A Quiet War -- Part Three
In winter, days are shorter. In Cascade, in winter, you can multiply that by a factor of ten. I don't know how much time I spent that week just lying in my bed in the dark, staring at the ceiling. I felt like I'd been vaporized, like I couldn't get a grip on anything. Jim was up there alone, waiting for me to do something miraculous to take us back to a time when we'd been okay with each other, and all I could do was drift. I didn't have any quick fixes in me, not for this.
I did write. In the end, I did it because it had to be done and because it was a way to feel--I don't know, a way to get a sense of Jim's presence, somewhere close by. For two days I just put down one word after another, linking them into sentences and paragraphs that I never looked at again once I'd written them.
Jim watched me. Not overtly; he was too good for that. I could feel his eyes on me, though, when I moved from my room to the kitchen, or back again. In the middle of the second day, I stopped coming out.
On the third day, Karen called. I heard Jim answer the phone, and I heard his voice go quiet and soft. My door was open, and so I listened for ten minutes while he talked to her and laughed and talked some more. The taste of adrenaline was bitter and sharp on my tongue, and my thoughts fuzzed over. I waited a decent five minutes after he hung up, then went over and shut the door carefully, shutting him out and everything else along with him.
Writing is all about focus. That's what I told myself.
I hit page 195 sometime after midnight on the night before my birthday. The night before the last day of my last week. I figured there were maybe five pages left, and I figured I could do five pages in one day, easy. There should've been a sense of victory or something.
I just felt numb.
When I shut down the laptop, I went out into the living room. Jim was long since in bed; he had an early morning ahead of him, he'd have to be up around five. I stood at the foot of the stairs, looking up. Wishing I had the courage to go up to him, and wondering what he'd say to me if I did.
I didn't go back into my room. There was an afghan hanging over the back of the longer couch; I wrapped up in it and stretched out, relaxing in slow, quiet breaths. There was nothing between Jim and me but air and darkness now.
Sleep snuck up on me. I wasn't sure when it hit, but it hit hard. I woke up with the afghan tangled around my feet and another blanket, thick and warm, draped over me and the couch. It smelled like Old Spice and color-safe all-temperature Cheer. Jim's.
There was coffee in the kitchen, still warm.
Morning of the last day. Only five pages to go.
Since I started riding with Jim we had this birthday tradition of pretending birthdays didn't exist. I could never really afford a decent gift and Jim, I guess, didn't want to outshine me too much. On my first birthday after we met, we went out to dinner at The Broken Pipe, a kind of out-there combination of club and caf I didn't even know Jim knew about. He drove us there all casual, talking about a case, and by the time we got into the parking space I was high as a kite. I don't know, I guess he just grabbed a co-ed at Rainier one day and asked for a cool place to eat that cost a million dollars a plate. We strolled in, grabbed a table, and ate some of the worst food known to man.
I had a blast. The music was great, Jim picked up the tab, and the b-word never got spoken.
When Jim's birthday rolled around, I didn't really know what to do. What do you feed a guy who thinks Wonderburger is haute cuisine? Turns out, you feed him Wonderburger. You just make sure you feed it to him when he's hungry and appreciative. I brought in a huge, steaming bag of cardiac arrest in the middle of a three a.m. work shift, with a king-sized chocolate malt as a sidecar. It cost about twelve dollars and one night's sleep all together, and the next day I felt like there were two rabid badgers battling to the death in my gut. For the next week, every time I caught Jim looking at me across the papers and files piled all over his desk, he was grinning.
So was I.
And that was the way it worked, just food and friendship and nothing really wild or out of the way. I didn't like much of a fuss, and Jim didn't either. I don't think Simon or the guys knew or cared when my birthday was, but I certainly wasn't by myself in the ranks of the uncelebrated. Megan Connor is the only cop we ever threw a party for, and that was just 'cause Brian Rafe lives in hope.
I wasn't expecting much this time around. Truth? I wasn't actually expecting anything. Jim promised me a week; he didn't promise anything else. Alexandria called out of the blue at four to say we had reservations at Jason Brandt's--a kind of upscale refuge for the hip and wealthy, new enough to still have some shine on it. The hiatus was apparently over, but I got the feeling we weren't going dutch.
I spent all that afternoon detaching with love from my savings account.
I got to the station twenty minutes after my class let out; Jim wasn't anywhere in sight. I attached myself to my desk via keyboard. I wrote for a while, hated every word, and started over. There was a demon in my head and its name was deadline and it was coming fast. Every time I opened up Microsoft Word I'd get the shakes, I'd see Jim standing at the top of the stairs in the shadows, the way he had looked when he asked me what I wanted. I wanted the paper finished, I wanted space to breathe and look at Jim and fix whatever was going wrong with us, but every word I typed felt like some kind of betrayal--of Jim, of me, of my scientific ethics, everything. Everything I believed in.
I needed to write and writing hurt so I wrote faster so it would be over faster and when it got too bad, when I couldn't breathe, I stopped.
Two pages short of the end, not another word would come.
By one o'clock I'd given up on Jim. I didn't know what I could say to him when he got there. I thought about lying--I thought about typing "the end" and calling it a day. But I couldn't do either of those things. There was an emptiness buzzing around in my head, a sense of being very close to change. Whatever was coming, I couldn't catch hold of it. I couldn't affect it. Not in any way that would matter.
I'd stowed the laptop and was halfway into bailing when Rafe and Brown got called out. I rode along; it looked good for our pathetic, tattered cover-story and Simon seemed in favor of it.
We got back a little after five. Rafe had bug-eyes and I was more than a little bit shaky. Brown was at Emergency with a slice taken out of his shoulder, but he was fine and his mom and his sister were with him. Jim and Simon were on their way out to see him when we staggered in, the heroic walking wounded.
Jim translocated; he was on me so fast I almost heard the air displacement. Obviously my state of disrepair had not been part of Rafe's preliminary report. Jim tilted my head back for a better look at where the blood had come from, whispering so softly and sweetly it took me a few seconds to recognize the four-letter words and to realize what he was saying to me wasn't all that flattering.
"What the hell happened?" Simon demanded, towering over both of us.
"Off of what?"
"The wall this really big dude threw me at mere seconds befo--ow. Ow! Jim, cut that out, okay?"
He backed off, just a little, just so far his hands weren't actively molesting any part of me that hurt. He was still touching me, though, which felt pretty good, because I was in dire need of a steadying influence. Nobody seemed to notice the hovering, at least not as anything unusual; I relaxed into it, letting Jim do what Jim did best. When he reached out to examine the cut on my head again, I grabbed for his wrist to stop him. He winced.
I looked at him. For a second I wasn't thinking of my own pain. "What happened to you?"
"Bullshit. What did you do to your wrist?"
"Some guy cracked wise with me and I popped him one," Jim said. "Hard."
"Hard enough to sprain your wrist?"
"Let that be a lesson."
"We're here to talk about you, Sandburg," Simon said. "Can we stay on task here?"
"Back to the beginning," Jim ordered, with a set to his jaw that told me the fun and games were over. "Start with why you were out with Rafe and Brown."
"Simon sent me."
Simon abruptly stopped towering. Jim looked up at him, waiting, and all at once I had a front row seat at The Incredible Shrinking Police Captain. He went from six foot two to five-nine in the blink of an eye.
"The kid was bored," Simon said loudly. "It was just a routine call." When Jim kept waiting, Simon raised both hands. "Okay, I'm sorry, I thought it was a good idea at the time."
Jim smiled, and Simon smiled back, relieved.
I wasn't relieved. I'd seen Jim smile like that before.
"So you were with Rafe and Brown," he said. "On a routine call."
"Yeah." I nodded, which hurt a lot, and eased myself down into Jim's desk chair. Jim eased over with me, keeping an eye on me, flipping back and forth between field medic and bad-ass partner like he'd been doing it for--well, about four years. It was the last day of my last week and I had only two pages to go, and I could make that, if I had to, to keep this comfort between us.
"And then what?" Jim prompted. "Sandburg?" He waved a hand in front of my face.
"And then while we were on that call another call came in over the radio, and we were like the only ship in the quadrant, you know? So we had to go. Rafe told me," I said, in the spirit of honesty, "that I really should stay in the car."
"Worked about as well as could be expected," Rafe said, rolling his eyes.
"I was glued to my seat till H started screaming like a woman."
Simon stepped in front of me--I don't know what he thought was wrong with Rafe's mouth--and smiled. "Tell me what happened right now," he said. His teeth were showing, at least the first row of them.
"Okay, this lady, she's a witness in one of Brown's cases, that Anne Flynne art show thing. Says she actually saw one of the guys who stole the sculpture in question, checking it out right before the show. Anyway, she calls and tells the duty sergeant she's scared this guy is after her, she's been getting strange phone calls and her husband isn't home and she lives on the outskirts of town."
"She's a flake," Rafe said. "Sarge calls for a car and we're the lucky winners. We get there and she's running around in her nightgown with more mascara on than she has eyeball."
"Tell them about the flirting. I liked that part."
"There was flirting," Rafe said, and clamped his mouth shut.
That wasn't like he told it in the car on the way to the hospital.
"She took them to the bedroom to show them where she thought she saw this guy lurking at her window." I leaned back against Jim's desk, taking the weight off an ankle that was starting to throb. "Only then--"
"Only then the husband who wasn't home to scare away the imaginary art-thief-cum-stalker comes home and finds his wife and two guys in his bedroom, and all due respect to the lady, you can tell it's not the first time something like this has happened." Rafe looked from Jim to Simon, then over to me. "It wasn't!"
"And I'm guessing that's when the yelling started. I'm sitting out there in the car, and realizing all H has in there to listen to is Tom Lehrer and the Righteous Brothers, and all of a sudden I hear this noise, Jim," I looked up at him, making sure I had his trusting attention, "and this noise, it's like Freddy Krueger on estrogen or something, and that's when I decided I should go in and check things out. And when I got in there, this guy was throwing Henry around the room and finally right through the window."
"And then he grabbed Sandburg," Rafe finished. "Threw him like a shotput. Probably a world record."
I grinned. "Yeah, if anthropologist-throwing were an Olympic sport...."
"It ought to be," Jim said, shaking his head.
Simon didn't say anything. He just rubbed the back of his neck like he was in pain. I could've told him something about pain; my head felt like the inside of a bass drum on parade.
Jim took a minute to process while studying the ceiling, a technique I'd taught him for minimizing visual input. It helped him concentrate, and when he was done he looked over at Rafe, head tilted to one side. "Where were you during all this assaulting and battering?"
Rafe lowered his shoulders and raised his chin. "Assessing the situation," he said calmly. "And calling for backup."
"Yeah." I looked at him and grinned. "From inside the closet."
Rafe shut his eyes, and I turned my smile on Jim. He grinned back at me, shaking his head.
That signaled the end of Simon's patience; he leaned over, got right into my face, and said, very quietly: "Do you know what I would like for you to do for me right now, Sandburg?"
He smiled. "You're as smart as you look."
"Thanks," I said. "Kind of."
Rafe did the paperwork, Simon went to the hospital, and Jim steered me out to the truck. I felt good, in a weird way--hyped with adrenaline, all dressed up and no place to go. I was ready to get home and write the best two pages of my life; I had the shape of the ending in my head, clear and perfect, so clear and perfect I knew it wouldn't last past the first traffic light.
When we climbed up into the cab Jim felt me jittering, and gave me a look I'd seen before. I just smiled and shrugged; it wasn't like I could help it. I didn't like getting tossed around, but it was the kind of thing that got your blood pumping. I was trying to think of a non-psychotic way of expressing that when I noticed we weren't headed home.
"Forget where we live, Jim?" I asked at the next stop light.
He looked over at me, then down at his watch. Then back up at me. "It's almost six-thirty, chief. Forget about your birthday?"
I hadn't forgotten. I thought maybe he had, or that maybe it didn't matter with the bigger problem hanging over us, and so I guess I let go of it. Tried not to think about it, knew better than to talk about it, another black hole of quiet between me and Jim, right? What's one more or less, between good friends?
I started to sweat.
I thought this birthday was going to be different. There was no real reason for it to be different, even Karen wasn't a good reason--this was just a guy thing, just a Jim and Blair thing, separate from the other stuff we didn't talk about. But that not-talking thing covered birthdays and the bedroom, and I'd conflated them in my head. If we didn't do the one we didn't do the other.
But that was kind of nuts. Not talking about birthdays was a whole other kind of not talking.
It took about a second for all that to rush through my mind and end up wide-eyed and grinning on my face. The panic got lost in the way Jim was looking at me--eyes calm, every line of him patient and hopeful.
"Dinner? Don't I need to get cleaned up? Most places don't let you in if you're like, bleeding from the head."
Jim nodded, satisfied that I was along for the ride, and turned back to the road just as the light went green. "You can clean up when we get there."
"Where we're going."
"Where are we going, Jim?"
"A little place I know."
"You really get off on this strong and silent routine, don't you." I grinned like an idiot when he laughed at me.
So, I was almost a cop, I was a cop's partner anyway; I could figure this out. I watched the street signs flash by in the headlights, looked for landmarks. When we passed St. Michael and turned left onto Beverly, I started to get tense.
"This is the way to your Dad's place."
He looked over quick, smiling. "You get a gold star, Doctor Sandburg."
"Your dad's coming with us?" Was it possible to feel like a freeloader physically? The few times I'd exchanged more than a 'hi' with Jim's father I got the feeling the man liked me, was impressed with my brain, and was totally certain I was eating off Jim's meal ticket. The disturbing thing was, I got the feeling that kind of impressed him, too.
"Yeah," Jim said, rolling his eyes. "Because we both feel so comfortable around him and gee, you just kinda look like you miss the guy."
"Well, look, I can't help but think it's a little tacky to go to his place and shower and not invite him out to dinner with us. So, maybe we should just go home. We have a real nice shower at home, Jim. It might even be clean."
"Relax, Sandburg. Sally's got the night off and Dad's not home. Friday's his night to cruise the country club for chicks."
That image cracked us both up. I laughed so hard I started snorting, which totally embarrassed me and amused him. Relief flooded into me like a river over its banks, and I thought, okay, I can do this, everything's going to be fine. His driving suffered with the laughter, and it's not that great to start with. I sank down in the seat when I could breathe normally again, and looked over at him with very badly concealed curiosity.
He ignored me. He did it with his typical skill and dedication. When we pulled into his dad's driveway and he turned off the engine and the lights, I was still in the land of the alternatively clued.
There were floods throwing pools of white light from the corners of the roof, and a couple off to the side of the front door lighting up the house like it was on display. In this neighborhood it probably was. I wondered what it must've been like to live inside a three-story status symbol, and my brain just wouldn't wrap around it. We sat in the truck while the heat bled away, quiet for a long time, till our breath made white fans in front of us. When I looked over at him he seemed hunched in on himself, smaller somehow in the leather shell of his jacket.
He turned to me. Our eyes met, and I was looking at a stranger. I was looking at the guy who belonged to this house, a guy I didn't think I'd ever met--stranger wasn't the word. Everything I didn't know about him rose up between us like a wall and he was more than strange, he was actually alien. Beautiful and unreachable and different from me in ways I couldn't even begin to comprehend.
He blinked, and reached to open his door, and the illusion fell away. Or maybe it was the reality that fell away and let the Jim Ellison I could cope with reassert himself. I shivered, and wrapped my jacket tighter around me as I climbed out.
He came around to my side of the car, and put a hand between my shoulder blades. "Ready?" he said--gently, head tilted to one side, like he knew how weird this was for me.
I squared my shoulders and willed myself to relax. This was going to be fun. Educational. "I'm ready," I said, and nodded, and moved when he nudged me forward. He unlocked the door with a key from his own key ring.
I'm such a liar.
Dinner was just dinner. I think Jim made spaghetti. I don't remember what it tasted like; just the way he looked hunched over the stove. The counter level was lower here than at the loft. Jim said his father had built the house for his mother before Jim was born, so I guess maybe Grace Ellison wasn't very tall. There were a couple times while we ate, I don't know--time got away from me, something.... I'd look across the table at him and not hear a word he was saying, I'd just see this kid, ten years old, fifteen, looking back at me with Jim's eyes and Jim's intensity. There were pictures of him and Stephen in the entry hallway and they were like ghosts in the house, surprising me out of the corners of my eyes.
We talked about the past. Jim talked, anyway. I listened to him in a kind of stupor, afraid to say anything. I didn't want to break the spell. The whole night, it was like a timer had gone off somewhere in Jim's head and his life came spilling out for me, on cue. I felt like I'd heard it in the back of my own head since I met him, ticking away the seconds till this moment. I wondered if it started ticking every time Jim met somebody; if maybe I won this show and tell just by sticking around so long.
I wondered what I'd find out next year. And I came to the conclusion, which wasn't really a conclusion but a revelation instead, a sudden lizard-brain epiphany, that I had to stick around for that. I wanted to, and that was what hanging around with Jim was all about. I wasn't just hanging around. I was hanging around for this. And I'd known it all along but this was the first time I'd said it to myself, because you don't just go around saying to yourself things that are patently obvious fact. You don't wake up one morning and suddenly say to yourself, Hey, I eat food every day because I have to have food to live. You just get up and eat.
"Am I talking to myself?"
I blinked, surfaced. "What?"
Jim smiled, warm and easy. He waved his fork over the table between us. "I guess this is a lot to take in."
"No. I mean--yeah, Jim, it is a lot. It's a lot more than I expected, and it's just--"
"A lot to take in."
I smiled. "Yeah. But in a good way. I'm just... I guess I'm surprised. And glad. That you're trusting me like this. I didn't think you did. Would. Again. I mean...."
"I'm just kind of babbling now, huh."
"Kind of, yeah."
I looked down at my plate, and thought, oh, spaghetti. I dug my fork in. I could feel myself go hot and red.
"You said you needed the whole mosaic."
I had a mouthful of food and I couldn't answer him. My eyes went up and met his, asking the obvious question.
"During that Yakuza case. To understand what was going on with me. You know. For the paper."
His voice was so soft, so quiet, I almost couldn't hear him. But I did hear him, and I think maybe I heard more than he was saying, because how easy could that have been? The guy nails himself daily to the cross of my academic ambition and on the days I forget to ask him to, he reminds me. I felt like I should be doing something, something important, and it was only when things started to go fuzzy that I remembered, oh, yeah, breathing.
I chewed slowly, thinking back to those days, the things I'd said to him. Buying space for myself, buying a little time. When I could, I said, "The one with the ATF chick? Drennan?"
"I think of that one as the one with the evil virgin chick. You know, Maya."
"That was only the first one with the evil virgin chick."
"I hate to break this to you, Sandburg, but I don't think she was a virgin for the second one."
"That's so tacky, Jim," I said, grinning. Then, "The one with the undercover FBI chick, then. And all the nifty motorcycles."
His eyes crinkled at the edges and he laughed, pointing at me with his fork. "A little respect for the ladies of law enforcement, kid."
"Hey, I'm not the one who had to date both of 'em. I treated them with the utmost professional courtesy."
"I treated Drennan with the utmost professional courtesy."
"Yeah, 'cause she turned you down flat. Remember, man, that was before the doors."
"Wasn't my idea to hang a curtain for privacy, Ebeneezer."
Jim frowned. He reached up to scratch at the back of his neck, looking at the table. When his eyes flicked back up to mine, he looked a little hunted. "How much could you hear through that thing?"
"A substantial portion of the mosaic," I said, letting my grin get out of hand.
He turned bright red, smiled wide, and said, "Liar."
I rolled my eyes. "I don't know, Jim. This tendency toward denying reality, I think it's something you might wanna bring up in therapy."
"I'm not the only one in denial here, chief," he said, and he blinked after he said it, his mouth snapping shut, like he was surprised to hear himself say what he'd said. He studied the warm, polished wood grain of the table for a second and then looked up at me, and he didn't explain himself or take it back. He just made the best of it.
"What's that supposed to mean?" My voice came out funny, hitched in the middle and quiet.
"You tell me." Whatever was wrong with my voice was wrong with his, too. I was going to say something, but he reached out across the table and picked up my hand. Turned it over. Put his inside it, slid it right into my palm and my fingers curled up by instinct, trapping it and holding on.
I looked down at our joined hands and there was nothing in my mind, just a blank space of not understanding. His fingers were cold, he always had the coldest hands of anybody I knew, and I held on tighter to give him some of my own heat. I thought, B12. Maybe B6. And I thought, I'm holding hands with Jim Ellison. I said, "Your hand is cold, Jim," and he snatched it away, and my own hand was colder without it. I missed the touch, missed it in a place I hadn't known was there.
"You done?" He grabbed my plate before I could answer.
He was at the sink and he didn't turn. "Excuse me?"
"Or maybe B6, I can never tell those B vitamins apart. I'll look it up when I get home, and we'll give it a trial run."
"You're kinda babbling again."
"It's supposed to help your circulation, you know, warm you up a bit. Gotta keep blood pumping through those extremities," I said, then kicked my own ass all over the inside of my head.
He turned and looked at me like I'd just landed from another planet. "You did not just say that," he said, a small half-grin twitching at the corner of his mouth.
"Nuh-uh," I said, gravely. "Say what?"
"I didn't think you did."
He turned back to the sink and turned up the hot water till steam rose up around him. I carried dishes over and left them by the sink, put away the parmesan, put away the butter. When I had the table cleared, I went to the sink and dried whatever he handed me. Sometime while we were working, he started whistling. I didn't know the tune, but I was pretty sure it wasn't supposed to sound like that. Things got normal for a little while.
I knew better than to think it would last.
He took me up to his room. I expected him to say he'd shared with Steven, but in a family like Jim's, sharing wasn't actually encouraged. There were boxes all around, labeled in thick blue magic marker. The chemical ink-smell was still sharp in the air. Instant brain-fog.
Jim nodded, answering the question I hadn't asked. "Dad's been on a labeling kick. He's going through all this stuff he pulled down a few months ago, during the Reconstruction."
I'd started calling it that as a joke, because William had gone at it with plan and a purpose and nearly mangled the whole enterprise. He'd had a schedule for everything. Call Jim on Wednesday night. Take him to lunch Monday afternoons. Come over for dinner Thursday evening. He never missed an appointment, and Jim said once he figured his dad had it all written down on a calendar somewhere. One silent, brittle dinner with the Ellison clan had been more than enough for my delicate constitution; I invented a study group and made myself scarce Thursday nights. I wondered for a second how Karen had handled meeting the family, and then wondered for another second why I'd never asked.
Jim was so self-conscious about it, so nervous when he'd tell me he was going to see his dad--like I was going to begrudge my best friend time to repair one of the most important relationships of his whole life. It was just like him, and it was stuff like what his dad had done to him that made him that way, and no way was I getting in the path of setting things right.
Part of William's plan had been covering old ground. I think he wanted to prove he'd noticed stuff, even if he wasn't around for it. He had all Jim's old clothes, and his old toys--hell, he still had some of Jim's high school report cards. If pressed really hard, Naomi might be able to remember the name of my old high school, but she wouldn't understand why anybody cared. If I didn't drive by it on my way to Rainier every day, I wouldn't remember the name of it either. Maybe the past is more important if you have a bad one.
I looked down at the card in my hand and grinned. "A D in English?"
"Hey, I didn't say you could read those--" He reached for it, and I put a hand on his chest and held him off, holding the card way out to one side.
"The whole mosaic?" I said, innocent as baby.
He had reach on me; he didn't use it. He looped that arm over my shoulders and we looked at his junior-year report card together. He smelled like spaghetti and Old Spice; he smelled good.
"I remember that class," he said finally. "That was the year before I left home."
"Not a good year for you."
"No. Not the best. But there were some good things, it's just--"
"They get cloudy."
"Yeah," Jim said. "They do."
"It's funny, you know?" I looked up at him, the light from the same lamp he'd studied under for so many years glowing amber on his hair. His skin. He was so close I could've said how long since his last shave.
"You forget the good things from your past. I mean, not like amnesia, or Peru--that was sense-weirdness, doesn't really count. I just mean--the normal, good things. You have to be reminded. Me, I forget the bad stuff. It all kind of fades away."
"Maybe the different things don't stand out enough against the background." Jim looked back down at the card I held, but I don't think he saw it.
"What about now?"
His eyes shifted back to mine. "What do you mean?"
I opened my mouth before I realized I didn't know what I meant. I closed it and shook my head, confused and sad and feeling unexpectedly unanchored. All this stuff around us, it wasn't good stuff--it was Jim's past, it was the dark background that swallowed up all the good, light things. And there wasn't anything I could do about that, there wasn't any way I could change it or brighten it or do anything but maybe be a small spark against it, if I was even that. I suddenly wasn't so sure, and that was what I wanted to ask--if I was part of the dark, or one of the transient lights. If it would even matter which I'd been, a few years down the road.
Only I couldn't ask that. I just stood there and looked at him. And he looked back at me for a long time before he turned me and fitted me against him and leaned down to touch his lips to mine.
I closed my arms around his waist and opened my mouth against his, but he moved away from it. He kissed my forehead, slow and soft and dry. I couldn't breathe without gasping. My eyes were closed, and the light against my eyelids turned the darkness red. He moved lower, kissed my cheek--clumsy, almost on my ear, and he laughed quietly over that, and pressed his forehead against mine.
"I always wanted to make out in my old bedroom."
I pulled back a little. "You never did? Come on."
"We didn't really have people over."
I thought about that for one second, then reached for the back of his neck. I thought about the unspoken rule, then I thought about Karen. And then I pushed thought away.
This was Jim and me, outside of everything else. Separate. "This is deeply twisted."
I kissed him. Slow and easy, the way he seemed to want it. Into his mouth, a quick taste of him, and then I moved to his throat, settling in there, rocking into him, gentle and quiet. His arms tightened around my back and he didn't do anything, didn't move or anything, so I stopped and just soaked him in. His breath on my neck was warm and unsteady, and a light went on in a dark place in my head.
He was answering my question. Letting me be a light here, with his old bedroom for the background. Letting me put a good memory here. I don't know if he knew he was doing it, but he was, and when I knew it I also knew this wasn't going to be something he remembered a year from now, five years from now, when I wasn't living in his study and he wasn't carting me around to crime scenes, when I was teaching at a university across the country and he was maybe making Captain.
The different things don't stand out.
It hurt. I was taken by surprise by how much it hurt--I shouldn't have been, but I was floored by it. And that just made it worse because the different things don't stand out. Nihilistic angst. What if I didn't remember?
I pulled away. His eyes were on me, all shining and happy, and I pulled away from that, too, on the inside. The brightness turned into a question and I shrugged, looking over his shoulder at the clock on the wall. "Your dad should be home soon," I said.
"He won't be home till after ten."
"Yeah, but... I don't know, Jim, it just feels weird. What if he comes home early?" I was clutching at air to find a good excuse not to touch him, and he blinked at me for a second and then, out of nowhere, he started laughing.
He fell back onto his bed. His head smacked against one of the cardboard boxes and he said, "Ow, damn it," but he was still laughing, breathless. I started to worry about his stability.
"I just can't believe--" he said, and started laughing again.
"Come on, man, you're giving me the creeps."
"'What if he comes home early?'" He sat up, wheezing like an old man and hugging his chest. "I can't believe I had to wait till I was almost forty to have this conversation."
I couldn't not grin at him, and I couldn't not laugh when my grin set him off again. I shook my head and offered him my hand, pulled him upright. "I see why you don't come home much," I said, looking around the room before zeroing in on him again. "This place makes you weird."
"It's a better place than it used to be," he said, which wasn't really a response to what I'd said but was maybe another way of answering that question I hadn't quite asked.
"We should go." I waved at the posters on the wall and the model rocket on his dresser. "I feel like a perv."
He rolled his eyes and stood up, straightening his t-shirt and his jacket. "Okay. But we're only halfway through the stuff I have planned."
"You're gonna love this."
"You're gonna kill me."
"Get your coat."
We walked to Lincoln Elementary, keeping to the sidewalks, moving from one sodium-lighted circle to another. The wind cut close as a razor, cold and damp, blowing in from the north over a black wall of mountains. The street sloped gently upward, curving to the west. Houses here were few and far between, set far back from the road at the end of long, winding driveways. The higher we went, the longer the drives became. Soon, it started to feel like civilization was backing away from us.
I actually kind of like the cold, no matter what Jim thinks. Cold and wet, that bugs me. But a night like this, with a little wind and a little chill, so cold you can see your breath, hands and face freezing--I had good memories of walking like this with Naomi, years back, just before I took off for college.
She didn't want me to go. It was a little too establishment for her--I was a little too establishment for her back then. Naomi Sandburg's short-haired son--carnivore, brand-label-boy, ready to sell his mind to the federal government for a few dollars and a few years' education. Kind of a scandal on the commune circuit in those days. We used to walk for hours, hashing it out, trying to make sense of each other. I didn't always get the anarchy and she never understood the system, but she signed all the right papers and let me do what I needed to do. Good times.
Jim probably always walked this road alone. The thought made me edge a little closer to him, crowd him a little; he looked over at me, eyebrows at half-mast, and crowded me back. We walked shoulder to shoulder for a while, or as close as we could come to that. I wanted to bring him into my world a little, like there was a circle around me and if I could just get him into it, everything bad in his past would go away. Like maybe I could contaminate him with some of the good-family feelings I had. Stupid, grade-school magic--but that's where we were heading.
The sidewalk opened up into a small, landscaped courtyard. The school was a chrome and glass temple to the purchase of learning, a private facility with carefully trimmed grass and carefully trimmed trees and carefully smooth brick walkways. There was a tall chain-link fence, bright and new and ugly, with a spiral of sharp wire hooked along the top. Jim shook his head and looked over at me, his mouth twisted. "Even here," he said, eyes going back to the fence.
"Tell me something I don't know."
Jim had a key to the padlocked gate; he's kind of a Boy Scout, always prepared. I followed him through, and waited while he locked up behind us.
I started off toward the front doors, hands shoved deep in my pockets for warmth. Jim caught up, and hooked my elbow with one hand.
"This way," he said, pointing off to the left. "That's just the school."
I shrugged, and followed him off into the shadows. We weren't in complete darkness for long. Jim turned a corner and vanished, and I turned right after him, and we were crossing a dimly-lit basketball court. This was a playground--one net, lower than regulation. Jim threw a grin back at me and crossed the concrete. We kept walking.
Around another corner. This time we hit paydirt. The lights were brighter here, glaring down on a striped field, uprights towering at either end. Jim walked out onto the grass, sinking into it. I followed. My sneakers were soaked three steps in, my socks damp and cold. Dew, I thought, surprised. Then, with disgust: City boy. An elementary school football field was the closest I'd been to nature in about three months. Suddenly, intensely, I felt like camping.
I stopped before I got to the middle of the field, and just watched Jim. He kept walking, out to the center and then left, toward the net behind the goal. Beyond the net, there was a small strip of grass--and beyond that, the tree-line.
Jim stopped on that strip of grass, and turned back to me.
"You coming?" he called. His voice was clear and loud, but kind of muffled; there was a mist moving in, a finger of the marine layer spreading inland as the ground let go of its heat.
I held up my hands. "Coming where?" I shouted back. But I went anyway, jogging to catch up with him, my head throbbing a little but not so much I couldn't handle it. I ended up at his side, out of breath, at the mouth of a path that led into the stand of trees. The light didn't penetrate far into the woods, but it didn't have to; I knew where I was, knew it with a dark clarity that pushed all the air out of my lungs.
"Oh, man. Jim...."
"It's okay, Sandburg."
"You don't have to do this. I get it, okay? All of it, the whole night, I get it."
Jim's smile just got wider. "Happy birthday, Sandburg," he said, blowing all the birthday rules to hell. Then he fished a small flashlight out of his pocket and flicked a switch, throwing a pool of yellow light onto the path. "Come on."
Jim leading, me half a footstep behind, we set out on the trail that led to the site of Bud Hadish's murder.
I was lost almost instantly. At night, every tree looks just like every other. To me, anyway--I don't know if Jim's direction sense came from being a sentinel or being a Ranger, but I was ridiculously glad he had it, whatever the source. He was surefooted ahead of me, stepping easily over the faint trail, not making a sound. I followed as quietly as I could, not out of fear of being heard or anything--just kind of picking up on the silence. It was a ritual thing, I understood that now--the whole night, one end to the other.
He stopped. The patch of ground underneath us looked like the patches of ground all around us and all the ones behind us on the path. Jim knelt down, ran his fingers through dead leaves and dirt, then lifted his hand and breathed the scent in deep. His eyes were closed, his face tilted up toward the sky. He was pale as a pillar of salt in all that silver moonlight, blotched dark where the wind moved shadows over his skin.
"Right here," he said. When he opened his eyes to look at me, they picked up the moonlight. Eerie, reflective--it took me a minute to notice they were wet.
I sucked in a breath, biting back a sound that would've smashed my control to pieces. My throat ached, my eyes, every breath I took seemed to burn. It was such a bad idea for us to be here, such a horrible wrong thing for us to be doing, standing together in this place. I'd wanted to know Jim, wanted it all, and now all I wanted was for him to somehow take it back. There was too much of him now, too much in the air around us and way too much inside of me. I couldn't breathe, couldn't talk, couldn't remember where my walls were. I didn't want to know any more.
"I was ten," he said. "I found him here, and all I could think for a second was that he'd been eating a hamburger and he somehow got ketchup all over himself. Crazy, huh? He was bleeding from the jugular and I thought he'd had a messy dinner."
"It was outside your realm of experience then, Jim. You were just a kid. You didn't know what death looked like."
He nodded. Eyes fixed on mine. "I learned pretty fast, though. Didn't take me long to figure it out. When I did, I was just numb. Scared, sad, but it just all seemed a long way away."
"Don't put yourself through this," I said, meaning, don't put me through this, please. But the genie was out of the bottle, and Jim's voice went on, painting gory pictures in the dark.
"This is where I lost it all for the first time. Everything shut down. Felt like I was wrapped in cotton, my whole damn world was gray on gray for days."
"No color at all?"
His eyes focused on me suddenly, the fuzzy, distant look tightening to a single sharp point. "Not for a while."
"And the others...?"
"I couldn't smell a turd if you shoved it under my nose. I could hear okay, but nothing like what I was used to. At the time, I don't know--I thought, maybe Bud was the one who made me different, and when he died, he took it all with him."
"In a way, that was true," I said. "I think--I mean, there's no real way for us to know, but he did encourage you to use your senses, right? Maybe... maybe Bud was your spiritual guide for a while, like Incacha was."
"Like you are."
I nodded, looking up at the moon, not really seeing it. Thoughts were intersecting in my head, patterns forming. Bud in Cascade, Incacha in Peru--senses heightened only when there was help to be had, probably some kind of primitive survival instinct. I was resolving not to take any long vacations without him in the future when he said something else that put my brain into neutral.
"Guess I'm three for three."
"Hello." I waved a hand in front of him. "See Blair. See Blair breathing. Gooood Blair."
"I remember when you couldn't."
"Just stop it." I stepped in front of him, pulled him up to his feet. I wanted to shake him, but he was too fragile and I was too mad. "I'm not taking this trip with you again." The words echoed in my head until I remembered him saying something like that, back in the hospital.
"You gotta admit, Sandburg, I don't have the best track record with partners."
"Yeah, and I suck at minigolf," I snapped. "We're talking a remarkably similar level of significance. You've had bad luck, Jim, but that bad luck doesn't define you as a person, okay? Bad shit happens and it doesn't happen because of you. It just happens to you."
He shrugged and took a step away from me. Cold air flowed between us; I shivered, and pulled my jacket close around me. He didn't say anything else, just stood there looking into the trees. There were words for the moment, I knew, but the night just got quieter around us while we didn't say any of them.
So many things hurt him. I knew him, even before tonight I could always be sure I knew him, but there were times I'd find a place so raw and dangerous in his head I just had to slap a Band-Aid on it and try really hard not to scratch. This whole birthday thing was starting to look less like forgiving me for indiscretions in the pursuit of scientific accuracy and more like ripping open some ugly scabs.
Welcome to the real world, Blair Sandburg. That place where things are occasionally not about you.
I went to him and pulled him around to face me. Blank and calm, he'd totally recovered his cool. There was a look in his eyes like he was a million miles away and accelerating.
"What exactly are you doing here, Jim, huh?" I shoved my hands deep in my pockets and hunched my shoulders, trying to conserve some warmth. "You trying to say goodbye to me, or trying to ask me to stay?"
Jim's eyes widened, and for a second he really saw me. There was a single moment when I could tell I'd said the right thing, I'd touched something important. Just a single breath of time, and then it was gone, his eyes were blank and cold again, and I'd lost him.
"That's kind of melodramatic," he said. "Even for you."
"I get it. Nobody sticks around. They die or get killed or get mad and go away and you're left standing there wondering what you did. And then after a while when you can't figure out what that was, you start making stuff up, and what you come up with is, Jim Ellison's a curse, everybody who gives a damn about him dies. Am I on the right track so far?"
"You're not even on the right train, Sandburg."
"It figures, you know, because it must've started with your mom. That's why we had to go to the house, right? That was where little Jimmy bought his first clue."
He reached out and took hold of my arm, right below the shoulder, and for a second I thought he was gonna hit me. His eyes were that bright and crazy, the shape of his mouth that wrong. A sound came out of him, low and desperate, but he didn't actually say anything, didn't actually form any words. I watched him long enough to be sure, then took my hand out of my pocket and took his arm like he had mine--closing the perfect circuit.
"I'm only going to say this once, and I want you to listen, okay?" I pulled him closer and looked up into his face, felt his breath on my lips, inhaled it. I gave him all the feeling I had in me; all the fear and trust and friendship I could put into my voice, I put there. "I'm not going to die on you. I'm not going to get killed. I may get mad, but I'm sure as hell not going away. I'm here for the duration, Jim, okay?"
"You can't promise that," he said, shaking his head. His voice was rough, deep and hoarse and fearful.
"Something could happen. Any day, something could happen."
"Nothing's going to."
"You can't promise that," he said again, and I hated the despair in his voice, hated everybody who put it there. I put my arms around him in the dark in the place where his first friend died and willed all the heat in me to make him warm.
"I can promise," I said around the pain in my throat. "I can promise, and I do promise."
"That's stupid," he said, his voice muffled in my hair.
"What, you're Nostradamus now?"
"I'm a very smart guy."
"You really mean it," he said, low and soft and... sweet, kind of eager and young and brittle. "But... Blair, the paper."
"The paper doesn't mean shit, Jim. I'm almost done. Don't worry about the paper."
"I have to."
"You don't. You really don't." I squeezed him tighter, promised him again silently. Promised him again out loud. "Lots of people go away, Jim, but I'm not one of them. You're my best friend, and thirty years from now when you call me up to baby-sit your grandkids I'm gonna remind you of this conversation and laugh my ass off 'cause you didn't believe me at first. Okay?"
His arms, tight and solid around me, went slack.
"I have grandkids in the future?"
"Thirty-seven of 'em. Saw it in my crystal ball."
"What about you?"
"Permanent bachelorhood. The chicks don't usually go for a guy who lives in his best friend's attic."
His arms dropped; he took a step back. The silver light in his eyes was fading as the moon took a dive behind the trees; we were losing the light fast, and his flashlight flickered dimly over the floor of the clearing.
"Is that what you see for yourself?"
I shrugged awkwardly, the cold sinking into the places he'd been keeping warm for me. "I don't see what we have ever changing, if that's what you're asking me, Jim. I don't see us losing what we are."
It was as honest as I could be. It was as warm as I could be, standing there in the dark and chill and watching him slip away from me. I wanted to be right with every molecule in my body, I wanted to be his Nostradamus, his oracle. Wanted everything I'd said to be carved in stone, so no future stupid acts could ever erase it.
But he was gone already. Right in front of me, already MIA. "Time to go, Sandburg."
My heart kicked once and started racing. That cold note was back, and there I was, another wrong turn in Ellisonville and me without a map. "Hey, not that it won't be worth it. I see many great attics in your future, too."
"Excellent houses, excellent attics."
"Right." Wrong, again and still, the warm between us evaporated, every damn thing I'd done to make things right a waste of my time and breath. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, but are you okay?"
"No, doc, I have this severe pain in my ass...."
"Jim, come on, what did I say wrong?"
He looked at me and shook his head, a smile on his lips, small and twisted. "You said everything right." He put his hand on my neck, so that I could feel the cool of his palms pressing into the warmth under my hair.
"No! Something's wrong here, God damn it, why won't you just tell me? Why won't you just say whatever it is so I can fix it?" I raised both hands and they were balled into fists so I hit him, I hit him hard in the chest and he caught me by the wrists and held me with no effort at all, held me back and away from him. Held me at a distance.
"You're my best friend," he said.
"I keep hurting you, I keep fucking things up. I don't know what to--"
"You haven't hurt me."
"You're in pain, don't fucking lie to me, Jim, I'm not an idiot! Every time I open my mouth--"
"You haven't hurt me," he said again, and he put his mouth on mine, opened, sucked me in, and I hit the flashpoint. I wanted him to stop hurting but I couldn't have that, so I just wanted him, wanted what I could have, wanted it so bad I couldn't do anything but let him have me, touch any place he wanted, and he wanted, God, he wanted....
"Last time," he said, and I thought it's not the last time, it's not, it's not, there never will be a last time.
"Jim...." His mouth was against my neck, his hands at the button on my jeans.
"Yeah," he said, and bit me where my neck turned into shoulder and I snapped, my mind wasn't there, just my body, and my heart. His hands were like ice and they were everywhere, everything he did to me in that place burned like fire and everything he did hurt like a knife slicing through my skin and everything he did to me I asked him to do to me, begged him, until we were on the ground, in the cold dirt, going off like rockets.
When it was over the moon was gone, the silver was off the branches of the trees and everything was dark. I was still hard, still hurting, and I didn't look at him. I wanted him again, but even more, I wanted him different. Wanted him to find a peace I couldn't give him.
So I sat up and dusted myself off, buttoned my jeans as best I could. Stood up, and then I could turn and look at him.
He was standing, a dark Jimshadow beside me, barely distinguishable from the trees. Just as well; he had roots here too, just like they did.
"Are you ready?" he said. "We're losing the light."
I nodded, and followed him along the path, stepping in his footsteps. The way out seemed faster than the way in, but of course it was the same path, we came out in the same place. The lights on the field seemed brighter after the black of the woods, and when I looked at Jim, he looked brighter, too.
"What next?" I asked, holding my breath for the answer.
"Home." He started across the field.
"Your dad's place?"
He stopped and turned back. "Home, home," he said, tapping the face of his watch.
I looked at mine, flicking the little Indiglo switch that lit up all the numbers.
It was five past midnight. My birthday--and my week's grace period--were now officially over.
There was a message on the machine when we got home. I hit play, listened to the tape spool back while I pulled a couple of beers out of the fridge. Jim threw his jacket at the rack of hooks by the door and headed upstairs without missing a step. I put one of the bottles back.
Home sweet home.
I think I actually remembered before I heard her voice. I must have, because I tensed up and looked over at the machine before she ever said a word. She didn't really have to say a word because it was all there in my mind already and I thought, I'm a sleaze. I oughta run for office.
I called her from the line in my room. I didn't even slow down to turn on the light. Fifteen rings later she picked up and I took my first breath since dialing.
I didn't get to say hello.
"Hi," she said. "Alexandria doesn't live here anymore. She was kidnapped from Brandt's and sold into white slavery when her date failed to show up on his own God damn birthday!"
"Zan, I'm sorry. I'm really, really, really sorry."
"You better be sorry, I waited an hour for you before I finally ate and by the way, you owe me thirty bucks for dinner."
"There was a cake, Blair. There were presents. Do they not have birthdays where you come from? Were you raised in some bizarro alternate universe where birthdays have been outlawed?"
"Not... that I'm aware of, no."
"Jeez, Blair. I waited."
I sat down on my bed, my legs crossed under me, and tucked the phone between my shoulder and my ear. That left my hands free to cover my face, which I'd be forced to do for the rest of my life if there were any justice in the world.
"What happened to you? Did you get called in to the police station or something?"
"...something like that," I said. And then, because if I hated myself any more I'd have to start devolving, "No, not really."
"Zan... Jim and I have this thing about birthdays. For the past couple of years, we've kind of been spending them together."
"Oh, I see, and your lips got accidentally sewn together so you couldn't tell me this."
"I didn't think we'd be doing anything this time. He's been busy, and it just didn't occur to me that we'd do anything, and then I got knocked around a little on this case and he says, 'Let's go, Sandburg,' so I hop in the truck and the next thing I know we're on the way to his dad's house for dinner. What was I gonna say? I couldn't get out of it, Zan, honest. And I had an injury," I finished. "I was bleeding from the head."
"Answer me one thing, Blair, and I'll forgive you everything."
"Jim's dad," she said. "Does he have a phone?"
I was nailed. And it wasn't even unexpected, it was totally fair--I'd been a jerk. Should've called her. Hell, should've remembered her.
"I'm sorry," I said again. "I was wired and I was in pain and Jim took me by surprise, and I just forgot. I'm an ass."
"Yeah, you are."
"You should probably hit me or something," I said. "I'm bad for you."
"Yeah, well, you're a guy. That's a given. Look, Blair, I think it's sweet that you and your roommate have a tradition, okay? I'm a traditional girl. But I've got this tradition of my own, passed down to me from my mother and her mother before her: we don't date guys who don't show up. Okay?"
"Okay," I said.
"Happy birthday, Blair."
"Give me a week to cool down. I've got a ton of bluebooks to grade anyway. I'm just mad, okay?"
"I know." I leaned back against my pillows. "I'm mad at me, too."
"Good." A few seconds of quiet, and then she sighed. "I told Doctor Harvey you'd cover my ten o'clock tomorrow. I'm going to the dentist."
"Got your back."
"You said that."
"Yeah," she said. "Well, that time I meant it."
I hung up and tossed the phone to the foot of my bed. I felt like throwing it.
I closed my eyes, shut down my brain, and tried to relax. I was on the edge of falling asleep with all my clothes on when Jim said, "Couldn't get out of it, chief?"
I turned my head on the pillow. "Don't you fucking start with me."
His hands were in his pockets, his shoulders hunched in on themselves like he was cold. He shrugged, and looked around the room, avoiding my eyes. "I didn't know you had plans." The words were absolutely clear, soft and measured.
"I should have called her."
Jim bowed his head and scratched at the back of his neck. When he looked up, he looked right into me. "You really forgot?"
I sat up, leaned my elbows on my knees, and looked at him with new eyes. "You surprised me, Jim," I said, choosing my words carefully. "You looked so pleased with yourself, I didn't even think. Whatever you had going on... I just wanted in on it."
Jim had turned out the lights in the living room, but the kitchen overhead slanted in through my doorway and made a long Ellison-shaped shadow across my floor. He took a step closer, and for a second I thought he was going to come to me, walk right over and be there with me in my own bed. I wanted it; we were flying blind now, out in the darkness. A sweat broke out on my back and my face and I started to say something but he stopped moving, stood still as a statue, if statues shivered like that.
I sucked in a breath, forced out a word. "What?"
"I'll screw it up."
He looked away from me. His hands were clasped behind his back; there was something military in it, not exactly attention, but something formal.
"I'm not seeing Karen anymore."
Between one minute and the next, the world turned into a different place. There was a moment there when I wasn't sure I'd heard him right, when I thought the writing and the stress and the, well, writing, had pushed me right over the edge. I felt warm, flushed--excited, like I'd tasted ozone and now I could feel the storm coming on.
"Jim--man, I don't get it."
He shrugged. "Plans change. I couldn't... pretend, like that. Wasn't good for me, wasn't good for her. I just thought you should know."
"You were going to have babies, if I recall correctly. I was gonna live in your attic."
"It had mice, anyway."
"You really broke things off with her?"
"Yeah." He took a breath, and let it out on a sigh. "This afternoon. That's why I was late."
"But you--everything was good. You said you wanted to tell her. I heard you on the phone with her just last week and you were making that stupid voice."
Jim's eyebrows came together. "What stupid voice?"
"Never mind. Just, wow."
He sighed. "She was pretty surprised, too." And he touched his own wrist for a second, and moved it through a slow, painful arc.
I looked at him and frowned, and looked harder, and closer, because even though it was dark and I could barely see him, I would've sworn he was blushing.
"She caught me off guard."
"She hit you?"
"No! For Christ's sake, Sandburg. She kind of--shoved at me, a little, and I was off balance already, and I went down."
"You might want to think about sometimes just taking it on the butt, Jim. You're gonna wreck that wrist some day."
"I'm sorry I ever opened my mouth."
"I just bet you are."
I smiled at him, so he'd know I was kidding. There was a question I wanted to ask that I knew I couldn't ask, not yet, not with everything so crazy and raw between us. So I didn't say anything, just looked at him, and after a second he smiled back, wide and clear.
"So, you're okay," I said, meaning, you're not gonna cry or anything, right? "You need me to wrap that for you?"
"I thought you were really gonna tell her."
"I know," he said. Not smiling anymore, just watching me, still and open. "Now I'm not."
"I just thought you should know," he said again. "I just got you in trouble with your girlfriend. I feel like I should apologize, or something, but--"
"But you didn't do anything."
"I was going to say, 'but I'm kind of flattered.'" His face was red, but he was a tough guy, he held my eyes anyway.
"You know, I don't fuck up my romantic life for just anybody, Ellison."
He nodded slowly. I reached out to him, reached for his hand, and he gave it to me. I studied his face, his eyes, the strange and tentative twist of his smile, and it seemed like maybe he was getting it. Just for a second, a tiny breakthrough--what I'd been trying to say to him all night long. You're important, you're worthy, you matter, Jim. Okay? Have a clue, on me. I care.
I knew the whole revelation thing on my birthday was meant to tell me something. And I knew I missed it completely, I knew I'd fucked it up on some level outside my comprehension. Maybe I didn't know what the words meant, but I'd taken linguistics courses in the distant past and I recognized them as language.
I looked at him with new eyes, and all at once, superimposed over the friend I'd always known, I could see those cracks in the sidewalk outside my grandmother's house ten years ago, with the roots of an old oak tree buckling up the concrete. Growth demands change, that's what she'd said when I asked her about getting it fixed, and there was just something in that image that touched me, stuck with me--nature, life, overcoming the walls set around it.
Things grow and they take up more space, and maybe it's a tree breaking up a sidewalk or maybe it's a kid busting out of his cousin's hand-me-down Levi's, or maybe it's a feeling that breaks out of the space you made for it, out of the comfortable box you put it in, and rearranges your life to its new, inevitable parameters. I looked at Jim Ellison standing in front of me, eyes so dark and shadowed, and the feelings I used to understand were so vastly changed I barely even recognized them.
I didn't just like this man, I didn't just care about him, because those words weren't big enough anymore. I didn't just love him because I'd loved him all along, and that was a part of this but separate from it, too, in some way I hoped I'd never have to define. I looked at him and I knew that what was happening to me had happened to him, too--had maybe happened a long time ago--and now there was this new kind of quiet between us, this new thing growing out of the old stuff so slow and secret I hadn't even noticed it. Jim's hand in mine was warm, hot, slick with nervous sweat, and I felt a sudden kinship with that concrete sidewalk, felt the places between Jim and me where the cracks would grow if we didn't find a way to bend around what was happening between us.
Growth demands change.
"Jim," I said. And before I knew what I was going to say next, "Come out with me tomorrow night. I want to show you something."
"Okay." He nodded--a little slow, but definite. He didn't ask any questions, and that meant I was right--I had to be right about this because it was the biggest thing ever in my life.
"So," and he actually was smiling, his voice had that soft sound to it that made my chest feel strange, "So. Want to have a beer?"
In the half-light he looked like something out of one of my better dreams--solid, gold and dark, not quite one thing or the other. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and sat up. His eyes on me felt good and so, so very familiar. I was getting used to it, getting fond of it. He didn't move, and I had to brush past him on the way through to the kitchen. I felt the heat of him on my skin, and that was familiar, too.
Home sweet psychotic home.
Zan left lecture notes in the box outside her office. I took them to her class and I must have used them because the class lasted nearly the full hour and nobody looked at me funny. Not any more than students ever did, anyway. I gave them their assignment, dismissed them, and forgot them. I had stuff to do.
I had not-writing to do.
Sometimes--if you're lucky in life and you do things the way you're supposed to, if you cross all your t's and dot all your i's and never forget your mom's birthday--sometimes you're gifted by the gods or fate or karma with a moment of perfect, diamond-sharp clarity that changes everything. You can see it in your mind, the whole wreck of your life so far, leading up to this single point where the road straightens out and goes just where you want it to.
It came when I was shaving before taking off for class. I cut myself, and bled a little, and thought hey, there's my lifeblood spilling out into the sink, one inch to the side and I'd never have to finish the fucking paper, ha ha. And as I thought that, another thought crept out of the middle of that, a really amazingly brilliant one that had been escaping me for months.
I hate that thing, I don't want to finish that thing, that thing sucks.
I looked up at my own reflection in the bathroom mirror, half shaven, half foamed, with my hair pulled back off-center to keep it out of the water. Steam rose up around me, in front of me, and hazed over the glass and I wasn't sure I knew the guy I was looking at. He wasn't the writing guy, really, and the writing guy was the only guy I knew, so this guy was a stranger.
While I was putting a tiny piece of white toilet paper over the not-so-tiny bleeding gash on my face, I thought some more.
What I thought, mainly, was that I was two pages from the end of chapter six of the utter destruction of my life. And that maybe, possibly, that was a little too close.
At eleven I locked myself in my office, ignoring the dirty look Tracy automatically gave anybody who dared shut his office doors when there were students around. I pulled my laptop out of my backpack and set it on my desk, shoving aside a pile of notes and a stack of diskettes that fell over and scattered onto the floor. And then I turned it on and hooked it up to the printer and printed.
I printed the whole damn thing, right up to where I left off in mid-sentence halfway down page 198. It took a long time.
When the printing was done I put the whole thing in a small lockbox and closed it. I felt like I'd managed to cage something dangerous, something poisonous, and I felt like I'd maybe saved my life in the process. There was a lightness in my chest that clashed with the raving fear clawing at me every time I thought more than five minutes into the future.
I was out in the danger zone now, out past everything I knew. I looked at my hands, which weren't any different than they ever were--just a little more still now, and maybe a little more empty. Colder, too, because the heat was on the fritz. If I held Jim's hand in mine now, I wasn't sure I'd be able to tell the difference.
At three I gave up on pretending to be the perfect grad student. I shut everything down, packed everything up, and carried the box of paper downstairs, to the parking lot. My backpack got tossed in the rear passenger seat; the box sat in the front, right beside me. A tiny sarcastic part of me thought seriously about buckling that baby in. I'd been six months in labor.
At home, I dug some clothes out of my closet--a t-shirt; a green sweater that was a little long at the waist and sleeve, a little ragged, comfort-wear; a clean pair of jeans--and took them all into the bathroom. Looking in the mirror this time, I made more sense to myself. Nothing got in the way.
It took me fifteen minutes to shower, and Jim came home sometime in the middle of it. He knocked on the bathroom door to let me know he was home. Panic set in hard then; there was this thin, quiet tremor running through the center of every bone I had. The water poured down over me, hot, washing the soap away. The steady drumming of it should've been relaxing.
I turned off the tap, dried off, and pulled my clothes on with a sense of surreal precision. Every movement seemed to mean a very great deal. I pushed the sleeves of the sweater up to my elbows, took a last look at new and improved Blair Sandburg, and went out to say hello.
Jim sat at the kitchen table, a book in one hand and a sandwich in the other. I couldn't see the title, but he was absorbed in it and he was over halfway through. Watching him gave me a chance to get myself together, figure out what I was going to say. I tried out about a hundred lines in the time it took me to walk up behind him, but when I put my hand on his shoulder, when he turned his face up to me and smiled, nothing seemed to fit.
"Hey," he said.
I swallowed. "Yeah. Ready to go?"
Jim pushed back his chair and stood up. There was a stillness in him, solid and calm, unapproachable. He wore a cream-colored sweater over loose gray slacks, with his hands casually tucked into the pockets. The last light of afternoon hit him sideways and did interesting, shadowy things to the planes of his face.
"Where are we going?"
Shaking on the inside, my pulse as erratic as my thought processes, I couldn't answer. I couldn't think of any way to start.
"Where are we going, Sandburg?"
Where are we going, Jim?
I took a deep breath, stepped back, and waved a hand in the direction of my door. "A little place I know."
For a while I'd given serious thought to taking us someplace different. My grandmother's house was still standing, and it crossed my mind to take him there, but somebody else was living in it now. And it wasn't the same, really, wouldn't be the same, because it wasn't the kind of place Jim had taken me. He'd taken me to the place where he'd become the guy he was today, and he'd shown me the things that did that to him, that made Jim Ellison the guy I knew so well.
I could do that for him, too. But for me to do that, we had to stay at home.
I led Jim by the hand into my bedroom, and stopped us just inside the door. He looked around, taking in everything. I hadn't cleaned up in his honor; he wasn't a guest here. I was opening myself up, just like he had, and everything really needed to be real.
I took his hand and held it tightly in mine. I wasn't letting go for anything short of nuclear detonation. "Here we are."
His eyebrows went up. "This is your room, Sandburg."
"That's kind of the point."
"Guided tour of the bathroom next? A quick spin around the kitchen?"
"I wanted to show you the place where I grew up."
His smile faded. Stillness washed back over him, but there was an edge to it now. A fragile kind of waiting.
"Jim... I don't really know for sure what you were trying to say to me last night. I just know it felt important, and it felt... good. For the most part."
"What is this, Sandburg?"
"Listen to me, for a second?"
"You've got my attention."
I watched him, waited, and when he just watched me back I took a breath and laid the hand he wasn't holding on top of the box. "Surprise."
He looked at it. His head tilted to one side, and he looked, and looked, and the way he was looking was so intense he could probably read the paper right through the metal; it wasn't lead-lined. When he turned that look on me, his eyes were wide and startled--and confused.
"The paper's in the box." Letting go of him, I unlocked it and flipped up the lid. "Voila."
He looked away from it, back to me. It was darker in here, and his face was pale without the sun to give it color. I stepped away to turn on the lamp on my nightstand; it brought him marginally closer to the land of the living.
"As done as I plan to get, yeah."
Sharp-eyed, unfriendly, he glared at me. "What the hell does that mean?"
"It means--I'm done. Stick a fork in me. It's 198 pages, and it's not finished, but I'm done. I just--I get it now, you know? I know what the problem is."
"Why don't you tell me."
"I know you hate this thing, Jim. Every time I work on it you go ballistic, and I understand that, totally. Your secret revealed for all the world to see--geez, Jim. It's completely natural. I mean, like Peter Parker would let some geek publish a paper about his Spidey sense, you know?"
"There is a problem here." He looked around the room, shaking his head. "What is it with this whole comic book analogy you have going? Is that what all this is to you? I'm Batman and you're Robin, is that it?"
"I'm just saying I doubt Batman would've wanted Robin to stick around, either, if Robin was planning to reveal his secret identity to the world. And who could blame him?"
His eyes narrowed and his face twisted up, in that way he had of looking like the person he was talking to had escaped from a mental facility. "You're--I don't even know why I talk to you, you know that? Do you have any data in that thing on why I keep trying to have conversations with you?"
There was a hard lump in my throat, an aching place that choked me when I tried to talk around it. "What am I doing wrong?"
"If you don't know, I don't think I can tell you."
"Try. Come on, man, that's what this is all about. Last night you showed me some things about you, you told me some things. It felt like you were trying to tell me who you are, and I just wanted--I just want--to do that for you, too. To give that to you."
"That's just great, Sandburg. That's perfect. This is who you are? This paper, this stupid pile of pulp and words, that's who you are? Fuck that. How the hell can you tell me who you are when you don't even know yourself?"
"Hey." I took a step closer. "I know exactly who I am."
"You think this is about the dissertation."
"Okay, you tell me, Jim. What is it about? Because I obviously haven't got a clue."
"What planet have you been living on for the past few months?"
"Gee, I don't know, maybe, Planet Jim Doesn't Talk To Me and I'm Not a Fucking Psychic? If it's not about the paper, what the hell is it about?"
"It's about you and me. Us. You know, two people, living together, having sex, watching movies, getting our laundry mixed up. I've got four of your shirts in my closet and they don't fit and I keep them there anyway, what does that say to you?"
I blinked. Startled, sidetracked. "It says you stole four of my shirts."
"This conversation is over."
"No way." I grabbed his arm as he tried to turn, forced him back around to look at me. "You said we were the paper. You said we could only last until April. It was always about that, from the very beginning."
"Yeah, for you."
"Excuse me? What the hell?"
"You, you--conflated things. I'm your sentinel, I'm your best friend, I'm your holy grail. What was I supposed to think? It's all wrapped up in one neat little package in your head, Sandburg. Well, great, just great. The paper's done, the whole thing is done, congratulations."
"Is that what you want, Jim?" I looked up right into his eyes and I think--maybe I was looking for something I didn't believe in, I don't know. I looked and it was hard for me to breathe, and hard for me to talk, but I had to ask it anyway. "You asked me once, and I told you. What do you want?"
"Why do you care?"
"I have this paper here." I touched the box, ran my fingers over the lid. "It's good. I don't--I didn't have much real data, so most of it I had to fudge, but it's an accurate representation of reality. Ethically... it's definitely on the fuzzy side. But it's good, and Jim, I could write my own ticket with it, okay?
"Then write it, Sandburg. I don't care what you do with it."
"I publish this thing, I lose you. You think I don't know that?"
"I didn't say that. When did I ever say that?"
"Jesus, Jim. When didn't you?"
He turned away, his head bowed, and braced his arms on either side of the door frame. His sweater stretched tight over knotted shoulders; I could hear his breathing, feel the tension icing over the space between us. I could have closed the distance between us with a single step, but that was just the physical distance. It didn't touch the distance inside.
That took words. And words had never worked for us.
Break the rules, break the silence.
Then again, silence didn't work so great, either.
Break the silence, break the spell.
"I love you, Jim."
His breath caught, and every part of him got tense. For a second I thought I'd lost him; I thought he was gonna make a run for it. I took that one step closer so he couldn't make any sudden moves, and then I said it again, "I love you"--better this time, I thought, louder, with a little more conviction.
"I know, Sandburg." The words came out tight, utterly controlled. "I'm your best friend, too. You've only said it about a million times."
"I'm gonna keep saying it until you hear it the way I mean it."
Jim shoved off the door and turned to look at me, and even looking straight into his eyes, I could feel him slipping out of my reach. God, it scared me when he did that, he could just tune me out like I was changing a channel and I remembered with perfect clarity all the times he'd done it. Nothing I could say ever stopped that process in the past.
But today, I had new words.
I took his face in my hands and held it, made him stay with me. His eyes were so cold I knew they had to be lying.
"Okay. Okay, listen to me this last time, Jim, and for once just hear the words as I say them, okay? Don't put the worst possible spin on this, don't assume anything, just--don't. Okay?"
"It's just that I love you so fucking much, Jim," I said. "I'm sorry it took me so long. Don't let me fuck this up. I don't know what you need me to say, I never have. I need you to... help me, here." I dropped my hands and hugged myself, but it didn't make me feel any warmer. "Please."
"Jesus," he said again. He looked away from me and my stomach dropped through the floor; he took a step back and there was ice forming along my spinal cord, I swear to God. I felt the corner then, felt him getting ready to turn it without me and all I could think was that it was over, we were over, and I'd failed the guy I was four years ago, there wasn't a single thing he'd wanted that I would ever have. I didn't know anything about the guy I'd be a year down the road from this, but it was a pretty solid bet he'd hate the guy I was right now.
I closed my eyes and started the process. Cold and dark inside, shoring myself up, trying to put together the last shreds of my dignity and make this something not ugly, not sordid. Something we could both look back on with--well, not pride, not exactly, but a sense of peace. The knowledge we'd done our best for each other at the end.
And then he was there. His hands were on my face, and I opened my eyes to find his just inches away.
"I gotta tell you, Sandburg." He was still strung tight but there was a heat coming off him now. "I'm getting pretty sick of gluing you back together every time you fuck up your romantic life."
I nodded, and stopped breathing. "I know."
"There's a limit."
I nodded again, fast. "I know, man."
"Still," and he leaned down a little, I could feel his breath on my mouth, "I guess you maybe have a little credit left in that department."
"Jim." I wasn't quite steady and not really licensed to drive a decent metaphor under the circumstances. "Jim, man, you're gonna have to tell me what that means."
"It means... I know what the problem is." He put his forehead against mine and slid his hands around to the back of my neck and I had to brace myself by grabbing his shoulders, it was purely a matter of physics. My heart went into hyperdrive and my mouth was flooded with this sharp, anticipatory wash of adrenaline. He was warm everywhere, everywhere, God, how could I ever have thought this man was cold?
"What's the problem?"
"I love you," he said. "And you--you're really not as smart as I used to think you were."
I laughed, hoarse from keeping myself from saying about a million things I shouldn't. "I was distracted."
"You were kind of a moron, Sandburg."
"You really mean it."
"Not in a bad way."
I shoved at his arm. "The other part. Geez."
"I thought you had it all together. I thought you were saying friendship was all you were ever going to want between us."
"I'm pretty sure I'm the guy who spilled his guts to you on a fairly regular basis over the past few months."
"Look. That obviously didn't mean what I thought it meant," Jim said.
"A lot of things didn't mean what I thought they meant."
"I call that an incredibly thoughtful and incisive interpretation of the source material."
"A lot of things didn't mean what you thought they meant, too."
"And the brilliance just keeps coming."
"You don't sound like a guy who's planning to kiss me any time soon. How's that interpretation of the source?"
"Pitiful," I said. "I plan to kiss you so deep your dad's gonna need a cigarette."
And then I did it, and he was laughing so hard he made it simple, all open and wet and easy to access even if his teeth did keep getting in my way.
I took him to my bed. That was the first difference. I walked backward and pulled him along with me; he kept his eyes on mine, and he was smiling. That was different, too.
Three years ago it had been a moment of mutual need and comfort, something rash and quiet. Hidden, even from each other. The dark of his room and the silver-blue light that filtered up through the balcony windows had iced him over and covered him in shadow. He'd never said a word, that first time. I thought we'd talk about it later, we could do what we did and deal with the fallout later.
We didn't talk about it. Not talking got to be a habit.
This, though. This Jim was blue and gold. The light from my bedside table didn't reach far, but it seemed to like him. I couldn't see him the way I used to, not anymore.
This wasn't what it used to be. This--this thing, happening now, it was considered.
We undressed together, facing each other, watching every move. Jim took care with our clothes, folding them and setting them on the table by the bed. It was so him--so respectful and kind and stupid all at the same time--that I couldn't help but grin at him, and then reach for him try to do everything else I'd ever wanted.
He put his hands on my wrists and stopped me before I ever touched him. "Uh-uh. Me first."
"Why do you get to go first?"
"We're doing this fair," he said. "We're going alphabetically."
Being the one done to wasn't in my repertoire. I wasn't very good at it. I kept moving him, and he'd growl and grab my hands and hold them down, harder every time. I liked that, so I didn't even try to reform. No secret to me the kind of things his strength did to my brain and my body, why should it be a secret to him?
Having him on me was good the same way watching somebody else do the dishes is good, only with, you know, nakedness and touching. No mercy, no control, just Jim getting down to it, taking it all on himself, just like I wanted it.
Just like we both wanted it, from the way he looked at me, hot, the way his hands closed over my wrists like cuffs without keys when he dragged them over my head. He stretched them high and I turned my spine into a bridge, arched up so he had no choice but to press down and flatten me out. I made him use his whole weight to hold me down, and even then I moved under him. Even then.
"'On me the tempest falls.'" I was drunk on being able to talk, to say anything at all. Stupid, meaningless things, whatever I wanted. "'O holy Mother Earth, O air and sun, behold me. I am wronged.'"
"Maybe next time."
"It was Aeschylus."
"You know what? I stopped caring right after you said it."
"Said what?" I said, and he smiled.
He put a finger--one callused fingertip--on a spot just beneath my ear. He held it there, watching me try to suck in enough air to stay conscious while still looking moderately cool. It wasn't hot or cold, it was just there, scratchy and gentle and there, resting on my skin like it planned to stay awhile. I was fine, I was, breathing and everything, until I looked up and found his eyes waiting for mine. He smiled, slow and easy and he said, "I'm not going to touch you there for a while."
And he moved his hand away, and that's when that spot started to burn.
I was in trouble.
"So where are you going to touch me?"
"There's a lot of me, Jim," I said. "Don't make promises you can't keep."
"You got no faith," he said, and because I'd doubted him, he felt called upon to prove himself.
"Mother of God."
"No, but lucky you, you get a second guess."
"What?" His voice was deep and broken in places, and I had this Hallmark moment where I thought hey, that's not too far from what his heart's like. I had to laugh at myself but I also had to pull my arms loose and wrap them around him as far as they'd go, pull him in. Had to stroke at his hair and whisper things to him about how good he was to me, how good his heart was and how I was going to take care of it, how I always took care of all the stuff that was mine.
Halfway through he put one hand over my mouth and the other over my balls and said, kindly, "What'd you stop moving for?"
I shut up. We could talk about it later.
His hands moved over me with the patience of glaciers, melting muscles underneath my skin wherever they touched. I should've been getting crazy, should've been begging for it, but he spread calm over me and I turned lazy. I couldn't have faked a decent effort for all the mint chocolate ice cream in the world and I told him so, twice--once in the interest of full disclosure and the second time because he smiled when I said it the first. A real smile from Jim is like getting the grant you forgot you applied for, like Ed McMahon showing up on your doorstep, like a banana split you don't have to share with anybody.
It's worth working for, and I'm a dedicated kind of guy.
Jim... played with me. He played with me the way a kid plays with the cool box his favorite toy came out of. I had fingers tangled up in my hair, pressing into my lips, stroking my tongue. He touched my nipples with fingertips wet from my own mouth and blew on them till they ached, till I couldn't be quiet anymore. I wanted him to touch me in that one spot, but he wouldn't, just smiled, and that's when I knew how this was going, how it was going to go.
I closed my eyes over that knowledge and held it in my mind until everything else vacated the premises and all I could think was Yes, okay, yeah, that's how I want it. That's how I want it, too. You get us there, I'll get us home. Yeah, I could definitely work with that.
Time stretched out. I didn't remember there being that many seconds in a minute. I didn't remember seconds taking that long to go by. Jim was hot-wired into my nerve endings, so close I felt his hands before he ever decided to touch me. I kept my eyes shut and in my mind I saw thin silver filaments coming out of his fingertips, burrowing into me, sliding under my skin.
"What?" he demanded. He didn't lift his head from my chest.
"Sorry." I killed the rest of the laughter before it could get out. "I was thinking about acupuncture."
He did look up then. He glared at me, lips pressed into a thin line. "Acupuncture."
"Yeah. You know, they stick these needles in you and it makes you feel better."
"This is what you think of during sex? People sticking needles into your skin? Have you talked to anybody about this?"
"I'm talking to you," I said.
"I wish you'd stop."
"I can do that. It's just that you had these silver wires coming out of your--"
"For Christ's sake, Blair."
"It was relevant," I said, but by that point he'd stopped listening.
I tried to remember back to a time before the first time, when he was just this weird guy living upstairs, my buddy Jim--just for kicks, just to see if I could put my mind there while my body was here. I had to bite down on my tongue to keep from laughing again, and even that didn't work, so I lay there laughing under him, powerless to stop it, him looking down at me with all this love and horniness and resignation. The guy he'd fallen for was in reality this freak who couldn't stop laughing even when there was a hand on his dick.
Even when it was doing the things his hand was.
Okay, I could stop laughing, apparently, I could stop laughing on a dime.
He went over me warm and slow, and he looked up at the wall in front of him like he expected it to commiserate. And he was grinning. Did I mention that? He was grinning.
When it hit, it hit hard. I was distracted, his hands were so good in so many places, and I wasn't thinking about it, I didn't think I was there yet.
Jim, though. Jim knew.
He pressed down on me, hard and slick with sweat, breathing so hard I thought he might hurt himself. There was this shine in his eyes, bright and warm, but I only saw it for a second before his mouth was on mine, hot as the rest of him, and his tongue was on mine, going in hard and deep. He tasted like spearmint toothpaste and he smelled like Old Spice and when he put his hand between us and wrapped it around me, it was all of those things together that ripped me apart.
Jim took a little longer. I spiraled back down into myself, slow and hazy, and when my body and mind were on the same page again I pushed him over onto his back and swallowed him down.
He didn't make a sound, but his body arched up and I had to hold him, almost had to cradle him so I could keep going. He wrapped himself around me, said my name so many time I lost count, and tried to be still. The heat of him seared my tongue, my mouth, but it was a good kind of heat. It was for Jim, and in that way it was for me, too, because in the end I wanted what he wanted and if it took us six months in hell to figure that out, those months were worth it.
Before it was over I shifted up and lay along his side, looking down at his face while I ran my hands over his body. I had to watch him, because he'd never let me see this before, he'd turned away or turned me away or closed his eyes and dealt with it on his own terms. This I had to do, I had to see his eyes when I put my hand on him, stroked over him, worked him the way I wanted. When it took him, I pressed close and never looked away, not once. I saw his face twist, and the tendons in his throat stood out in sharp relief, and his back came up of the bed in a perfect arch and that's when I took his mouth, licked into it and kissed him while he pulsed under my hand, warm and slick.
When he was still, I grabbed the sweater he'd folded up so carefully and wiped my hand on it.
I must have killed him, because he saw it and he didn't say a word.
I woke up sometime before sunrise, cold, tense for a reason I couldn't really explain. I was so chilled I couldn't feel my own hands, and I couldn't remember where I was, but Jim was there. He wrapped himself around me and held on, riding it out with me, talking to me in a quiet, easy whisper.
"What is it?" he said. "What can I do?"
But there wasn't anything. It was just reaction. Shock, maybe. Fear. I had a lot to hold onto, and I wasn't really sure of my chances.
Jim held on. And he kept holding on, saying things to me he'd never said before, until I turned to him and pushed my face into his neck and started touching him. Soft and silent, in the dark.
He stopped me. Pushed me back. "Hey, come on. We don't have to do it this way. C'mon, Blair...."
"I want it this way."
"You don't. I don't." I found a good spot and heard his breath hiss into his lungs. "Don't...."
"It's okay. See? Talking, here," I said. "Tell me what to do. What do you like?"
"What you're doing. That's... yeah. That's very...."
So, darkness. But no silence that time, not between us or inside us, because Jim was right that we didn't have to do it that way anymore. I touched him where he wanted to be touched, and I made him tell me every step of the way, and by the time he found what he was looking for I was okay again. I held him while he shook and tried to breathe air with lungs that didn't want to work anymore, and I told him how much I loved him, how good he felt, how good he made me feel.
At the end of it he took one of my hands and knotted my fingers in his. He held them between us and said, all nervous and beautiful and strong, "This is us."
I squeezed so hard I thought my fingers would break. I didn't care if they did.
This is us.
My inner carnivore dragged me kicking and screaming into consciousness, responding with disturbing enthusiasm to the smells of frying bacon and brewing coffee. I didn't open my eyes at first, but I could feel the sunlight on my lids. It was good for a few minutes to just lie there, soaking in the warmth of the blankets and the thought of breakfast.
My doors were open. I knew it because I could hear Jim shuffling around in the kitchen: the squeak the fridge made when he opened it, the clinking of a spoon inside a mug, the crack of an egg against the side of an empty pan. Jim would've heard a lot more if our positions were reversed. Automatically I thought about the distance from the source of the sounds and the obstacles in between; automatically I plotted myself on a graph next to Jim--Blair Sandburg, a control group of one.
And then I opened my eyes and swung my legs over the side of the bed and stood up. That kind of thing... wasn't my thing, anymore.
I grunted something I meant to sound warm and loving on my way to a much-needed shower. The water was good, so hot it turned my skin red and clouded the tiny room with steam. Later, clean and warm, I just leaned against the wall for a while, breathing in the heat.
When I was done, and dressed, I headed out into the kitchen. Breakfast was laid out on the table, complete with coffee and eggs just the way I like them.
"Hey," I said. "You planning to share?"
He looked up from his book, the same one he'd had the night before. A smile opened his face up, and when he was smiling like that, I had to touch him. Just a brush of my hand over his shoulder as I passed to get to my chair, but the warmth of him was good. It made things solid.
"I will if you will," he said.
And that was when I spotted the lockbox beside my plate.
"It's early for this." I looked over at him with a faint hope that we could let this ride for a while, but he was still Jim and I was still me and the hope died the second I met his eyes.
"We need to get some stuff sorted out." Jim tilted his head to the side, and jerked his chin toward the box. "That thing's what, five pages from done?"
"Two. About that. Maybe a little more. Two, give or take. But Jim, I meant what I said."
"So did I."
"Can I have some bacon?"
He popped a slice into his mouth and slid the plate further away from me. I took that as a 'no.'
"I told you last night, it's mostly bullshit."
"You also told me it was an accurate representation of reality."
"An ethically fuzzy accurate representation of reality, I think I said. No, I'm pretty sure, that's what I said."
"You said a lot of things. I plan to hold you to maybe half of them. Come on, Sandburg, we're talking about your life here."
"Jim, I'd really like some bacon."
He let me have it this time. Eggs, too. Only when I had them, I found out I couldn't put anything in my mouth because my stomach was tied up in a little knot of post-coital angst and apprehension. He'd said he didn't care what I did with it, but he'd also said we were the paper. The idea of leaving it forever two pages from over had a certain symbolic appeal.
He watched me not eating, and I watched him not reading, and our breakfast got cold while it waited on the table between us.
"It's a rotten paper, Jim."
He shrugged. "Write a good ending."
"Maybe I don't want it to end."
"Maybe I don't want to support you for the rest of my life."
"Hey, who's asking?"
He rolled his eyes at me. "Finish the damn paper, Sandburg. Graduate. Get a job."
"You sound like my mom."
"That's not what you said last night."
"I want to finish it."
And the crazy-surprising thing about that was, it was true. I wanted to finish it because it was mine, and it was about Jim, and because it needed finishing, that was just who I was. I hadn't changed that much, not so much that I didn't want to finish what I started.
"Fuck," I said. "I have no idea how to end it."
He nodded sagely, and opened up his book. "Just write what you know."
"I don't know anything!"
"Shouldn't take long then. When you're done, we can go to the movies."
I looked at him in total disbelief. He sat there unperturbed, totally resistant to all the evil hate vibes I was sending out at him, smiling like he'd won the lottery and blushing, too, while he was trying to find his place. It was another one of those looks I'd never seen on him before, funny and easy and embarrassed and totally psyched. I thought, He's on today, and he knows it, we both know it, he's totally clued in.
"You're okay with this."
"I'm okay with it."
"What if I'm not?"
"Then you don't publish it. Or you do, maybe, I don't know. Do we have to nail it down right now?"
"Nope," I said, and that was the cool part. We didn't have to do anything we didn't want to.
"Hey." Jim reached across the table and picked up my hand, wound our fingers together. "You're my best friend, Sandburg."
My throat closed up. I love you, only in my terms, my language. Jim's not a bad linguist himself. I nodded, because I couldn't have said anything if my life depended on it, and looked down at my plate.
"You planning to eat that last piece of bacon?"
I shoved the plate toward him. "'With all my worldly goods.'"
He grinned, and I grinned back. It was a complicated thing, being happy. I was finding out it wasn't all one piece; it had component parts, things that had to go together.
And right in the middle of that, in the very center of that thought, I bought a clue of my own.
This is what Jim looks like when he's in love.
End A Quiet War by Meredith Lynne: email@example.com
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