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A Quiet War, Part 1

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This story has been split into three parts.

A Quiet War

by Meredith Lynne

Author's website: http://trickster.org/radiofree/cascade.htm

Disclaimer: Oh, please.

Story notes: Some writers, when they finish a story, say in their notes that it was kind of like giving birth. I can understand that. Finishing this story was sort of like that for me, only -- well. Have you guys seen Aliens?

Seah, Shoshanna, and Margie are fantastic editors and I couldn't have even finished this thing without them. Nita, Ell, Tanya, Sandy, Laura and Kareila held my hand the whole way through. Katharine and countless (literally) others kept me going. Thanks, guys.

There's a lot of angst here, but I hope they payoff is worth it.


A Quiet War -- Part One

"It's been a quiet war, behind closed doors.
Ain't it getting hard to keep your balance anymore..."
Lowen & Navarro, Walking on a Wire

I.

"Jesus, Sandburg. Don't you sleep?"

The question filtered in through my ears and very nearly filtered out through my fingers. I stopped typing just in time to keep from adding Jim's question to the end of my last sentence. I skipped up to the top of the paragraph and scanned down, checking for incoherence and misplaced commas. Things looked good.

"I slept."

"When?"

Looking up at Jim, I grinned. "Yesterday."

Things were looking good on the outside of the laptop display, too. Sunlight poured through the windows, hitting Jim just right. Nobody looked like Jim looked standing in the sun. Morning was kind to the guy, maybe too kind. I had to look away.

"Coffee's not too old." I examined the page on the screen in front of me, like it might have changed while Jim had my attention.

"Want some?"

"That's the second pot."

"You're lucky this stuff's legal."

Behind me, coffee-fixing sounds ensued. Jim pulled a mug out of the cabinet, administered cream, and stirred. Good sounds. When I was a kid, Naomi used to get up and make coffee on cold mornings, loading mine up with milk and sugar. Listening to it, smelling it, that was the sensory imprint of home for me. That it was Jim back there, bringing it all together--it put a solid warmth in my chest. I could almost hear him considering eggs, deciding against it. The fridge opened, and a bag crinkled. Yesterday's muffins.

I grinned. I was pretty deeply imprinted.

He brought his breakfast over and sat down across from me. I watched him over the rim of my glasses, trying not to make a big deal of it, but he saw me watching and he watched me back, smiling out of the corner of his mouth. He had his blue robe wrapped tight around him like a security blanket, and it occurred to me then that I hadn't turned the heat on yet, and it was warmer up there in Jim's bedroom than it was down here. It always was.

"Sorry." I waved my hand at the cold room. "I got going, and...."

"Forgot you were cold."

"Hey, I was cold, but chapter one was smokin'."

"You really stayed up all night working on that thing?"

Something in his voice made me take a closer look at him. His smile was still in place, but it hung wrong on his mouth.

"I didn't set out to. I couldn't sleep."

"Did you try?"

I closed the lid of the laptop and pushed it aside. He watched me from across the table, his hands wrapped around each other in front of him. White-knuckled.

"Jim, what's going on?"

"What... I mean, what were you writing? You just came downstairs, and I'm up there sleeping like a baby while you're out here dissecting my brain?"

I blinked, and leaned back in my chair. "You really think I'm a total asshole, don't you."

"I don't think you're an asshole. I'm just asking a God damn question, Sandburg--"

"We've been through this. I thought you understood--"

"I do understand. I understand you have to write it, I just don't see how you can come down here and do it right after--"

"Right after what, Jim?"

His face went white, then red. He looked away, his lips pressed together all thin and pale. He didn't say anything because there were rules to this thing that had happened between us, and that was the first rule.

I could detach from it a little now, more than I could at first. Watch it from the outside. We fit into each other's lives in certain specific, concrete roles that only functioned smoothly as long as we didn't say anything about it out loud. I could think about it in terms of taboos and mores and norms now, finally. I could be an anthropologist about it.

I had to be.

"Can I have one of those muffins?"

He passed me the bag, careful not to touch me accidentally.

"I was writing about the physical processes that operate during normal sleep," I said. An olive branch, with a white flag tied to the end of it. "I've got a theory about why it is you don't wake up every time a car rolls by outside. If you want to hear about it, I'm happy to tell you, but you'll be bored out of your mind, man. Truth."

"You just caught me off guard."

"Jim--I'm not just an observer here, okay? In case you hadn't noticed, I've gone a little native."

"I'm not upset, Sandburg."

"Right."

He rolled up his napkin and threw it at me. Badly; it sailed right over my shoulder.

"I'm not picking that up," I said.

"I'm really not upset. You just... you caught me off guard."

I looked at him carefully. He met my eyes willingly, and if he wasn't actually okay he was putting on a pretty good act. "Really?"

"You want me to get it notarized?"

"Okay." I nodded. "Okay, that's good. Because--"

"Don't you have a class or something...?"

It took ten minutes to shower and throw on some clothes. Sometime while I was in the bathroom, Jim took off for the station; when I came out, there was a nobody-home silence hanging in the air. I pulled on jeans from what I hoped was the clean pile, a green t-shirt, and my leather jacket. It was supposed to warm up a little, a few degrees over way-too-fucking-cold, so I passed on the extra layer of flannel. I shaved fast, checked myself for blood, then spent fifteen minutes hunting for my keys.

I was on my way out the door, calculating bus schedules, when I caught sight of them--right beside the basket, not where I'd left them, on top of a hand-written note. Jim-scrawl offered hopes I was awake enough to teach, along with instructions on when to show up at the station.

Twelve-thirty was earlier than we'd talked about, but I'd forgotten about the Walker interview and I'd forgotten about the Anthro department staff meeting and so I'd have maybe five minutes to make it from Hargrove Hall to the station.

I was fucked. Mentally I scratched the staff meeting off my to-do list. I'd take the heat later.

My car started with an even purr, and I took a second to close my eyes and send a telepathic thank-you to Iris. She'd come very close to murdering me, but her brother did a hell of an overhaul on the Volvo.

All's well that ends well.

My class didn't start till ten-thirty, but I had an office-hour before it. I snagged a Styrofoam cup of black coffee in the lounge and snuck past the secretary's desk. Doctor Flanagan, a guy with white hair and tenure and a total lack of respect for the epic tragedy of my workload, looked up as I passed his open door.

"Sandburg! To what do we owe this singular honor?"

I leaned in and propped up his door frame with my shoulder. "I forgot you'd be here. I really gotta start marking these things on my calendar."

"We all thought you'd quit. Certain members of the secretarial staff became quite distraught."

"You know, I haven't missed a class in two months. For an anthropologist, you're not really all that observant."

"I'm a theorist. Will your little friend be joining you later?"

I grinned. "Jim's at the station all day today. What, is Valerie bringing the twins in?"

"Cody's fascination with law enforcement continues unabated, I'm afraid."

"Mine, too," I said, and waved as I pushed off the door.

"Say hi to Tracy on your way through. She missed you more than all the rest combined."

I rolled my eyes and flipped him off.

My desk was a wreck. I had to spend ten minutes filing before I could sit down to work. No students came in; papers and exams were still a month off--an eternity in freshman-speak, practically science fiction. Tracy knocked at the open door just as I got the laptop powered on.

"Tracy," I said evenly. "Hi."

"Did you put a mark on the roster for your coffee?"

Fifteen cents for black, twenty-five with cream and sugar. "I, uh."

She stuck out a hand, tipped with blood-red nails. "Fifteen cents."

"I don't have any change."

"I'll take a check."

"I didn't bring my checkbook."

"Then I guess you're going to have to go put a mark on the roster, aren't you?" She smiled, and the air got ten degrees colder.

I shuffled out to show my compliance, edging past her like she might bite if I got too close. Probably she would. She watched from her desk as I flipped the pages in the coffee log.

I put a mark next to Doctor Flanagan's name, and slunk back to my desk with a sense of dark victory. There's just something fascist about having to pay for office coffee.

Sydney showed up at ten-fifteen, just as I was packing up for the hike across campus. Fifteen classrooms per floor in Hargrove Hall, all of them currently devoted to the science of physics. Classes had been shuffled around in anticipation of a departmental move to a newer, nicer building two uphill football fields away--an under-construction building, currently lagging six months behind schedule. Sydney's smiling arrival meant two things to me; he'd read my intro chapter, and I was gonna to be extremely late.

"Hey, Sydney. Want to sit?"

"No, no." He waved off the offer of a chair and leaned against my doorjamb, his thumbs hooked into tweed pockets. "Just wanted to see how things were coming."

"Things are fine." I looked at my watch while trying not to look like I was looking. Very, extremely late.

"I missed you at our meeting on Friday."

"I can explain that, Sydney. It's just that I was--"

"At the police station. Catch any crooks?"

I grinned, and leaned back in my chair. "All of 'em. The cops have shut the place down."

"I read your intro."

"Cool." And so much for small talk. "Did you like the part about the link between enhanced endorphin production and the zone-out state?"

"I liked the part that wasn't coffee-stained. I thought the actual conclusions were stretching a bit, but in the overall scheme of things, it's not any more ridiculous than any other introduction to any other dissertation I've ever read."

"Thanks. I really mean that."

"I want chapter one by the end of the November. I know that's fast, but if you want to defend by April you're on a very tight schedule."

"End of the month? I know I'm under deadline, Syd, but that's pretty draconian, don't you think? I just handed you the intro last Monday. And the writing, to be honest, isn't going as fast as it usually does." The writing had, in fact, stalled completely on several occasions, but I wasn't about to say that to Sydney. I didn't even much like saying that to myself.

He grinned, and lifted his form from off my door. "You're the one who set the deadline, Blair. I just hold you to it."

"I hate myself."

"Work it out in therapy."


Not-writing had gotten to be kind of like a game to me. I'd done almost four years of it, and I was very, very good. There are approximately three hundred and eighty two ways to avoid writing in your average American household, and I'd tried them all. I'd even tried some of the ones that had to do with cleaning. There was this one week I swear Jim would've loved to take my temperature, and he looked at me like there was every possibility I'd been replaced by an identical imposter. Jim thinks he's pretty hot with the cleaning, but he wasn't raised by Naomi Sandburg. It's not common knowledge, but a commune can be a really sterile place. Especially after she's been there for like, ten minutes.

So, the writing was... kind of random. Some nights I wrote like I'd sold my soul to the muse of Anthropology, and some nights I won nine out of every ten games of FreeCell. It wasn't that I didn't want to write; I just sometimes couldn't make the words fit together. Staring at a blank page for an hour is the closest I've ever come to a true meditation experience; you look at one of those long enough, it starts to look back--in a way that lets you know it ain't impressed.

I resorted to dating to pick up some of the slack, see if I could fire some creative juices, among other things. Jim and I both hit a surprising vein of good luck one night when Windows ate my modem settings and tried to convince me I lived in the Central time zone.

Unfortunately, it was the same vein of luck for both of us.

I met Karen Fisher over the phone. She was a support specialist for cascadia.com. She walked me through a quick-repair I was too lazy to dig out of the manual, and stayed on the line afterwards, just to chat.

Jim met Karen Fisher when she came over to install the DSL line she'd talked me into. When she walked in, he closed the November issue of Field and Stream and came up off the couch like he'd found a reason to live.

The speed with which she shifted her attentions was a lot less than flattering. A few phone conversations and one account upgrade didn't make for a timeless passion or anything, but hell, she was fun to talk to and besides, she knew all my passwords. She was kind of petite for Jim, kind of non-exotic for his tastes--pretty, in an understated way, with big brown eyes and honey-blond hair down to her shoulders. He didn't seem to be worrying about his type; his eyes picked up extra wattage the second she walked in the door.

"You must be Karen. Nice to finally meet you. I hear you're going to be turning Blair into even more of a computer geek than he is already. I'm Jim."

She grinned up at him as he took her hand. Without even looking at me, she said, "This is the guy you were telling me about on the phone?"

"Uh. Yeah."

"He doesn't look old and embittered to me."

Jim looked up, eyebrows scaling his forehead. I grinned weakly, shrugged, and closed my eyes.

They flirted. I was more or less cool with that, mostly because watching Jim try to flirt was kind of like watching an elephant try to fly--not the most graceful act in the circus, but still pretty entertaining from the stands. Karen waited until Jim went upstairs to change for his shift to pull me aside.

"Blair...."

"Hey. This is not a problem, Kare, honest."

"You're okay with it? God, I feel like such a ho."

"Just go easy on him, huh? He hasn't been himself since the accident, but if he keeps taking his meds he should be fine."

"Blair!"

"Did I mention his family history of criminal insanity?"

She socked me one on the arm, grinned, and got started on my installation.

I grinned. I was okay with it, mostly. I hadn't had anything invested. Whatever made Jim smile, you know? There was this twinge when I saw them with their heads together, laughing, and I honestly couldn't say which one I was jealous of.

When she left, she gave me a hug. I pulled out of it quick, because Jim was watching, and smiled at her. "Well, that was fun."

"Sorry, Blair. You know it's not you, right?"

"That's what they all say. Then they date Jim, and after a few weeks they come crawling back, crying and begging. It's kind of sad, actually."

"I love you for your rich fantasy life."

"I'm tellin' you, Kare, this place is a vale of tears."

She hugged me again, kissed me on the cheek, and let go. "I'll be seeing you around."

When the door was closed and locked behind her, Jim turned and smacked the side of my head with his magazine.

"Hey!"

"'Crying and begging,' Chief? I'll show you a vale of tears...."

A couple days after that Karen stopped by the station to take us out for lunch. That night we all piled into the truck, her in the middle, and headed out to the Dollar Cinema on Lakeshore to see the X-Files movie. I kept my mouth shut from long experience; you can mess with Jim about a lot of things, but you don't slam the X-Files while it's on if you have any kind of a will to live. I rolled my eyes a lot, and got dropped off early for my trouble.

The next time Karen suggested we all do something together, I caught Jim splashing on Old Spice after his shave.

I grinned at him, and he grinned back--looking about fifteen, all awkward and flushed and pleased with himself. "Workin' hard," I said.

"How do I look?"

"Like kind of a big goof. And besides that, you smell like my granddad."

"He must've scored at least once in his life, right? Otherwise, where'd you come from?"

"His conquests were legion, back in the day." I leaned against the doorframe, and watched him comb his hair. "So. Karen, huh? Not really your speed, is she?"

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"You know." I shrugged. "She's nice."

He flipped me off in the mirror. "I like nice girls, sometimes, Sandburg."

"You like girls who want to end your life in strange and exciting ways."

"The romance is young. We can do that part later." He turned around to face me. "Well?"

"You look good." And he did; he looked so good I had to force the words out. A black t-shirt and blue jeans and probably his leather jacket, later; his hair was still wet from the shower and even smelling like my granddad he made it hard for me to breathe. "So, I guess... she's pretty special. To you, I mean."

Jim's eyes slid away from mine, and he shrugged. "I like her. It's been a while since I felt like I had a shot at... you know. Something normal." He waved a hand at his head, which I took as a comment on his senses. "You think any sane woman would put up with this?"

"I pretty much think she'd be crazy not to, Jim."

"That's... thanks, Sandburg."

"No charge, man."

He looked so surprised at the compliment, I wanted to say it again. He just went through his life like this, expecting the worst, expecting to be too much trouble or too much effort or just--I don't know, maybe just too much. It hurt to think about what kind of life he must've had as a kid, to make him think like that. I looked at him, standing there with that crazy expression. Like he was nervous, but toughing it out anyway because that's what Ellisons do.

I wanted to hug him, or ruffle his hair, or do something else equally moronic. I wanted to let him know he was worth whatever effort hanging with him took.

Instead, I developed a sudden, vicious stomach virus. It kept me home for the evening and vanished, mysteriously, the second they were out the door. Jim didn't come home early enough to talk that night, but he left a heart-felt thank-you on my voice mail.

That was the end of the threesome. It was the end of me and Jim for awhile, too; I moved into the land of the looming deadline, and Jim, for all practical purposes, moved into the station. When he wasn't working, which wasn't often, he was with Karen. I don't know what they did, but Jim was still sleeping at home. They seemed to spend a lot of time at the movies.

I missed him. I missed him a hell of a lot. You could get used to having somebody around, like you could get used to a favorite shirt or a comfortable couch.

I ignored it. The odds against Jim in any romantic scenario were monumentally high, and I'd watched enough of them crash and burn to know the drill by heart. I crossed my fingers for him, buried myself in work, and hoped he didn't hurt himself too badly.

Sydney's deadline was on my mind twenty-four seven. It was getting past time to prove I was actually doing some research and not just tooling around with cops because I thought they were cool. Wanting to write and needing to write had combined to form a sense of doom that hung over me and the loft most nights like something from a scary movie. Which made it almost impossible to write, at least with any reasonable degree of skill.

The introductory chapter that had freaked Jim so bad was nothing more Jim-related than a week's effort at explaining why my single research subject was so astoundingly not-forthcoming about all the stuff I was supposed to be finding out about him. Fear of intimacy, territoriality, etc, etc, ad nauseam; it all boiled down to me whining about the conditions of the research and begging pathetically for more time.

That time was up. Now they wanted meat. Videotape, tests, charts. The works. All that stuff I didn't have because Jim didn't like having a camera stuck in his face and thought tests were boring and didn't believe the Essential Jim Ellison could be charted. There wasn't anything I could do about the videotape short of spending a week with Jim and a camera, and that wasn't gonna happen; I let it go, and concentrated on the rest. Truth? I was kind of glad Kare had taken him off my hands for a while. I would've wrapped him up in a bow if she'd asked. Anything for some quiet.

I didn't really have any tests I could show my committee. A couple from the beginning, yeah, but even those weren't performed under what you'd call rigorous scientific conditions. It was fine for me to drop some vanilla in a cup and call it a test, but the kitchen wasn't a lab and I didn't have any control subjects and anyway, I hadn't actually written any of that down. The only alternative was to hand in a chapter that was basically a work of fiction, and I wasn't really sure I could do that. Anything I produced would have about as much resemblance to science as a Michael Crichton novel. I didn't think having a 'based on' warning in my end notes was going to cut any ice with Sydney.

I spent about two weeks worrying about the ethics of the situation. Jim's safety, my lack of objectivity, scientific accuracy--my career, my whole future, was all mixed up in that. On Friday, Karen and Jim brought groceries in.

Jim shelved them silently, careful not to look at me. I closed my laptop when Karen came up to look over my shoulder.

"Top secret stuff, huh?" She tugged at my pony-tail, which actually kind of hurt.

"Hey. Hands off the merchandise. You'll make my partner jealous."

"You never actually said what you were writing about. Let me guess: it's a study of the secret sex lives of metropolitan cops."

In the kitchen, Jim dropped a box of Frosted Flakes.

I grinned. "Well, yeah. Actually. How'd you guess?"

"C'mon, let me read it. I can keep a secret."

"I'm sworn to secrecy, Kare. Thin blue line, and all that."

"Sandburg, would you get off that already? Jesus."

"I didn't create the phenomenon, Jim. That's on you and your brothers in blue."

"Ignore him, Karen. I only let him stay here out of pity."

"Yeah." I rolled my eyes so Karen could see. "Pity and a binding lease agreement."

"Plus, he can cook," Jim said. I turned and looked at him; he was grinning, warm and sweet, looking right back at me.

I kept my eyes off Jim after that, but just having him there, hearing him move around in the kitchen behind me, it made things clearer. Jim's safety, scientific accuracy--and that lack of objectivity that put the two into perspective.

On some level the decision had already been made.

The third week I spent typing. Writing isn't hard. It's all about focus. On the fourth week, I turned in chapter one of the biggest bullshit-job of my life.

Jim waited for me downstairs with the engine running while I jogged up three flights to the Anthro offices. I tossed the chapter onto Sydney's desk with a yellow sticky note telling him what it was, and got out of there before I had to actually talk to anybody in the department. I felt guilty just walking past Tracy. Letting go of that binder felt like letting go of a limb.

The windows were fogged up; Jim wasn't running the defrost. Said the fan was making an annoying sound. Climbing into the truck was like climbing into a cocoon, and I wondered if that was how Jim saw it. Just the two of us in this whole sentinel thing together, sealed up and invisible. Simon knew, Megan knew, but neither of them had that much to say about it. I don't think Jim really thought much about the fact that my committee also knew, that they had a lot to say, that there was a lot I was required to say to them. We didn't talk about it, except those times he felt the need to snipe at me for treating him like my walking ticket to the Ivory Tower.

He didn't take us into the traffic right away. Just sat there, staring out the opaque window like it wasn't even there. Rain sheeted down the windshield in front of me, barely visible; I was cold, and I'd brought as much water in as I'd left outside. The cab smelled faintly of wet leather and flowery perfume.

I reached out to turn on the heat--he could put up with a little noise if it meant I could start to feel my toes again--and he stopped me. He wrapped his fingers around my fingers and held on to them, still looking out the window. An image formed in my mind of the last night we'd spent together--before Karen, before the crush of work and writing. At the end of it he'd held onto my hand just like this.

His hand was colder than mine, but together they got warmer. I didn't pull away; didn't breathe much, either. He held on so tight it hurt, but I didn't pull away, and it wasn't just our hands, not just my hand anyway. Everything was getting warmer. Hands, truck, world. Everything.

"How many chapters?" he asked.

The heat drained away. And I wasn't breathing for a different reason now, past loving the way his fingers felt wrapped around mine, into something treacherous and invisible between us. I got light-headed.

"Just the one," I said. "You saw me type it up."

"I mean altogether, Sandburg."

He turned and looked at me, and my chest tightened up. His eyes were closed off, nothing but slate walls. I was certain I didn't want to know what was going on behind them.

"How many chapters altogether, when it's finished?"

"Six." I swallowed nothing. "Six, if I follow the outline."

Jim nodded, looking distant, abstracted. Gone. "Let me know," he said. "When you're done, I mean."

I looked back out the windshield where I couldn't see a thing and tried not to think. Jim flipped on the radio, threw us into drive and pulled out of the parking space, out of the lot, into university traffic.

"We could stop for dinner. You hungry?"

"Not really." I'd had a turkey and cheese sandwich for lunch, half of one anyway; it had been pretty good, but it was riding on my stomach like rocks. "Grab something at home."

"We can stop and pick something up. My treat, I know you're tapped."

"No thanks," I said. "Really, Jim. I'm fine."


Home.

I walked in the door and felt better instantly because I was home, because I could smell the stuff Jim uses to clean the floors and lasagna from last night, which I'd burned pretty badly on the bottom but which had been just fine on the top. I went into my room and dropped my jacket and backpack on the bed I hadn't made, deposited pocket change on top of my dresser. I changed my t-shirt, damp from the rain, for a warm and dry one, then looked around at my stuff, which was just basic stuff but special because it was mine. I thought about Jim.

And about the paper. Because on some level, I knew he thought they were one and the same. Inextricably linked.

Jim and the paper, the paper and me, me and Jim, and this place. Home. Six chapters to go before the pattern we'd settled into could be broken. I wiped my hands, suddenly slick and cold, against my jeans. Six chapters and I'd be out from under the deadline, I could breathe again. Six chapters, and we were home free.

I planned to write fast.

In the kitchen I discovered the cupboard was bare. It had been a busy week for both of us, and the loft was just a pleasant memory more often than not. I leaned against the counter and closed my eyes, trying to remember the number for the pizza place at the corner of Prospect and Market.

I heard Jim before I felt him, standing close and warm, a heat-signature against the left side of my body. When he reached out for my hand I felt the motion and looked up at him.

The first touch was never about sex. Not the first time, not this time, not any other time between. I don't even think it was about me. There was a lot of Jim Ellison in it, though--something was going on in there. He just kind of put out his hand, looked at it as it hung there between us. I looked at it, too--Jim has good hands. Strong, but the fingers are long and the bones slide beneath skin that's so pale, it's almost vampiric. I looked at his hand and then I looked up at his eyes and found him looking at mine--pale blue mirrors reflecting me back at myself so in a way, looking into his eyes was like looking back into mine. I wondered if he saw what I saw, or if the image was somehow inverted for him. Wondered what I looked like from his side of that connection.

He didn't look like he was planning to move. Still Life with Ellison. I put my hand out where his was, in that weird, quiet space between us, and that was the first touch.

He blinked at me, all wide-eyed, like he hadn't expected it. I had to smile. I mean, what did he expect me to do? When have I ever left him out there like that?

Jim doesn't reach, except on those rare occasions when he does, and on those occasions you better believe I reach back. My hand looked funny next to his--I'm the academic and he's the man on the street, you know? But I was the one with the calluses.

He took a funny kind of breath when I fitted my hand into his. I could feel the lines in his palm. I could've told his future, if I were brave enough.

"Rough day," I said, pulling my hand back. He pulled back right after. He closed his eyes once, then opened them again, and the lines at the corners of them went deep.

"Got a talent for understatement," he said, smiling.

I crossed my arms over my chest. Looked at him some more. He stood there and took it; he was used to it. I guess by that time we both were. I could see him filling the moat and raising the drawbridge; his shoulders were straight as a level, chin up and out. His smile was utter bullshit; I knew it, and he knew I knew it, but he did it anyway and I smiled back anyway and my smile was bullshit too, if slightly more self-aware bullshit than his.

"I was going to make us a couple ham and cheese sandwiches," I said, waving my hand at the empty countertop, "but I ran into a little problem."

"No ham?"

"Or cheese. And that's not even mentioning the complete and total lack of bread."

"I thought we had bread."

"We had Frankenbread, man. It was green. With fur. All we needed was lightning and a slab."

"So much for dinner," Jim said. "Got an alternate plan, Igor?"

"Yeah." I shoved off the counter and put myself in front of him. "You order pizza."

His grin flashed out at me like a knife. "Oh, I order it."

"Yeah." I grinned back at him, and made sure my knees stayed locked. "And then we eat."

"That's brilliant, Sandburg."

I nodded. "And then you tell me what the fuck is going on with you."

Understanding hit him spine first and he went military straight long before his face tightened up. You can take the soldier out of the Army, right? His eyes looked through me like I was made of glass. I hated it when he did that, when I could see him turning down the old Sandburg dial in his head. At that point, anything I said would hiss like empty static.

It wasn't the touching, though there'd been enough of that. It wasn't the looks or the silences. It was the way all of it fit together, a slow and basic change in the way Blair Sandburg got handled behind Jim's eyes. It made me nervous, it scared me, and it made me angry in a weird, mind-fucked kind of way. I liked the time before my dissertation turned into a wall between us, the time when it was just us doing the stuff we did and doing it great. The time when being together wasn't work.

I wanted it back.

He didn't move because he couldn't, because I was right in front of him and to move he'd have to acknowledge my existence by detouring around me. On a better day I might've had a little fun waiting him out, but this wasn't a better day, it was this day, and I wasn't in the mood. I had a deadline.

I didn't need this.

So I shoved him. He wasn't braced for it, and he went down. It felt good, in a really ugly way; it got my pulse going, got the adrenaline into my veins. I hated how good it felt, but it was worth it just for the look on his face.

"Sandburg, what the hell--"

"Sorry," I said easily. I reached down to give him a hand up. "Thought you were zoning."

"Bullshit. Since when do you knock me on my ass to bring me out of a zone?"

"Since when do you shut me off like the weekly top forty?"

He took my hand, squeezing it harder than he had to. I took the pain as payment and pulled him to his feet. He glared at me, hard-eyed, but I was there to him, I had the man's attention. Jim Ellison, front and center, listening. He rubbed the wrist he'd caught himself with. "Since when do you knock anybody over for anything?"

"Let me see that."

He let me take his arm and move his wrist through its usual range of motion; he only winced a little when I pushed back on it. I let off the pressure immediately, avoiding his eyes. "I shouldn't have pushed you."

"It's not that bad."

"We'll wrap it. Don't use it much today, it'll be fine."

"We don't have to wrap it."

"We're going to wrap it," I said, breathing hard. I didn't know I'd shouted till I saw his eyes widen and his hands come up. "Sorry," I said again. I meant it. After a second, he nodded and followed me into the bathroom.

I sat on the edge of the tub and he sat on the john. He was longer in the torso than me, so he looked a lot taller like that. I pulled the first aid kit out from under the sink, an ugly green tackle box filled with antibiotic ointments and Band-Aids instead of flies and lures. My hands shook as I unwound an Ace bandage, and I couldn't look him in the eye. I wrapped his wrist with it--gently, not too tight, I was good at this--and made sure it wasn't cutting off his circulation.

He watched me all the way through my EMT impersonation. I kept my eyes on my work, but I could feel him studying me like there was going to be a quiz later. When I was finished, he thanked me and left the bathroom and called Tonio's for pizza. He didn't have to ask what I wanted on my half.

Forty-five minutes later we were eating; half an hour after that, we shut off the lights, checked the locks, and went upstairs. I didn't mention Karen, and he didn't either. Maybe they were so new it didn't count yet, or maybe this was it for us, for now. When he touched me, it didn't make any difference.

I made love to him like I'd never done it before.

Like I'd never do it again.

Like always.

It was an hour of dark silence, and when we were through I gathered my clothes and went back downstairs to my room.

We didn't talk about it. We never did.

Break the silence, break the spell.

II.

Every year, I get a flu shot. It's just a thing I do. Every year, the department secretary sends around a memo sometime in October and a week later a van shows up and a bunch of nurses hop out to set up shop in the lobby. I don't worry much about getting the flu, but I'm kind of fond of nurses.

Jim doesn't get a flu shot anymore. I still have flashbacks from the first time. I don't like riding to the hospital in the back of an ambulance while my roommate goes into anaphylactic shock. It hadn't occurred to me that a guy who ate eggs five days a week for breakfast could have an allergic reaction to a simple flu shot--it was a wake-up call. Scared the hell out of me. I got a lot more careful after that.

Karen doesn't get a flu shot, either. I don't know why; maybe her office doesn't send a memo. Whatever her reasons for living dangerously, I didn't consider them good enough--which is what I told Jim when he called me at ten p.m. on a Tuesday just before finals, wanting me to go make sure she was still breathing.

"C'mon, Sandburg. She's young and pretty and she needs your help. Don't you have any chivalric impulses at all?"

I thought about it for two seconds. I thought about how warm the loft was now that I'd turned the heater up past Arctic and how hard it was raining outside and how good it was going to feel to take a shower. I thought about all the work I had to do before I could go to sleep and how few hours there were between me and morning.

"No." I shook my head at the phone. "None whatsoever."

"Did I mention she's pretty?"

"I saw her first, Jim; I know what she looks like. More importantly, to me anyway, I know what you'd make me look like if I started to care what she looks like. Besides, if she's as sick as you say she is, right now her looks are probably not a selling point. Why don't you go check on her?"

"I can't. I'm on stakeout duty till four a.m."

"Get Rafe or Henry to cover for you."

"They just went off stakeout duty."

"Jim," I said--whined. "Look, I just got home. I'm just starting to get warm, finally. Why can't you ask Simon or Joel?"

"Because," Jim said, calmly, "neither of them is my best friend."

"Would one of them like to be?" I slumped against the wall, closed my eyes. "Because I hear that position may be opening up."

"Do you need her address?"

Which is how I ended up soaking for the second time in one night, standing at Karen Fisher's door with a bottle of Nyquil in one hand and a box of Mama Bear's Cold Care in the other. The word sucker had taken on a deep and personal meaning for me. Jim, of course, had his umbrella with him, and mine--of course--was in my office. Sixty degrees isn't bad when the sun is shining, but in the dark, with rain pounding down on your head and soaking into your underwear--it's pretty damned cold. In the eternity between me knocking and Karen opening the door, I rededicated my life to making Jim feel my pain.

I heard her behind the door, and leaned in close to the peephole. The chain drew back on the inside, and when she opened the door, I opened my eyes wider and blinked.

"Wow. Jim told me you had the flu; he didn't tell me you were dying of it."

She glared at me with big, glassy brown eyes. "I'm not sick."

I shook my head, and smiled at her. "You're sick, lady. You're practically terminal. Ten minutes later and I'd have to draw a chalk outline."

She sagged against the door frame, rumpled and feverish in a pink fuzzy housecoat. "Do I look that bad?"

I pushed at her shoulder gently, moving us inside and closing the door behind me. "You look like a very pretty girl on the brink of a very ugly death."

"Thanks."

She didn't sound sincere.

Karen's apartment was an affront to all things masculine. There were flowers all over the place--little ones on the wallpaper, big ones on the dining room table (fake, I hoped--for Jim's sake), tiny rose-print-ones on the furniture. Even the things that weren't actually pink or rose-colored gave off a feeling like they wanted to be. The ultra-feminine decor made me feel about ten feet tall and four feet wide. I hunched my shoulders in and followed her into her bedroom, trying really hard not to break anything.

The bedroom made me feel better. Still with the flowers everywhere, but the place looked like it had been ransacked. The bed was rumpled and covered with books; drawers hung out from her dresser with clothes dripping from the corners. The VCR, on a small stand near the foot of the bed, had three Blockbuster tape boxes on top of it; the TV next to it showed a bright blue-screen that clashed with the entire apartment. Her nightstand supported a complete pharmacy of over-the-counter medications, and a trail of tissues led from the bed to an overflowing wastebasket in one corner. An IBM Thinkpad occupied the far side of the bed, along with an assortment of CDs and floppy disks.

Some relationships, you have to look long and hard to see where the cracks are going to form. You have to look at the foundations, knock on the walls, poke around in the wiring. Not so for the Ellison-Fisher alliance. One look at Karen's bedroom said it all.

"Wow. This is one majorly sick sick room."

"I told him not to ask you to come."

"Don't worry." I scanned the room for a place to sit--or, failing that, a place to start cleaning. "He didn't ask."

Karen climbed into her bed, which turned out to be a water bed; it sloshed alarmingly when she put her weight on it, and disgorged an occupant I hadn't noticed. A ball of white fluff launched itself from its hiding place in the white down comforter and achieved escape velocity--yowling in fury, totally free of dignity. Karen didn't even blink; I pretended I hadn't noticed.

"Look. You came, you saw. I'm still alive." She waved at the door, an obvious invitation to go. "Tell Jim you did your duty. And don't tell him what I looked like."

"Sure." I nodded, leaning over to grab the trash can. "I'll just dump this on my way out."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome."

"Good."

"Fine. See you around."

"Whatever."

I pulled the bedroom door closed behind me.

There was a dismayingly large garbage can in the kitchen; I dumped the smaller one, found a new bag for it, and put it on the floor next to the kitchen table. I checked the pantry--pretty well-stocked, if you liked Campbell's soup and spaghetti, and it was pretty clear Karen liked them both just fine.

While I got familiar with the territory, I tried to imagine Jim in the middle of it. It wasn't hard. The pink was a little much, but the furniture was sturdy and well-made, and everything--everything out here, anyway--was neat and perfectly placed. Once I was sure there wasn't a lot of delicate stuff lying around, just waiting for me to smash into it, I even felt kind of good in Karen's place. It smelled nice. Like spices.

The more I looked around, the more things started to kind of prickle at the back of my mind. Like the fact that the flowers on the table were fake, and there weren't any real ones in the whole apartment. And the fact that the smell in the air was sandalwood, which Jim actually liked, and a little vanilla. Real stuff that had never seen the inside of a spray can. I took a look behind some louvered doors in the hallway and found the washer and dryer; the soap was the same kind Jim and I used at home.

The whole place was Jim-friendly. It was so damn Jim-friendly I started to freak out a little. Take away the frills and I could've been the designer, it was like Martha Stewart's idea of sentinel heaven. And it couldn't have gotten that way by accident, because there was just too much that Karen wouldn't have known to do on her own.

And that--that had to mean Jim had helped her, like I'd helped him in those first couple weeks at the loft. And that had to mean he'd told her, he'd told her and he hadn't told me about telling her, a thought I found more than a little painful right up until I realized it couldn't happen that way. Jim wouldn't do it that way, not without talking to me first. Maybe she was psychic or maybe she was an ex-CIA terrorist or something but I was damn sure Jim hadn't told her anything because Jim wouldn't do that.

Not without talking to me first.

Okay, so, he told Simon. But Simon half-figured it out on his own, right? And Megan did, too, but anyway, they weren't a part of it like we were and they understood that. This was Jim and me, and we didn't tell people, hell, my mother didn't even know. This was ours.

Jim wouldn't break that. He wouldn't.

A clock hung on the wall behind me. It ticked, steady and soft. It ticked off almost a full minute while my mind went in a hundred different directions and my heart did its level best to give me an aneurysm. At the end of that minute I just happened to glance down, between the washer and the dryer, and I saw the special filter for the air conditioning system and all the breath I'd been holding exploded out of me in a thick, hot rush.

Allergies.

Of course he would've told her he had allergies. That's what he told everybody. That's what we'd planned to tell people, if it ever came to this, to Jim spending a lot of time someplace other than the station, other than home. I'd just never expected that to happen. Most nights you couldn't pry Jim out of the loft with a crowbar, but that was BK, Before Karen, back when a night on the town meant take-out Chinese and maybe a trip to Blockbuster.

Time flies when you're having the polar opposite of fun.

I taught myself how to breathe again. My calm and cool facade was a thing of the past. I wiped the palms of my hands against my jeans and forced myself to get a grip.

Karen was just a nice lady looking out for her boyfriend: the guy who couldn't pass a rose-bush or a perfume counter without developing plague symptoms. It was sweet and kind and friendly and all kinds of other good things, and if it was just a little too good to be true--if it was just the fair weather before the inevitable storm--at least I could chill with the knowledge that it'd be a normal kind of storm. The kind that blew in and out of Jim's life with all the comforting predictability of a really good almanac. Jim hadn't done anything drastic and she wasn't using us to steal any government spy planes--a thought which, I'm ashamed to admit, actually crossed my mind.

I found pots and pans in a cabinet by the stove. Going on the theory that nobody who lived alone would buy soup she didn't like, I grabbed the first can I touched and heated it up. She really did look pretty bad; I decided to take her temperature before I fed her. If guilt had something to do with the kind of care I took, it was well-deserved guilt. I considered her a friend; I should've been past the Lee Brackett Memorial Panic Hour.

Fluffy the Wondercat wandered in while I was putting water on for tea, no doubt attracted by the sound of activity near his food dish. He purred hopefully, wrapping himself around my ankle; I found a box of Purina Special Care under the sink, and fed him while I waited for the soup to start bubbling.

"Good cat," I said, reaching down to stroke the fur between his ears. He hissed at me, showing teeth, and I yanked my hand back. Stupid cat never stopped purring.

At Karen's door, tray in hand, I took a deep breath before knocking softly with my foot. I kicked a little louder when she didn't answer, then propped the tray on one arm while carefully opening the door.

She stared at me, her mouth open.

"Hi." I kicked the door shut behind me and smiled my widest. "Dinner!"

"Blair."

"I hope you like vegetable beef soup."

"You were supposed to go home."

I settled the tray over her lap, and stepped back. She looked at me for a moment, then sighed and picked up the spoon.

"Uh-uh." I took it out of her hand and replaced it with the thermometer she'd passed over. "Temp first, then food."

"God. What, you're a nurse now?"

I thought about that for a second. "Kind of," I said. "I volunteer." At the Cascade County Home for the Romantically Doomed.

"Detective, chef, volunteer nurse... what else do you do?"

"In my spare time I've been known to engage in activities actually related to the study of anthropology. Yeah, I know, my thesis committee was pretty stunned, too. You planning to put that in your mouth?"

"Fine, fine...."

After a minute of enforced silence, the thermometer beeped; I tugged it out of her mouth and checked the numbers. I whistled.

"What?"

"Hundred and two. You're definitely sick."

"I'm just tired."

"Yeah," I said, drawing the word out. "'Cause you're sick."

"I'm fine."

"Right. Well, all the same, I'm going to stick around, okay? Someone as tired as you shouldn't be left alone. You could--I don't know, you could fall over or something. You could hit your head."

She looked at me, defeated, and pushed a strand of lank blond hair behind her ear. "Okay. For a while."

"For as long as you need."

"But you've got class tomorrow."

"They're not going to do the reading," I said. "Why should I have to?"

"Everybody should have one of you," she said, and finally smiled a little.

My face got warm. "Good looks, native wit, and charm."

"Well, yeah. But how about the thing with you being a pretty decent guy?"

"I can fish, too."

She grinned, and picked up her spoon again.

While she ate, I wandered. I put movies back in their boxes, turned the TV off, and put the trash can back in its corner. She watched me, a weird expression on her face, like I was performing an arcane ritual she couldn't quite understand. Maybe it was just that I'd learned most of my cleaning behaviors from Jim. It wasn't like I was sterilizing anything, but I guess I was being kind of thorough.

"You just folded a doily."

I looked down at my hands.

"Blair, are you... regularly taking all the stuff you're supposed to be taking?"

Glaring, I dropped the lacy circle onto her dresser. "I thought it was... I don't know. Something female," I said awkwardly.

Slowly, her eyes never leaving mine, Karen started to grin. "Where, exactly, did you think a female would wear something like that?"

I shook my head. "I can't believe I fed your damn cat."


Fingers brushed my cheeks, and the arms of my glasses slipped off my ears. I blinked up into a hazy face while my eyes adjusted to dim light and my mind adjusted to consciousness. My most recent memory involved leaning back on the couch to ease the ache in my shoulders; now my notebook was on the coffee table next to a copy of Vogue, my pen and highlighter were on the floor, and Jim was leaning over me, my glasses in his left hand, looking caught and apologetic.

"I was hoping that wouldn't wake you up," he said.

"Ellison detector," I said muzzily. I rubbed my palms over a face full of stubble, trying to connect the dots between dreams and reality. Remake the connection by an act of will. I rubbed harder, until the snide used-to-be-Blair shut up.

Sitting up was a dizzy, blinking adventure. Jim helped keep me from falling back over, a steadying hand on my shoulder until I said he could let go. He took a minute to straighten my shirt and yank on my hair before he pulled back; I tried to fend him off, but it only made him laugh.

"Maybe I didn't wake you up after all."

"I'm awake," I said. "Really."

"You look like you miss your teddy bear."

"Give me my glasses back, then say that again. I dare ya."

He handed them over, forgoing the danger of comment. My vision's not all that bad--I usually just need them for reading--but lately, when my eyes are tired, things get fuzzy. Getting old, I guess, but you don't share that with a partner almost ten years your senior.

"What time is it? I just fell asleep a minute ago, I swear."

"Almost five."

"Okay, three hours and a minute ago."

"Hope you got more sleep than I did."

"So do I. Sleeping on stakeout will not make you popular with Simon."

"Next time, you come keep me company."

"Nah. You snore."

"I don't snore, Sandburg. I breathe a little loud, maybe--"

"You breathe like a buzzsaw."

"I think maybe you oughta write about your senses," Jim said. Then snapped his mouth shut, his eyes shifting instantly to my notebook.

I leaned back against the cushions, all the way back, stretching my throat out long. I was too tired for a fight, way too tired for an apology. And what was I gonna say? Sorry, Jim, didn't mean to leave my life out where you could trip over it? Not too fucking likely.

"Chapter two." Best to get it all out there. "And half of three. Maybe a little over half."

Jim shifted up, sat down on the couch beside me. His elbows were on his knees, and I had an easy view of the long line of his back. He was still in his jacket, rain-beaded black leather, and he hadn't taken his Jags cap off. It was cold out, and he'd brought some of that in with him; I could feel it radiating out of him, waves of a late, dark night.

He didn't look at me, which I took with a kind of gratitude. There wasn't any tension in me, just a low-grade, thrumming ache. I wanted to reach out to him, but he was cold, and we were in his girlfriend's house, and in a few days I'd turn in two more chapters of my magnum opus.

"Moving pretty fast," he said.

"I want to finish by April."

He leaned over the coffee table and picked up my yellow Sanford Accent. It spun over his knuckles--right, then left, then right again. "Really fast," he said softly, and the spinning stopped, and he clutched the highlighter in white, tense fingers.

"Jim."

"Why April?"

Why April? Because I didn't think I could write fast enough to get it done in March. Because May was too far away. Because I carried the damn paper in me like a virus and finishing was the only antidote. The only way to burn it out of me, from the inside.

I said, "Because I hate the way you look at me now."

He nodded, and bent forward, and set the highlighter back on the coffee table carefully. Like it was crystal, and the slightest jarring would shatter it.

He turned to me and met my eyes, just an instant, just a single second of his eyes on mine. He looked at me with the look I hated, fragile and cornered and scared. I saw it was Jim that would shatter if he weren't careful, if I weren't careful.

But we both were.

"April it is," he said, lightly, and his eyes skated away. He didn't shatter.

I took a long, shaky breath, and let it out slowly. Jim didn't shatter.

But I felt like I had.

"You should head home." Jim let out a chuff of air and pushed himself to his feet. "Way past your bedtime."

I stood up beside him, and grabbed his arm, stopping him on his way back to the status quo. He looked at me from behind every defense he had at his disposal, Mr. Calm and Collected, the Ice Man. I squeezed until I could feel the bones of his wrist in my hand, but he didn't make a sound, didn't flinch. I could tell I was gone, back in that non-essential category, and I thought if Karen came in just then she'd see Jim standing there alone. Staring through empty air.

"Jim." My voice cracked; I cleared my throat, and slid my hand down, over his. My right hand, his left, a bizarre handshake.

"I should go check on Karen," he said.

"You're my partner."

"I thought I was your friend."

"You're my best friend, damn it." I held our clasped hands up between us. "Look at this. This is us."

"This is us until April."

And then he let go of my hand and walked around me, heading toward the bedroom.

I stood where he left me, and shook.


"I'm bailing."

I hadn't bothered to knock, some insane masochistic impulse pushing me through the door and into the bedroom before I made a sound. Jim was on the edge of Karen's bed, one of her hands folded into both of his. A small light on her bedside table turned both of them gold and put the rest of the room in shadow. Golden fire people. But this was a different brand of nightmare altogether.

They looked up when I barged in, and before their faces registered surprise I saw tenderness in both of them, and the last traces of a warm, easy smile fading from Jim's mouth. His face was as red as hers was, and he wasn't running a fever. It made me wonder what I'd caught him at, and hate myself for wondering.

Karen made a move like she thought Jim was going to let her stand. I waved her off before he had to do anything macho, and she relaxed back into her pillows. "Thanks for coming over, Blair," she said. "Sorry I was such a grouch."

I faked a smile in her direction, hands in my pockets. "Any time." I felt red in the face myself, more of an intruder now than when Karen was in here alone. They made a circle somehow and I was on the outside of it, which was how it ought to be, because Jim was in love with her and I was what I was. Participant observer--only not so much of the participant, not anymore.

Home is where the hepafilter is. In my head somebody was laughing, cold and bright and furious. I clenched my teeth to keep the sound inside.

Jim's eyes were on me, steady and measuring. "You good to drive home?"

"I'm awake," I said.

"You don't look too good."

"I'm fine, Doctor Ellison." It came out a little sharper than I wanted it to. "Checking out AMA, okay? I'll see you tomorrow afternoon at the station."

"We've got an interview tomorrow," Jim said to Karen. "I can come over right after...."

She shook her head, red-nosed and eyes fever-bright. "No way. I'm fine, and I'm in recovery, and I don't want anybody hovering over me. Misery doesn't really love company."

"But I want to help," Jim said. "What if you get sicker?"

"I'll see a doctor."

"What if you get so sick you can't drive to the clinic?"

"I'll call an ambulance." Her mouth twitched at the corners.

"What if they don't come in time?"

"They will," I said brightly. "They always do for me."

Both of them looked at me. Karen's smile faltered. Jim's faded out altogether.

Mine just hung there on my face like plastic. After a moment, I cleared my throat. "So, anyway, I'm bailing. Karen, thanks for the use of the couch. I'm gonna leave the mint tea here, okay? I have a stash at home."

"Thanks, Blair." After a second of silence, she poked Jim in the arm. He caught her eyes, sighed, and turned back to me.

"Thanks, Blair." Jim rolled his eyes where she couldn't see him.

Outside I picked up some of the cold on the way to my car. My fingers were numb by the time I reached it, clumsy with the keys. I unlocked the door, climbed in, and started the engine. Had to let it warm up before I trusted it on the road. So, it gave me some time to settle myself, too. It was late--or really early, however you wanted to look at it--and I was tired. Long day, long night. Longer day tomorrow, and nothing but more writing at the end of it. I leaned my head on the steering wheel, breathing slow and deep. I wasn't going to sleep, just--pausing, for a second or two, to recharge.

A tap on my window yanked me out of the trance.

Jim.

I rolled down the window, just a crack. "I wasn't sleeping," I said, before he could say a word. "I was just warming up the engine."

"Uh-huh."

"Jim, man, come on--"

He opened the door for me and stepped back. "Don't make me arrest you."

"I'm fine."

"Good. You can keep me company while I drive us home."

That was pretty much the end of the discussion. I turned the car off and climbed out, locking the door. He shut it behind me.

I walked beside him to the truck, hands dug deep in my pockets. "Thought you'd want to stay a while."

"Nah." He shrugged. "Time to go home."

"She threw you out," I said. "You guys aren't...?"

"No. I wouldn't have--geez, Sandburg." Jim scrubbed a hand over his face and looked away. "No. Not yet."

"Right, right, sorry. None of my business."

"Thank you."

"Sorry."

"You planning on getting in the truck sometime tonight?"

I didn't help him stay awake on the way home. I drifted, half aware, half asleep, sensing him and the truck but only distantly, as part of a strange inner dream logic that held me at the edge of consciousness. He didn't seem to need my help--just the street lights and the radio. He sang along to Scarborough Fair on the oldies station. He had a good voice, soft, on key when he wanted to be.

He shook me a little to wake me up when we got home. Kept a hand on my shoulder all the way up in the elevator. I felt heavy, thick-headed and empty. Jim's hand was warm and firm, and I was grateful for it, anchored by it, as he steered me into the loft and into my room.

I stood at the center of my room, and knew I was supposed to be doing something.

"Get undressed," Jim suggested. "Go to sleep."

That was it.

"Okay." I yawned hugely, and stretched my arms up over my head. I shrugged out of my jacket, let it fall to the floor where I stood, and started on the buttons of my shirt.

"Hey, Sandburg."

I thought he'd gone.

"Yeah?"

"Good luck with those chapters. I know this is important to you. It's just hard. Knowing what it means. I just--"

"What, Jim?"

"Nothing." His eyes were so blue it hurt when I looked into them. "April's not so far away."

"Jim--"

"Let me know if you need anything. You know. If I can help."

I nodded slowly, never taking my eyes off him. No longer tired at all.

"Okay." He nodded once, decisively. "Go to bed." He turned and went out, shutting my doors behind him.

I did. It was a very long time before I slept.

Two days later I started sneezing.


Continued in Part Two.

Link to text version of part two: http://www.squidge.org/archive/cgi-bin/convert.cgi?filename=1/aquiet_a