Jim watched in his peripheral vision as Sandburg scrambled around the kitchen wielding a spatula as if in some epic life-or-death struggle with the Cholesterol-Laden Egg Yolks of Doom. Sandburg remained oblivious to the sideways scrutiny, chattering away about his change of plans while bringing Jim's favorite cast-iron skillet over to the table to scrape out heaps of cooked egg for them both. Setting the pan down on a cool burner, Sandburg came back to drop a handful of toast on Jim's plate with a carefree smile that seemed incongruous, given the circumstances.
"I thought you were panicked about your project. What happened?" Jim narrowed his eyes at Sandburg over the rim of his mug. It was a little early for conversation, given that he hadn't actually had a sip of his coffee yet, but what the hell. He was beginning to think forewarned is forearmed would be a prudent motto with Sandburg hanging around.
"Well, I was. But then I called the Grants Office, in order to get an extension, and it turns out that the department chairman's been called out of town for two weeks. So I have ample time to procure myself a new subject," the kid said with smug satisfaction. "I dunno, I'm thinking something small, sweet… Maybe a nice orangutan, something like that."
"What the hell happened to your old subject?" Not that Jim wanted the monkey back - sure, they'd shared popcorn and a taste for old shoot-em-up classic films, but the undersized chimp had trashed Jim's loft. He'd have to use a toothbrush to get the last bits of potting soil out of the tongue-and-groove joints in the hardwood...
"Who, Larry?" Sandburg shrugged, chuckling. "I don't know. Animal Control's still looking for him. And until they find him, well…" He grinned, goofy and lopsided. "I'm all yours, little buddy."
"That's a very generous offer," Jim said blandly, resisting the urge to roll his eyes at the Gilligan-Skipper parallel the kid was obviously playing. "But I think you'd be a little… in over your head."
Blair protested around a mouthful of egg, launching into a long and involved explanation about his previous research and how it applied to the current drug-war case with the Deuces and the 357s while Jim sat and sipped, watching and listening and not saying much.
Jim couldn't quite reconcile the baby-faced, suddenly-homeless-Sandburg who'd shamelessly worked the puppy-dog eyes to wrangle a roof for himself and his ape with this grad-student-researcher-Sandburg sitting across the table, who seemed remarkably unconcerned about the whereabouts of his furry little friend. Jim took another gulp of coffee.
Sandburg was a puzzle, all right, but clues were there if you knew how to read them. The strategic naiveté, the submissive body language, the constant flow of words used to distract and deflect; meanwhile, the constant fidgeting and a pair of expressive hands communicated far more than Sandburg could possibly know. Jim just wasn't sure what it all added up to, yet. Maybe someday he'd watch Blair play poker, see if he had any more tells.
Sudden silence drew his attention back to Sandburg, who was idly dragging a fork through the scatter of toast crumbs and bits of egg left on his plate. Jim would have said something – the tiny screech of metal on stoneware was like nails on a chalkboard – but Sandburg spoke first, eyes downcast. "So, I'll be able to finish my research in the primate lab, and I can crash at Josh's in the meantime since Larry's not a problem anymore." He flicked a quick glance up at Jim. "I'll be out of your hair by tomorrow."
Jim blinked. Sure, he'd given the kid a week, and the week was up. So why was he so surprised that Sandburg was actually going to leave?
Blair was awake and dressed and making pancakes, all before seven a.m., which was Jim's first red flag.
Blair wouldn't meet his eyes, stood with his back to Jim while he mixed and poured batter. His hand trembled – minutely, but Sentinel eyesight noted the tremor, tracked the tumble of blueberries from shaking fingers – and the spatula tore a furrow into the edges of half-cooked pancakes when he went to flip them.
"You've made a decision, then," Jim said calmly, barely able to hear his own voice above the roar of blood in his ears, pushed there by a wildly pounding heart.
Blair looked at him, then, blue eyes brimming with regret. "You've been great, letting me hang at the station. Doing the tests, even if I had to twist your arm. And, well, living here. This was way more than I'd hoped for."
This was a kiss-off breakfast. "What about our project, this Sentinel thing?"
As soon as the words left his mouth Jim set his jaw, disgusted that he'd let them slip out. Hadn't self-sufficiency been drilled into him practically since birth? First by his father's survival-of-the-fittest parenting philosophy (now there's Darwinian theory in action for you, Chief) and later by the Army's literal interpretation of the same.
Jim was a survivor - he'd had to be. He'd make it through Sandburg's defection, too. It was his own damn fault; he'd allowed himself to lean on Sandburg like a crutch, to delegate responsibility for his errant senses and to trust that Sandburg's decisions would be with Jim's best interests in mind. He'd allowed himself to believe - hell, he'd come to expect - that Sandburg would be there for him, that Blair was a friend Jim could turn to when the world around him went pear-shaped.
He'd believed when Blair insisted that Jim wasn't a freak of nature; that Jim was something rare, something worthwhile. Someone of value. He'd thought that Sandburg's attention was fixed, constant; that he wouldn't go haring off at the drop of a research grant because documenting some closed society-or-other was far more fascinating and far less dangerous than trotting along at Jim's heels from one crime scene to the next.
"Jim, I know," Blair said miserably. "But this kind of opportunity…"
And that was that. How could Jim compete with an entire lost tribe in Borneo?
"She loves Thai food, we like the same books, she even listens to R&B," Jim said reasonably, chewing his Mr. Tube Steak with evident enjoyment.
"I just don't think it's gonna be a good idea, Jim," Blair insisted, clutching his hot dog in one gloved hand and waving it around for emphasis. "What if you two don't hit it off? She's a friend of mine, you're a friend of mine, if feelings get hurt then I'm caught in the middle."
"We already like each other." Jim crammed his mouth full for another bite of sheer bliss: handmade frank in a natural casing topped with relish, tomatoes, caramelized onions and brown mustard just this side of too-spicy-for-a-Sentinel.
"On the phone," Blair said irritably, tearing off a chunk of his pig-in-a-blanket (plain frank, no toppings, steamed bun) and tossing it to the drooling stray dog sitting hopefully at their feet.
"Yeah, so?" Jim figured if he got indigestion – Mr. Tube Steak for lunch always brought out the dire warnings in Blair – he could always blame it on this conversation.
Blair sighed in his best long-suffering fashion. "We're male animals, right, Jim? Attraction is partly intellectual, but the visual components are a major aspect to it. Without the physical thing, you don't have the whole package." He eyed Jim meaningfully as he inhaled half of his hot dog in one bite.
Jim swallowed and wiped his mouth with his napkin, considering the implications. "What are you saying, Margaret's not attractive?"
Blair held up a finger of caution. "I'm saying she has an… inner beauty."
Typical Sandburg: pure obfuscation, not a direct answer in the lot. Jim debated whether it was worth the argument to go back for another hot dog. "I like her voice," he said stubbornly. "I'd still like to meet her."
Blair fed the rest of his lunch to the dog, muttering rude things under his breath that Jim could hear all the way back to the Mr. Tube Steak cart.
Jim stood with his arm around Margaret in the doorway of what had been Blair's little room under the stairs, watching silently as Blair taped up the last box. "Let me help you take that down to the Volvo," Jim said finally.
Blair nodded his agreement, standing and blowing sweaty curls out of his face. Margaret ran a soothing hand down Jim's back as she slipped from his embrace to open the front door for them.
A few strands of hair clung to Blair's damp cheek. Jim nudged them back behind Sandburg's ear with a self-conscious smile; Blair grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. "You're getting married in the morning, man. Who'd a thunk it?"
Jim nodded around the lump in his throat. The small spare room that had barely contained Blair and all of his belongings now stretched bare and empty around them. He shifted uneasily at the sight - at the proof that Blair's presence in the loft could be so quickly reduced to mere traces - and resolutely refused to admit any fear that Blair's presence in his life might diminish in the same way. Blair was going to be his best man; Blair was the best man in Jim's life. He would still be Jim's guide; they would still work together.
If it made Jim strangely uneasy that Blair would no longer be under his roof... well, what could he expect? Margaret was going to be his wife.
I'm getting married in the morning.
7 Persian dishes
Nothing was as loud as someone trying to be quiet. Jim didn't know why Sandburg even bothered; he knew Jim always woke up if someone came into the loft, even if he subconsciously knew it was just his roommate coming home from a date… especially because he knew the particular evening in question had been a Very Important Date.
And Blair sabotaged his own efforts with all the whispering, anyway. "Jim? She said yes." He snickered to himself, more than a giggle and less than a guffaw, the outburst wafting gusts of alcoholic fumes from the living room all the way up to Jim's bed. White grapes, not dry; must be that funny-sounding German wine that Blair liked. "She said yes, man."
"Congrats, buddy," Jim murmured from under the covers and the arm he'd thrown over his face.
"I told you those seven Persian dishes were a sure thing," Blair rambled on seriously as Jim tracked his progress through the loft by the tell-tale bumping into furniture. "Bread with yoghurt dip, and stuffed grape leaves, and fish with saffron rice… it was a feast for the senses, my friend," he sighed happily. "You shoulda been there, man."
Jim scrunched his eyes closed more tightly.
"Persian love cake," Blair yawned hugely. "Love cake, Jim. Isn't that just so cool? And dates in milk and cinnamon, with Turkish delight to round things out. Hmm… wait, that's only six."
Jim could practically hear the gerbil wheel rattling around in Blair's head.
"Cuckoo!" Blair yelled. Jim winced at the yell, and then again at the unmistakable sound of Sandburg slapping a hand over his own mouth. Painfully.
"Ow," Blair whimpered softly. "Kukus*, though! Kukus, kukus…"
Judging by the thump-rustle-rustle, Sandburg finally located his bed and fell into it. A drawn-out groan, some wriggling, and before long Sandburg's deep, even breathing settled into the rhythm of sleep.
At least he'd be safe there, down in his modest loft bedroom, for a little while longer. Jim had tried his best, had resorted to forcing Blair to acknowledge Iris' mug shot, to listen as Jim read the rap sheet that detailed his girlfriend's numerous illegal activities and arrests.
But Blair believed in redemption, and his ex-con girlfriend was now his fiancée. Soon they'd be living together, and Jim would get his privacy back.
Somehow having the loft back to himself didn't sound so desirable.
* kukus: Persian vegetable omelets
Wild Bahamian stew
The deal. Jim kept thinking of it as more of a devil's bargain. All he was to Sandburg was moving research; he couldn't forget that.
Naomi wandered the loft looking distressed, wringing her hands and bringing them cups of tea and encouraging them to just forgive and forget. Jim thanked her quietly and took one polite sip, dialing down smell to a precise focus on the scent of the tea wafting up in thin wisps of fragrant steam; otherwise, the odor clashed horribly with the remnants of Naomi's wild Bahamian stew that none of them (aside from Naomi) had much desire to eat.
Blair wouldn't eat it, or couldn't – he'd always had a nervous stomach, and Jim reckoned this dissertation disaster was wreaking havoc with Blair's GI tract as much as with his own. Blair lost his appetite out of guilt, but Jim was just a simple man with simple tastes, and wild Bahamian stew was out of his comfort zone.
He was a simple man. He wanted a simple life. He'd never wanted the damn senses, didn't want the notoriety, didn't want to be followed by stares and pointing fingers for the rest of his life, haunted by whispers wherever he went. He'd had a taste of that after Peru, and it turned his stomach.
Why was that so hard for Sandburg to understand?
Naomi and Blair disappeared into Blair's room – maybe to meditate, maybe to pack, Jim didn't know and didn't much care. He focused on one small thing he could do to take back control of his life, and set about making it happen.
Blair swiped a hand across his face and glared at the Tupperware spread across the counter. He chewed his lip, but said nothing.
Red lids were stacked neatly on one side, blue lids on the other, with Jim in the middle sorting and making piles. "I just want things back the way they were," Jim said firmly, ignoring the faint tang of blood and salt that accompanied Blair's swollen lip and red, puffy eyes. He dialed down hearing until the sound of Blair's hitching breaths and agitated heartbeat no longer echoed in his ears. "I'm an old dog, Sandburg, and it's too late for me to learn any new tricks."
Blair kicked one boot against the kitchen island, shoving his hands deep into the pockets of his heavy jacket. "You don't want to learn, you mean."
"I'm trying to learn from my mistakes," Jim replied evenly. "This whole thing got way out of hand, and I need to get my life back."
"It was a mistake, Jim," Blair argued, his voice shaking. "I know I screwed up, I fucked up royally, and I'm sorry. Naomi's sorry. Neither of us wanted to hurt you. But, man, we're friends. We can get through this."
Jim put his hands flat on the counter top and met Blair's anger with stoicism. "Sometimes things just run their course, Chief. No harm, no foul."
"I can't believe that after everything, after all we've been through, that you're giving up. Just calling it quits." Blair ran a hand through his hair, bunching it in a clenched fist when tangles caught his fingers. "Give it a little longer, let things settle down. We can figure this out, decide what to do next. Please, Jim."
Jim stared down at the wood grain in the counter top, following the lines, drawn into the minute variations of thickness, the gentle undulations… He came back to himself with a brisk head-shake. "Do you want to take the red with you, or the blue?"
Blair swept his arm across the counter, scattering Tupperware in every direction. Lids flew like Frisbees; containers bounced and rolled, ricocheted off corners and rocked around in rapidly-decreasing circles until they settled once again.
As the door slammed behind Blair, Jim bent down and began to pick up the mess.