attraction of this place was the quiet, but right now, I don't think I've ever heard it this quiet before.
I've been back an hour and all I've done is sit here, staring out the window, watching the sky grow darker, watching this day come to an end.
Of course, it's not silent here. I don't have to stretch my senses to hear the soft hum of traffic drifting down Prospect or the occasional door slamming somewhere in the building. Anybody could hear sounds like that. Anybody with normal, unenhanced senses. Anybody who paid attention.
But who does? Would I - if the sensory issue wasn't always such a part of my life? Would I have ever noticed that there were sounds that everybody filters out without realising it?
But I didn't notice. Not until now. Didn't notice that there were a whole pile of noises I paid no attention to whatsoever until this last hour, when they've been absent.
It's amazing how quiet the loft is now.
I think I hate it.
Cursing under his breath, Blair grappled with the books under his arms and tried to reach the keys he had stuck between his teeth, without dropping everything. Some silly part of his mind grimaced that this was a perfect metaphor for his whole damned life.
He dropped the keys.
Swearing out loud now, he crouched down and carefully picked his office key out of the bunch and straightened up, balancing the books as though he were an apprentice juggler. The door swung open with a high pitched whine, a complaint against overuse and neglect. He barely noticed.
Of course, his desk was already covered with things, as were the chairs, the shelves and every other horizontal space - including most of the floor. Space taken up by things. Lots of things. Some of which he hardly recognized any more it had been so long since he'd put them there.
The new pile of books landed on the floor behind his desk. One slid off the top and landed with a subdued smack on the ancient wood. He shoved his keys into his jeans' pocket and sank into his chair, spending a moment just stretching his neck and shoulders. Inside his head he could hear bones creaking back into place. As least something was now where it was supposed to be.
His eyes fell on the overcrowded expanse of his desk. Papers to be marked, papers already marked, Jim's latest test results, sixteen more reports of single heightened senses he'd received a week ago and not looked at yet. Teaching schedules for next semester, exam schedules, meeting schedules, committee schedules. Hours and hours and days and months of his life, all carefully and neatly laid out in square boxes and Times New Roman. The fact that they now existed amongst such chaos was almost poetic.
More stuff. More things. More jobs. Filling his time, his life - the way the mess filled this office. An infinite collection of demands, defining who he was, where he was and what he wanted. And who would he be if this room filled up completely, floor to ceiling, wall to wall? Would his life then also be filled?
Would it still be a life? Would it be his life?
Or would it belong to these things?
The ringing phone jerked him out of his thoughts and absently, he picked it up. "Blair Sandburg."
"Oh, hi, Jim. What's up?" A case maybe? Some question about his senses which needed immediate attention? Some escape route to get him out of this place for a few hours?
"Just wanted to know if you're going to be home for dinner tonight."
"Sure. Why?" Blair paused only long enough to smile, "Or is this a kind of negative question, where you're hoping I won't be because you want to bring someone home?"
"Sandburg, you have a one-track mind."
One track? Blair glanced around his office and burst out laughing. Just one? I wish! "So, what's her name?"
"There is no name, Chief. I just wanted to know if you were going to be home for dinner because it's my turn to cook and the last two times I cooked you didn't get home until after midnight and the food was ruined."
"Hey man, I said I was sorry about that."
"It's not a criticism, Chief." Jim sighed, "I know you're busy. If you don't have time to come home for dinner, I can make something and bring it over to you."
Blair shook his head, unable to help smiling. Jim would just die if Blair ever pointed it out - but there was some element in his friend that simply couldn't help playing the mother hen, reminding him to eat and sleep, to not forget his keys. Some people would be irritated by it - but not Blair. He liked it. Liked that he had a wedge somewhere in Jim's subconscious, so that Jim now made these casual incorporations automatically without even blinking.
"Thanks, Jim, but don't worry. I'll be home tonight." His smile broadened a little as he added, "though of course, if you do want to bring someone home..."
"Chief," Jim's voice cut through his attempted teasing, dry, as though he were hiding his own smile, "I'll see you when you get home, okay?"
"Okay." Blair put the phone down and settled back for a minute.
So, no escape today. No reprieve from this overwhelming mess he'd collected for himself.
When had it happened, exactly? When had he lost so much control over his life that it had filled itself to capacity, giving him no room to manoeuvre at all? And it was packed. Not just this room, this desk - but the rest of his life as well. There was more work waiting for him at home - and that didn't even take into account the time he spent with Jim at the station.
But did it really matter? That his life was so full? He was doing important work, both here and with Jim. It wasn't like it was all meaningless, was it?
No, not meaningless at all. Quite the opposite. And yet ...
And yet he still couldn't shake this feeling of being hemmed in, bounded on all sides by things he had no control over. Almost every minute of every day was pre-arranged in some form or another, leaving him no space for a spur of the moment decision, no freedom to just slip out for the day. No opportunity in fact, to even change his life if he so chose. And he knew, the only reason why he could live with it was because of the constant and all pervading air of impermanence to the whole thing.
No, it wasn't the things themselves which where impermanent - it was him. He was the transient.
The desk, the shelves, the floor - all crowded with masses of things - things which, in the long run, had no real hold over him. One day, when his thesis was finished, when his classes ended, he would walk out of here and leave them all behind. He would move onto another life somewhere else and these physical bonds which tied him to this place would become as insubstantial as memory.
The traffic is light. Of course it would be. All the years I've lived in Cascade and hated being held up by the traffic and the one day when I want to be, I'm allowed to drive smoothly home, leaving sounds of the airport behind me, like the wake of a ship. I would happily have spent an extra hour winding my way through familiar streets - but instead, I'm almost urged home, as though the universe can't wait for me to get there.
I can wait.
I know what's waiting for me. And what's not.
But there it is. An empty parking space, easy to pull into. The usual number of people walking down the street, employed in the complexity of their own lives to the exclusion of all else. Just like me, really.
Just like me.
Blair had almost reached the bottom of the first pile of essays when the phone rang again. He was tempted to leave it - but then, it might have been Jim - so he picked it up, his attention still on the paper before him. An almost haphazard collection of sentences dazzled his eyes, making him frown to the point where he almost didn't hear the words spoken to him.
"Blair? Are you listening to me?"
"Uh, sure, Professor." Blair sat back, deliberately avoiding the excuse for a major essay and tuned in to his department head. Walkin was something of an old woman and had an almost sixth sense when people weren't paying attention to him. "What can I do for you?"
"I remember you telling me yesterday you were going away somewhere."
"That's right." Yeah. Ten day's camping. With Jim. No phones, no TV, no work. Just peace and quiet. Poachers, escaped criminals and gun runners notwithstanding, of course. They'd been planning it for months. "Why?"
"When do you leave?"
"In a week."
"Oh, then you'll have plenty of time."
Time? Time? Plenty of time?
A horrible black growling feeling welled up in Blair's stomach. He swallowed it down with an almost audible crunch. "Time for what?"
Walkin breezed on as though the world was his oyster and he had but to reach forth and pluck the pearl out any time he chose. "I have a small task for you. Actually, it's more a favour for the Dean."
His voice faint, Blair murmured, "Oh?"
"An Australian student requires some help putting together a proposal for a grant. She has a week to get it finished. The Dean would like you to help her as she's unfamiliar with our formats and requirements."
Blair couldn't help it - couldn't even stop the whine from seeping into his voice. "Why me? Can't somebody else do it?"
Walkin's voice firmed up. "The Dean especially asked for you - and I agreed. I expect you to look after this girl, Blair. Very well. I probably shouldn't tell you this - but she's the Dean's niece and I'm sure you understand how important this proposal is, how essential it is that the girl get her funding so she can study here."
"And I'm sure the Dean would be most appreciative of your efforts," Walkin continued, "and without doubt, it would go some way to compensating this department for the time you spend with your police friends. You must know I am not unaware of the number of classes you've had to shift around, the favours you ask for to cover your teaching."
"Professor," Blair had no choice but to interrupt here. "you know my work with the police is part of my research. It's not like I do it as a hobby."
"No, of course not - but you do spend an inordinate amount of time away from your students and your office. Believe me, the Dean will be so much more disposed to continue turning a blind eye if he sees you putting an equal amount of effort into helping his niece. Besides, it's only a week - it's not exactly a permanent arrangement."
Blair could only sigh. More work. On top of everything else he had to do in the next week. Great! "Fine, okay, it's not a problem."
He could hear the smile of satisfaction in Walkin's voice without even trying, "I was sure it wouldn't be. Her name is Emily Baker. She's been in the country all of three days. I want you to make sure she feels very welcome. I expect to hear a glowing report from her." The words 'or else' were thankfully omitted, though left echoing down the phone line.
"Okay," Blair only barely managed to keep the air of resignation out of his reply. "Send her over."
"She's on her way now. I will be available if you have any questions."
As the line went dead, Blair looked at the phone, poked his tongue out at it - then laughed at himself. This was just not what he needed right now.
But in a week ...
In a week, he could put it all behind him, immersing himself in the pleasures of being surrounded by nature. He hadn't even planned any tests for Jim during their camping trip. No way. They'd set that time apart - for rest, relaxation and regeneration. The first real holiday either of them had had for more than a year.
He looked up. The girl standing in his doorway appeared to be about sixteen - though as she smiled, a few more years appeared in her eyes. Dressed in jeans, a jacket and holding a mountain of books, she waited for his response, as though she expected him to turn her away.
"Er... no. I mean, yes, I'm Blair Sandburg - I'm just not a Doctor yet." Blair sprang to his feet. "Come in. You're Emily, right?"
She almost rushed forward, shifting the books in her arms so she could squeeze a hand free to shake his. "That's right. Look if I've come at a bad time..."
"No, no, not bad at all. Just a little behind here..." Blair laughed, trying to put her at ease. He pushed a chair close, took the books from her and turned to find somewhere to put them. The floor was the only option - but he put them down carefully, waving the girl to a chair.
She was watching him, huge brown eyes lifting towards his, an unspeakable element of trust flowing from within. From this close up, she looked about twenty or so - but also, so out of place, it was almost pathetic.
He couldn't help it. It was in his nature to put people at ease - so he did his best. "You're from Australia, right?"
"Yes! Have you been there?"
"No, unfortunately. I'd like to go one day. I hear it's beautiful." Her eyes lit up at that and he smiled to himself.
"Yeah, it is. You should go." Emily paused, glanced around the office for a moment, before turning back to Blair. "Did Professor Walkin explain the situation?"
"Sure did. We've got a week, right? What are you studying?"
"Oh ... er, the propaganda effects of World War II popular songs on the development of the role of women in post-war society." The look Emily gave him spoke of a long line of rejections to this idea - but Blair didn't add to it.
"That sounds pretty cool. Propaganda, huh?"
Emily nodded, obviously trying to keep her explanation as simple as possible. "You know, lyrics like 'Keep the Home Fires Burning' etc. It's all a bit boring, I'm afraid."
"Hey," Blair spread his hands, "I'm an anthropologist. Doesn't sound boring at all. Look, I have some essays I have to finish marking today - can we start work tomorrow?" She was a very pretty girl, he had to admit. And nice. Maybe this wouldn't be so tough after all. In fact, it might even be something of a pleasure.
"Thank you so much! That'd be great. When?"
"I have a lecture at eleven. How about I meet you back here for lunch and we can make a start?"
The smile she gave him was priceless, more than a reward for his efforts. "Great! That's just great. Thanks Doctor..."
"Yeah, right. Blair. Thanks." She stood, grabbed her books and was gone before he even had a chance to say goodbye.
I don't think I'm drawing attention to myself. At least, I hope not - but I do have to try to be aware of these things now. Aware for myself. But there's probably a hundred people on the viewing balcony besides me and none of them are paying me any attention at all so I suppose there really isn't a problem.
But then again, it will all depend on how long I stand here, won't it? How long I can keep watching that small hunk of metal groping its way further and further into the sky. It banks, turns to follow the coast, slipping across a barrier far below where land meets water. I've seen the view from a plane on that heading, and it's good. Plenty to stare out the window at.
If I concentrate, I can see filaments of a jetstream marking a trail across an unusually cloudless sky. Yeah, the sun shining today was a gentle irony I hadn't missed. Rather typical, really. There haven't been too many sunny days lately. Not that I've noticed, anyway.
At this speed, ten minutes after takeoff, I can't read the insignia on the side of the plane any more. Can't count the number of rivets holding the wing together or the pressure lines cracked across the perspex windows. I can't see any detail at all. Just a silver shard of existence, sprinting away from me. But I keep watching, don't I? Even if I do draw attention to myself. I keep watching until I can't see it any more.
Watching even though it's gone.
Jim was in the kitchen preparing dinner when Blair got home. He barely looked up as Blair dropped his bag and fell onto the couch, carefully making sure his feet stuck over the arm. He closed his eyes and let out a tired sigh.
"Another hard day at the office, dear?" Came the dry comment.
"Very funny, Jim." Blair groaned, not even bothering to look. "Some days, I just don't know how I'm going to do it, you know? I mean, I love it and everything, but man, it's so hard to keep on top of it. Like, right now I should be switching on my computer and loading grades into the system. I was going to stay back tonight and make a start but I just wanted to come home, you know? And then today, to make matters worse ..."
He opened his eyes to find Jim pushing a bottle of beer into his hands. He grinned his thanks and sat up.
"Today?" Jim prompted him.
"Professor Walkin volunteered me to coach this Australian student who has to get a grant proposal written in the next week or else."
Jim gave a little shake of his head, "And how much work is that for you?"
Blair took a swallow of beer before he dared reply. "All I can say is that it's a good thing my last lecture is tomorrow."
For a moment, Jim said nothing, his face that familiar frozen visage that told a millions stories without actually saying anything. A testament to the absence of verbal language. Truth was, if Jim ever lost the power of speech, Blair knew he would still have no trouble at all communicating with this man.
"What?" He asked, frowning up at his friend.
"Nothing." Jim turned and headed back to the kitchen, forcing Blair to get up and follow him.
"Jim, man, there's nothing and there's nothing - and when you say it's nothing, I know you know I know there's a lot more to it than that."
Jim turned with a look of amused disbelief on his face, "Am I hearing things, or did you really just say that?"
"Um ..." Blair paused, a grin on his face, "Yeah, I think I did. Maybe I'm not as tired as I thought I was."
"Or you are."
"So what?" Jim was already back chopping vegetables, everything about the way he was standing, the careful movements of his hands, even his steady breathing giving out the clear message that the subject had been successfully dropped.
"So what's the problem?" Never let it be said that he wasn't persistent. Not that he had much choice when dealing with Jim I'm-not-going-to-talk-about-it-unless-you-push-me Ellison. Over the years, this had almost taken on the form of a game. As though Jim needed to test him on a regular basis, to make sure that Blair was still paying attention. It could have become irritating - if Blair hadn't also understood that beneath the reticence was a genuine difficulty for Jim to talk about what he was feeling. The little practice he'd had with Blair hadn't quite made him an expert yet. "Come on, Jim. Talk to me."
"How much time are we talking about here?"
Blair shrugged, "A lot. Four, maybe five hours a day."
"And then you have to squeeze everything else into the remaining twenty hours - not to mention trying to eat and sleep. Obviously, you'll have to stop coming to the station."
Blair blinked and took a step closer, his hand going out to touch Jim's arm - but Jim moved before he could, going to the fridge. "No, of course I can come into the station. Hey, man, it's not like I haven't been busy before, right? I'm always busy."
"Yeah, you are."
"Exactly. Since when has that stopped me?"
The look Jim shot at him was unfathomable; sharp and almost disappointed. "Chief, I can look after myself, you know. I really don't need you there every single day."
"And I'm not there every single day." Blair paused, pulling in a breath, trying to understand this sudden change in Jim's attitude. "Are you telling me you don't want me coming in any more?"
"No!" The word was out before Jim could stop himself. He put a jar on the bench, took in a breath and returned to his cooking. "No, of course not. But you run yourself too thin. You never have enough time to sleep properly. The only decent food you eat is what we cook here and some days I don't know how you have the energy to get out of bed let alone run around after me. Maybe while you're helping this guy, you should cut your hours at the station back a bit. Then when ... you know ...when ..."
Daylight dawned on Blair's otherwise foggy brain. "Oh, no you don't."
"What?" All innocence was Jim now.
"If you think for one minute I'm going to sacrifice our holiday because I have too much work to catch up on, you've got another thing coming. That ten days is off limits."
"Oh yeah?" Jim was half-smiling now, continuing his work.
"Yeah!" Blair clapped a hand on the bigger man's shoulder, "And you just remember that goes both ways. If I find you've agreed to take on another case ..."
Jim turned a pair of baby-blues on him, his smile creasing up lines around his eyes, "Is that a threat, Chief?"
"No, man," Blair turned and made for his beer. "It's a promise."
I feel better after my shower so I make breakfast. Omelette, toast, fruit, coffee, juice. Lay it all on the table as though it were cards in a philosophical debate. That's all I have to offer, take it or leave it. But it's a nice spread, something to offer any taste. Looks good, too. I use the new plates that almost match the mugs I got last Christmas.
I work on my own this morning. Doing each job individually, without hurrying. I've always found a certain comfort in doing things with my hands. It doesn't take much concentration, but there's something busy there, something being produced, something to show for the effort. I can stand back afterwards and think, I did that. I can see it with my own eyes. See the difference I made. See the evidence. I've learned to incorporate it into my day, to make it a daily achievement - whether it be breakfast or something else. Make some mark, know that I was here.
Twice I have to step around the backpack sitting by the door, airline labels attached, zipped and tucked like the last gift left under the tree. Ready. At least, the backpack is ready.
I know I'm not even close.
Blair turned another page and tried to ignore the information his fingers gave him - that even after four hours' reading, he was still only half-way through. For the tenth time that day, he suppressed the sigh his body was urging him to express. Explaining it to the student sitting next to him was totally beyond him.
Emily was certainly bright - and good company. Her research was very thorough and he had no doubt at all that, given a reasonable proposal, she'd get the grant she needed to continue her work. But in order to help her, he had to read everything she'd done so far - and while it was interesting to a certain extent, going over the lyrics of more than two hundred wartime songs had the tendency to bend his enthusiasm a little. It was almost a full-time job keeping up a faade of interest when Emily was around. Now, after three days working with her, even that was wearing thin. Maybe he was just tired.
"Why don't we stop for today?" Emily asked, putting her pen down and turning to face him. Her gaze was bright and she looked at him with interest in more than her work. It was the kind of thing he liked to see when a girl looked at him. "I think my eyes are about to apply for their own grant to work with someone else."
Blair grinned, took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "What time is it?"
"Ten." Emily began gathering up her papers. "Listen, Blair, I can't tell you how much this means to me that you're helping me like this. You're so good at how all this works. I mean, you really understand the system here and the language and everything. I'd be lost by this point if I had to do it on my own. I was wondering if ... well, would you let me buy you dinner? As a thank you?"
Blair glanced up. The hesitant smile she was giving him was like an open book. An open invitation.
Yeah, so okay, he had been flirting with her. That was a given, right? But ....
"Um, sure, okay."
A frown marred her smile, "You don't look sure. I'm not trying to impose or anything ... I just wanted to ... you know...."
With a gust of wind, all her confidence blew away and Blair found himself raising his hands, "Hey, no, it's okay. I'm starving - and I know a great place that stays open late."
Her eyes were searching his, looking for some clues. "I ... I asked around and nobody said ... I mean, are you, you know ... seeing someone?"
Blair opened his mouth to say no - but didn't get the chance. She pulled her books to her chest, warding off his response and took a step back. "God, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked that. Forget it, okay? I'm sorry. I'll see you tomorrow."
She would have gone then - but Blair came to a decision so fast, it scared him that his brain could work that quickly without warning. "Emily, wait." If he didn't fix this - right now - this girl wouldn't be able to look at him in the morning - and there could be more trouble brewing. "I'd love to have dinner with you - really. It'll be good to get out of here for a few hours - and maybe we can talk about something other than work? You know? About your home and stuff? Please?"
He could see the battle going on in her eyes - whether to believe him or not - and he wanted her to believe him. To back it up, he offered her one of his best smiles - and slowly, very slowly, she began to relax. A small nod was all she gave him.
"Okay, let's go."
I've always loved the feel of steaming hot water pounding on my back. Massages are good and everything - but there is nothing in this world like a hot shower, with plenty of pressure. I'm sure if I sat down and gave it a good effort, I could write a dozen slogans to sell the concept of a hot shower - only, I wouldn't have anyone to sell them to. I'm not alone in how I feel about it.
And, having the first shower of the morning, I have all the freedom in the world. Not that I would use it and leave nothing for him - but the illusion is there. It's my choice whether I stay here for five minutes or thirty. Today, I choose to be out in ten. But god, those ten minutes are heavenly!
They're also plenty enough to steam up the mirror. I tried one of those bottled concoctions once, that claimed you'd never need to clear your mirror of steam again. It was a spray on thing and it worked for about three days - or right up until I noticed Sandburg wiping the mirror - and therefore, wiping it all off. Re-making it in its original image.
So I have to wipe steam off the mirror so I can shave. My eyes look like shit. Too much red surrounding the usual blue. I rummage around in the cabinet where I know there are eye drops, then pop some in. I blink a few times, wipe the excess from my face and take another look. Better. Now I look less like a man who hasn't slept and more like a man who no longer wants to.
I can hear him moving around in his room - but only because I'm listening for him.
I get dressed.
I have breakfast to make.
Blair was only home for five minutes before Jim came in, shrugged off his jacket and headed for a beer. Seconds later, he appeared at Blair's bedroom door, leaning in that hopelessly casual way that told, in Jim Ellison body language, that he expected to be proven right about something any second now.
Smug didn't even come close.
"Busy day, Chief?"
Blair was perched on the edge of his chair, a stack of papers in front of him, several more on the floor around him. "Actually, I'm thinking of redefining the word and sending the new meaning to the Oxford dictionary. At least, I would if I had the time."
Jim grunted, "You eaten?"
"Yeah. Now I've got to make up the time I took out for dinner. If I don't get this pile sorted by the morning, I'll be in so much shit, somebody will mistake me for a pig."
"Too late for that, Chief." Jim's dry comment was left hanging in the air as the man disappeared into the kitchen. Blair paid no attention until Jim returned with a cup of strong coffee. "Here, you'd better drink that if you plan to keep your eyes open. Just out of curiosity, do you actually know what time it is?"
"Um..." Blair glanced around, wondering where he'd left his watch.
"Two a.m." Jim supplied, returning to his position by the door.
For a moment, this number held little significance for Blair - but then he looked back at his friend. "I thought you had a date tonight."
"So what are you doing back so early?"
Disbelief wafted across Jim's face, and he let out what could be considered a long-suffering sigh. "Chief, not everyone has to sleep with his date for it to be considered a success."
Blair took a mouthful of his coffee, "That's not fair, Jim. I had a kind of date tonight - and there was no sex involved."
Jim stared. "Good god, all this work to do and you're dating as well?" Jim's anger sent a wave of shock through Blair. "I thought you were supposed to be at Rainier, working with that Australian guy."
"I was. Then we went to dinner."
And Jim's face did it again. That snap-frozen look, rigid in its complexity, radiating everything but readable meaning. Blair frowned. This exhaustion thing was getting to him. His ability to read through these looks seemed to be diminishing as each weary day went by - and the thought rankled. He needed to be able to read Jim. Needed to more than he needed sleep. But this time he was out of patience. "Jim, I don't have time for this. What's the problem this time?"
"This time?" Jim blinked, frowned, turned to walk out, paused, turned back and gestured into the room with his beer bottle, a muscled tower of contained confusion expressing itself in more than his strained voice. "You tell me you were out tonight dating a guy and you don't think I might be surprised?"
Blair shook his head, feeling as though somebody had filled it with cobwebs when he wasn't looking. He stared at Jim and got to his feet, putting his coffee mug down. "Dating a guy? When did I say I was dating a guy?"
"Just now. I said I thought you were with that Australian guy and you said you'd gone on a kind of date with him tonight."
"Oh, shit, Jim - when did I say the Australian was a guy?" This was too silly - and Blair had to laugh. "How long have you known me? Since when have I ever gone out with guys?"
"Chief, your love life is a battlefield - there's no way of counting the casualties. How the hell should I know if you date guys or not?"
There was something very odd about the way Jim was talking. Something so odd that Blair couldn't pinpoint exactly what it was - but it was enough to keep him prodding; the scientist in him too intrigued now to let go of it, the friend in him too puzzled to leave it alone. He took a few steps closer, deliberately. "Jim, you're a sentinel, right?"
"So you tell me."
"So you've got these heightened senses and you use them on a daily basis."
"Don't go all dumb on me, Jim - I know you can scent all kinds of things on me."
"So if I'd ever been with a guy, I'm sure you'd have known by now. So?"
"So have I?"
Jim's expression didn't shift even a little and was in fact, even more unreadable than before. A tiny pause preceded his next words, "There are such things as showers."
"We've been working together long enough, Jim. Do you honestly think I'd keep something like that from you?"
Jim stared at him a moment longer, then slowly, almost deliberately, he took a swig of beer and shook his head, his voice coming out soft and repentant. "No, I don't." With that, he turned and walked out - leaving Blair with the feeling that he hadn't got to the bottom of it after all.
He stood gazing at the empty space for a minute until he heard the television. Only then did he turn back for his desk. He tried to sit. Tried to get back to work - but that nagging little voice in the back of his head simply wouldn't leave him alone.
So he got up, went into the living room and stood at the end of the couch. Jim was sitting there, his concentration supposedly on the TV - but Blair wasn't fooled. "Listen, Jim?"
"What if I was?"
"What if you were what?"
"Dating guys. What if I was?"
Jim's eyebrows rose a fraction, but he didn't turn. "Look, Chief, it was a small misunderstanding, okay? I wasn't trying to cast aspersions on your sexuality or anything. Like I said, I was surprised, that's all. But you say it isn't true and I don't have anything to be surprised about, do I? End of story."
Not knowing where he was heading with this, Blair continued doggedly, "Yeah, but what if it was true? What if I did start going out with a guy?"
Abruptly, Jim sprang off the couch, snapping the TV off with a viscous twist of the remote. "What the hell do you want from me, Sandburg? Permission? You want to start dating guys all of a sudden? Well, go for it! Why ask me?"
Stunned by the sudden anger, Blair stammered, "Well, I just thought ... I ..."
Shaking his head, Jim seemed to suddenly understand all too well. "Oh, I see, now. You want to know if I'm homophobic, don't you? Because I expressed surprise that the guy I've worked and shared my home with for the last three years might suddenly turn out to be gay or bi or whatever and you want to know if I've got any hidden agenda or not, right? Right?"
"No, Jim, I just..." Blair held up his hands - but the damage was already done.
"You just what? Hell, Sandburg, you just got all defensive because I suggested you'd kept something hidden - and now you're doing the same thing to me. Well, let me ask you this. Have I ever given you any reason to think I might be homophobic? I mean, other than expressing a mild surprise that you might be gay? Well, have I?"
"Hey, man, chill. There's no need to ..."
"I'm going to bed, Chief. You've got work to do. Goodnight."
I close the bathroom door behind me. It makes the usual snap and clunk noise it always does but this morning, it has this weird finality to it, like I'm shutting something old and worn out.
Or maybe in.
There are things missing.
Not just from this room.
Things missing in me. I didn't see them go. I didn't see them detach and disappear. I can only wonder where they've gone.
I remember when I came back from Peru the first time and all those journalists interviewed me as some kind of hero because I'd managed to survive when my men did not. How much heroism is involved in saving your own skin? They were so hot on my heels, so determined to find out what made me tick, as though I had some magic answer that they could package and patent and sell to the whole world.
I just didn't get it. I really didn't. I was lucky. The crash didn't kill me and then I met the Chopec and yeah, I was lucky again and they didn't kill me either. But, I swear, neither the helicopter nor the Chopec stopped to ask me first if I was a hero before deciding to let me live. And my survival wasn't dependent on whether I was a hero or not.
And if I hadn't survived? If it had been one of my men instead of me? They would have done the same thing and they would have been the hero, being asked stupid questions and having to put up with magazine covers and newspaper articles. Heroism isn't choosy.
I put my clean clothes down on the stool and turn to look at the mirror. My face is there, as it always is - but it's not the same face that was on that magazine cover. This one is older, wiser, perhaps a bit less of a hero now.
When Sandburg and I came back from Peru, he said something to me about what I'd done, how focussed I'd been. I couldn't talk to him then, about the panther or anything. I couldn't - because, in that moment, I finally got it.
He was looking at me and talking to me like I was a hero - but he had it wrong. I wasn't a hero for what I'd done, he was.
He just didn't get it.
Something was twitching at the edge of his awareness. Something unwelcome. Something he was being forced to pay attention to when he really wanted to go on sleeping and forget about everything. Of course, there wasn't a hope in hell of being allowed to.
The robust scent of fresh coffee wafted to him, along with the sensation of a hand on his shoulder.
"Chief?" A gentle squeeze then, "C'mon, Chief, it's almost seven. You have to wake up now or you'll be late."
"Mmmn." Was about the only thing Blair's brain could process at this point in time. Then, without warning, the hand on his shoulder shifted, moving to his chin and lifting it. His eyes opened at the same time.
"Hey, good morning," Jim smiled, warm, slightly amused and empty of last night's anger. "Fell asleep at your desk again. Here, drink up. You've got about half an hour before you have to leave. Time for both a shower and breakfast if you're quick."
Blair groaned, rubbed his hands over his face as Jim stood back. "How many days till we go away?"
"Well, that's about four too many right now. Leave me any hot water?"
Blair had to grin at this as he hauled his stiff, weary body off the chair.
"Did you get everything done?"
"I think so. What's for breakfast?"
"What would you like?" Jim had turned for the door and waited, hand on the jamb.
"Half a gram of coke?"
Jim's chuckle echoed through the loft. "How about toast and more coffee? I have to shop this afternoon."
As Jim vanished, Blair cast about the room for some clean clothes and something to get his brain on line. He grabbed fresh jeans and shirt and headed out. He paused before he went into the bathroom, simply watching Jim for a moment. The other man was pouring juice out, putting bread into the toaster. All very normal and relaxed.
"I'm sorry about last night."
Jim glanced up with a look of surprise - which quickly shifted back into a smile. "Get going, Chief or you'll have to take the toast with you."
It's odd, but I don't remember when I changed my bedroom around. All I remember now is that I did it some time after Sandburg moved in. Like a lot of other things I did after that day, it seems to have been lost in the whirlpool of confusing memories my recent past has become.
My whole life has been about change. Change of expectations, change of circumstances, change of parenting, change of environments - loping along the path of changing beliefs and outlooks. Sometimes change hits me so fast, I'm left dizzy and bewildered. Other times, it's happens so slowly, I don't notice until it's way too late.
The thing is, I make out like change is inevitable and that I can take it in my stride but really, the horrible truth is, I hate change. I mean, I really hate it. At least, at the time I do. Later, when I'm used to it and it no longer qualifies as a changed thing, I'm happy.
Of course, we always assume that change is for the worse and that's why we resist it. And sometimes we resist it, even when it's a change for the better - until we know, until we're sure.
I know I resisted Sandburg. I argued with him every time he suggested another change. It never occurred to me that each step was part of a global change - and that all of it would be for the better. And then I got used to him suggesting changes until he stopped making suggestions and just started changing things, himself. And he would look at me as though he expected me to continue to resist. But I'd learned by then. I was used to him changing me.
I liked it.
I'm supposed to be up here finding clothes to change into. I said I'd take the first shower then make some breakfast but I'm really just standing here using up time. Or maybe, I'm just paying more attention to it, knowing how little there is left. Maybe I'm watching this change, seeing it happen, knowing there's nothing I can do to avoid it - but wanting to be aware of it anyway.
And if I am? Will that mean it won't hurt this time?
Blair spent the bulk of the morning working out on the lawn, beneath a huge shady tree. Workmen had taken up residence in the roof above his office thereby making it impossible to concentrate. But in a way, this was better. It was certainly nice to be outdoors for a change, making him want and long for the promised holiday even more.
Of course, after last night, there might have been no holiday - at least, not with Jim.
Blair sat back against the tree trunk and put his notebook to one side. He'd caught up with a number of things this morning but the load was still more than he really had time to deal with. Truth was, he'd probably need the first two days away just catching up on the sleep he wouldn't have time for in the next three days.
What had happened last night? When had Jim gotten the idea that Emily was a guy? And why had ... well, why had Jim reacted like that?
Blair started to laugh. It would almost be worth it to go home and tell Jim that he was dating a guy, just to see the expression on his face. Then again, it was unlikely Jim would see the funny side of it. Come to think of it, it was probably a fortunate coincidence that despite a few offers and one serious temptation many years ago, Blair hadn't ever dated a guy - or he wouldn't have been able to ...
What? Convince Jim he was completely straight? Why would he need to do that? What possible difference would it make if Jim did think he was bi or gay - or even a cabbage, for that matter. Jim was his friend, his partner. They'd been through some pretty heavy shit over the last three years. A little question of sexuality wouldn't get between them, would it?
So... so maybe he should tell Jim the truth. Tell him that there had been offers but they had been turned down, just to put him at his ease, so he wouldn't think anything was being hidden.
But then again, wouldn't bringing the subject up again almost prove to Jim that Blair thought he was worried about it? That he thought Jim was homophobic?
No, it wasn't a subject he could bring up again. Besides, Jim had stated that he wasn't homophobic - so what difference did it make?
God, why was he spending so much time worrying about this? Why had the same questions popped into his head every time he took a break today? Why couldn't he get that picture of Jim out of his head, where Jim had stood in his doorway, beer in hand, suddenly frozen and confused and something else that Blair had never really managed to define?
He hated not knowing. Hated it when he couldn't read Jim. Hated not understanding why Jim was bothered by something. Hated that he was the cause of it. They were friends, they were supposed to understand each other, supposed to compensate, give and take. Jim was his thesis, his connection; the point where theory met reality, the axis around which ever other part of Blair's life turned. Jim had let him so far into his life and yet, even now, something like this still had the power to shake him.
But he couldn't do anything about it. Not without making it worse. So he would have to leave it alone, let it drift into obscurity and remain one of those long-standing mysteries he'd collected, together with why Jim never dated the same woman twice and why a control freak like Jim could so happily hand direction of his senses over to him, defining trust to a magnitude which still stunned Blair to this day.
Okay, so the big jerk was an enigma. Like Blair hadn't known that all along. "But he's my big jerk."
Blair laughed softly to himself. He always did when he used the possessive that way. It was always impossible to think it without also picturing Jim's reaction if he ever found out. Jim's reactions to things were not as predictable as most people thought - but then, most people didn't know him the way Blair did. Most people - in fact, nobody - had been allowed close enough to find out.
The single word dragged him out of his thoughts and back into the real world. Emily was standing before him, arms full of books as usual, a crooked smile on her face. "Oh, hi, Emily."
"We ... were supposed to have lunch, remember? To go over the draft plan?"
"Oh, damn, I'm sorry! I forgot!" Blair scrambled to his feet - then paused long enough to glance at his watch. "I have a meeting in ten minutes. If I don't go, I could be out of a job next semester." And could be out of one now if he didn't make this up to her.
"Oh, that's okay," Emily started to back away. "I just, well, I um..."
"Listen, how about we pick it up at my office later, okay?"
"Aren't they fixing the roof?"
Blair swore - then turned with an apology to the girl. She shook her head, "Blair Sandburg, your life is a mess, isn't it?"
Blair had to laugh, "Not all of it. Some of it's a complete disaster." A mess, yes. A mess he had no control over, certainly. But it wasn't like it was going to be this way forever, was it?
She laughed with him. "How about we get something to eat later and go over the draft at the same time. I ... er, really enjoyed last night."
And once again, the tone of the conversation had shifted and for the first time, Blair noted the grinding in his stomach at the change. What was wrong with him? This girl obviously liked him - and he liked her - and yet, the moment she let him know, his immediate instinct was to back away. It really wasn't fair to her.
And right now, she was looking at him just like Ellen had looked at him last month when he'd turned her down. A weird mixture of hope and expectation combined with a certainty of rejection. The real problem was, neither Ellen nor this girl were his type, really. Sure, they were both pretty and intelligent and everything but ...
Come to think of it, when was the last time he'd met a girl who was his type? Or rather, when had he stopped going out with girls who weren't?
Roughly the same time he'd seen the pattern emerging. Date a few times, have some fun, break up, move on to the next girl.
A life of impermanence, rooted in nothing, taking him nowhere but other places offering the same.
Yep, that about pinned it down.
Emily had been watching him as these thoughts scattered through him with the pace of a gale force wind - and had come to her own conclusion. She moved closer and dropped a soft kiss on his lips.
Decision time - and fast.
"Yes?" There was that smile again, hopeful, a little shy and way too fragile. She was a nice kid. He really didn't want her to feel rejected - especially when she was already so stressed about this grant application.
Especially when her uncle was the Dean.
"Um, how about I cook you dinner, at my place. We can get some work done afterwards." And he would have to find some way to ... to let her down...
He'd flirted with her, gone out with her and now he didn't want to go any further with it - but what would she say if he just came out and said that? Would she shrug it off? No way. She simply wasn't the shrugging off type.
Emily smiled again, beaming a glittering brilliance into the warm afternoon. "Sure, dinner would be great. What time?"
"Say seven? I can drop you off at home afterwards, okay?"
"Fine, yeah that's fine. I'll see you then."
As Blair watched her walk away, he pulled out his cellphone and dialled home, doing everything he could to control the panic with threatened. "Jim?"
"Chief? What's up?"
"Nothing. I just wanted to check. You said you were going to shop today? Groceries, right?"
"Well, I'm bringing someone home for dinner. Are you going out?"
"Jesus, Sandburg, this isn't another date, is it?"
"No, Jim," Blair's voice hardened. "This is exactly the opposite - which is why I want you there."
A deep sigh filtered through the phone. "Are you going to explain this some time soon?"
"Yeah, when I get home, I promise."
"I'll look forward to it." Jim replied with heavy sarcasm.
I live in the Sandburg-zone. I can't escape from it. It's everywhere. It's in the clothes we wash in scent-free powder he thoughtfully chased around for. It's in the things he leaves around the loft, the hangings on the walls, the cushions on the couch. It's in the air when he cooks foods I've never even heard of. It's in his voice when he talks me out of a zone out.
I live in the Sandburg-zone. I no longer look twice, I'm no longer surprised by anything he says - or does. Sometimes I laugh, at others, I yell - but nothing he does surprises me any more. I expect him to be surprising. Some days I even long for it.
I live in the Sandburg-zone. I walk through it now, looking at the evidence of him through the living room, the colours, the shades, the warmth. It's all here, around me, as much a part of me now as my over-enthusiastic senses. The only place in my life he hasn't left a mark is my room. That's still mine and mine alone.
I come to the top of the stairs and look around. Bed, clothes, desk, drawers. Clear of his imprint. Only this part of my life is Sandburg-free.
It just wasn't fair. It really wasn't. Why were there some days when he simply couldn't get a date for love nor money - and then times like this, when a really nice girl was almost throwing herself at him and he simply wanted to say no? But how could he? How could he do that without coming out of it a total prick? He'd flirted with her, taken her out to dinner (okay, she'd offered and paid, but was there a real difference?). So he'd led her on and now he wanted to back out. Truth was, he was being a prick about it - and worse still, he knew Jim would say as much.
Which was why it took him so long to walk up three flights of stairs to the loft. Of course Jim had heard him coming and of course, Jim had opened the door for him and - of course there was an open beer waiting for him on the counter. All so typical. Good ole Jim in his 'I understand Blair Sandburg' mode.
Knowing it was pointless putting this off any longer, Blair dumped his pack in his room, gauged how much time he had left until Emily arrived and ventured back into the kitchen to find Jim cooking again.
"I thought I'd make a start since you were so late coming home. Fettuccini good enough to impress this girl?"
Blair let out a heavy sigh and leaned against the counter. "Jim, I promise you, the last thing I want to do is impress this girl. To be honest, I don't think I need to."
"Why? What's wrong?"
"Well, I think she likes me."
"Think? You mean, you aren't sure? That's not like you, Chief." Jim almost chuckled. "Next thing you'll be telling me she's not your type."
"Well, she isn't." Blair snapped before he could stop himself. One look from Jim and suddenly he couldn't stand there any more. Without even thinking, he began pacing the floor, waving his beer bottle around. "Look, man, she's okay, right? Pretty and everything but really, she isn't my type and she's so worried about getting this grant and yeah, I did flirt with her and stuff, but she isn't my type and I really don't want to get involved right now, I've already got too much happening as it is and I haven't been down to the station in over a week and what happens if something goes wrong with your senses. I wouldn't even notice, I've been so busy and Jim, things have been okay, haven't they?"
A pair of strong hands gripped his arms, forcing him to stop his pacing. He looked up to find Jim gazing down at him, a mixture of concern and amusement filling his eyes. "Chief? Calm down. Take a deep breath. And another. Right. Yes, everything's fine with my senses. You have nothing to worry about, okay? You just concentrate on getting all your work done so we can take this time off. Nothing else matters."
"No, no, you're right," Blair let out a pent up breath, hoping the stress would just go with it - but it didn't. There was still one other matter. "Jim?"
"What about her?"
"I ... um... want to let her down gently."
"Then tell her."
"I can't, man! I really can't. You'll know what I mean when you meet her."
"So you want me to do it?"
"Man, I couldn't think of anything worse!"
Jim let him go and stepped back, frowning a little to formulate a plan to help. "Well, why don't you just tell her you're seeing someone else?"
"No good. The opportunity to do that has come and gone. If I say that now she'll either know I'm lying - or she'll think I'm a liar for keeping it from her. And to make matters worse, I've got Professor Walkin - and the Dean breathing down my neck on this one."
"Why?" Jim's confusion raked over his whole body.
"Emily is the Dean's niece. I've been ordered to be nice to her."
"Does that mean sleeping with her?"
"No!" Blair shook his head vigorously. "No, the exact opposite - at least, I think so. No, the Dean thinks I spend too much time working with you and if I fuck this up with his niece, I'm going to be in so much shit..."
Jim's voice was soothing, "Calm down, Chief. There has to be a way out of this." He smiled, cocked his head to one side as though he were trying to hide his amusement.
Blair wanted to give him a hug for that. For making this normal. For marking it as just another episode in their daily lives. For making it a haphazard event they would face together, just as they did when they worked together.
The element of spontaneity he missed in his academic life.
He couldn't help grinning at his friend, at the odd gift he'd been given without even realizing it.
Jim raised his eyebrows, comically acknowledging that he'd obviously missed a lesson somewhere here. "What?"
"Nothing," Blair shook his head. There were more urgent matters to deal with.
"So, what do you want to do about Emily?"
"You have any other suggestions?"
"Well, you could let her see the inside of your room. I would think that'd be enough to put anyone off."
"Very funny, man."
"Though of course, that might just lead her to thinking she's the woman to reform you. I'd be happy to explain the reality to her, if you like."
"Jim, man, I don't want to totally destroy my reputation with the Dean, you know."
Jim cocked an eyebrow at him, "That's assuming you have one to start with. Well, what else do you suggest? Short of spending the entire meal talking about all your previous girlfriends."
As Jim stood there, waiting, Blair took another mouthful of beer, swallowed then looked up again. The bigger man was wearing a black t-shirt, jeans and a smile - revealing much of the work he put in at the gym. There was no doubt about it - Jim was a good-looking guy, suave, gentle and attractive.
And in about five minutes - quite possibly also homicidal.
Blair took a deep breath, knowing Jim was going to hear his heartbeat spike. "There's one other possibility. At least, the only one I can think of that won't get me fired."
"Well," Blair began slowly, keeping his voice level and low and as casual as he could. "I have to keep working with her, for another three days, right? So I want to let her down as gently as possible."
"You said that."
"So... so... when she ... you know.... gets here tonight, could we just... you know..."
"For god's sake, Sandburg, spit it out," Jim groaned.
"Could we just pretend that youandIareacouple?" Blair rushed the words out then stood back and held his breath, waiting for the explosion.
Instead, he got the patented Jim Ellison jaw clench. The cool blue eyes narrowed, driving something hard into his gaze. Something that made Blair blanch.
"No." With that, Jim turned and headed back into the kitchen, picked up the knife and began slicing mushrooms as though he would find the answer to the meaning of life somewhere inside one of them.
"No?" Blair managed after a moment, parts of him suddenly terrified - and other parts of him recklessly bold. A dangerous combination at the best of times - which this obviously wasn't.
Jim ground the words out with the practice of many years. "You think a lie is better than the truth?"
Blair took a step forward, seeking the invisible chink in Jim's armour, needing it for his immediate survival. "Jim, it's just for tonight. Just while she's here, that's all. What can be so hard about that? I mean, we won't have to do anything."
"So how's she going to get the impression we're a couple if we don't do anything, eh? Unless you plan on actually saying it - and if you do, I promise you, I'll tell her the truth."
"Hey, man, of course, I won't lie."
"Then explain to me, Darwin, how she's going to think you and I are sleeping together."
Blair moved a little closer. This cold calm was really not what he'd been expecting at all. This was quite scary. "Jim, man, I'm sorry."
"For what?" Jim glanced up, pinning him to his place with a look laced with steel.
This was really one of those times when he should have just kept his mouth shut. "I ... er ... I know that you'd ..."
"What?" Jim blinked and frowned, "Are we back to the homophobic thing of last night, are we? You really think that's why I won't do this?"
"No, Jim, I never said you were homophobic." Blair back-peddled furiously, "I never even thought it. Honestly. I'm sorry that I've put you in this position. I just don't want to hurt this girl, okay? I can't afford to."
Jim kept the gaze on him for a good, solid minute before letting out a sigh and returning to his mushrooms. "I don't know why I bother. When did I lose the ability to say no to all these crazy schemes you come up with? My life just hasn't been the same since you walked into that hospital room."
The hard words sent a cold wash through Blair. Not cold - icy. Carefully, he put his bottle down on the counter and stood beside Jim, watching the face in profile. "Jim? Are you sorry I did? I mean, is this... " his voice caught as he framed the words, touched on a fear he'd buried for too long now. "Is this where we ... you know ... put an end to this?"
He got a close-up of the jaw clench this time. It snapped at him like a rebuke. The pause before Jim replied was long. Too long. "Do you think we should?"
"Hey," Blair murmured, his stomach clenching enough to make him nauseated, his heart pounding enough to beat a hole through his chest. This was so not the conversation he ever wanted to have. His face felt flushed and his skin crawled like it could hide somewhere until this was over. "This is your place, man. I know I crowd you. I push you. I know I do it. I just thought ... well, Jim, if you want me to move out ... I'll go. And hey, like you said, you don't really need me to be there all the time, right? So why am I still here?" Why do I feel like crying all of a sudden? Why didn't I see this coming? Why didn't I do something about this before it got so bad? Why have I just thrown away the best friendship I've ever had? His voice caught again, "No, man, you're right, I should find a place of my own. It's just that I..."
He stopped, looking up, afraid of what he would see. "Yeah?"
Jim turned to him, his expression dark. "Shut up."
Blair opened his mouth to protest - but a hand was clapped over it, backing up the order.
"For once, Chief, just do as you're told, okay?" There was a small twinkle in Jim's eyes as Blair nodded, as something began to unwind inside him, helped along with Jim's next words. "I don't want you to go, okay? If you think it's time - well, that's up to you. But you know as well as I do that if I really didn't want you here, you wouldn't be. So, are we okay with this now?"
When Blair didn't answer, Jim nodded benignly, removing his hand. "You may speak."
Blair tried a tentative smile. "Yeah, we're okay."
Jim didn't take his gaze away, but watched Blair with a mixture of curiosity and unveiled concern. More than enough to make Blair feel much, much better. "So, are you leaving or staying?"
"Staying." Relief flooded through him. The world settled back on its stumps, foundations were re-laid.
"Good." That word alone sent the rest of Blair's nausea and apprehension off into the void. "And about this girl?"
"Yeah?" Blair waited, hoping - but saying nothing. The time for pushing was long gone.
"Well, if you want to give her that impression, okay, I'll go along with it. But I'm not camping up for anyone, got that?"
Blair couldn't help but giggle at the idea of Jim camping - at least, the kind that didn't require tents. "No way, man, I'd never ask that of you."
"Fortunate, really, since I wouldn't do it - not even for you."
"So what do you suggest?"
"Me?" Jim shook his head, picked up the board covered in sliced mushrooms and tipped them into the frying pan. "Of course it's up to me, isn't it? The Sandburg Disaster Zone - aka, my life." There was laughter in Jim's voice now, enough to stop Blair from worrying. "Alright, leave it with me and go have your shower. This girl will be here in about fifteen minutes - and when you come out, get dressed in my room, okay? You can come down the stairs when I open the door. Make sure your bedroom door is closed. Right?"
"Yeah, right. And thanks, Jim."
I turn from the balcony but I don't walk away just yet. I can feel the sun on my back as it breaks into the new day. I can feel it warming my bones, my joints, seeking out the cold places inside me, trying to eradicate them.
I don't want to do this.
This is where I want to be. This is what I want to be.
I grew up with a father who knew nothing about me. A man who never bothered to understand the interior of me, the outer edges, the raw and fragile parts, the hard and stubborn parts. He was a steamroller and I was the unwary new road, flattened by his generic parenting. Simple, straightforward rules, equally simple punishments. Get one, lose two. One step forward, two steps back.
And then there came the inevitable day when I took one too many steps back and vanished from his life. Sometimes I wonder if he wouldn't have been more content if I'd never returned from Peru. At least he could have understood that. Honest, straightforward, 'son dies in action' fate well within the realms of his capacity to see me. Not what he would have chosen, no - but then again, neither was I.
I still wonder, to this day, what he would say if I ever told him. The truth. All of it, from start to finish. All the things I've done, all the things I am. Would he, finally knowing all that, still reject me? Or would he reject me to spite the things I am?
It's cost me a lot to be me. But I was willing to put my hand into my pocket.
I still am.
But I still don't want to do this. Not now.
It was like watching a magician at work when Jim Ellison wanted to turn on the charm. Right from the moment when Emily arrived, he was there, welcoming her, hanging up her jacket, calling for Blair, asking her if she wanted a drink. Too nervous by half, Blair came down the stairs, hair still a little wet, doing up the last buttons on his shirt - to find Jim smiling at him like ... well, the way a lover would.
Not that Emily noticed. She was too caught up with looking around the loft, picking things up and asking questions about them. Blair talked to her while he set the table. The first time he ventured into the kitchen, he nearly jumped a mile when Jim moved around him, placing a hand to the small of his back in a gesture that lingered much longer than it ever had before. The second visit to the kitchen and Jim reached past him, pausing to tuck a strand of Blair's hair back from his face in a movement so smooth, even Blair would have been fooled if he hadn't known better.
And from Jim there was no sign whatsoever that it was an act. That's what a few years working vice undercover will do for a man. The ability to slip into any role at any time. Then again, perhaps Jim had done this before; played the role of a gay man for the sake of a case. Yeah, that had to be it.
Of course, that didn't prepare Blair for the touches when they came. Not that Jim had never touched him before. Sure, they kinda touched each other all the time - but now, these were really deliberate, lingered longer and were ....well, different somehow, as though they were designed to demonstrate a deep affection.
Fortunately, after the third time, Blair managed to stop himself from flinching subconsciously. After all, what did he have to be afraid of? Hadn't he asked Jim to do this?
But it was the looks that got him more than anything else. The looks, the smiles - the very way Jim moved. So weird. Was this what Jim was like with a woman? If so, how could they ever stand to let him go? There was such an air of burning want in those clear blue eyes, Blair found himself staring more than once, surprised to feel some odd physical response in his own body.
Good thing this was just pretence, really. If Jim looked at him like this every day, Blair would be moving swiftly past serious temptation and right up into urgent action with barely a nod in the direction of caution.
And that would go down so well.
Just before the meal was ready, Emily went out onto the balcony, seemingly oblivious to what was going on. Blair stood at the cooker, stirring the sauce and Jim came to stand behind him. Without a word, Jim placed a hand on his shoulder and leaned down so he could whisper in Blair's ear.
"Do you think she's getting the idea yet?"
"No, man, it's like she's blind or something."
"Do you want to stop and try something else?"
"No, no," Blair stirred the sauce idly, his concentration taken up by the feel of Jim's hand on his shoulder. It was odd, but until tonight, he'd never really thought about how often they normally touched each other. Hadn't really considered how important it seemed to be to both of them. But in that moment, he was touched by something else, something much deeper and something which made him feel very good. He was so lucky to have Jim, to have someone who was just like him in this way. It was good to be able to show affection without it being questioned. Yeah, he was very lucky.
"You're not zoning on me are you, Chief?" Blair could feel Jim's breath near his ear and smiled.
"No, that's your job, not mine. You just keep that tactile sense dialled down and we'll get through dinner okay?"
"Now why would I want to do that?" Jim gave his shoulder a squeeze and let go. He collected the wine bottle and took it to the table. He called Emily in and they sat down to eat.
I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have this balcony. I'd probably spend an hour each day, leaning out of a window, scaring people below in the street.
That's not to say I come out here that often. Probably once every couple of days - even in winter. The loft is my home, the city is my workplace - but the balcony is my half-way house. Outside without me being outside. Home without being indoors. Part of nature without being immersed in it.
Back at the beginning, when he first started living here, he gave me exercises to sharpen my senses. Most of them involved me standing out here at various times of the day, stretching my abilities, fine-tuning them, testing them. He pushed me.
Never really stopped pushing me.
I've been pushed before. I know what it feels like. I know it's necessary. I accept that. Doesn't mean I have to like it.
But when he pushed me it was always different. As though it wasn't him doing the pushing, but me. As though he was doing it for me - because I couldn't or wouldn't do it myself. He was doing it in my place. As though he knew all that and didn't mind.
I want to ask him about that but he's very quiet now. He's got a cup of coffee between his hands and he's sipping it. He glances at me occasionally, as though he expects me to say something else, maybe to tell him I've changed my mind - or even to ask him if he's changed his. Perhaps I should. Ask him, that is. He likes to talk, to mull things over, to wind them through the great loom of his mind until he can make a patterned rug to suit all occasions. If he'd been a physicist, he would have been doing his dissertation on finding the theory for universal unity.
I don't know where he gets his patience from. I'm the proud receiver of most of it and I don't know what I ever did to deserve it. By rights, he should hate me by now. But he doesn't.
"It's going to be a nice day," he murmurs, turning to look out over the city. "You should get out into it. Go for a walk or something."
I have to smile. "I did that already."
"Yeah, that's right. Sorry."
I take in a breath, cataloguing all the things he's taught me, finding them there, in the gentle breeze as though they're notes he's left for me deliberately, knowing I'd need them now. "How long till you have to go?"
His answer takes time, making me wonder how little time he has. Then he speaks, his voice that low timbre I can never ignore. I know he doesn't do it deliberately. He can't know what it does to me.
So I give him my reply, for what it's worth. A worthless reply saying nothing that needs to be said because, really, I've already done everything that needed to be done to ruin it all. More intent on my part at this point, would be totally superfluous. "I need a shower - or do you want one first?"
"No, you go. I have to finish packing."
Yeah. He does.
"Oh, hell, Chief, you can't be serious! You said it was only for one night!"
Blair paced the room in front of Jim, keeping his distance from the man standing by the table. "I know, I know - but can I help it if she knows nothing about body language?"
"Well, maybe she does - and that's why she's not buying it. What's she done today?"
"She's asked me out to dinner again, that's what. Please, Jim."
"What's the point?" Jim raised his arms in frustration. "Hell, I did everything last night short of actually sitting there and holding your hand. Why can't you just tell her the truth?"
"We've been over this." Blair hissed, not wanting to push but knowing he really had no option now. "Just tonight, I promise."
"Tonight? As I recall, Chief, you said you only wanted somewhere to stay for a week. Three years later..."
Blair raised his arms, "What, you want me to tell her to sleep on the streets? Her hotel got flooded, there's a convention in town until tomorrow. The Dean's house is being fumigated so she can't even stay there. It's just for tonight. I can sleep on the couch if it's such a problem."
Jim stalked forward, "The sleeping arrangements are not the problem, Sandburg! Sleep in my damned bed, I don't care. I just don't like this whole elaborate charade - especially when it seems this girl doesn't seem to want to see it."
But the older man held up a hand. "No, don't go on. You know I'll agree in the end, so can we just cut to the chase? How long till she gets here?"
"Right, then. You've got an hour to move up into my bedroom, lover," Jim grunted. "Then you can get your sorry ass back down here and cook dinner. I'm going for a walk."
The echo from the slammed door reverberated around the loft for a few good seconds before Blair finally moved.
He did so, cursing and swearing.
After all, it wasn't as if Blair hadn't occasionally helped him out with girlfriends now and then. Like that time when the Golden made him blind. Yeah, Blair had gone along with that - against his better judgement, helping Jim to make out like he could see just fine. It wasn't his fault Jim hadn't dated her a second time. It wasn't his fault that Jim never dated any woman a second time.
Not his fault at all.
He makes coffee.
He makes coffee and pours it in to two mugs. If I concentrate, I can see each individual thread of steam as it winds its way upwards, pushing towards his body as he crosses the room, one mug in each hand. He stops at the doorway, hands me mine then steps out onto the balcony with me.
How many times have we done this before?
How normal is this?
Coffee, dawn, the balcony, Cascade, Sandburg and me.
I feel like I'm slipping and there's nobody to catch me. I don't know how this happened and I know I should. I'm supposed to be older and wiser and I still don't have a clue.
Did I make a choice? Or fail to?
Blair was sufficiently packed and moved by the time Emily arrived, deliberately leaving the impression that he only used the room for an office and storage. He put her bags in his room, made her a coffee and had just begun dinner when Jim arrived back. Once again, the magic appeared, Mr Charming was in town, laughing, smiling, playing the genial host - and touching Blair at every opportunity.
Touching and looking. Those looks again.
Not just the looks, but what Blair could see in them. How Emily could be blind to them was a complete mystery. They seared through Blair, reaching deep inside him with the efficiency of a steel blade, more than once, leaving him shaking in places he didn't want to think about.
But the shaking didn't stop. It rattled things loose, making him feel light-headed, making him trip over questions he'd never dared ask himself before.
Like, if he'd been seriously tempted once before in his life - why hadn't he acted on it back then?
And ... was this just because a guy was looking at him like this - or was it because it was Jim?
And ... how was he going to feel when the charade was over? When the looks vanished and the touches returned to normal. This act was temporary - but were his feelings also? Or, would he discover in a week, or a month, that they had far more substance than he was ready for?
And where would that leave him?
If Blair hadn't already known how angry Jim was, he would almost have been able to enjoy the evening. But he didn't get a chance to apologize until after dinner, when Emily asked to take a shower, giving Blair a moment alone with Jim.
The bigger man was standing out on the balcony, hands placed on the rail, watching the sunset.
Blair moved up beside him, feeling like shit. "I really am sorry, man. You were right. I shouldn't have suggested this in the first place."
"Doing the guilt thing, are we now, Chief?"
"I don't want you to be angry."
"I'm not angry."
"Oh, come on! You don't think I know when you're angry?"
Jim turned then, his gaze hard and yet, yielding. "And you think you know me that well, do you? Haven't I just spent another evening playing the part of your lover? Would I do that if I was angry?"
"Yes, you would."
"And why would I?"
Blair shrugged, "Because you said you would."
"Because you asked me to."
Slowly, Jim shook his head. "What more do I have to do to make you ... make her understand, eh?"
A sudden, violent thought slammed into Blair's brain at that question - and was instantly batted away.
However, it returned with all the subtlety of a marching band in high summer - deafening and not to be ignored. But how in god's name could he put it into words so that Jim would still be talking to him tomorrow?
"You could kiss me."
The sudden gasp at these bold words filled the silence - but it was only a moment later that Blair realised it had been his own. So had the suggestion.
From brain to mouth, no pausing, no considering, no gathering together of consequences etc. Just from point a to point b in one smooth motion.
Very slick, Sandburg. Now stand there and watch your best friend decide he really doesn't want you in his life any more.
"Have you ever kissed a man?" Jim's voice was low, full of warning - but leaving Blair no option but to reply.
"So if I kiss you, how are you going to control your reaction to something so different? She'll know it's a put up job. She may be a little slow in the body language department - but I'm thinking it's because what she's actually seeing is two men who are only pretending to be lovers. If I kiss you, I'm sure she'll see right through it. No, much as I'd like this to be over, once and for all, I don't think a kiss is going to do it."
Blair turned away, his face reddening with shame. "I'm sorry ... I didn't think. I just ..."
What, Sandburg? You just wondered what it would be like to kiss your best friend - and worse still, you did it out loud. You going to try explaining that?
Jim's hand was on his shoulder once more. "It's okay, Chief. I know you're not doing this deliberately to make my life hell. I recognize that it's merely a natural consequence of who you are. I'll go through with this. Just, next time? Think before you start flirting with a girl, okay?"
And then Jim was gone, leaving Blair with a horrible empty feeling in the pit of his stomach.
I know he can't see the sun rising just beyond the horizon. I know he can't see the way the sky changes colour. I know he can't smell the difference in the air, the moisture and a dozen other mild chemical alterations the addition of warmth makes to a city atmosphere. Even standing out here, on the balcony, the gentle increase in traffic noise is beyond him for the moment. He's not a sentinel. He doesn't know.
His hands are cold. He holds them together, fingers laced as though the gesture would keep in heat rather than lose it.
He doesn't look at me now. Like he doesn't need to any more.
Maybe he can't.
Blair lay in bed, listening to the sounds of the night and how different they were from this room to his own. Here, the air flowed more freely, light glowed from the skylights and it was warmer.
Then, there was Jim. Fast asleep beside him. Emily hadn't batted an eyelid when they'd gone up to bed together. Hadn't even noticed - but then, she might be thinking that because she was staying, the guys would automatically sleep together.
So really the whole damned thing had been a complete waste of time. She was never going to get a clue. All night she'd been smiling at him, making little comments, taking every opportunity she could to touch him as they worked. Not that Jim had noticed. He'd sat and watched the game on TV, his earphones blocking the sound. As oblivious to Blair's torture as Emily was.
Two more days before her application had to be in - and then he could set her free. But would he even last two days? She'd tried to kiss him goodnight this evening - though he'd skilfully managed to turn at the right moment, hoping she wouldn't notice.
And just how he was going to make this up to Jim was another matter. The whole horrible mess had been keeping him awake for two hours now.
Or was it the other horrible mess? The one he'd spent the last two hours not acknowledging.
The one where he refused to think about why he'd suggested Jim kiss him.
A twist of unbidden excitement flashed through him, snapping his eyes open.
What the hell?
But it was there, filling him now, making his heart pound, his mouth dry.
Curiosity? Was that all it was? A few offers over the years, one serious temptation - all turned down - and now this was his big chance to find out what it would be like to kiss a guy without the worry of where it would lead? Was that what he was doing?
And expecting Jim to just go along with it when he was already uncomfortable just pretending. Jesus, how selfish was he?
But his open eyes landed on the shape of Jim lying next to him, eyeshades down, body covered by sheets, bathed in moonlight.
Sure, Jim was a good-looking guy and the truth was, if Blair had to kiss a man for any reason, Jim would be his first choice. His best friend, his partner - his sentinel. On a purely academic level, Blair knew he could do it.
But his body wasn't being academic about this. His body was hurrying down another path entirely. One that was more and more interested in those touches Jim was giving him, those casual, lingering gestures of deep affection, those looks of want and longing and yes ... love. Like a moth to a flame, Blair was drawn to Jim, drawn to something that was a pretence, no matter how real it seemed on the surface. For the first time in his life, Blair was seeing a glimpse of what it would be like to be in a stable, long-term relationship. It felt both terrible and wonderful at the same time. Wonderful because it was. Terrible, because it was all a lie - and would always be so.
Suddenly restless, he rolled over, away from Jim, huddling himself into a ball.
Startled by the voice, Blair frowned, "You're awake?"
"Yeah. You okay?"
Jim said nothing else for a minute before he shifted his position, settling again with a sigh. "I'm not angry, you know. Not the way you think I am, anyway."
"Chief, it's three am. It's too late to have this discussion now. We both have to work tomorrow. Why don't we shelve it and talk about it when we're camping, okay? Until then, just don't worry about it."
"Okay." Blair felt very small and his voice came out that way too. Very small indeed. Wholly undeserving of the friendship of the man trying to sleep beside him. "Thanks, Jim."
Is this the way it's supposed to be?
Was it all written down somewhere, in a big book called 'Sandburg and Ellison's Fate'?
I'm going to feel like shit tomorrow.
I know this. I can see this future. So why doesn't it stop me?
Blair's alarm went off way too early. That didn't stop him, though. Didn't stop him from thumping it so hard he ended up with a bruise. He fell out of bed, grabbed his things and stumbled down the stairs with his eyes almost closed. They remained that way as he showered and dressed. An hour later, he had breakfast prepared and laid out, his computer on and was cracking away by the time Jim and Emily emerged from their respective rooms.
Blair found it almost impossible to look at either of them.
Too many lost hours of sleep. Too much to do. Too many things to think about. His life was now so over-ruled that he almost couldn't see it any more. Instead, he scrambled from one topic to the next, finishing one job and rolling straight into another without even pausing. The only way to go, the only option he had to keep track of all these things in his life, all these walls and barriers. If he didn't keep pushing back at them, they'd close in completely and he would be suffocated beneath them.
A shit of a way to live - but like he had a choice?
Jim, true to his word, continued the pretence - only now, Blair couldn't let him. In the kitchen, he deliberately moved away when he knew Jim would have given him one of those casual touches. The second time he did it, he caught the confused and slightly hurt look in Jim's eyes.
Of course, that only made it worse.
With almost indecent haste, he hurried Emily out of the door and headed off to work. All the way, she chatted as she always did, hopelessly oblivious to his mood, to Jim's mood, to anything that might get in the way of what she thought was going on.
God, how did he get himself into these things?
And here he was, almost hating her because she was being blind. So, he was selfish as well as a hypocrite. He did however, manage not to flinch when she gave him a kiss on the cheek when he dropped her off.
So - why didn't she pick up on all the touching, the smiles and everything? Was Jim right and it was because, in reality it was all a sham? Was she actually able to see right through both of them - or maybe the touching wasn't really enough?
Well, it hardly mattered now. After all, her application went in tomorrow and he would no longer have to see her on a daily basis. This wasn't a permanent problem.
Not unless ...
He parked his car and with an enormous sigh, rested his head against the steering wheel. Of course, she wouldn't let him leave it at that, would she? She would call him and come around to visit him and everything. And if her funding came through - and his job almost depended on that little gem happening - she would be around for the next couple of years. This wasn't a problem that was going away in a hurry. In the end, the longer he left it, the worse it would be - but it was already worse. Sure, he wasn't actively encouraging her - but then, neither was he actively discouraging her - and that was enough to damn him.
Resolutely, he set about the day's work, refusing to think about it. His anger at his own stupidity fired his efforts and he managed to get more done in one day than he had in the previous three. For the first time, he actually began to believe he might get it all done before the holiday. His mood even improved as he put finished jobs to one side. It continued to improve when he counted how many days he had left before the camping trip. It went right on improving until Emily stopped by his office in the middle of the afternoon.
She'd got it wrong. The convention had another day to run and she still didn't have anywhere to stay. Would he mind? Would Jim mind? Just one more night? She had somewhere to stay tomorrow - and they did have to finish her application tonight. Would it be a problem?
And what could he say but no? No problem at all - even though it was a direct lie. She couldn't even begin to understand how big a problem it was.
It was only after she'd left, humming merrily on her way, that he finally stopped and thought about how he was going to tell Jim.
And that's when it really hit him. With surprise. Maybe the reason why Emily hadn't been convinced about them being lovers was perhaps because it had all been terribly one-sided. Jim had done all he could to look like the devoted lover - and Blair had done nothing. Nothing at all. Perhaps in Emily's mind, she saw that Jim felt this way about Blair - but that Blair did nothing to encourage it and therefore assumed there was nothing going on between them.
But the understanding galvanized him. He set back to work - only remembering after an hour that he really had to call Jim and tell him Emily was going to be there again tonight. Not surprisingly, Jim made no real comment on the situation - but did say he was going to be late in. Blair promised to leave him some dinner and went back to his work. So, maybe the opportunity to bring the lie home to Emily might have to wait - but they did have work to do, so perhaps it might be for the best.
At least, wishful thinking kept his spirits high for the rest of the day.
He looks at me like he can read me like a book. Large print. Small words. I'm taller than him and I use that to my advantage as often as I can, because honestly, sometimes he scares the crap out of me the way he looks at me. Looks through me. Looks right inside me to places I haven't visited in years. Decades.
And he does it with his eyes wide open, as though he's unafraid. Like there couldn't possibly be things inside me that should make him scared. But I have to admit, when he looks at me - there aren't.
But he doesn't know that. He can't know it. It doesn't stop him, though. He goes right on investigating and exploring, totally oblivious to the courage it requires, never realizing he has it. Has all he needs to read me like a book.
I have no idea why he's so surprised. I thought I'd lost the ability to surprise him. But I can feel it in the way his hands are trembling. I can see it in those blue eyes which watch me so steadily.
I wish I just knew.
But I don't stick around long enough to find out.
The hum of the printer had long since settled into the background by the time Blair stood to stretch. Emily was sitting at the table opposite him, writing up the last summary. Blair was proof-reading each page as it came off the printer, the table around them a chaotic mess of past failures.
Bones cracked as he eased out the kinks from sitting too long. Needing a break, Blair moved into the kitchen to clean up the mess from dinner. The last thing he wanted was for Jim to come home and see it.
He had his hands sunk into soapy water before the sudden lack of noise from behind registered. He glanced over his shoulder to see Emily staring at the screen. Carefully - and not a little hopefully - he ventured, "All finished?"
"Yeah. As finished as it's going to be. If it's not good enough - then, well, it isn't and I go home next week."
"Hey, I'm sure it will be good enough."
She turned, coming to her feet. "You think so?"
"Yeah, I do."
Emily nodded, compiling together the last pages from the printer. She set them down and came into the kitchen to help him finish up. She wiped plates dry and stacked them in silence. Then she turned to Blair, a faint smile on her face. "I just want you to know how great it's been working with you - and how lucky I am Professor Walkin asked you, of all people."
A little bemused, Blair replied, "Why me of all people?"
"Well, everyone at Rainier knows how good you are at what you do. I've asked around."
"You have?" That niggling voice was back, whispering a warning somewhere in the dark reaches of his mind.
"Yeah, I have." Without pausing, Emily put her tea-towel down and slipped her arms around his waist.
"Emily..." Blair caught her arms and would have pushed her back - except that Jim chose that moment to return home. He shut the door, turned and took one look at Blair and Emily.
Blind fury flashed in his eyes. Fury tainted with something Blair didn't have time to analyse before Jim turned and strode towards the stairs. It was a second before Emily noticed something was wrong.
She let Blair go, standing back with her hands raised, her eyes wide with horror. "God, I'm sorry, Blair, I didn't realise he was coming in."
Blair didn't know which way to go with this - but he did know one thing - he had to explain to Jim or it was entirely likely the other man would never speak to him again. At least, not some time in the next ten years.
Holding his panic in, he turned to Emily. "Look, I think Jim needs to talk to me. Why don't you grab a shower or something?"
"Sure. Okay. I just didn't think, you know. I mean, I know he ..."
Blair took one look into her eyes and knew what she was thinking. He'd been right. She thought Jim's affection was all one-way. Damn. But he didn't have time to work on that right now. He had to get to Jim. Now.
He left her in the kitchen and headed up the stairs. Jim was there, pacing up and down, only stopping when he registered Blair's presence. He raised a single hand in warning. "Don't say a word to me, Chief. Not a word. I don't want to hear it."
Keeping his voice quiet, Blair stepped forward, "Jim, I promise you, it's not what it looks like."
"Oh? Look, why don't you just fuck her and be done with it, eh? Like every other girl you've gone out with. Just leave me the hell out of it from now on!" Jim's voice hissed his anger into the darkened loft, sending shivers right through Blair.
Steeling himself, he came closer, forcing himself to be quiet. "I promise you, Jim, I don't want to fuck her. I don't want to have anything to do with her. She put her arms around me! I was just about to push her away when you walked in."
"Really?" Jim snapped. "And what reason would you have given her, eh?"
Seeing this as the only opportunity he had, Blair moved as close as he dared, his voice soft enough to keep Emily ignorant, but loud enough for a sentinel to hear. "Jim, I worked out why she isn't getting the idea. She thinks you just have a thing for me because it's always you who touches me. I haven't been doing anything and I just know that if we ..."
"No! I'm not doing this any more." A pained expression flitted across Jim's face and was gone. "Do you have any idea how difficult it is for me to..."
"Yes, Jim, I do know. And I am sorry - but she's not just going to let this go now. Even though the work is done, she's going to keep calling me and you know as well as I do the longer I leave it the worse it's going to be. Please Jim, just let me do this and it will be all over." From below, Blair could hear the sounds of the shower going and a part of him was relieved that Emily was out of the way for the moment.
"All over?" Jim's eyebrows rose in disbelief. "Until the next time? Oh, right! And what if this next scheme doesn't work, eh? You going back to that suggestion that we kiss in front of her? Well? Or are we actually going to have to have sex, right here, above her room before she gets the idea?"
The words hit Blair like a slap in the face - only they didn't make him step back. They should have - but they didn't. No, they had exactly the opposite affect.
His hand was on Jim's chest before he even realised he'd moved. The gesture brought Jim to a halt, his breathing deep and ragged - but Blair was almost oblivious to it, so totally wound up in his own body's reactions was he. His heart was pounding, his palms sweating and he couldn't take his eyes from Jim's.
And somewhere deep inside him, blind, terrifying excitement was gripping him like a bull terrier. He wanted to see that look again. He didn't want this to end, didn't want Emily to finally believe. He wanted...
Christ! What was he doing!
With a wash of cold fear sweeping through him, he dropped his hand and stepped back. There was no doubt Jim would sense his arousal, no doubt Jim would know...
Oh, god! How could he get out of this? Run? Deny? Shitshitshit!!!!!
Shaking his head, he moved back, further - but Jim pursued him, relentless, his anger rising again, clipping his words of any other emotion. "This is some great little game you're playing here, Sandburg. Toying with this girl's affections, getting me to play along. What, you think she'll be more interested if she thinks you might be gay and she can convert you to being straight? Is that what this is really about?"
Blair's voice held no conviction, no breath, nothing but panic, "No, Jim, I..."
"Don't give me that! I can smell it on you!"
From the frying pan into the fire - but panic ruled Blair now and he couldn't let Jim think that, would rather him know the truth than have him believe Blair would deliberately do something like that ..."No, Jim, it's not her it's..."
Jim came to a complete stop. His eyes widened, picking up pale light filtering through the skylights. For long seconds, he said nothing at all - and Blair couldn't find any words to fill the void. All he could think of was how close Jim was and how impossible this had become and that, with a little judicious bungling, he'd managed to screw up the best relationship he'd ever had in his entire life.
Apologies had no place here. If Jim ever forgave him they'd still never be able to go back to where they'd been, before all this started.
And how could he explain how he felt? How would he find words to say what he wanted? That he hadn't even known what he wanted until this whole stupid thing came along. That what he wanted from Jim was something Jim would never give him.
Jim would only ever play the lover. Temporarily. It was all a pretence.
For everyone but Blair.
And still Jim said nothing. Slowly, Blair realised that he didn't have much choice any more. There was really only one solution - only ever had been the one. He swallowed, trying vainly to convince his body that it didn't need to react like this, that wanting and dread really didn't have to co-exist in the same space at the same time.
"I'm sorry, Jim, really I am. I wish I could ... you know, explain how sorry I am. I fucked up. Big time, I know. Just ... give me a couple of minutes to pack and I'll be out of your hair, okay? You won't have to ..."
"What?" Jim hissed, taking another step closer until he had Blair backed up against the brick wall. "You've spent so much time trying to avoid hurting this girl's feelings and yet you ignore how I feel about it?"
"Jim, no! I know how you feel and I know I shouldn't have involved you. I'm sorry ..."
"For what? For making me behave like a lover towards you, even when ... And now your solution is what? Move out? Run away? Go somewhere where you don't have to look at me any more? Is that the best the great Sandburg mind can come up with? Do you have any idea how pathetic that sounds?"
"I know, I know ..." Panic had him well and truly now. Yeah, he was pathetic. And selfish. And a hypocrite. And Jim deserved none of it. "Jim, I'm sorry. I'll go now. I'll ..."
Without a word, Jim grabbed his arms and shoved him back against the wall, holding him there with no trouble at all. His gaze locked onto Blair's, full of anger and despair and so many other things it was impossible to count them all. "You're not moving out! I'm not going to let you run away from this, from your responsibility! Do you understand me?"
Hardly daring to breathe, Blair nodded - and Jim continued. "You just have no idea, do you? Not a clue. The smartest man I've ever met and you aren't even in the same street with this."
Raising one hand, Jim gripped the side of his face - and instantly, a thousand electric sparks darted through Blair's stomach and out to the rest of him, communicating oh so well, what that simple gesture felt like to the frail and trembling flesh on his face. If he could have moved, he would have damned himself to eternity, leaned forward and kissed Jim.
"I'm going to give you two choices, Chief," Jim hissed into the pounding silence. "Either you tell Emily the truth - or you make us the truth." Before Blair could even blink, Jim brought his lips down hard, kissing Blair almost painfully.
It was brief. Too brief - by about an hour or so. Blair knew his mouth followed Jim's as he drew back - but they then it was too late. Jim released him, stepped back and shook his head. "Your choice, Chief. I'm going out."
The sound of the door slamming only vaguely imprinted itself on Blair's awareness. He remained where he was, pressed up against the wall, heart hammering in his chest, breath thin and streaky, cock as hard as the bricks behind him.
"Jesus Christ, what have I done?"
I never really liked walking in the dark. Not that it's really that dark. After all, this is a city and I'm a sentinel, so hey, how dark can it be, right?
But I've lived in the dark before. Lived it, breathed it, loved it. Drowned myself in it like it was some sort of security blanket. Long, long nights in Peru, times I'd successfully repressed before he came into my life. Years in the army, doing things I didn't regret at the time but knew I would later. Like now. The dark was a good place to hide in for so long.
He's like a locksmith. He just has to worry at something until he finds the right key and then, hey presto, open Jim wide and expose him to the light.
I could hate him for it.
If I had the time, the breath, the energy, I would. If I wanted to curse myself for all eternity, I'd embrace the hatred and let it consume me.
But who can hate him?
Who can hate the light, even if it burns and scalds, blisters and leaves streaming scars no balm will ever soothe.
He brought his light into my life. Chaos. Change. Surprise and wonder.
And now he knows everything there is to know. He shone his flashlight into my shadows and saw the truth.
I kissed him.
I'd known it would happen some time. I'd seen the danger signs, the warnings he'd left scattered through his conversations over the last few days. Ignorant of all but his present purpose; more blind than Emily, he had no idea what he was asking.
But I kissed him.
Is that too high a price to pay? In exchange for the exposure of my soul? Will he begrudge me that little moment? That brief second in time when I could finally taste him? Know him from the inside?
The man has no idea at all just how much he means to me, just how much he is to me.
I don't care what it takes. I can't let him leave me.
I can't live in the dark any more.
The soft sounds of a city drifting towards a summer morning did little to ease Blair into sleep. He lay stretched out on the couch, his eyes wide open, his body exhausted.
Sleep wasn't going to come now, he knew that much. And why should he get sleep when Jim was still out there, walking around, angry, confused maybe.
The stillness was good. The quiet, the peace, the sense of welcome plainness to the loft he'd always liked. Undiluted, he let it settle within him, slowing down the reckless tangle his life had become until it too, came to rest.
Too busy to see. Surrounded by too many things to see over the top of them. Or perhaps, too scared to peek.
But now they were there, open before him; truths he'd never witnessed before, flapping idly in the breeze of discovery, all new and fresh and crisp.
Too busy to see what he'd been feeling for so long. Too caught up with staying caught up he hadn't noticed why he'd craved being so busy, why he embraced it, why he'd never looked back.
Silly how things change without asking first. Odd how things can push and pull at you until you're in a place where there aren't any road signs, no instruction book and only a faintly musty smell of danger reeking from every corner.
It was always going to be like this unless he did something to stop it. This was as permanent as it gets.
Once again, as he'd done all night, he tried closing his eyes and simply listening, pushing his limits in some hope of understanding how much a sentinel would hear in this gentle confusion. But this time, he finally heard something he wanted to hear. Footsteps on the landing outside the door, keys jangling, one pushed into the lock.
As the first threads of dawn streaked across the sky, Jim entered the loft and stood before the French windows, his back to Blair. A light jacket clothed the heavy shoulders, cloaking whatever language this body was speaking now.
For long minutes, silence resumed as he watched Jim, wondered about him, worried and fretted. What peace he'd achieved was shattered and would not return, not give him solace for what needed to happen.
"You should be asleep," Jim murmured. "You've got another busy day today."
"Where have you been?" Blair chose his words carefully, sat up and stretched. Perhaps he could reach for calm on the outside and hope it might penetrate his thick skull. "You didn't take your cell with you. I was worried."
"I've been walking."
Sitting forward, Blair laced his fingers together. For the first time in weeks, he wasn't having any trouble concentrating through his tiredness. What he was having trouble with was finding the right words. He'd had hours to work over them, play with them, bounce them around like a target in a pinball machine. Words had always been his greatest ally, but somehow, words didn't seem to matter now. It was too late.
But words were all he had. And they had to be his words - for Jim would say nothing, admit nothing, resolve nothing if Blair didn't do something now.
The bigger man remained by the window, hands by his sides, head held stiff and resolute, as though he expected condemnation, rejection.
Without shifting, Blair glanced over his shoulder to where his backpack waited, resting against the wall by the door. Almost packed, one zipper left half open. Had Jim seen it? Was that why ...
"Jim," Blair swallowed, forcing himself to continue, to grab both of them and step away from this precipice. Even now, after so many hours, he could still feel the faint ghostly trace of Jim's mouth upon his own. A single kiss, trapped in time, isolated and homeless. Framing, if not choosing his words, he kept his gaze on Jim, and said, "I ... I didn't know."
A slight shrug from powerful shoulders gave little away, resigned, as though he knew Blair was going to talk about this even if he didn't want to. "You weren't supposed to."
Blair's eyebrows rose, "Why not?"
He could hear the palest hint of bitter laughter in Jim's voice. "What do you think repression is all about, eh, Chief?"
Blair nodded, dropping his gaze. There was guilt there, in that level voice, guilt and blame. Equally proportioned, equally accepted. "How long?"
"Does it matter?"
"I guess not." Blair couldn't bring himself to get up off the couch. It felt too much like the only anchor left in his life. "But I would like to know."
Another long pause before the answer came. "A year. Maybe longer."
An apology was frozen on Blair's lips as he looked up again. Jim wouldn't want to hear it, would interpret it as pity and that was definitely not what Blair was feeling right now.
"Jim ... I have to go."
All movement in that stern body ceased for a moment. Then, the shoulders dropped almost imperceptibly, the head nodded slightly, "I thought so."
Rushing to clarify, Blair said, "You don't understand..."
"Of course I don't. How could I? I mean I... " Jim drew in a ragged breath, shook his head as though it needed clearing. "I'm sorry, Chief. You don't deserve this. It's not your fault. If you don't want to stay here any more, I'll understand. I just wish you'd let it alone, you know?"
"Let it alone?" Blair got to his feet before he gave it a thought. Thoughts were a hindrance at this moment. Sudden impatience drove him forward - but wariness made him slow down. He'd gone in blindly before - now he had to be sure, had to make sure because if he did this wrong a second time, there would be no more chances, no more opportunities to fix this, to make is as good as it could be.
Jim had to know. Had to see the truth before it was too late.
"Were you ever going to tell me?" He said carefully, his gaze steady on Jim, watching closely every movement, listening to every shift in that voice.
"You'd only leave. And I didn't want you to go. Still don't. I want you to stay and now you're leaving. I want things to stay the way they are. I didn't want them to change."
"Everything changes, Jim, you know that." Things had to change - between them. They had to or Blair was never going to live with this. Never going to get past this. Never going to want to see Jim again if a really big change didn't happen very soon.
"Yeah, I guess I do." Jim sighed and shook his head again, self-castigation in every tiny gesture. His voice dropped to a short, harsh whisper. "I shouldn't have kissed you. I'm sorry."
And there was so much sadness, so much longing in that voice, that Blair couldn't wait any longer, couldn't pause and be sensible and cautious and whatever else otherwise-reasonable people would be at a time like this. He simply couldn't let Jim go on and not know.
"I'm not leaving." Those words had almost no affect so Blair continued, "I mean, I am leaving, but not like you think I am."
Resigned, Jim shrugged, "Then how?"
"Naomi rang after you left. A friend I went to high school with - Naomi knows his Mom ... anyway, this friend well, he died yesterday."
"Shit, Chief, I'm sorry!" Jim hung his head and shook it a little, "Are you okay?"
"Yeah," Blair nodded, "Yeah, I'm okay I guess. I mean, I haven't seen him in like six years but, well, I'm going to San Diego for the funeral. It'll just be for a couple of days. But you know," Blair paused and swallowed. He'd made such a hash of this whole thing. Never once seeing what it was Jim was hiding, never once seeing what he was hiding from himself. He battled on, "If you don't want me to come back here, I could..."
He would have continued except that Jim had turned to him, face half in shadow, half not, revealing too much and too little all at the same time.
And if Blair hadn't seen so much hope shining in those eyes, he wouldn't have chosen action next instead of words.
Taking a breath and gathering his courage before him, he stepped closer, took Jim's face in his hands - and kissed him.
He's kissing me. Like I have no choice in the matter.
I don't care. I'm kissing him back. I just don't give a fuck why he's doing it. This is too good, no matter what price I have to pay.
His mouth is hot, dangerous, hard and soft, filled with shadows that scare me and excite me and drive desire through me so fast I'm left dizzy and reckless. I must be shaking like a leaf but he's holding me steady, leaning back into the arms I've wrapped around him, letting his own arms go around my neck, leaving words far behind both of us.
That's okay. Actions are good. I can go with this.
God, how I want to!
I'm so close to him now, feel all of him the length of my body. Just like I've always wanted. It burns to be this close to the light - but I don't shrivel up and die - I burn along with him. When did he become the centre of my universe?
No. I don't give a damn. All I care about is that he's here, in my arms and he feels so good in my arms, I can hardly believe this. He's kissing me and letting me feel what he's feeling - which seems to me to be exactly what I'm feeling.
He's scaring me but I love this fear. I could live this fear. Breathe it in and out more easily than air.
I kiss him back, taking my own fear and sharing it with him. He's trembling too, as though he's only just realized what he's doing - but he knows. He knows exactly what he's doing because I'm kissing him and I'm holding him tighter and closer and I can feel everything he is, the whole beautiful, lightning package he is and he likes that I'm doing it because he's not fighting me, he's just pulling me closer.
Things are getting dangerous. We're on a tightrope here, holding onto each other for balance. We stay or fall together. The danger is intrinsic.
And then his kisses soften a little, draw back, become small delicate things he leaves along the edges of my mouth, like prayers, as though he's just looked over the edge of the precipice and knows what's down there but wants to savour the moment a little longer. I've wanted him for so long and now, at this moment, I don't think I've ever wanted him more.
"Two days, huh?" I murmur, when words come back to me, when verbal language becomes something I can manage again. Up till this moment, my body's been doing all the talking. Good thing he can read sign language. "I'm sorry about your friend. You gonna be okay?"
"Yeah. Naomi will be there."
He looks up at me, eyes wide and open, mind thinking, turning over. I'm glad at least one of us is able to think at a time like this.
"What do you want, Jim?"
"You." I smile a little when I see the burr of desire catch in his gaze. "Do you know what you want?"
It's only when he doesn't answer immediately that I remember.
I push him away so fast, he stumbles. "Where's Emily?"
Horror fills his eyes, his head shakes. "Shit, Jim you think this is about Emily? You think I'm just trying to make a point here?"
I blink at him, not sure and horribly sure and I don't know what the fuck I'm doing any more. Do I think he's done this deliberately?
Would he kiss me like that if he didn't mean it?
Would he do that to me?
"She's not here?"
I open my mouth to say something - and then decide words aren't so good after all. Not for me, at least. He seems to be doing very well all on his own.
I can't believe the shadows could swallow me up again so quickly.
His voice is hard and clipped, "After I spoke to Naomi I rang Sam. She said she could put Emily up for the night. I apologized, explained the situation and put Emily in a taxi. That was about six hours ago. Shit, Jim! I can't believe you thought..."
I don't bother with words this time. I just look at him, let him see what I can't say. And I can't say it, can't tell him how I feel because I've already ruined things with words. I have to let him use those eyes to look into my soul. I reach out, touch his face, let my thumb move across his jaw where the pale shadow of beard marks the line between throat and cheek, close to his ear. One of the most beautiful places on an otherwise completely beautiful man.
His anger fades, as though by a miracle, as though he wants it to, as though he knows why I do these things. I hope he tells me one day because I'd really like to know.
He lets me step closer, lets me kiss him, taste those lips again, taste him again; lets me imprint him on my memory for the days he will be away, lets me leave something he can take with him. I form my apology with my body, gathering him close once more, inhaling his breath into my own lungs, being as much a part of him as I dare until he forgives me completely.
One day I hope to tell him, or at least show him how much he means to me.
"I'm sorry," I murmur.
"Yeah, Jim, I know you are."
"But you're still angry?"
"Jim? You need to believe that not everybody in your life is going to betray you at some point, okay? The law of averages won't allow it."
I look down into those eyes, seeking out the blue I look for in the sky. "I can take other people betraying me, Chief. That's the problem."
He smiles a little, then more until his eyes reflect the words I can't form in my own mouth. I think he understands and I'm glad, because he needs to or he'll only hurt later.
His arms come around me again and I have to ask again - because he didn't answer. "What do you want, Chief?"
"Right now?" His voice is soft, husky and nothing at all like the one he uses when he's being my guide. His eyes watch me, that whole blue edged by desire and reflected streetlights, as though he's encompassing my life within boundaries I can easily understand, laying groundwork for a future.
"Yeah, right now." I could be wrong, but I think I'm smiling like an idiot. Good thing he can't see in the dark.
"Right now," he presses a kiss to my throat, leaving a moist mark that makes my skin tingle. "Right now I want to take you to bed."
"Okay." My heart stops - then starts again double-time. I guess I shouldn't be surprised he can read my mind.
He laughs; the most wonderful sound in the world.
I take that laughter and ride with it. "But you have to leave soon, right?"
"Yeah. I do."
"And you'd rather wait?"
"No..." he pauses, searching my face, his own breathing out a desire I never thought I'd see. A desire for me. "No, I don't want to wait - but if this is forever, Jim, I want to take my time making love to you."
It kills me to say it - but I do. "Me too."
"Yeah?" He looks up at me, something of amusement - and yes, something of fear in his eyes.
I take care of the fear with a gentle nudge of my hips forward, brushing my evidence against his own. Horribly dangerous doing that, when I can feel a tingle going all through my body, an urge I'm not sure I can deny.
But I can. I can live with it - because I don't just want to take him to bed and make love to him - I want to hold him afterwards and nap and wake and eat and hold him again and make love again.
And I want to do it for the rest of my life.
So I hold my desire in check, close against his and say, "This isn't just a quick tumble to me, Chief. Just don't expect me to be too patient when you get back. And don't forget we're going away together. All that time alone?"
He chuckles, and it's wicked and it makes me laugh, "I guess you'll be camping it up for me after all."
I swat his ass in reply, then caress it, feeling the heat build between us again. I place both my hands there, pulling him a little closer, playing with the danger, hoping he can guess how long I've wanted to be able to touch him there, like this. But even this amount of danger is almost too much. I see it in his eyes, a mirrored glow and it warms me like nothing else. "I'll change my leave dates."
"Okay. And you'll be all packed and ready when I get back?"
"I'm buying a new tent. One big enough for the both of us. I'll be all packed and more than ready."
His smile is worth waiting for, as is the husky laugh. He kisses me again, softly this time, briefly; touches of desire lingering in the moist flavour. Then he steps back until only our hands are touching. "In that case, I think we should leave this here - before temptation over-rides my sense of self-preservation. Much as I'd like to spend what's left of the night making out - I don't think either of us has that kind of discipline, do you?"
"Speak for yourself, Junior. I've been living with this for a year and more."
Another laugh - and this one's triumphant, confident and so secure. I like him like this. He comes close once more. "Maybe. But you haven't been living with this."
And he kisses me again, deep, wanting, filling me with his being until I'm sure I'm going to take him right here, on the floor. The promise in his kiss leaves a permanent mark inside me, there for life. Then - and only then - does he decide once more to step back, once, twice, until we can't touch at all.
But we don't need to. Not any more. Whatever we've been reaching for and touching for the last three years is now in the open. I can see it. There, in his eyes.
He belongs here. With me.