A Quiet War -- Part Two
Teaching a class is never quite what you expect it to be. Not the first time, not any time thereafter. I always dressed a little "up" on the days I was supposed to teach, which for me meant there weren't any holes in anything I was wearing. Since I started hanging with Jim, I was maybe a little more uptown than I used to be; not so much settling down as blending in. I picked a look halfway between Jim and Henry Brown, and stuck with it--the anthropologist abroad. When in Rome, and all that.
Teaching a class when you're dying of the flu doesn't do much for your style quotient, no matter how well you're dressed. The sympathy factor, however, is a deal-maker.
Doctor Flanagan drove me over to Sanderson Hall and dropped me off right in front of the building. My head was congested and my chest ached and I barely had the energy to move. He took pity on me, which proved he had a heart. I felt a little guilty when he made the offer, but not guilty enough to start paying for my own coffee. The guy had tenure; it wasn't like he couldn't afford it. I passed two of my students leaving the building as I walked in, grabbed both of them by their backpack-straps and ushered them into the classroom ahead of me.
"Only five minutes?" I said, shaking my head in dismay. "I've got a master's degree. I get ten." I gave everyone about twenty seconds to get themselves ready for the fruits of my knowledge, then threw myself into the lecture head-first.
I ended up teaching bare-armed and still I was sweating, and shivering at the same time. The overhead wouldn't focus, which meant Sarah--front-row Sarah with the inch-thick mascara and eyes that never left my chest--had to have everything repeated.
It was painfully obvious half the class hadn't bothered with the readings I'd assigned on Friday, and by the time we were thirty minutes in to the hour and fifteen minute class, I was ready to bail. Lucky for me, I came prepared.
"Okay, books off your desks. You can use your notes, those of you who actually have some. One sheet of paper with your name at the top, and don't give me that look, I warned you guys last week." A groan went up like they'd rehearsed it; I showed no mercy, and handed out the questions.
They were silently scratching out pathetic answers I'd be expected to grade that night when the door at the back of the room opened quietly. Jim's face peered in, and when he caught sight of me, he waved.
I climbed the steps to meet him and pulled him back into the hallway. "Hi," I said, pitching my voice low. "Are you registered for this class?"
Jim grinned. "I think 101 is a little below my level, teach."
"So do they." I glared down into the classroom. "Eyes front, Sarah," I called, and mascara-girl's head spun back to her desk like Linda Blair's. "Trust me, Toby's not doing any better than you are."
"Tough guy," Jim said. "I like that."
"So what brings you to my hallowed halls? Let me guess. You found the Davis shooter, broke him in the box, and you need my expert report-writing skills to record the outcome of your brilliant interrogation."
I waited. Jim just kept grinning.
I sighed. "Tell me."
"I've got a five-hundred-year-old mother-in-law down on Market who swears her daughter's husband is funneling cash out of the family account to fund an alien invasion."
I whistled. "Man. And I thought your family was warped."
"This time she says he's stolen her daughter's car for them. A '96 Honda Civic, I think. Metallic Seafoam Green. You up for it?"
I looked down on the fifty bent heads below. There were only three questions on the quiz, and they only needed to write a paragraph for each. Assuming they had even a passing familiarity with the material, most of them should be done within five minutes.
And Jim hadn't pulled me out on a call for weeks. I missed that. I wanted to go.
Jim caught my look. "Hey, if you need time...."
"Nah. They'll be done in five. You parked out front?"
"I'm parked at Hargrove."
"Bummer." I shook my head; at least it was downhill from here. "Five minutes, guys," I said. "And then, since most of you need the time to study, I'm gonna cut you loose a few minutes early. Just stack the papers on the table behind the podium, and try not to trample the weak and slow on your way out the door." The end of my speech was all but inaudible over the squeak of fifty chairs shoving back from desks and the sudden storm of zipper-sounds from below. "And don't forget your bluebooks when you come for the exam, 'cause I'm not buying extra this time."
"What are you, Sandburg, some kinda hardass?" Jim shook his head. "You sound like my last drill sergeant."
"I'm a pushover. You should hear Doctor Roberts." I stepped back just in time to let a river of student body flow between us. Several students stopped to ask me what the assignment was, and whether I had any extra copies of the syllabus. I directed them, with no small amount of glee, to the envelope hanging on my door in Hargrove Hall. If I had to walk it, so did they.
"You sure you're up for this?" Jim said. "You don't look so great."
"Nah, I'm fine."
"You got a fever, Sandburg?"
"I'm fine. I'm not sick, I'm just flushed with the passion of intellectual pursuits. I'm a scholar, man."
"You were a better-looking one yesterday."
"Gee, thanks, Jim. Now I feel like a scuzz."
We were halfway there, a few students trailing us and pulling me back for occasional questions, when Jim's cell phone rang. It was Karen.
I slowed down a little. It wasn't a bad day. It wasn't raining, which I always count as a good thing, and the promised warm front had manifested itself on cue. Between enjoying the weather and harassing my students, I managed to avoid overhearing the actual words of Jim's conversation.
Unfortunately, I couldn't miss the tone. Sweet and sexy. Something happened then, something I couldn't even put into words and something I was extremely not proud of, but there it was. I knew that voice. I missed that voice.
I caught up.
"Hey," I said, smiling. "That Karen? Let me talk to her."
Jim batted my hand away. "Back off, Sandburg. Go talk to your own girlfriend."
"Can't. Alexandria's on hiatus."
"Don't you mean sabbatical?"
"No, I mean hiatus. It means I fucked up and now I have to pay. It's very nineties, man, you have no hope of understanding. Come on, I need to talk to Karen, hand it over, Ellison--thank you." I snatched the phone away. "Hey, Karen!"
"Hi, Blair. I thought you had class right now."
"Well, you know, the mighty Ellison summons me and I appear. Listen, could you do me a favor? Do you think you could make this guy go to bed at a decent hour tonight? Because I'm standing here right next to him and he's all pale and wan and I'm not sure, but I think he's lost his reflection. I have it on excellent authority he was on stakeout until three this morning and up again at five-thirty."
"No way. You're his keeper, not me. And he promised to take me to watch some co-eds get the cuisinart treatment tonight."
"You guys are going to the Save the Humans rally?"
"Ha ha. We're going to see The Blair Witch Project."
I stopped walking. Jim and several students strolled right past me. "You can't."
"Sure we can. They're still running it at that artsy place over on Halifax. It's supposed to be wild."
"No, I mean, he can't. Hang on." I hit the mute button and jogged a few feet to catch up with Jim.
"Hey." I grabbed his arm, stopping him. "Look, Jim, you can't go see that movie. It'll make you puke your guts out."
Jim rolled his eyes, and took the phone back. "I've seen worse."
"I'm not talking about the gore. I'm talking about the camera work. I've seen it, Jim, and it's going to make you totally sick. It's like two hours on the Tilt-a-Whirl. I'm telling you, you can't handle it. Go see The Sixth Sense or something, people actually bleed in that one and it's got a bitchin' twist at the end."
"Since when do you decide what I can and can't handle?"
My mouth fell open, and I stared at him for a minute before I recovered the power of speech. "Since when do you?"
Jim hit the mute button and put the phone to his ear. "Sorry, Karen. Sandburg's biological clock appears to be ticking." He laughed. "Yeah. I'm thinking of getting him a puppy. How about I pick you up for seven-thirty? That'll get us there in plenty of time to sit around and make fun of the previews." He listened for a few seconds, looked over at me, and laughed again. "Yeah, I'll tell him. Don't worry." Jim turned away, and his voice dropped. "Miss you too. See you soon."
He closed the phone, slid it back in his pocket. "Look, Sandburg--"
That was all I stuck around to hear.
I beat him to the truck, mainly because I was running and he wasn't. I let myself in on the passenger's side and waited. Adrenaline was running all through me, and it felt like every nerve in my body was flooded with electricity. I needed the time alone to get myself under control, to get a grip, to get my congested lungs working again. It was either take a break or hit a wall, and I couldn't afford to crack up my hand.
He came across the quad slowly, curving around between Hargrove and the fountain. I watched him from someplace distant in my head. He walked with purpose, tall and straight, never wavering in his course, and I knew that I was going to need both his certainty and my detachment. Jim and I only fit together in the interstitial spaces of our lives; it was a weird shade of monogamy but we did it, and we didn't talk about it, just another unspoken rule hanging out in the silence between us.
He'd just blown me off, and he'd done it for her.
That meant things were serious. Jim was in deep enough now that he had to leave me behind, and it had happened before, hell, I'd left him behind a few times, but this was different.
And I couldn't breathe again, I was having a really significant problem with my lungs, and this ending hurt like it hadn't hurt those other times. It cut deep.
The grass was shadowed, but the angle of the sun turned the fountain into a shower of bright sparks. He was behind it and then in front, watching me across the space between us, through the windshield. There was a memory in the image, sinking fast into cold water, a dark place with Jim on the other side. I watched him, breathing hard and raspy, searching my head for a reason not to be scared.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to say that. It was out of line--" He said it as soon as he got into the truck, with his hands tight and white-knuckled on the steering wheel. His face was pale and hard, white at the corners of his mouth. He wouldn't look at me. He was scared, too, which scared me even more, because I could handle me being pissed and scared just fine, but Jim being pissed and scared turned the world on its side in a way I distinctly did not like. I took a breath that made my chest hurt, made my head spin just a little, and reached out to him.
"Jim, come on. Don't--it's okay." I pulled one of his hands off the steering wheel and held it in mine to warm it up. He looked at me then, at our hands and then back up at me and I hated that we were in a parking lot miles from home, that I couldn't just lean on him and hold him up and make him smile. "It's okay."
"You were right. Gotta cut the cord sometime, man. You have to live your life. I didn't mean to make you feel like a freak."
"Yeah, I did." Me and the paper, me and his dad, all in the same box now. I didn't say it because I didn't want to remind him I was writing, but it was there in his eyes anyway, under the surface. I hated myself for putting that look there, but I didn't know how to take it back.
"Look, I know I can come on too strong sometimes, and in the grand scheme of things why should it matter if you puke your guts out at the movies? It's your God-given right, Jim, and it's not gonna kill you, so I should've stayed out of it."
"No, I just mean--"
"I know what you mean."
"I'm not a moron, Sandburg."
"Damn right." His hand tightened around my fingers and I squeezed back, then let go. We just grinned at each other, and I felt good, really good, like I'd just sailed out of a storm into fair weather.
"But you're still going to the movie." I looked out of the window to hide a grin.
"The lady wants to go."
"You are a moron."
He laughed, and started the truck. "Look at it as a test."
"Yeah. If you survive the night, next week we'll try you on a roller coaster."
The plan was to not wait up for him. The plan was, in fact, to completely ignore the fact that Jim was off somewhere being an idiot with his girlfriend. The plan was to write, because of all the things I was juggling lately, writing was the one thing I had to keep up in the air. With the semester ending, I had three weeks of peace and quiet ahead of me before January started the cycle over again.
I meant to use them all.
I set up the living room for the effort, telling myself home was better than the library, because friends could find me at the library and interrupt my intricate mental processes.
I waited up. I mean, who am I kidding, anyway?
The key rattled in the door at eleven-thirty, and Jim staggered in looking like the ghost of Jacob Marley, only Marley had chains and a marginally healthier complexion.
"Not one fucking word, Sandburg," he said. "Not one."
He made it to the bathroom. I had kind of a halfway guilty urge to follow him, make sure he was okay, but it wasn't like he needed me to hold his hair back. Guy was almost forty, he was an ex-Ranger, and for years he'd eaten his own cooking. He didn't need a spotter to puke his guts out.
Still. Normal people don't sound like that when they vomit, not unless they're possessed by the devil. I was getting a little unsteady myself, just listening to it.
I went to the door, looked in. Jim was on the floor by the john, eyes closed, his face about three times more Caucasian than the last time I'd seen it.
"Shut up," he said. "Get me a towel."
"You look like shit."
"Just get me a towel, Sandburg."
"Sat through the whole thing, huh?"
He opened his eyes. "You like breathing?"
I wet down a wash cloth at the sink, squeezed the water out and tossed it over. He caught it easily and wiped his eyes with it, then his mouth. I leaned back against the counter and watched him, trying not to feel smug. Failing miserably.
"So." I folded my arms across my chest, and tilted my head for a better look at him. "How'd you like the end? That part where they were running around and around and around and--"
Jim's stomach made a sound I'd never heard before, and he lurched back over the toilet. I watched for a second, then ran water into a plastic cup for him and set it just within reach.
"You okay, Jim?" I said after a minute. "Can I get you anything?"
He answered, but I didn't catch any of the words. The tone, though, that was pretty enlightening.
When I left the bathroom, I was grinning. Sometimes I hate my job.
And sometimes, I don't.
When you're a child, being sick has certain inescapable advantages. You can't go out and hang with your friends, sure, but on the plus side you don't have to go to school, you get to read all day, and your mom brings you every meal in bed. Growing up, I was not what you'd call a child of many friends, so the hanging out part wasn't that much of a loss.
As an adult, the advantages of being sick are non-existent. The worst possible thing to do on a sick day is actually be sick. Two days from exposure to onset; it only took one more to put me flat on my back. There was no reading, there was no pampering, and there sure as hell wasn't gonna be any writing.
The day before, I'd turned in chapter two ahead of schedule. I hadn't asked for Jim's help; I didn't need it. I knew Jim's senses better than I knew my own, and in the absence of actual data I also knew exactly how to fake it. With a box of tissues in one hand and my life in the other, I'd stopped in at Sydney's office. I dropped off the chapter and a note explaining that I'd be back on Friday, maybe. If I lived.
In the absence of any of the things necessary to make a sick day bearable, I shuffled my aching bod from bed to fridge to bed again, propped myself against the wall, and self-medicated with self-pity and pineapple-orange juice.
Sometime around three, it occurred to me that I actually was probably dying. By five, I was convinced that this was not a bad thing.
Jim knocked on my door around six. It was his third try since he'd come home, and I was weakening. If I'd had any energy at all not expressly reserved for breathing, I would've explained to him just how much I hated the world and everything in it--most specifically those things closest to me, and most deeply those close things that made soft, tentative noises at my door. I couldn't even muster up the life-force to tell him to get lost.
Instead, I lay in my bed like a slug, the covers kicked off, sweat chilling on my body in a thin layer that felt a lot like grease. I felt swollen all over. Blair Sandburg, Jewish sausage.
I wanted to turn off the ceiling fan, but the switch was over by my door and might as well be in Cambodia for all the possibility of me going there. I wanted to pull the blankets up over me, but the blankets were at the foot of the bed. I did manage to turn my head when the door opened, a bad move that started a slow, painful headache that throbbed all the way down to my toenails. Hair slipped down my face and over my eyes like a wash of wavy brown interference as the Doctor Ellison show rolled through its opening credits.
"Can I please," he said, eyes pleading, "if I promise not to bug you at all for the rest of the night, can I please just get you some Nyquil or something? Some juice?"
"I'm fine," I wheezed at him. "Everything's... under control."
"This is my fault." He glared, daring me to deny it. "I shouldn't have made you take care of Karen."
"Don't feel guilty," I begged him. "It makes me tired-er."
"I don't feel guilty." Straight-faced he lied to me; the man has no shame.
"Good. 'Cause I'm not sick."
"I had a shot."
"I'm just a little tired."
"You work too much." Jim brought his hands out from behind his back and offered me a box. "Tissue?"
I flopped an arm in his direction. He took it as an invitation, and sat down on the edge of my bed. My breath hitched as the bed moved, a combination of respiratory distress and the strain of keeping a major whine locked inside. I was glad to have him there, pitifully glad, and I wanted nothing so much as I wanted to grab him and hold on until I either felt a little better or died.
His hand brushed over my forehead, pushing my hair back. "Christ, Sandburg," he said. "You're really hot."
"You should... see me healthy."
He rolled his eyes at the ceiling, and handed over the box of tissues.
"Thank you. Go away now. Please? I don't... want you to see me die in pain."
"Where do you hurt?"
There was a copy of Gray's Anatomy on my desk. I pointed at it, my eyes falling halfway shut. "There."
"There's stuff in that book you don't even have, Doc."
And there was the whine I couldn't stop. Never handled being sick very well, and the presence of kindness in the face of my misery dissolved every microliter of stoicism in my body--which never actually contained that much to start with.
Jim nodded. His eyes were soft with sympathy, his expression deeply concerned. I hated him with a vast, epic viciousness matched only by my sudden, pathetic gratitude. I pulled a tissue out of the box and applied it to my nose.
"Ick." Jim reached for a tissue for himself.
"Sorry. Greater love hath no man." I wiped my nose carefully with one tissue, then blotted at Jim's sleeve with a fresh one. "You have a place in heaven, my friend."
"Yeah," he said. "Baptism by snot."
"You're a good friend."
"I'm a pushover." Jim gathered up our used tissues and dumped them into the trashcan next to the bed. "Got me wrapped around your little finger."
I lifted one hand, waggling my fingers at him. "Nope. See?"
"I think the fever's affecting your brain."
"Something is." I grinned even wider, and dropped my hand on his. Touching him felt good, and I couldn't remember why I hadn't done it sooner. "Jim."
He smiled, wide and unreserved. "Definitely off the tracks, Sandburg."
"Did I ever tell you, you're my best friend?"
My heart felt so full of him, I didn't think I could survive it, and my head was pounding in the same driving rhythm as my blood. I licked at my lips, just drinking in the sight of him. He blazed in the lamplight, like he had at Karen's, but he was looking at me this time, just at me. I couldn't keep all that feeling in me and it just kind of streamed out of my mouth in a torrent of unrestrained schmaltz. I couldn't shut myself up.
Jim leaned close. "You probably smell really good," I said softly.
He laughed. "Better than you."
"I never like to hurt you, Jim." I said it in a rush, while the fever was high enough to provide some courage. "I never mean to, you know? It's like we just go at cross-purposes all the time, and I don't know how to make it stop."
His hand tensed under mine, a quick, tight spasm. "Shh. I'm going to get you some aspirin."
I shook my head. "Not yet."
"Yes, yet. Come on, Blair, you need to take something."
"I'm not delirious."
"I'm not saying you are."
"I love you, I just want you to know that. You're really important, Jim, I mean it. All this time I've been... following you around, being your partner, your friend, helping you with this sentinel thing, I just do it because of how special you are, you know? I don't know if anybody else gets it, and I like... being the guy who does."
Jim pulled back, disentangling his hand. The smile on his face grew thin and started to fade. A hot, tight knot tied itself in my gut, heavy with confusion and disgust. Shooting off my mouth when I was sick--emotional Russian Roulette. Definitely out of his comfort zone, definitely way out of mine. I was about to open my mouth to take it back when he fit the Good Humor mask back on.
"Yeah." He was trying, but even high on my own immune system I could hear the bitterness. "I'm a real special case."
"You are." I struggled to sit up, but he pushed me back, no effort at all, just a hand on my chest and a breath of pressure. Weak as I was, he could've blown on me and achieved the same effect. "Can't describe it, can't defend it, just... had to say it. One of a kind, Jim...."
"Save it for the paper."
The smile was totally gone now; I wanted to make it come back but my energy was gone too, ebbed away like a low tide. I clutched at his arm, tried to hold him there long enough to unsay the mush. But I didn't know how to do it, and I knew I wouldn't mean it, and he was already pulling away. Gentle but unstoppable, out of my reach so fast it scared me.
"Don't feel bad, okay? It's okay."
"I feel fine."
"Where've I... heard that one, before?"
He stood up, looking down at me with bright, bright eyes. "Jesus, Blair. What does it take?"
I watched him, and tried to make sense of it, but I hurt everywhere and any kind of meaning I might have dug out of the question got lost in that, swallowed up. I couldn't make the words fit together.
After a few seconds, he pulled my blankets up and over me, smoothing them over my chest. "Sleep. I'm going to run down to the pharmacy, be gone just a few minutes." He pushed some papers on my desk aside and dug my cell phone out of the clutter. He set it on my bedside table, on top of a spiral-bound notebook. "Call me if you start to feel worse."
"I'm not sick," I said, curling in on myself on one side. I watched him walk to the door, my eyes heavier than ever, fading fast.
"I know." A whisper, so soft I could barely hear him. "If you feel worse, call me anyway."
Home had been like boot camp for the dying since my three-day bout with the Martian Death Flu. I had a vague memory of Christmas in the form of a bare tree in the living room and an overseas call from my mom, but mostly the holiday went uncelebrated. Jim was the kind of drill sergeant that made you pray for a quick fever spike and a nice, quiet coma.
After two weeks' recovery in the Gung Ho House of Healing, I was so well-trained Naomi would've gagged to see it. I'd started to have disturbing fantasies involving thermometers and Grandma Ellison's Chicken Noodle Soup, and my unprocessed negative feelings about vitamin C were gonna cost me in therapy.
Jim and I fell into a holding pattern. January was a don't-ask, don't-tell kind of time for us. I didn't talk about writing and I sure as hell didn't do any of it in front of him; in return, he didn't hassle me about the paper and tried not to do any sentinel stuff he thought I might want recorded for posterity.
The fast-fade was easy, so easy I didn't even know I was doing it. It took Simon button-holing me on one of my Major Crime fly-bys to bring me down from the top of the Ivory Tower.
"Are you aware," he said, giving me the evil eye all up and down, "that your partner has been trying to reach you all day?"
I switched seamlessly from searching Jim's desk frantically for a pen to searching my backpack frantically for my cell phone. Which, predictably, wasn't there. I'm not sure why I even bothered to look; I could see it like I was clairvoyant, picture every sleek little line of it as it sat innocently on my desk next to the office phone.
"Uh," I said intelligently, not meeting Simon's eyes.
"Something about a meeting you missed. A follow-up interview. Of a witness." He paused. "A witness to an auto theft?"
"The Gregory thing."
"The Gregory thing," he confirmed. "I'm sure you have an excellent excuse for your absence."
I sank down into Jim's chair, and let my head fall into my hands. "Would you settle for entertaining?" I asked the desktop. "Entertaining I can do."
"I'm not the one who's mad at you, Sandburg," he said. There was as much sympathy in his eyes when I looked up at him as there is air in outer space. Less.
I counted to ten, then said, "If you were paying me, I'd resign."
"If I were paying you, I'd have stopped by now."
"Oh, come on, Simon." I slammed my palms down on the desk. "It's not like I skipped out to go to the arcade or something. I'm in the process of getting a degree, and I know this is going to sound a little crazy, but occasionally the Anthro department likes me to put in an actual physical appearance in one of the classes they pay me to teach. I've never quite managed to convince them my presence here helps keep the streets safe for Joe Public. They generally tend to think of me as one of Joe Public, what with me not getting a badge or a gun or a paycheck from the city or anything even remotely like compensation or recognition for the work I do here. Funny how academics can be so irrational, huh?"
Simon just looked at me. He looked at me for a long time while I breathed hard and counted to ten over and over again. His eyes held steady on me and it was like he had heat vision or something; I started to turn red. The blush started at the tips of my ears and worked its way forward; I could feel it as a bright, humiliating warmth spreading over my skin.
"Feel better now?" he said when it was clear I'd run out of words. There was a minor chord of concern in his voice; minor, but unmistakable.
"Yeah," I said, holding his look and daring him to say anything else. "So?"
"So Jim's still looking for you. He's down in Forensics with Serena, checking on the Wilson reports."
"Okay," I said. His eyebrows went up; I sighed, pushed up from the chair, and adjusted my backpack. "Okay. I'm going. This is me going. All right?"
"Fine," he said. He turned and started toward his office, his shoulders stiff--probably with all the stuff he could've said to me, but didn't.
He turned around, waiting.
"Sorry, sir," I said, looking down at the floor.
"Go see Jim," he said. "Then go home and get some sleep. You need it."
I nodded. Simon went into his office and shut the door. Taking a deep breath, I pushed out of the doors to Major Crimes and headed for the elevator.
Forensics I could do. Sleep....
That was another story altogether.
Serenaville was immaculate, glass and steel and white. It was definitely her domain, and you just didn't bring dirt into it, not if you wanted to live. Her eyes flicked up from her computer screen when I walked in, scanned me, made me glad I'd showered; she lost interest, and the computer sucked her back in.
Jim was reading her screen from about fifteen feet away, scoping out reflected letters on the surface of a glass-faced cabinet. He gave a little wave when I came in, then held a finger to his lips. I made a covert hand sign that meant what the hell's going on? and he made one back that meant shut up, Sandburg, I'm trying to read. At least, that's what I had to assume; I stayed quiet and planted myself on a black vinyl stool, one so high my feet didn't touch the floor. I pulled my backpack around my body without taking it off my shoulder, and fished out the notebook I'd started on Monday.
Jim saw me do it, and turned away from the reflection in the cabinet.
"What?" I said quietly, flicking my eyes at Serena. She was all wrapped up in an on-screen report, oblivious.
"I sneezed three times this morning after breakfast," he said. "Thought you might want to write that down."
"Jesus, Jim. These are my lecture notes, okay?" I shoved the notebook at him, but he wouldn't take it; I let go, and we both watched it fall. It lay there between us like a black stain on the white tile.
"This time," Jim said. His eyes skated away from mine, and his voice was softer. He let out a chuff of air, shaking his head. "Sorry."
"Pick it up," I said.
"Pick it up. What, you're afraid to touch it? I'm not afraid for you to have it. Flip through it, Jim. Read every page, okay? Because I'd really hate for you to have to trust me, I'd hate for you to have to take me on faith. Jesus, Jim, what do I have to say to you to prove I'm not going to fuck you over with this? I'm your friend, man. I wish you could hang onto that."
A small cough from Serena's workstation let me know I had her attention now, if not Jim's. He didn't move, so I stood up. I leaned down and scooped up the spiral-bound notebook. The thing was, there were notes about him in there, little things I'd jotted down between classes, but it wasn't the kind of thing he was thinking of. It was just statistics, and my pathetic attempts to bend statistics to fit a kind of pathetic theory. He wouldn't have understood them even if he'd seen them. I certainly didn't have anything personal in it; once burned, twice shy, and Naomi Sandburg hadn't raised any stupid children that I knew of.
I went over to stand behind Serena, leaning in close enough to smell her perfume. I had no idea what it was called, but it was a kind of pink fragrance, light and floral. I liked it a lot better than whatever Megan wore, which Jim had once described as a cross between Foster's and Aqua Velva. Serena leaned back when I leaned in, and I put a hand on her shoulder, smiling down at her. She smiled back.
Jim didn't have a smile for either of us. "What've you got?" he said, snapping the words out like gunfire.
"Enough to know he's a non-secretor," Serena said. "Enough to know he's probably about five-nine, about one-seventy--about Blair's size, actually, maybe just a little bit bigger. We didn't get any hairs, but there were a few fibers that might take us somewhere." She shrugged, and turned back to her monitor. "Prints you found belonged to the maid's son, which we kind of figured since they were so small."
"Six-two, two-twenty. Not a match."
"But is he a secretor?"
"Captain Banks felt we needed more to go on before we asked for tests."
Jim nodded, expressionless. Simon had a fine line to walk, and it didn't always endear him to his men. The file open on the screen belonged to Martha Wilson, a young mother of two who'd been found dead in her home three months ago today. She'd been shot once through the back of the head, apparently while kneeling; nothing in her home had been disturbed, and there were no signs of other physical assault. She was a contract programmer, a telecommuter working out of a third bedroom that had converted nicely into an office. Serena's examination of Martha's computer and network accounts had revealed no apparent motive for her murder.
Martha's ex-husband was career military, a sharp guy with the brains to keep his mouth shut when Jim had him in the box. He'd lawyered up, and it seemed to be one of those rare times when the system worked to protect the innocent. Brian Wilson didn't look like our guy, and now there was a second shooting, a little messier this time but similar enough to give Major Crime the collective shakes. The new girl was raped before she was shot, which could mean a different guy or escalation, and neither of those prospects made us very happy. Two crazy gunmen in the city in the course of one long, gray winter--or just one guy, starting off crazy, getting a little crazier every day.
I knew Wilson wasn't that guy. He didn't fit the profile, and I didn't get that buzz off him, that instinctive electric charge you grow into when you've been at this long enough. He was clean--but there was still this look on Jim's face. He really wanted to know if Wilson was a secretor.
"His alibi checked out, Jim," I said, and he snapped his head up, glaring like I'd poked him.
"I know that," he said. "I just--"
"--want to know." I grinned at him, just because I knew him so well--better than he thought I did anyway, well enough to figure him out. He didn't think Wilson was guilty, but he had to cover all of his bases--not for procedure or paperwork, but for Jim. "You know the first one wasn't the right kind of kill."
"Not enough passion in it. Lovers kill face to face, don't they? I read somewhere they bring the same passion to the murder that they brought to the bedroom."
"Then maybe it's exactly the right kind of kill."
Jim's eyes didn't change. I didn't have any answers for that on-hand--I just looked at him, wondering where his mind was, pretty sure I didn't want to go there.
Serena snapped us out of it. "Are you guys done? I've got a meeting in ten minutes."
"All done," Jim said. He put a hand on my shoulder and pushed me at the door, aiming a thin smile over his shoulders. "Thanks for the input, Serena. Give me a buzz if you get anything else, okay?"
We were gone before she could answer.
Jim was a moving wall of silence beside me as we walked the halls toward the elevator. People smiled at me, said hello, and nodded at Jim as we passed. They were less likely to speak to Jim, but you could see they liked him. He didn't speak either, but he always nodded back, and sometimes he even worked up a smile.
We waited a quiet minute for the elevator, making a small island between us as people veered around to either side. A quiet ping ushered us in; five seconds later, Jim hit the stop button.
I turned to face him. His face was so pale it looked cold under the fluorescent lights, cold as winter above the ice-blue button-down. It was a good color for his eyes, but it made him look remote.
His eyes said different.
"I'm sorry," he said, forcing the apology out fast. "I had no call jumping on you like that."
I nodded, and tried to find something safe to look at. The wall behind him, the doors, my hands--anything but Jim Ellison. "It's okay."
"It has to be."
Jim shook his head. "It doesn't."
I forced my eyes up and grabbed onto his arm. Muscles tensed up beneath my fingers, but I didn't let go. "Jim, listen. It's not a problem, okay? I know you're feeling all wonky inside over me writing this thing, but you gotta know somewhere behind all those defense mechanisms that I'm not about to screw you over. You know that, don't you?"
He nodded. Slowly, after a long pause, but it was the answer I needed.
"Just like you know that, I know you trust me. I have to know that, or none of this makes any sense."
"Just like I know that?"
I grinned, and just as slow as that nod, he grinned back. "Maybe I know it a little more toward the front of my head than you do," I said.
He nodded, and let the elevator go. We both faced front, like you're supposed to do in moving elevators, and the cables hauled us upward.
When the panel above the buttons read five, Jim reached up and put a hand on my back, just under my hair. Through my jacket, the touch was pressure without heat. It made me stop breathing for a second, just a second. His fingers scratched over the smooth leather, eased up, and wrapped around my shoulder.
I made myself take a breath. It took an act of will. I didn't want to move, didn't want him backing away. I took that breath and looked up, and he was looking down, and something about the creases at the corners of his eyes, something about the way he was smiling--he looked like he felt good, or at least better--no, good, that was the right impression. Something about that look made me want his mouth, and when he saw me wanting it, the look changed. If the elevator doors hadn't peeled open I would've had what I wanted and more.
His fingers edged higher, over the collar of my jacket, cold and rough on my skin. Another second of pressure, and he looked away from me, pushed me out ahead of him into walking traffic.
We pushed through the hall and into the bullpen, over to his desk. He shed his jacket and reached for mine, hung them both up. We sat side by side, him searching the desk for files, me uncapping a pen and slipping on my glasses. The quiet was of better quality this time, a good feeling in it--there was still something there, and I still wanted it, and it was still mine.
I grinned down at my notebook, and Jim shoved into my shoulder with his.
"What?" I eyed him over the rims of my glasses.
"That some kinda technical term...?"
"I was just asking."
He forgave me on the Gregory thing. On the way home, I got a run-down of his two interviews with the mother-in-law that had me clutching my gut, laughing so hard my eyes watered. Mrs. Ardelia Gregory turned out to be nearly ninety years old, and had reported the same car stolen five times in the past year--each time while her daughter was taking an afternoon nap, and each time while her daughter's husband was in possession of the "stolen" vehicle in question. She claimed he was planning to sell it to help the aliens. It would've been an ingenious plan if not for the fact that it was his own car, that he'd never sold it, and that as far as we knew, there weren't any aliens in Cascade.
Mrs. Ardelia Gregory was just not all that fond of her son-in-law.
I settled back against the seat when the story was over and we'd laughed ourselves into a panting, comfortable silence. It was warm in the truck, the heater blasting away and probably making the funny noise I couldn't hear. Outside, the day was just edging into evening, and the sunlight had a wavery, distant quality to it; I shivered in spite of my comfort, just at the thought of how cold it was out there. My jacket was more cool than it was warm, more a wind-block than anything else. Even layered underneath in a t-shirt and flannel, I couldn't totally avoid the damp cut of the winter wind in Cascade.
But it was warm in the truck, and not just from the heater.
I turned from the window and faced front. I was having trouble. I thought about the paper, and about Karen, about everything between us that should've stopped this before now, should have made it less inevitable.
Jim's fingers drummed on the steering wheel, keeping time with something I couldn't hear, or nothing. I didn't want to look at him, but I turned anyway, further, my eyes taking the long way up his leather-covered arms, over his shoulders. Maybe it was a little too warm, because when I got to his face, I wasn't breathing. His eyes were on the road, totally wrapped up in his driving; his lips moved, shaping silent words, closing when he didn't know the lyrics. Music from somewhere, then, maybe one of the other cars pacing us down the freeway.
No anger there now, no complications; just Jim and me on the road, on the way home. Nothing between us but empty space and air. Jim sang quietly to himself, fingers tapping the wheel, oblivious, while that space between us turned solid and unbreathable. He was so simple from here, so clear and close.
I tried to swallow. Couldn't. Forced my eyes away.
That was when he looked at me. He didn't say a word, but he took the next exit. It wasn't ours.
In a quiet of another kind he drove us through surface streets neither of us noticed. It was his city, and he knew it better than anybody. By the time he stopped the truck, in the center of an empty parking lot facing out into an empty field, I had no idea where we were.
I didn't much care where we were.
Jim reached for the ignition key and shut the engine down; I watched him do it in a strange mental space, not knowing what was going to happen in one way, knowing exactly what was coming in another. Cold seeped in through the glass without the steady output of the heater. We weren't supposed to do this anymore.
The first touch was his fingers sliding over my cheekbone. Easy and gentle, like the look in his eyes while he drove; warm, like I was, warmer than we had any right to be. I turned into the touch and looked at him and neither of us waited any longer, neither of us could.
He moved from behind the wheel, and I met him halfway. His arms went around my waist and mine around his shoulders and it wasn't what I thought it would be, wasn't crazy or strong like it was in the dark of Jim's bedroom when the silence got the best of us, some nights.
It was just Jim, and just me, just holding on. He pressed his face into my hair, and his breath on my neck wasn't devastating; it was just warm and good. It was just enough. I shifted, moved closer, and wrapped myself around him like a blanket. This was okay, it wasn't too much. It had to be okay because it felt too good to be anything else.
Everything that hurt went away.
I pressed in tighter, closing off all the awkward angles between us. Didn't answer; bit down so hard on my lip I tasted blood, but didn't answer.
"You feel so good," he said. "So good."
I made a small, quieting sound, and reached up with one hand to stroke over the fine brush of hair at the base of his skull. He felt good, too.
A noise slipped out of him, long and low and helpless. It shredded me; it set me up to burn. He moved. Burrowed into my hair, through it; his tongue touched warm and wet on my skin and his teeth scraped, and I flashed from warmth to heat that fast, that sudden, my fists knotting in the back of his jacket as my hips shifted, found something solid to touch.
I needed his mouth, I'd wanted it since the elevator but now I needed it, and he gave it to me, just like I knew he would. Nothing that hurt between us made any difference to this. His hands were warm, but his tongue was hot, liquid, and I broke, said things I shouldn't have. Whispered things I wasn't supposed to say. It was just that it didn't matter now, the words and the silence hurt in perfect proportion so it didn't matter which we chose. I still wanted quiet out of habit, superstitious fear--but I wanted his voice, too. I wanted to hear him.
We weren't supposed to say anything at all.
"Please," was the first thing, that was okay, but then I said his name and it was like I couldn't stop saying it, kissing him and saying his name at the same time, messy and not very effective. He was talking too, then, I didn't understand a word of it but it tasted good, his breath on my face and in my mouth. I held him as close as I could, soaking him in, twisted up in the middle of the front seat and still trying to find more of him to touch.
"Easy," he said, "easy, Blair, come on..." and that wasn't what he wanted, if he'd wanted that his hand wouldn't have moved between us, over the front of my jeans, down. The fabric was thick and I couldn't feel heat at first, just pressure, but the pressure was what I wanted, needed by then.
I answered it without thinking, finding him, pressing back and down and I was over him then, on his leg. That was better because his hands were free and he ran them down my sides and over my ass and pulled me up.
There wasn't enough room. He was over six feet tall and I wasn't a whole lot shorter and the truck was never built for this but God, it was good. I was flying, twisting down onto him, hands on his neck and his face, tongue on every part of him I could reach. And it wasn't like before, because it was daylight, that watery yellow slanting daylight as the afternoon got old and started to die, and I had my eyes open. I could see him. His eyes had that look from the elevator, so free and welcoming, so wide and gentle. Jim Ellison, I reminded myself, Jim Ellison underneath me in the front seat of his truck, knowing who he was and who I was and not fighting it, fighting for it, pressing up into me anyway.
I could see him. Daylight in an empty parking lot, looking out on an empty field. I couldn't catch my breath.
And I couldn't keep my eyes open when I came because it wasn't right, it wasn't right this way, with Karen's face in my mind, and the paper in his. With nothing real said between us.
The wrongness of it burned just like the rest did, burned us just like fire.
It hit us out of step, out of control, Jim a little bit behind me. I must've made some kind of sound, said something, because I was hot and fast and shooting while he took his final strokes and even as he took them he was talking, whispering to me, telling me it was okay, we were both okay, and this wasn't wrong.
He said that again and again against my throat, so many times I knew it was wrong, and knew he knew it too.
I rode him out. He deserved that much. And it was good to rest there on him while he found what he was looking for, good to feel his teeth in my skin when he let go.
It was better than I deserved.
In the silence between us when it was over, I tried to remember why we shouldn't have done what we did. Jim tried to stretch and banged his elbow on the steering wheel. "Ow. Shit. Who put that there?"
He looked up at me and smiled. I sucked in a breath, holding myself still. The light hit his eyes and his face, turned him golden. I'd never seen Jim look quite like that, and underneath me his body was relaxed and easy. He shifted the arm he'd banged up and edged out from the back of the seat to wrap himself around me.
He was just--beautiful. I could've lived on a look like that for a very long time. Something hot and scared broke loose in my chest; I tried to think of something to say but nothing would come. I wanted something I didn't know the name of, wanted it so bad I ached, but it wasn't mine. I'd seen him look at her, and I knew that without ever asking the question.
I said, "Karen."
Jim's body turned to rock.
"Man." I swallowed, pushed myself up. I could still taste him in my mouth, still feel him like a heat-shadow down the front of me. My crotch was damp and hot and liquid, still throbbing. "Jesus, Jim."
He sat up as I moved off him. Straightened his jacket, his shirt, everything I'd disarranged. One hand investigated the front of his jeans, and irritation bent his mouth down. I looked away.
"Forget about it," he said.
"I said, forget it. It's okay."
"What are you--"
"I'm not going to do anything."
"In her place, I'd be wrecked."
"She's not gonna find out about it unless you put it in the paper, Sandburg. You think you can leave this chapter out?"
I found his eyes. I'd taken that warm and easy look and turned it arctic. "I'm sorry," I said. I shrugged, not sure what to do with my hands or my arms or anything, totally free of coordination.
"There's nothing to tell her, anyway," he said quietly, like he was answering a question I hadn't actually asked.
"Nothing." The heater was back on, but I was cold anyway, in a way that didn't have anything to do with the weather. "Okay."
"That's not what I meant." His eyes never left the road. "It's just nothing to do with her."
"Try telling her that."
"She's my girlfriend, Sandburg. Let me handle the guilt, okay?"
"I don't feel guilty." And that was only half a lie, because in a way I didn't, I just felt like I should feel guilty. Instead there was a tight, vicious satisfaction in my chest, ugly and cold, and it hit me that I'd won this round, Sandburg one, Fisher zero, and I hadn't even known there was a game on. "I feel pretty good, Jim."
He looked over at me, expressionless, tabula rasa. "Why?"
I almost said, *Because I needed it, I need you,* but that was too selfish and I couldn't make the words come. I wanted to say, *Because you need me,* but Jim had never liked to hear that.
I said, "Because I missed you."
His face tightened. "Yeah? That's funny. I never went anywhere."
"I just feel like you're out of my reach, sometimes. Like there's nothing between us, and everything I thought was there is just some kind of pipe dream."
"We're friends, isn't that what you said?"
"Until April." I looked out the window and didn't see a thing but my own reflection in the glass, and Jim's. Transparent, faded colors. Insubstantial. "Isn't that what you said?"
"I didn't set the deadline."
"It's a deadline for the paper. Not for us. That was your deal."
"We are the paper, Sandburg. When were we ever anything else?"
I was glad I was looking at the window because he didn't need to see my face then, and I didn't need him to see it. I couldn't figure out a way to look at him that wouldn't hurt, so I didn't look, and I didn't say anything, and I almost didn't breathe. After a while the silence stopped being the kind that waits for you to say something and started being the kind that doesn't want to be broken.
I kept my eyes down, and devoted myself to fiddling with the heating vents.
He let out a loud, long breath that ended up obscene. "I'm sorry, Blair, okay? Christ, I say that six times a day."
"You ever wonder why?"
"I don't think you want me to answer that."
I looked up. It was like vertigo, looking at him, like I was falling and falling and my stomach wasn't falling with me. "This is crazy," I said, standing out there on a ledge. Looking down.
"Jim, there is so much going on right now. There's classes and Karen and the paper and the station and I'm just fighting to stay on board here. I don't know--" I swallowed hard, looking out the window. "I don't know what's going on with you right now. I just know this is a lot more complicated than it used to be, and I'm having real trouble with it."
I heard his breath catch, then start again, faster. He shifted in his seat, folded his arms across his middle. "I know."
"I mean, first you go quiet on me and we're fighting all the time, and then you're off with this girl and want me to be all Mister Supportive Guy for you--which I have been to the very best of my ability, in the face of frilliness and disease--and now we're just the paper, Jesus, and then this happens while you and Karen, you're--"
My hands were shaking, pressed down on my knees and still shaking; I felt like I was about to fly apart. Every rule broken, it was out there between us, the things we'd done with and to each other, all in the light. More words than we'd ever shared over this, more words in three minutes than in the last three years. I was over the cliff now, on the way down, falling down into the darkness.
"What is this, Jim?" I looked at the dash and blinked, and tried to keep my breathing steady. "You're running through my fingers like sand, you know? What else am I gonna lose here before we're done?"
Jim didn't say anything. He did reach out, he put a hand on top of my hand and his fingers tightened around it so hard there was actual pain, and I could feel him shaking too.
"This is insane."
"You've got so much on you," he said softly. "You spread yourself too thin."
"Yeah, well. Some days you're the bagel, some days you're the cheese."
He made a noise like a snort, only muffled, like he didn't want anything to do with laughing. "Yeah," he said. "I know." He started the engine, started the heater. Turned on the radio. He threw the truck into reverse, but kept his foot on the brake pedal. "I'm having some trouble too, Blair," he said, and my mouth went dry and the air went dead and electric between us.
It was over. I knew it deep and sure, in that way of knowing suddenly you've turned a corner you didn't even know was there and the corner has vanished behind you and there's no going backward out of that moment, only forward, and something has gone totally, deeply wrong forever.
Break the rules, break the spell. Too many words separating us, things that never should've been said.
There are things people can say to each other that can't be taken back. Things that make you different. Like that first time you scream "I hate you!" at your mother, and watch all the color drain out of her face--you look at her and see the lines around her eyes for the first time and all you can think, all you can say is "I didn't mean it" and "I take it back," but you've turned that corner. She's just never going to look the same again, and she's never going to look at you the same again, and all you can do from that moment on is be a better person than the one who just ended your childhood.
That's what it was like; I'd said the words that took us around this corner and now I was stuck on the other side of it. There was a different Jim Ellison on this side, a sadder and stronger one, the one who'd heard me say "complicated" and "trouble" and agreed with me, now that I'd given him the words for it. I didn't have to hear him to know what he was going to say next, but I listened anyway, palms wet, eyes wet, teeth clenched together so tight my jaw hurt. I looked straight ahead out the window, at the fountain, and listened to him like I couldn't see the future.
"I think it's about time we stopped pretending everything's okay," Jim said. "Don't you?"
"Is that what we're doing?"
"It's what I was doing. Christ, I'd like to just have one day where I didn't have to worry about what's going to happen the next day. I can't do this anymore."
"What are you afraid of?"
"I'm not afraid." His mouth twisted down and he turned to face the window. "I'm just sick of the merry-go-round. Every time I talk to you, you're somebody different."
"I'm... I just have a lot on my plate right now."
"I know that."
"I've got these roles to balance. Cop, teacher, partner, friend." I stumbled, and couldn't name the last one. "I know I'm really compartmentalizing. I just have to get through these next few months--"
"I think... I don't know, Blair. I think maybe we should just table this for now. Get through some stuff."
The words sucked all the air out of the space around us.
"Just table it." I tugged my jacket tight across my chest, huddling into it for warmth. Like I didn't have enough to worry about, he had to yank out from under me the only rug I had. "Shit."
"We've got to get our heads on straight. I don't know about you, but I'm all twisted up. It's not working like it used to."
"No," he said, voice harsh and thick. "You know it and I know it. Come on, Blair--how screwed up do we have to get before we admit it? You like this thing where we're always yelling and always messing each other up and always saying we're sorry? This isn't any fun for me anymore."
My teeth were trying to chatter. I clamped down with my jaw and turned the heater up a notch.
His voice dropped lower, warmer. "It's not any fun for you, either."
"No," I said. Quiet, but the words felt loud. "Not like this."
Jim blew air out through pursed lips, and laughed a really brittle kind of laugh. "Guess that settles it," he said. "Ready to go?"
A few miles down the road, I stopped shaking. The silence ate into the adrenaline, and after a while I could talk to him in something like a normal voice. We threw a few comments back and forth about the weather, about the Jags, about nothing.
We handled it well, all things considered. I was proud of us, in a way that made me a little sick to my stomach. By the time I got home, I was focused.
I wrote for hours, until my eyes burned and my back screamed with pain and my fingers ached and couldn't find the keys any more. I wrote until all I could feel was the writing, until the words and the numbers turned into one solid river in my mind and washed away everything I wasn't ready to face.
I wrote until two a.m. Chapters three and four were done when I finally closed the laptop and fell onto my bed, still dressed, half-unconscious.
If the paper was all that we were, then we were a lie, because the paper was--start to finish.
I wanted it over.
I should've seen it coming, but writing can absorb you. You go out to dinner and find yourself scribbling on napkins. You wake up from a daze in the middle of a conversation and you have no idea whose turn it is to talk but you've got half your next chapter outlined in your head, the words lined up like good soldiers. You spend half your life writing and the other half trying to get to someplace you can write. To some extent--sometimes more than others--the world fades into the background, forgotten.
It's like any other drug that way. Sometimes it can swallow you whole.
The next morning, when I stumbled into the kitchen after purging those chapters from my brain, I wasn't expecting anything past maybe some orange juice. That Jim had breakfast waiting was just a bonus, and I dug into it like it was the last I'd ever have. Between bites I checked him out, drinking in the green sweater and the jeans and the Jags cap from the corner of my eye. He always looked good in the morning, clean-shaven, with his hair still wet from the shower. I wanted to touch his hair but after yesterday, I couldn't, and honestly--even before yesterday it would have fallen outside the scope of our rules. Such as they were.
So I didn't touch him, but I did watch him; we didn't have rules about that. He was working his way up to something, gathering courage between sips of coffee. I thought it was cute, and a little annoying, right up until he opened his mouth and said the last thing I ever expected to hear.
While I sat at the table with my fork in one hand, the warm curve of a coffee mug in the other, Jim looked at me with bright, flat, curious eyes. A hundred different responses died in my mouth.
"Say that again," I said finally. I took a bite of my eggs to show that I was still functional, still in the ball game.
Jim raised his cup and took a long draw from it, steam rising up around his eyes like a veil. He held it there in front of his mouth, elbows propped on the table, and didn't say anything.
"Jesus." I put the fork down. Pushed the mug and my plate away. "I don't believe you, man."
"Look, I'm not saying we give her our life story here, Sandburg. Just maybe a blurb and a quick review."
All I could think was, shit, she has everything now. It was right there in the center of my heart, this horrible, ugly, angry wad of--I don't know what. Jealousy wasn't strong enough for it, and it wasn't the right word anyway. I felt violated, in a way that made me want to vomit or scream or hit something or maybe take a shower. I was shaking, and I knew he could see it and that pissed me off even more. There was this huge grinning monkey of bad karma sitting on my back while I wished hateful things on Karen and Jim separately and together, and then there was this other voice, thin and selfish and cold, and it said to me, Fuck this, Sandburg, you don't need this, you've got a chapter to write.
I stood up and paced. I'm good at pacing; it clears my head, and sometimes my head needs a lot of clearing. The length of the couch, five steps by five, hands shoved deep into my pockets to keep from fidgeting. Tension vibrated through me like a harp string.
"So you know that this is like, totally your fault, right? Clark Kent was better at hiding his secret identity than you."
"I'm not Superman, Sandburg."
"Bruce Wayne was better at it, too."
"I think we have to tell her."
"I haven't forgotten the topic of conversation."
"What did you think? That it was going to be our little secret forever? I was gonna lie to everybody for the rest of my unnatural life?"
"Your life is totally natural," I said. Reflex. And then, because honesty pushed me to it: "I hadn't really gotten that far."
"I have. And I'll tell you, I'd a hell of a lot rather have her find out from me than hear it on the evening news. We're over halfway to April. What chapter are you on?"
My heart slammed into my rib cage over and over, and I knew he heard it, I knew. Hell, I could hear it myself. There was a metallic taste in my mouth; sour, like touching a battery to your tongue. Adrenaline was the chemical term. The common term was 'fear.'
"I'm not going to let that happen. You know I'm not going to let that happen, Jim, come on. You know that."
He looked away, and I took a step closer to the table. "Jim?"
"Yeah." The admission came out quiet. "I know that."
"Fuck. Don't do that to me." I was shaking so hard I didn't think my knees would hold out. "Jesus."
Jim met my eyes. "I'm sorry. I know you're looking out for me."
He shook his head. "It doesn't change anything, Sandburg. Maybe I don't get blasted across the headlines the day you turn that thing in, but what does happen after that? You think my senses are going to settle down like magic and I'll suddenly have perfect control? It's not going away, and you are, and I can't do this alone."
"Jim, I'm not going to leave you to deal with it alone. I'd never do that to you."
"I don't want a keeper. I want a partner." He took a deep breath, and looked down into his coffee mug. "I've been with Karen for a while now. It's good with her."
I don't want a keeper. "I can't do this right now," I said.
"She's easy to be with. I can relax around her. Be myself. I want to be able to tell her what I am."
"I cannot do this right now, Jim, okay? Please." The thin, chill voice was back and I was over the edge. Another month and I'd have the resources for it, another month and I'd have an emotion that lasted long enough to identify it before it changed into something else, but not today. I didn't have anything today.
"She's got a right to know. She's got a stake, and I'm gonna need somebody around me who knows."
"Out with the old, in with the new, huh? You've known her what, three months? On this and a mutual respect for Dana Scully you expect to build a life together?"
"You have to start somewhere."
All the air in the room turned to stone. Breathing was a pleasant myth, a thing of the past. Speaking was impossible. Moving was entirely out of the question. Maybe it was me who turned to stone.
I couldn't think of anything to say. I was still trying to figure out how my lungs worked. I wasn't sure if my voice would work if I thought of any words worth saying.
And then he stood up. He took a step toward me, closed some of the distance, and everything came together.
"When? When are you going to tell her?"
He blinked. Surprised, I think, that I'd actually come up with a question. "I hadn't really gotten that far."
"You're not in love with her."
"How would you know who I love and who I don't?"
"I may not know how you act when you're in love, but I know how you act when you're lying to yourself, Jim. I've had plenty of occasion to study that phenomenon."
"You don't know a God damn thing, Sandburg." He shoved me away, his hands on my shoulders vicious and tight, and made for the door. I watched him pick up his keys and shrug into his jacket; I felt still and apart. Icy, on the inside. When he put his hand on the doorknob I went to him and took that hand away.
We stood there, his hand in mine. I squeezed, felt the bones shift under his skin. "I know you don't love her." I did know it, all through me, the same way I knew I was losing him if we didn't get it right this time.
"You don't know anything about me."
"I wrote the book, man."
"And you never let me forget it for a second, do you." He pulled his hand out of mine and opened the door; stood there looking at me, and his eyes were so sad my chest started to hurt.
"How do you expect me to watch this?" My throat was raw; the words burned. "You think I get off on seeing you rip yourself up? Tell me how I get on the other side of this, Jim, 'cause I'm not seeing the sanity here."
"You write," he said. There was hate in there, vicious and brittle and dark. "That's what you do best, isn't it? Every day, you watch and you write and every couple of weeks you turn in another chapter of that paper of yours and that's what you do. That's your thing, the thing that gets all your attention. That's your world."
"That is a completely and totally inaccurate representation of reality."
"It's true. It's the truest thing I know."
"I pay attention to you. You're just about the only thing in my life that gets my undivided attention. What have I been doing these past four years? My whole life has been about you since the day I met you, Jim. I'm always paying attention."
"If you paid attention, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
"Say that in the language of my people."
"If you paid attention," he said, "you'd know what I look like when I'm in love."
"I've been watching you with her. I haven't seen it."
He smiled. It was--it hurt. Looking at him. That smile was beautiful the way a knife is beautiful. Cold, and strong, and sharper than any look I'd ever seen from him. "You've left no room for speculation about my place in your life, Sandburg, and I appreciate that. I do."
"Shut up. Just listen, okay?" He waited for my nod; I gave it. "The thing is, I can't go there with you. I'm sorry about that. Maybe I don't get some stupid fairy tale ending out of this, fine, but it's not all or nothing. Karen loves me, and that's special, and I'll take that over--this--any day. We can't be what we are to each other now, forever."
"That's--that's not what I want. Where do you get that?"
"I get it from life. It's exactly what you want. You want all the parts my best friend gets and all the rest, too, but the rest doesn't mean anything, Sandburg, not between us. Not like this. I give you all that, it leaves nothing for me to stand on. Do you get that?"
I shook my head. There wasn't any sense to it. He was so far off in left field the field itself was just a memory. "Do you have some kind of crystal ball? You're a mind-reader now, you know exactly what I want?"
"I know exactly what you give. And I know what you won't take. The rest was easy."
"Man, what part of any of this is easy?"
"Your part," he said. And turned away from me, so far away I couldn't measure.
"Ask me what I want."
"I don't have to. Besides, I don't think you know."
"You think. That's what it's all about, huh? You think about it, you decide, and later you let me in on it if I'm lucky? Why didn't you ever just for God's sake ask me, Jim?"
"I didn't need you to lie to me."
"Oh, man. That's a fear-based response if I ever heard one. Ask me already. "
"What do you want, Blair?" He threw the words at me like bullets.
I want us to stop trying to kill what we have here. I want to forget all the nasty shit we've said to each other and yeah, I want to finish my paper, Jim, because you hate it and I've started to hate it too and I don't know any other way to get it out of our lives. I want back what I used to have--
"I want time."
He'd looked away, but his eyes snapped back when I said it, wide and clear and scared.
"Don't tell Karen anything. Don't decide anything. Don't leave me alone in this, not yet."
He sat down hard on the couch, head in his hands, shaking, and I went to him fast, on my knees on the floor beside him. I pulled his hands away from his face and made him look at me, really look at me.
"Give me a week, Jim. Like you did when I moved in, remember? One week, just to get the paper done and out of the way, and then we settle this. Okay?"
"Yeah. The paper. The worst fucking idea I ever had. I wish I'd never heard of it. I'd trash it if it didn't mean trashing my whole career. You give me that week, you let me finish it, and I promise you, Jim. I promise you, I'll find a way to fix whatever I broke here."
"After the paper," he said. He watched me with a sharpness I hadn't seen in a long time, like I might do anything and he needed to be ready.
"You asked what I wanted."
"Is there an 'after the paper'? You really think we come out okay on the other side of it?"
"There has to be, Jim." I looked at him and I wanted to say something else, I wanted to take that look off his face forever. "There has to be, don't you think?"
"I don't know what I think."
"Then let's just--table it. For a little while, Jim, just table it, okay?"
"Christ, Sandburg. Is it--is it really that easy for you?"
The cold I'd wrapped around myself was no defense against how tired he looked, how miserable I'd made him. He looked like he hadn't slept at all. Like maybe he hadn't been sleeping for a very long time.
I closed my eyes. So many things in my head I wanted to say, but nothing I said was ever the right thing, not for long. Lying didn't work, honesty didn't work, reassurances, promises--it was useless to say anything, and with that certainty in me, I couldn't even open my mouth.
The silence stretched out, and the time when I could've said something passed.
Jim scrubbed his hands over his face once and stood up. He looked around, lost in his own home for just a second, then collected his coffee cup and went back to the kitchen.
"Not long now," I said. "Two more chapters to go."
"Sounds like the home stretch."
I swallowed hard, and nodded. I couldn't look away. "Yeah." I said it low, soft, easy as I could. "Please, Jim."
He ran a hand over his hair and broke the look between us. "I don't think I can do this much longer."
"It'll be okay."
"I don't know." His face was slack and pale. There was a nervous flutter in his hands, and he stilled them by clasping them together over his stomach. "Maybe."
"One week." I said it like a promise, which it was, and I held his eyes until he internalized it. He nodded slowly, fighting himself all the way; I could see it in the tendons of his neck, the straight line of his back. "End of February. This gets better, Jim," I said softly. "Not long now."
"Okay." He shook his head, rubbed a hand over his face. His eyes were clear and steady. "One week."
Seven days sounded like a long time. It wasn't. I spent the first day in the library, and the words wouldn't hang together. I wrote and deleted, wrote and deleted, until I felt like I was going crazy and I had no facility for this, no skill. From my notes I managed to build a fifth chapter--the skeleton of one anyway--but the sixth wouldn't come.
Sean Flanagan found me in a carrel by the heating vents, wrapped up like an Eskimo. It was just so fucking cold in Cascade in the winter. Lately it felt like there was no warmth left in the world at all.
"Shall I bring you a blanket then, Sandburg?"
I looked up and found him standing over me. He was wearing a white windbreaker and a red rain coat over a t-shirt and jeans. The man was insane. It had to be at least a hundred below out there. His hair was sticking up from the wind, and his nose was bright pink.
"What're you supposed to be? Santa Claus? You're late. Christmas was two months ago."
"I take it from your continuing sunny disposition that the last chapter isn't going well."
"I can't write," I said. "I suck."
"I seem to recall reading several articles over the course of the years by Blair Sandburg. Most of them were quite readable. You do have a bit of a tendency toward fanciful descriptions, but age will take care of that."
"This is different."
And it was. Two deadlines now, for the price of one.
Sean reached down and patted me on the shoulder. "It always is, Blair. You'll do fine."
"I don't think that's possible."
"Listen. Marie Danforth's retirement party is commencing as we speak at O'Flaherty's. Shut yourself down here and come along with me. The break will do you good."
"I can't stop writing now, Sean."
"As far as I can see," he said kindly, "you haven't started yet. If you're going to fail to write, you should do it in company, and away from the source of the problem. Trust me; I'm far older and far wiser than you will ever be."
I shut down the laptop. I had six days to worry. This one night wouldn't kill me.
"Sandburg, come on. Wake up, that's a good boy...."
I blinked, expecting light, but there was just a thin strip of it spilling through my open door. My eyes felt like sandpaper; my tongue tasted like tequila. I remembered an Irish-style pub and a lot of margaritas; they hadn't mixed well. Jim leaned over me, a vague outline in the shadows.
"Time to get dressed. Guess who just got caught crawling through a young lady's window in the Heights?"
"Shit." I sat up, instantly awake between one second and the next, heart racing. "Wilson."
Jim's grin was wide and hungry. "Oh, yeah."
"How did you know?"
"I'm very, very smart."
"Did he have a gun?"
"Rumor has it."
"Shit." I grinned at him, matching the look in his eyes, and swung my legs over the bed. "We got him."
I got dressed fast, yesterday's jeans and a fresh sweater over a t-shirt. Jim met me at my door with a cup of coffee; I drank it so fast I burned a layer of skin off my tongue, but it was good and it kept me warm on the drive downtown. Jim filled me in as we drove through the sleeted streets, and all I could think about was how fucking lucky we were.
Wilson was nailed by a patrol-car. A few minutes earlier, a few minutes later, and we'd be driving to a homicide instead of just down to the station. Jim and I didn't have anything to do with the collar, but it was Jim's case, and it was over, and he was right. Somehow he'd known all along.
I was so proud of that it was scary.
Dawn was graying in the sky when we pulled into the parking garage; it was six-thirty p.m. by the time we pulled back out again. Part of it was paper work, but Jim spent a good five hours in the box with Wilson. Every time he came out, he looked fried and haunted; there were circles under his eyes that hadn't been there at five in the morning. I took up permanent residence in his shadow, and watched him constantly through the one-way mirror. Wilson was clearly insane, and talking to him wasn't easy for Jim. It wore him thin in a way I didn't like.
It was already dark when we finally got out on the streets. Jim drove us to Tonio's without being asked; I went in and grabbed a couple of subs to take back home. We ate quietly at the table, just staring wide-eyed and vacant at the food in front of us. I cleaned up when we were done, turned out the lights, and watched Jim walk up the stairs.
I wanted to walk up there with him. I almost did; I know he would've let me. He'd never said no to me, not in all the time I'd known him. It was dark in his room, and warm. I could have gone up the stairs into that warmth with him; we both needed it, the familiarity of it, the sanity. He took the stairs so slowly I thought maybe he was waiting for me to catch up with him, and at the top of them, he stopped and turned around.
For a long time neither of us said anything. The quiet stretched out thin and fragile between us until I had to break it or go to him or break down on the spot.
"Go to bed, Blair."
I swallowed around a hard, painful knot in my throat. "You did good today."
"I did my job."
"You did great. You were amazing, man. You took Wilson apart."
"Go to bed, Sandburg."
He moved, and there was just the darkness where he'd been standing. Empty, and still.
I was tired down into my bones, and I hadn't thought about the paper at all, not even once. My room was dark and colder than it ought to be. I fell into bed fully clothed and wrapped the blankets tight around me.
I dreamed in print.
Continued in Part Three.
Link to text version of part three: http://www.squidge.org/archive/cgi-bin/convert.cgi?filename=1/aquiet_b