Originally published in the zine Primal Instincts
"Close call today, hey, Jim?" Detective Stan Zaks commented as Jim Ellison stepped into the crowded station elevator. Zaks' hazel gaze was filled with sympathy as he moved back to give Jim more room.
"Understatement of the century, Stan," Jim sighed, very aware that he looked like the loser in a Tyson fight. His face was bruised and scraped, his left eye sporting a truly magnificent shiner. His clothes were in even worse shape. His black jacket, blue knit sweater, and jeans were splattered with more blood than a butcher's apron. Fortunately, most of it wasn't his own.
"You bagged that psychopath Martin. That's the bottom line. The PDs in New York, San Francisco, and Miami have been after him for four years, Jim, but you're the one that took him down. You did a stand up job, buddy," Zaks congratulated, reaching out to give Jim's shoulder an encouraging pat.
Jim tried not to wince. There were times his enhanced senses were a bitch to handle, pain being perhaps the hardest. There was nothing like feeling a black and blue or a bullet graze to the umpteenth level of awareness. Between the throbbing ache permeating his entire body and the relentless olfactory barrage of cologne, deodorants, sweat, and body odor in the crowded elevator, he was almost wishing for a zone out. But that was always dangerous when Sandburg wasn't around.
"So, where's your shadow?" Stan chuckled.
Still not quite with it yet, Jim asked, "Huh?"
"You know, that college kid that's been following you around like a puppy these past few months."
"You mean Sandburg." Jim gritted his teeth. He was getting more than a little tired of this attitude.
"Yeah, the flower child with the long hair and love beads. I don't know where you get your patience from. I couldn't put up with him."
"That flower child saved my ass this afternoon, Zaks, and almost got pulverized in a trash compactor for his troubles," Jim snapped far more vehemently than he'd intended.
Even now, he could see that five-ton compactor descending on Blair's trussed up figure. Blair had looked so small and helpless as that press moved down for him. Jim didn't think he'd ever shake the memory of his friend's expression of bug-eyed terror. The kid had looked more scared than when Lash had had him last month.
The knowledge that their suspect, Jake Martin, never would have taken the time to try to kill Blair that way when the police were closing in, were it not for the kid's saving Jim's life weighed heavily on his conscience. The scene kept replaying in his mind like the game point in the Super Bowl. Sandburg had been a hostage, totally incapacitated by the heavy ropes with which he'd been bound. Jim could still see the two figures on the rooftop, silhouetted against the gray sky as he'd raced towards the waterfront factory in which the serial killer had taken refuge.
Jim had taken aim at the bulkier of the pair, squeezed his trigger...only to hear that ominous click that preceded many a cop's death. Gun jam.
He'd been dead meat until Blair somehow realized how defenseless he was and butted his head into Martin's stomach. The psychopath had snapped then, directing all his murderous fury on his captive. Jim had watched in horror from two hundred feet below as his shrieking, acrophobic roommate was dangled over the rooftop, Sandburg hauled back up only to be left to die in the trash compactor. Jim had gotten to his friend mere seconds before that crushing weight had touched fragile human flesh.
It had been a close call, entirely too close. That this wasn't the first time Sandburg had almost bought it on account of his connection with him didn't help at all. Today made the sixth time in as many months that Blair had saved his act. Yet, all the kid seemed conscious of were the occasions when Jim returned the favor, Sandburg not seeming to recognize that it was only his association with him that got him into these situations in the first place.
Zaks spoke again, calling Jim back to the present with his nervous, "Ah, yeah...sorry, Jim. I didn't mean anything by it, all right?"
Reminded of the affront to his roommate, Jim nodded. "Sure. Whatever."
Zaks wasn't a bad guy. He was just buying into the gossip that had been circulating in the station ever since Jim had taken on his unusual associate.
To Jim's relief, the doors opened at his floor at that moment, saving him further awkwardness. "See ya around, Stan."
His joy at escaping the elevator was short lived. Jim could smell the reek of the locker room to which he was headed even from here – a stomach-turning potpourri of sweat, old socks, dirty underwear, and liniment.
Christ, but he hated when he was too tired to tone down his senses. Trying to cope with the stench that no one else would even notice, Jim ran a hand over his peach fuzz haircut.
The hair on the back of his neck pricked up as his hyper-sensitive hearing carried voices from the locker room down the empty hall.
"So, are you done puking up your guts, petal?" a deep voice with a thick southern accent taunted. "This here is a police locker room. You sure as hell ain't no cop. What the fuck 're you doin' here anyway, small fry?"
A too-familiar, stressed out voice answered with tight control, "I'm just taking a shower, man. Cut me a little slack, huh? I'll be outta here in a minute."
Jim's pace sped up to match the sudden jack hammer pound that was his heartbeat.
"Jim lets you use his locker, huh? That's real neighborly of him, but then, you two boys is a little more than neighbors, aren't ya? You live in Jim's house. Sign out his evidence. Sit at his desk. Is there anything Big Bad Jim doesn't let you use, pretty boy?"
A red haze of fury filtering his vision, Jim pushed through the locker room doors. Stalking soundless as a hunting puma through the rows of gray lockers, he came up behind the speakers.
His roommate was there in front of Jim's own locker. With only a towel around his skinny waist and his curls a bedraggled, wet tangle around his shoulders, Sandburg looked like nothing so much as a high school kid...a very small, picked upon kid at that.
Compared to the fine boned grad student, Sandburg's tormentor appeared immense. The transplanted Alabaman, Billy Bob Gillis, stood just two inches short of Jim's 6'4". What little he lacked in stature, the wheat-haired southerner made up for in girth, weighing in at close to 260 pounds. Some of it was muscle, but most of that weight rode at Gillis' waist. Next to Sandburg, the florid-faced Vice cop looked like a Sumo wrestler, especially since the fully dressed detective was hulking over the betowelled grad student in tacit intimidation.
Jim had to hand it to his friend. Although the behemoth was right in his face, Blair didn't back down. Making no outer shows of aggression, the kid just politely moved around the mountain of flesh as though Gillis were invisible. As much as Jim respected the courage, on an instinctive level he knew it was the wrong approach to take with wise asses like Gillis. Nothing irked such pathetic losers so much as being ignored.
As if in answer to Jim's thought, Gillis' ham-sized fist shot out to snag a handful of wet curls. "Did you hear what I said, sweet meat?"
"Is there a problem here?" Jim asked before the scene could progress any further, his stance seemingly casual as he leaned against the nearest locker. His tone was deceptively mild, the menace underplayed, for all that this quiet control was the last thing any number of adversaries had heard before Jim had sent them to their maker.
"Jim!" Sandburg jumped, wincing as he left quite a number of brown curly hairs dangling from Gillis' hand.
Even before Blair whirled to face him, Jim could feel the heat of the embarrassed flush that had stained Sandburg's fair cheeks.
"I asked if there was a problem here." Jim repeated, his icy glare focused on Gillis. There were few things he hated more than a bully. Time was when he would have sent a bastard like this out on a stretcher or in a body bag...still might, depending on how Gillis chose to play this scene.
As ever when nervous, Sandburg's mouth went into overdrive. Always the peacemaker, the kid pasted a thin smile on his face and started talking faster than a buzz saw. "No, Jim, no problem. I was just getting ready to go. Give me a minute to get my stuff together, man, and we'll hit that burger joint you were talking about on the way to work this morning..."
"In a minute, Blair." Jim brushed past the smaller man, who'd inserted himself between him and Gillis like a human buffer zone. "Maybe you want to continue what you were saying when I stepped in here, Gillis? Something about sharing; wasn't it?"
To his credit, the creep didn't back down.
Holding his ground, the cunning green eyes watched Jim approach.
Jim paused a foot or so away. Even from there, Jim could smell the bourbon Gillis had had for lunch and the cheap whore that had followed the booze up as dessert. The guy was a slob and a disgrace to the badge.
"I don't want no trouble with you, Ellison," the beefy southerner began in what no doubt passed for a conciliatory tone in his mind.
"Well, that's too bad, Billy Bob, `cause you got trouble with me," Jim drawled, allowing the arrogant, smug smile that intimidated in such primitive posturing to claim his stony features. "Unless, of course, you want to apologize to Mr. Sandburg here."
"I got nothin' to apologize for. That little faggot ain't a cop. He don't belong here. And if he didn't have you wound around his little finger with those puppy dog eyes and those skin tight jeans, you'd see that, too," Gillis spat, pure vitriol in his spiteful green glare. "You're the laughingstock of the department, Ellison."
"Is that so?" Jim's smile broadened, even as his eyes went flat and empty. Something cold and dangerous unfurled within him, something that he'd spent years learning to hide in civilized society.
Gone was the rational, compassionate cop. Gone was the social refinement of a lifetime of convention. Millennia worth of civilization sloughed off him at that moment and Jim was reduced to his most basic, most primal self. His military buddies always joked that he reverted to the wolf at such times, but Jim, who lived within his own skin knew better. When he lost it like this, he was no wolf. There was nothing mammalian or warm left in him. What emerged at such instances was far more primitive. He was a shark, utterly cold blooded, the perfect killing machine.
There was no thought to his next action, no consideration of the repercussions. There was only the stimuli and his immediate, deadly response. Like a great white coming up fast and silent from the deep, dark waters, Jim struck.
One moment Jim was standing a foot away from Gillis in complete control, then, in less time than it took to blink, Jim had slammed the bulkier man into the row of lockers behind him. The metallic crash echoed through his raw nerves like a sonic boom, hurting his hypersensitive ears, making the shark madder.
With no memory of moving, Jim found his forearm pressed flat against Gillis' windpipe, Gillis' green eyes bulging as the red-faced Vice cop fought for air.
"I don't like you much, Gillis. I don't like your foul mouth. I don't like your bad manners. And I sure as hell don't like you bullying my friends. Mr. Sandburg is a consultant to the Cascade P.D. As such, he has access to whatever facilities Captain Banks deems fit. You got a problem with that, take it to Banks. You lay a finger on my friend again and I'll rip it off and shove it down your throat. Do I make myself understood?" At no time did Jim's voice rise above that tone of soft menace, nor did the pressure he was applying to his victim's throat lessen in the least.
Locked in that deadly tableau, they might have remained like that forever, or at least as long as Gillis retained consciousness, were it not for a demanding buzzing pounding at Jim's focused mind.
The shark inside him tried to tune the irritant out. But from a level just as deep as that feral blood lust, there came a stirring. Somewhere in his soul, he recognized that this was the one voice he dared not ignore. This was the voice that pulled him back from the void time and again. The person who stood between the shark and death.
The shark came upon him lightning fast, but it was sluggish in leaving. Vaguely, Jim became aware of something tugging at the arm with which he was applying the chokehold, something as persistent as a pit bull. That voice that he was unable to discount, the deep, calming tone that had pulled him out of a dozen zone-outs, penetrated the killing haze blanketing his senses.
"Jim, come on, man. Let up! The guy can't breathe, Jim. Let him go! Jim, let go. NOW!"
Like a switch had been thrown, Jim snapped back to himself, becoming aware of his surroundings and circumstances...and the fact that he was about to commit manslaughter on a fellow officer – pathetic a specimen as Gillis was.
Christ! What the hell was he doing? Thinking?
Stunned by the instantaneous breach of control, Jim allowed his roommate to pull him off the heavier man. Self-conscious, but not sorry, he watched the florid-faced Vice cop gasp for air.
The shark was satisfied. For now.
"Jesus, Jim..." Eyes wide as deep blue saucers, Sandburg stared from him to his former tormentor. In his efforts to keep him from committing murder, Blair's towel had fallen from his waist, leaving Blair standing there in all his scrawny, unconscious splendor.
During the altercation, the kid had pressed up tight against him as Sandburg tried to use his full weight to pull his arm from its strangling press against Gillis' throat. Now that the crisis was past, Blair just stood there clinging to Jim's shoulders.
The effort it had cost to pull him off could be read in Sandburg's rushed breaths.
In the heated tension of the sudden silence, each of those exhalations hit Jim like the Santa Anas. Every warm, moist breath carried the minty scent of the Colgate toothpaste Sandburg had borrowed from Jim's locker, and beneath it, the more subtle, sour scent of bile.
Jim could feel the tension vibrating through the figure pressed so close to his. Still trying to get his bearings, he absently rubbed the silk smooth back. There was no thought to the act. It was simply his nature to reassure, even when he was scattered apart himself.
That unconscious gesture drew a totally unexpected response from Jim's own body. Abruptly, every inch of him was intensely aware of all the naked flesh pressing against him. Even through the thick layers of his clothing, Jim could feel the living fire that was Blair scorching his skin.
Then Sandburg's scent hit him – the pine fresh aroma of the herbal shampoo, the wood spice of his all natural deodorant, the minty toothpaste, and under all those social props, the inimitable sweet musk that was Sandburg's alone.
Helpless, Jim took a deep drag of pure Blair. Suddenly, that was all that existed for him. The feel and smell of Sandburg. Fire licking through his loins, Jim found himself wondering what that soft skin would taste like. His senses swimming in anticipation, he felt himself slipping into an all too familiar zone...
"Jim...JIM...stay with me here, man!" Sandburg urged in a no nonsense tone, his fear almost tangible.
It was that worry that brought Jim's protective instincts to the fore. He couldn't zone-out when his partner was relying on him. With Gillis recuperating, the situation could turn explosive in a heartbeat.
"You with me, Jim?"
Jim blinked free of the sensual daze, focusing on the here now with difficulty. Fortunately, Gillis didn't appear to have noticed the slip. The Vice cop in the cheap brown suit was still massaging his abused throat.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm here," Jim assured his worried Guide.
As if the sound of Jim's voice kicked the other cop back into gear, Gillis rasped, "You are one mother fuckin' psycho, Ellison. You could've killed me!"
Even now, the creep was still too dumb for diplomacy.
Jim used his stare to focus the other detective's attention fully upon him. Pleased, he noticed a trace of respect – or maybe it was fear – that hadn't been in those virulent green eyes before.
"Remember that the next time you pick on me or mine," Jim warned.
Gillis raised his open hands in a pleading, conciliatory manner. "Come on, Ellison. Lighten up. I was just having some fun with the little fa "
"Just don't. I think you should clear out of here now, Gillis," Jim pointedly suggested, his patience wearing thin.
The southerner gave a slow nod, a dangerous light glinting in his mean-spirited, porcine eyes. "I'll go, but I'll remember this, Ellison. Don't think I won't."
"You better remember," Jim purposefully misinterpreted, watching with satisfaction as Gillis turned to go.
"Couple `a fuckin' fags," the retreating Vice cop muttered under his breath.
"What did you say?" Jim challenged.
"Nothin'." Gillis increased his pace.
"That's what I thought." Jim watched until the creep was gone. A tension headache forming behind his temples, he turned on his boggle-eyed, bare-assed roommate and irritably snapped. "Put some clothes on, Sandburg, so that we can get the hell out of here, would you?"
His cheeks blazing a vivid scarlet, Blair nodded and turned back towards Jim's...their locker.
Sighing, Jim picked up the towel his absentminded friend had left pooled on the floor by his feet. Even without lifting the terry cloth closer to his face, he could smell Sandburg in the soft white folds, feel the lingering body heat. Once again that near-nervous flutter shivered through him.
Forcing his attention away from the disturbing sensation, Jim gruffly ordered as he passed the towel over, "Don't forget this."
Slightly guilty, he saw Sandburg actually jump. Dropping the jeans he was about to don in his haste to comply, Blair quickly reached out to take the towel. "Sure."
Hearing the increase in Sandburg's heart and respiration rates, Jim made a conscious effort to tone down the aggression, aware that Sandburg had had an even shittier day than he. Too often, Blair was the only one around for him to take his frustrations out upon. The kid's relentless good humor made him an easy target.
But as they left the station, Jim noticed Sandburg wasn't smiling. For once, motor-mouth was dead silent. The delicate-boned hands, normally a flutter of ceaseless motion as they punctuated Blair's chatter, lay clasped in his lap as the younger man stared moodily out the truck's passenger window at the twilit scenery.
"Hey, Chief, you okay?" Jim checked when the quiet became too intense. The only time Blair was silent for this long a stretch was when he was unconscious or gagged.
Once again, Sandburg's entire body seemed to jerk in response to his voice.
In the dim light of the dashboard illumination, Sandburg's curl framed features seemed pinched and drawn as they turned to face him, the bone structure harsh and pronounced. To most, Blair's complexion would have looked green, but Jim's Sentinel vision told him how deathly white the younger man was. More than bone tired, the kid looked ill.
Abruptly, Jim recalled Gillis' initial taunt about Blair puking up his guts. Concerned, he wondered if it were more than the shock of almost being crushed to bite-sized bits that had his Guide so shaken or if Sandburg were really coming down with something.
"Now you've really got me worried." Exhausted himself, Jim somehow found the energy to force a playful note.
"About what?" Sandburg's tone was strange.
Normally, whenever presented with an opportunity to lighten the mood, Blair jumped right in, but his Guide sounded almost...frightened.
"Whenever you can't lie convincingly, I know that something's seriously out of whack with you." Jim paused, then hesitantly enquired, "Was the shark too radical for you?"
"Huh? What shark?"
He hated when he lost control of himself as he had with Gillis. Having to speak about it afterward, to try to explain the unforgivable, was doubly difficult. But Blair had never seen that side of him before. Jim knew what a shock it could be. He didn't want Sandburg thinking that the shark would ever turn against him.
"That's what I call it when I lose it like I did with Gillis. It's sort of a zone. One I don't like." Tense, Jim waited for the justified disgust, fully aware that he might lose his Guide over this one. Caroline hadn't been able to deal with even knowing the shark was there and she'd never seen him lose it like this. Few people wanted that kind of constant reminder of the savagery of the human soul in their face all the time.
But Blair only stared at him. "It's not a zone," he said tiredly.
"What do you mean `it's not a zone'? I was totally out of it. If you hadn't stopped me..." He didn't want to go there, unnerved by how close he'd come to feeding frenzy. From somewhere, the exhausted Sandburg seemed to pull up the energy to lecture/reassure. Jim was never sure just how Sandburg intended those little narratives of his, aware only that the information, sometimes simply the sound of Blair's voice, helped.
"You're a Sentinel, Jim, not a shark. It's in your genes. Back in the locker room, you were on full Sentinel mode, protecting the tribe from any and all attackers. There's no mercy in that head space; there can't be. If the Sentinel hesitates for even a split second, it could mean the death of his entire tribe."
"Are you telling me that you knew I had that in me when you agreed to work with me?" Jim asked, unable to believe it. His coworkers treaded carefully around him. It just blew his mind to think of this flower child braving the lion’s den without even the proverbial whip and a chair.
Sandburg gave a weary nod, seeming to work at concentrating.
"And it doesn't bother you...scare you...that I'm capable of that kind of violence?" Jim challenged.
Blair looked at him as if he'd taken leave of his senses, then pulled the world out from under him with a single line, "You'd never hurt me, Jim." Voiced like it was carved in a stone tablet by lightning on a mountain top. No shadow of doubt or fear. Jim had rarely seen such absolute conviction.
For a long moment, he struggled with the feelings that unusual declaration stirred in him before asking, "So if it isn't the shark bothering you, what is it? You're not letting that sorry excuse for a cop get to you, are you, Chief?"
Bingo. Sandburg's heart rate tripled.
Suddenly serious, Jim dropped all traces of humor. "Come on, Blair. You're an anthropologist. You know Gillis' type."
"You've no idea how well I know his type."
The strained reply wasn't exactly reassuring, but Jim figured it was better than no response. "Hmmm?"
When in doubt, waffle. That was Blair's philosophy.
Sandburg released a long sigh. "I know his kind, Jim, and I know Gillis didn't say anything I haven't heard, like, a million times before, but..."
"Hold it right there," Jim jumped in, his protective impulses on overdrive as they so often, inexplicably were with his eccentric roommate. "Are you telling me that you've had to put up with this kinda crap at the station before today? I know that Simon and Mike kid you sometimes, but that's a different story from that line of..."
"Whoa, there, Big Guy," Blair pleaded, seeming much more himself, "Calm down. Today was the first time anyone at the station was that obnoxious about my sidekick status."
"Then what are you talking about?" Sometimes Jim really didn't understand the kid at all. It was more than simply the fifteen years that separated them. Often, it almost seemed like they were from different worlds, like they didn't have even so much as a language in common. God knew, the jargon that colored Sandburg's speech made it sound like a foreign tongue at times. Jim was fully convinced that he'd had less trouble understanding the Peruvian tribe that had adopted him than he did Sandburg Talk.
"Look at me, Jim," Blair commanded, sounding exasperated, like he really couldn't believe that Jim didn't know what he was talking about.
Jim took his eyes from the foggy road for a second, just long enough for a swift, comprehensive assessment of his companion. Aside from the pallor and the slightly defensive air that hung about Sanburg, nothing seemed out of place. Blair's soft curls were as wild and bold as ever. His oversized, layered clothing as mismatched and uniquely stylish.
Looking back at the slight drizzle that was beginning to rip through the fog shrouding the road, Jim questioned, "So?"
"Let's just say that Gillis wasn't the first to notice that Charles Atlas has nothing to fear from me. Sometimes I think I got to be so good at the books `cause I got tired of the other kids fighting over who had to have the new squirt in their school on their team."
Jim's grip tightened on the padded steering wheel, instantly understanding far too well. Blair was so charismatic, so overwhelming that he had a tendency to forget how small his Guide actually was. Sandburg had so much passion packed into that compact, wiry frame that he seemed bigger than life, more vivid. But not everyone saw Blair that way. Jim had only to look at the almost petite figure beside him to imagine just how tiny Blair would have been when young.
Just the thought that his friend would have been sidelined from sports because of his compact size hurt, especially when he remembered that baseball was one of Blair's major passions in life.
Suddenly uncomfortable with his own athletic physique, Jim didn't know how to respond to the honesty. It was a situation that they both knew he'd never encountered. "That sounds rough, Chief, but it's a different story these days."
Bitterness really didn't suit his young companion. As much as Sandburg's manic enthusiasm steamrollered Jim's low-key personality, he missed it. Too tired himself for subtlety, he asked, "What do you mean?"
Out of the corner of his eye, Jim saw the long curls bounce as Sandburg looked back out the window. He didn't need his Sentinel abilities to sense the tension vibrating through the other man. Blair seemed brittle as frozen glass at the moment. Which was weird. The kid was usually bouncy as the Eveready Bunny. Nothing kept Sandburg's spirits down for longer than it took that brilliant, encompassing intellect to fix on some new topic of interest.
But then, after the harrowing day they'd spent, perhaps it was just nerves. Lord knew, what Sandburg had been through in the last six hours would have left most people sedated by now.
Jim considered letting the topic drop, but he just couldn't let it go. Blair so rarely talked about himself this way. For all that the younger man chattered on incessantly, it was rarely about anything important or personal. At first, that quality had endeared Blair to him, but now Jim was beginning to notice things. Like how forced Sandburg's cheer actually was at times. More and more, he was starting to suspect that his roommate was one of the finest actors he'd ever seen. This was the first hint he'd ever gotten of what lay behind the gamin grin and Gattling gun anecdotes.
"Come on. You can't drop a line like that and expect it to go unchallenged. Tell me what's up. Silent suffering doesn't suit your style, Chief."
Jim could feel the other man's gaze digging into the right side of his face.
"What do you want me to say, Jim?"
"You could try the truth, novel an idea as that might be."
"All right," Blair agreed, sounding tired. "The truth is, I don't like to be patronized."
"Huh? What are you talking about?" Jim blinked, the accusation coming out of left field.
Sandburg gulped after a long pause, going on to explain in a nervous, subdued tone, "Before, when you said that it's a different story now, you were patronizing me."
"Come on, man. I know where I stand in the social pecking order of your world. To most of the boys in blue, I'm a complete joke. Simon is amused by my presence and you..."
"And I?" Jim patiently prompted, listening attentively for all that he kept his gaze fixed on the swirling banks of wet clouds dancing in the headlights.
"You tolerate my tagging along because you still need me, but you resent that need." Sandburg didn't sound bitter anymore, just bone tired and resigned. A quick glance revealed even a trace of fear there, like Blair was worried he'd been too candid.
For all that the accusation wasn't angrily voiced, the words still stung. Jim would have liked to have argued his friend's call, but Sandburg was just giving him his take on their odd relationship.
"Is that how you see it?" Jim calmly asked.
Another pregnant stillness filled with Sandburg's anxious breathing and quickened pulse followed. "That's how it is, Jim." The nervous chatter started up almost immediately, "I'm not complaining. I know how hard..."
"You don't know a thing," Jim interrupted, quietly objecting, "It hasn't been that way for a long time, Blair."
"Don't what?" His patience snapped. "I never heard such garbage in my life. Did it look like I was tolerating you today when you brought that psychopath Martin's anger down on yourself by saving my butt? Or last month when Brackett made us walk that bridge together? You haven't been a joke to me for a very long time."
Jim glanced over at his companion. The almost indecent expression of hope etched in those peaked features made something tighten up in his gut. The bedraggled kid looked so grateful for a single kind word, like it meant everything in the world to Blair to have anything he did even noticed. It sent a jolt of guilt through him when he thought about how infrequently he so much as thanked Sandburg for the numerous things the kid did for him, from such trivialities as cooking a meal to supplying some arcane bit of trivia that closed a case for him.
"Seriously?" Blair asked, sounding like Jim had just promised him box seats to the World Series.
"Seriously. I may not always show it, but...you're one of the bravest men I've ever met."
Like a curtain falling after the last scene in a play, all the eager anticipation was draped by hurt, those too-expressive eyes staring at Jim like a kicked puppy. "Don't..."
"I'm not bull shittin' you, Sandburg. Like you said, look at yourself. You're a scholar and a scientist. Your entire life has been books, school, research, and parties. You're not a cop. You never trained for any of the crap I drag you into, but there you are, following along in my steps, jumping when I say jump, dodging bullets, getting kidnapped and threatened...and saving my tail every time I get into a sticky situation. There are cops who wouldn't have had the balls to take on Martin with their arms tied behind them the way you did today, Chief."
"Sorry to disillusion you, but it wasn't balls, Jim," Sandburg denied. "I was scared to death. Martin shook me up so bad that I spent the last hour throwing up."
Jim took another look at his friend, noticing the lines of strain creasing the ashen face. "I know and I'm sorry about that. But the fact that you were afraid doesn't diminish what you did, Blair. Do you think that I'm not scared every time the bullets start flying?" he hesitantly questioned. It was never easy to admit being afraid to another man, but Sandburg wasn't your run of the mill jock. Blair didn't seem to make the same kind of judgment calls that most guys did. It was one of the things that he respected most about his unconventional, oft-times irritating friend.
Sandburg's rich, earthy chuckle filled the truck's cab. Funny, Jim thought, no matter how wiped out or down he felt, that sound always raised his spirits some.
"You? You're the man of steel. You're like...so not afraid of anything that it's scary, man. I've never even seen you spooked, let alone frightened."
Jim blinked at that. His Guide wasn't joking. It was an honest appraisal. Moved, though he couldn't say just why, his voice dropped down a notch, "You, more than anyone, know that isn't true. You've seen me totally lose it."
"Yeah, right. When? I must have slept through it, `cause I've never seen you back down or even flinch in..."
"You've seen me freak out so bad that I've thrown you up against a wall just for trying to help me."
"That's different," Sandburg protested, but there was a thoughtful quality to his tone now, like this was something his normally too-perceptive mind had never considered.
"How so? It was panic, plain and simple. More panic than I've ever seen in you, Chief. You might get scared, but you don't let it rule you. No matter how hairy things have gotten on a case or how close we've come to getting killed, you never pushed me up against a wall because I couldn't instantly fix the problem for you. You might come in a smaller package, but you've got more guts and brains than half the cops on the department. If I were playing ball, Chief, you'd be the first person I'd want on my team."
Blair gave a pronounced gulp, then asked in a choked tone, "Even before Simon?"
Leave it to the kid to come up with the real gut twisters.
Jim thought about the question. He'd known Simon Banks for over four years now. His captain was the finest cop Jim had ever worked with and one of his closest friends. By contrast, Jim had known this bundle of hyperactivity for what...six months tops.
There shouldn't have been any hesitation at all on Jim's call in this situation. A trained, reliable cop or a flaky flower child with a motor mouth and rampaging libido. The choice should have been clear and easy. Simon. Hands down. And yet...
Jim's heart didn't say Simon. When his senses had been out of control and he'd been teetering on the brink of insanity, it wasn't Simon Banks who'd given him his life back. It was the nonconformist, free spirit beside him, the same complex collection of contradictions that had risked getting crushed to a pulp for his sake less than four hours ago.
"You'd still be the first, Chief," Jim admitted at last, knowing he had to be as shocked as his companion.
Jim dared another glance over, to be certain he was believed.
Always emotional, Blair's eyes were swimming now in large, round tears that caught in his long black lashes and just hung there sparkling and glinting like diamonds. Not a one of them fell. Jim watched the shimmer of refracted light through the tiny prisms, almost hypnotized by them. Part of him wanted to lean over and lick those glimmering globlets...
It was Sandburg's eyes widening in alarm that shook him out of the near zone-out.
"The driving thing, man," Blair reminded him.
Startled by the lapse of concentration and even more unsettled by the disturbing new track his feelings seemed to be taking, Jim looked quickly back to the road. The billowing gray fog banks were beginning to tatter under the spray of rain that was spritzing through them.
After a long, emotional quiet, Sandburg cleared his throat and gruffly said, "Thanks, Jim. That really means a lot to me."
Beginning to sense how much even being acknowledged, let alone openly appreciated, did matter to Sandburg, Jim simply nodded.
As they fell into their respective silences, Jim felt a little awkward. He wasn't used to such heavy emotional scenes, certainly not with another man. But despite the embarrassment, he was glad he'd spoken. Although the motor-mouth beside him was still unnaturally quiet, Blair seemed much more at ease.
It was only as Jim pulled his truck into their driveway that it occurred to him to wonder just when it had become more important to him that Sandburg be comfortable than that he be at ease himself. Puzzling over the question, he shook his drowsing companion awake.
"Rise and shine, Chief. We're home."
Sandburg shot up like a gun had discharged beside him. His eyes wide and scared,
Blair stared anxiously around the darkened cab of the truck, obviously having no idea of where he was or what was going on.
"Sorry, Chief," Jim apologized, realizing that shaking the sleeping kid wasn't the brightest move after the day they'd put in. "We're home, buddy. Think you can make it into the house?"
Tired to the bone, Jim shut off the ignition and dragged himself out of the truck. Considering the way his day had gone, he supposed he shouldn't have been surprised that the drizzle had turned to a downpour. The rain was coming down in a near solid wall of icy water. No sooner did he step out of the vehicle, then his baseball cap and clothes were soaked through. The freezing liquid pellets bit into his face like hail, a cold so deep that it burnt bare skin.
Glad of his cap's visor that was at least keeping the water out of his eyes, Jim stared over at the passenger side.
Blair had stepped out of the truck as well. Rather than racing to the loft as was his habit in bad weather, Sandburg was simply standing there gazing glassily off to where the fog was still rolling in from the water. He seemed to be fascinated by the way the rain was tearing the wispy fragments of fog to shreds. The kid was already drenched, his hair a dark, glistening slick against his skull, the trailing ends pasted to his cheeks.
Jim took one look at the bright red color of his companion's exposed flesh and barked, "Inside, Sandburg. Now."
Blair started again, "What? Oh, right...inside. My backpack..." Sandburg stared stupidly back at the open truck door. He looked too exhausted to string two coherent words together, much less make any independent decisions.
"I'll bring it. Get inside before you freeze, Chief."
Too wiped out himself to even gripe about the fact that his roommate had left the door open, his truck getting soaked during the time Sandburg was communing with nature, Jim reached in to snag the strap of Sandburg's ever-present knapsack. Between Blair's notes on his Sentinel research and the paperwork for the classes he taught, the bag weighed nearly as much as Sanburg did. Or so it seemed to Jim as he finally dashed up to the loft.
His drenched roommate was standing on the doorstep, trembling, bright red fingers fumbling for the right key in the icy downpour. Even without his enhanced hearing, Jim would have heard the other man's teeth chattering.
"S s sorry..." Sandburg shivered, amplifying his efforts to open the lock.
Jim caught the falling keys as they tumbled from his friend's hand.
"Shit. I'm sorry, Jim..."
"No problem. I got it, Chief." A quick twist of the key and the door was open. Jim snagged his companion's elbow and ushered him inside.
Home. As always, the smells hit Jim first, the familiar blend of soaps, cleansers, laundry detergent, foods, and Sandburg's sweet herbs, all of it underlined with Blair and his own body scents. Jim often thought that this was what it was like to be a bloodhound: to walk into a house and know immediately what its inhabitants had had for dinner the previous night; to enter the office and know when the woman sitting on the other side of the room was menstruating or to know from the instant your roommate walked in at night whether he'd scored on his date.
With Sandburg, that last was a constant challenge. The kid went out almost every night of the week. It was a very rare evening indeed when Blair came home smelling the same as he did when he left the loft.
Unfortunately, his Sentinel abilities left those Jim shared his space with precious little privacy. It had gotten so that he could tell from scent alone whether Sandburg had been with Molly or Christie or Sam, and it wasn't just from the fragrance of the soaps each girl used.
But tonight the bedraggled Sandburg smelt only of himself. Wet Blair. The familiar aroma was as distinct to Jim's senses as Caroline's TABOO perfume had been...and on some new level, just as distracting.
Realizing that they were both standing inside the door just staring into the dark living room like a pair of zombies, Jim dumped his friend's keys in the basket by the door, switched the lights on, and then dropped Sandburg's knapsack outside the curtained spare room that his guide had commandeered as his own.
Jim began to worry as he took in the motionless figure frozen inside the front door. A puddle of water was actually beginning to collect under the ratty Nike Severes.
Jim called out his friend's name again, but in a softer tone, so as not to startle, "Blair?"
With obvious difficulty, Sandburg's gaze focused upon him. The pouty lips were white lined with strain, the full pads tinged blue from the cold. "Yeah, Jim?"
"Why don't you grab a hot shower? Warm up a little."
"Yeah...that sounds great," Blair agreed. Even so, it was still nearly a full minute before he actually moved towards the bathroom.
"Save me some hot water," Jim called as the other man closed the door, but the order lacked his usual sting.
Jim was already upstairs peeling himself out of his soggy jeans when he heard the shower start up. Dumping the sodden, bloodstained garments in the laundry hamper, he grabbed his blue terry cloth robe off the bottom of the bed and headed back downstairs.
The subtle, pleasing scents of chamomile and sandalwood that were wafting from the steamy bathroom tickled his nostrils as Jim turned on the kitchen lights to get the kettle going. Some of Sandburg's piping hot stick tea would be great about now. Jim hardly ever dared ask what was in those bizarre concoctions his roommate was always pressing upon him, but usually the teas did whatever Blair claimed they would.
Jim spent a few minutes sorting through the colorful tin tea boxes that had taken over the bottom shelf of the kitchen cabinet above the sink. There were a good thirty or so of the boxes, none of them marked. Somehow, Sandburg always remembered which was which.
Ever the explorer, Jim was sniffing the contents of each, trying to find the twigs and leaves that had tasted so good last time. He was wavering between a minty smelling box and something that bore a strong berry scent when Sandburg emerged from the bath.
"You want some tea?" Jim called over to the towel-draped figure. What with his snowy terry robe and the white towel wound around his dripping hair, Sandburg looked like the Flying Nun. Jim was glad to see that the blue tinge had left his friend's lips and the first traces of color were beginning to return to Blair's cheeks.
"No, thanks. I think I'm just gonna crash."
Jim nodded, sympathy softening his gaze. "Sleep well, Chief. You did a stand up job today."
"Standing up was about all I could do with those ropes around me," Blair replied, but his tired gaze brightened with joy. "Good night, Jim."
"Good night, Chief."
It had been a while since he'd felt this warmth, this kind of affection for anyone, Jim mused as his companion made his sleepy way to bed. Weird part was that he'd never even noticed he was lonely until Sandburg came along.
Jim lingered over his mint tea, waiting until he heard Sandburg's breathing deepen to the steady rhythm of sleep before he went for his own shower.
Where Jim would normally tone down his senses when he used the bathroom second, tonight he found himself straining to catch the traces of Blair that lingered in the towels. It was an unconscious action, similar to the way his gaze might trail a pretty girl in a short mini-skirt.
But this was no girl, pretty or otherwise. This was his very weird, very male roommate.
Giving himself a mental shake, Jim tried to clear his mind of these strange stirrings. Telling himself that he was probably just a little overtired, and that his senses were playing tricks with him again, he pushed the issue from his thoughts.
This wasn't real longing, he told himself. It was just another in the long line of peculiar aberrations he'd had to handle. Come morning, everything was sure to be back to normal.
Or so Jim hoped. What he'd forgotten was that nothing about his eccentric roommate was the least bit predictable. Life with Sandburg was like having your own private day pass into the Twilight Zone, with a hyperactive munchkin who'd lost his script adlibbing Serling's lines as Guide.
Take the following morning. After their heart to heart in the truck the previous evening, Jim figured they were squared – for the moment. He'd been around Blair long enough to know that it was never day to day in Sandburg's world, but rather moment to moment.
Yet, perhaps Jim was just incredibly naive, but it seemed to him that they'd pretty much worked out the rough spots...give or take a few new twists in his own whacko senses.
Yet, even that understandable assumption was proven wrong.
The dawn was just breaking when his alarm sounded. Silencing the air raid siren that was actually barely an audible buzz, Jim groaned and rolled over onto his back. Staring up at the pitch black ceiling, feeling every one of yesterday's bumps, scrapes and bruises to the fullest, he was trying to work up the energy to drag his aching body downstairs when the lush aroma of brewing coffee ambushed his olfactory senses like a SWAT team.
Sandburg up before the sun, after the traumatic day they'd put in? It didn't make any sense. The only times Jim saw Blair fully conscious before nine a.m. were the not infrequent occasions when the overworked grad student pulled an all-nighter. Yet, he'd left Sandburg snoring in bed last night, nor had he heard the other man's radio alarm go off...which meant Blair was up of his own accord.
Curiosity worked at getting the aching Sentinel up where willpower alone might have failed. Grabbing his robe from the bottom of the bed, Jim padded barefoot down the loft stairs to see what the devil was going on. Whatever it was, it couldn't be good. Not at 6:05 in the a.m.
What Sandburg was up to was making himself a cup of java...in the dark.
It was funny sometimes, the lengths to which the kid went in order not to disturb the hypersensitive Sentinel he lived with. Once in a while, Sandburg forgot and woke him, but mostly Jim's insomniac roommate was highly considerate, far more so than Caroline had ever been. Although, to be fair, Jim allowed that neither he nor his ex-wife had understood what was going on with his senses when their marriage had disintegrated around them. His heightened awareness wasn't to blame for his failed marriage, it had just been the final death knell to a dance doomed from the start.
"You're up early," Jim commented, switching on the light so Sandburg didn't end up with salt in his coffee again.
The white robed figure started, hot coffee sloshing all over the counter.
"Christ, Jim! Don't sneak up on me like that, huh?" Blair pleaded.
Jim waited for his friend's heartbeat to stabilize, but the nervous pounding only seemed to intensify at his approach.
"Sorry," Jim apologized. Trying to figure out what was going on, he watched Sandburg blot up the mess with a sponge from the sink before Blair made his way to the glass table.
"There's some cherry danish here," Jim offered, helping himself to one before getting his own caffeine fix.
Jim couldn't help but notice how Blair's heart and respiration continued their nervous tattoo. If he didn't know better, he'd almost swear the kid was afraid of him. But that was preposterous, wasn't it?
The nervous way those overtired eyes slid away from him made Jim realize that the idea wasn't that farfetched. For whatever reason, Blair was afraid.
"You want to tell me what's going on, Chief?" Jim softly questioned, making the most sensible guess, "You pissed at me over something?"
"Huh?" The bloodshot gaze blinked. "Why would I…?"
"That's what I'm asking you. And don't bother to deny it. I can..."
"Hear my heart," Blair completed in a weary tone. It was a testament to the severity of the problem that Blair wasn't excitedly leaping about as Sandburg did any time some new aspect of Jim's Sentinel abilities manifested itself.
"Something like that. So what's the story, Sandburg? What are you doing out of bed at this unholy hour?"
"I I couldn't sleep."
Jim nodded and took a bite of his pastry, chewing while he patiently waited for his Guide to continue. Normally, when his roommate was upset about something, all it took was the slightest nudge on Jim's behalf to open up the emotional floodgates, then all he had to do was step back and wait for the tornado of passion to whirl itself out. The fact that Blair was still holding in whatever it was that was bothering him after such an opening told him that whatever was troubling his friend, it was something fairly major.
As the obvious explanation for such secretive soul searching presented itself, the cherry danish he was chewing turned to sand in his mouth. Jim took a quick sip of the strong coffee to clear his vocal tract before asking as calmly as he could manage, "You thinking of calling the Sentinel Project quits, Chief?"
"Huh?" Sandburg stared at him as if he were speaking Sanskrit. Scratch that, the anthropologist would probably understand Sanskrit.
"Yesterday got pretty hairy," Jim began. "It pushed a lot of buttons. In the space of an hour, you were dangled off a rooftop and nearly compacted into Kibbles ‘n’ Bits. No one would blame you for wanting out."
"Is that what you think?" Blair questioned, his tone and expression indecipherable.
Fortunately, Sandburg's telltale heart told Jim that the supposition was totally off base.
"It makes sense," Jim slowly allowed before backpedaling and offering his own gut reaction, "but you never struck me as the quitting type, Chief."
"No, it's not the project. Yesterday was hard, but...even when Martin was pushing me over that ledge, I knew you'd get me out of there."
The absolute conviction behind those words was humbling. Jim tried to look unaffected as he asked, "Then what's the trouble?"
Sandburg released a shaky sigh. Jim saw the knuckles on those artistic, strangely delicate fingers whiten as Blair's hand tightened around his coffee mug. Blair's head lowered, his unkempt curls falling down to veil his face as he stared down into his cup.
The troubled visage touched something deep inside him. Blair wasn't meant for sorrow.
Jim felt his own breathing speed up as he was hit with an odd yearning to reach out and brush those kinky curls back from his roommate's face. It was almost a compulsion, so strong was the desire.
Sandburg's voice called him back from the odd impulse.
"I...ah...guess I'm just... I was wondering when you're gonna want me out?" Sandburg asked the question as though it were the ongoing topic of their conversation and not some fly ball out of left field.
"What?" This being absolutely the last thing Jim expected, he just stared.
"I...uh...I've been living here almost four months now, Jim. After my place blew up, you made it plain that the arrangement was only temporary..."
Not once did Blair raise his eyes from his cup. If Jim didn't know better, he'd swear that someone was forcing Sandburg to say the words. The kid's heart was pounding so loud that Jim would have heard it without his enhanced abilities. Physically, Sandburg seemed as scared as he'd been watching that vise descend on him.
Not sure what had brought this on, Jim faltered. "I, ah...didn't realize this was an issue. I thought you liked it here, Chief." As always when hurt, Jim's voice took on a hesitant, subdued tone. Another degree of pain and it would switch over to anger.
It was weird. All these months Jim had been treating the kid as though Sandburg were some exasperating aggravate, with his house rules and bickering over trivialities, but now that Blair was talking about leaving, he suddenly felt as though the floor had dropped out from beneath him. Shocked, he recognized that he'd experienced this same feeling before – when Caroline had announced that she couldn't take it anymore and was leaving him.
But this wasn't his wife walking out on him. There shouldn't be this pronounced void opening up inside him. He should be happy to be getting his place and his privacy back. In those first few argumentative weeks of rooming together, hadn't Jim said at least a dozen times a day that he couldn't wait for Sandburg to get his own place?
Only, now that he thought about it, Jim realized that it had been at least two months since he'd voiced that particular wish. He'd grown used to having the kid around. Hell, it was more than that. He enjoyed Blair's company. Most of the time.
Whatever was in his voice seemed to bring Sandburg's head up immediately. Sounding as shocked as Jim felt, Blair instantly assured, "You know I love it here, man. Hell, I haven't had a real home like this since I was eight."
"What do you mean you never had a real home? I thought you told me that you lived with your mom," Jim gently questioned, confused by the tangent the conversation had taken.
His pulse hammering like a wild thing, Blair was silent for a moment before answering. When he spoke, it was little more than a whisper, each quiet word dripping with hurt. "I, ah, told you how my mom never married. We, ah, moved around all the time when I was little. Naomi was a good mother, Jim. No one could've loved me more..."
He'd never met his friend's mother, but Blair always got this glow when he spoke of her that Jim couldn't help but envy on some level. Jim's own maternal memories were confined to a few painful flashbacks of an intensely unhappy woman who'd walked out on her husband and kids soon after his little brother had been born.
This was the first hint Jim had received that Sandburg's mother wasn't the Harriet Nelson stereotype Jim had fostered.
"But?" Jim gently encouraged.
"But she could never settle with one guy. We were sort of like gypsies back then. She'd meet someone. We'd move in and play house together for a while, then everything would go sour and Naomi and I would split. I never knew where I'd be living from one week to the next. Never had my own room with a bed like other kids..."
Like the missing clue in a case that made everything fall together, Blair's words supplied the missing pieces to the frustrating puzzle that was his Guide's character. The anxiety and panic attacks that still hit, even now, the smile-no-matter-what mentality...it was amazing just how much understanding could be gleaned from just a few brief sentences.
Abruptly wishing that he'd been just a tiny bit nicer to the kid once he'd moved in, Jim softly commented, "That sounds pretty hard."
Blair shrugged, "It was a long time ago."
"And when you were eight?" Jim asked, reminding, "You said you hadn't had a real home since you were eight."
"We moved in with Steve. He wasn't Naomi's usual type at all. He wasn't a spiritualist or an artist or even an actor. He sold used cars for a living," Sandburg admitted, an endearing air of amazement clinging to him. "He was a great guy, Jim. And he really liked me. It wasn't just a show to score points with my mom like the others. When we moved in, Steve insisted that I couldn't just sleep on the couch like I usually did. He said that I had to have a place of my own. So, the weekend we came, he cleaned out his storage room. It was great, Jim. He put in bunk beds so that I could have a friend sleep over. He knew I liked horses, so he put these carousal horse decals all over the walls. And there were these really cool French doors. You know the kind with the little glass windows and curtains?" At Jim's nod, Sandburg's animated reminiscence continued, "It was the most wonderful room I'd ever seen and it was all mine."
"It sounds great, Chief. So what happened with Steve?"
All the joy flashed off Sandburg's happy features as if a switch had been thrown. "Nothing happened. Steve was wonderful to us, but...but Naomi got bored with the suburban scene after five or six months and we moved on. The story of my life. Whenever things get comfortable, it's usually time to pack."
Jim's throat constricted at the forced cheer of the last statement. Still puzzled over what any of this had to do with him or Blair's living here in the loft, Jim questioned, "So are you telling me that you're getting restless and want to move on?"
Blair's head gave a negative shake. "Just the opposite."
"Huh?" It was like trying to communicate with one of those automated service menus on the phone, Jim thought. The words were all in English and understandable in themselves, but put together, the concept made no sense. You couldn't get a straight answer to a single question.
Blair vented another heavy sigh. "I'm getting too comfortable here. It's beginning to...feel like home." The kid hesitantly admitted, looking like he expected to be attacked for his honesty.
"And this is a bad thing?" Jim asked, befuddled by the world his young friend inhabited. Oz had nothing on his Guide. None of this made a bit of sense to him. Sandburg's happy, so it's time to split? Vaguely, Jim wondered if he'd been this indecipherable at twenty-six.
"It's your home, Jim, not mine. I live here on your sufferance. I've been selfish these last few months, `cause I like it here, only..."
"Only what Gillis said yesterday made me realize just how selfish I was being by--"
"What has Gillis got to do with your living here?" Jim interrupted. The way Blair said it, made it sound self-explanatory. If that waste of space Gillis were behind this, Jim was going to...
The angry thought broke off as Blair's cheeks flared bright scarlet. Jim could actually feel their heat from where he sat. "Blair?"
"Gillis insinuated that...that my living here was more than a matter of mutual convenience. He implied..."
"Yes?" Jim gently prodded.
"He implied that you and I...that we..."
Abruptly understanding his normally articulate roommate's stumbling explanation, Jim completed the thought, "...that we were sleeping together?"
Sandburg stopped breathing and gave a tight nod. "Yeah." The younger man looked like he was waiting for World War III to erupt.
Jim just waited.
Finally Sandburg took a breath and asked, "Aren't you...you know, upset?"
Jim gave a slow, deliberate shake of his head.
Sandburg was watching him as if he'd just sprouted wings. "I don't understand you at all, man. I really thought you'd go ballistic over this and..."
"Kick you out?" Jim softly completed, everything suddenly making perfect, painful sense.
"Something like that."
Reading the question in those nervous eyes, Jim simply said, "You thought wrong."
"I-I don't understand," Sandburg confessed. "Doesn't it bother you? I was sure you'd be like...scandalized."
Jim shrugged. "From the minute you moved in here, I figured there'd be talk."
Jim grinned. Usually he was the one sporting that bewildered, run over by a steam roller look in their conversations. It felt good to be on the other end for once. Shaking his head at the IQ whiz's atypically slow uptake, he explained, "Look at me, Chief. I'm a forty-one year old loner. Even though I'm buddies with the guys at work, I don't hang with them. Except for Simon, they don't know me that well off the job. A forty-one year old man moves in with a good-looking twenty-six year old kid, and there's bound to be talk. You're an anthropologist, Chief. You know human nature. This shouldn't come as any big shock to you."
"It doesn't. I just...never thought you'd be this calm about it." Sandburg looked almost weak with relief.
Jim sipped his lukewarm coffee and took another bite of his danish. "There's nothing to be calm about. It isn't an issue – unless it threatens your position at the university?"
That was one angle he hadn't considered.
"Ranier isn't exactly N.Y.U., but it's not a problem," Blair replied. After a minute, he asked, "You really don't want me to move out?"
"I never said I did, Chief. It's... comfortable here now. Why rock the boat? Right?" Seeing from his friend's troubled expression that everything wasn't all right, he asked, "What now?"
"I, ah, can't live off you indefinitely, Jim. Do you want me to start paying rent? It's been, like, four months now and you haven't asked me for a single penny."
The tension in the slender body told Jim that this question had been troubling the other man for a while.
Jim hesitated, trying to figure how best to answer. He'd seen the way the kid lived. Half the time lunch wasn't in Sandburg's budget. Even with his grant, the cost of tuition, books, and keeping his classic Corvair on the road ate up what little Blair earned. Blair's work at the station was voluntary and, therefore, unpaid. God alone knew how Sandburg had afforded the $850 he'd been paying on that warehouse, for Jim hadn't a clue. The idea of charging the kid rent on a room that had been uninhabited for the four years he'd lived here was unthinkable, but he couldn't just come out and say that. Blair's independent nature made it a touchy topic.
"First off, you don't live off me," Jim started at last, feeling his way through this.
"I live in your home, I eat at your table and I don't contribute a damn thing to the expenses..."
"You contribute something far more important than money," Jim corrected.
"Huh?" Blair's gaze was completely blank.
Reading the absolute lack of comprehension, Jim realized that Blair really did regard his presence here as a complete imposition. "Before you moved in here, I spent almost every night pacing the place like a penned panther. Every noise, every odor... I was zoning-out or freaking out on a nightly basis. You remember how wired I was when you first moved in. That's changed now. You helped me get a handle on my senses..."
"You don't need me here for that anymore, Jim," Sandburg softly pointed out. "You haven't zoned-out at home now in months."
He stared at the younger man. Blair made it sound like he was now entitled to discard him just because his immediate usefulness was up. Now that Jim considered it, everything about his friend's character made it seem like Sandburg was accustomed to being used and thrown away like that.
Jim recalled the night he'd taken Blair home with him. With nothing left in the world after that explosion but a monkey in a cage and a small bag of clothes, Sandburg had still been cracking jokes and keeping up a cheery front. When he'd seen Jim's spare room, Blair had carried on like it was a suite at the Plaza Hotel. And now here Blair was trying to talk himself out of his home.
All choked up without knowing why, Jim took a moment to respond to Sandburg's comment about no longer being necessary.
"I haven't zoned-out because you've been here to prevent it. I don't want to hear any more nonsense about your not being needed. I'd be in a straight jacket if you hadn't come into my life when you did. As for paying rent... Do you seriously think I could pay someone to provide the 24 hour service you give me? It's me that should be paying you to be here, Sandburg."
"Huh?" Blair blinked.
"Think about it, Chief. Any time you hear me up at night, no matter how tired you are, you always get up to make sure my senses aren't troubling me..."
"Jim, I'm researching the Sentinel phenomenon. It's my job to..."
"To what? Make sure I eat and sleep right? To talk me through my problems? None of that has to do with your research. How many classes have you missed because you've been tied up helping me solve some case? Maybe I might have looked upon your presence here as an imposition when we first met, but that was a long time ago. Now, I take your support...for granted, too much so at times. I don't think I want to learn to go it alone again. Certainly not over something like this."
"You really mean that, Jim?"
His voice suddenly deserting him, he simply nodded. "You've got a home here for as long as you want it, Chief. You really feel the need to start paying rent, that's fine, but I wish you wouldn't."
"`cause then I'm going to have to start paying you for your services and with all those degrees you've got, I honestly don't think that I can afford you."
For a minute, there was no reaction, but then Sandburg threw back his head and howled with laughter. "You know, I think I see a future in this. I could charge by the hour. You know, like a..."
"Hooker?" Jim helpfully supplied.
"I was thinking more like a specialist. You know, a plumber or a surgeon..."
"You're gonna need a surgeon if you keep this up," Jim growled, but his heart wasn't in it. It was good to see that smile again.
Sandburg's good humor was infectious. Jim couldn't seem to stop grinning. Deciding he'd better clear out of here before he completely blew his image as hard man, he pulled himself up from the table and headed for the bathroom. "Don't know about you, Chief, but I've got a busy day ahead of me. When you get done on campus, why don't you meet me at the station?"
"Sounds like a plan," Blair grinned back.
As Jim passed by the old curtain that draped the entrance to Sandburg's room, the seeds of an entirely different plan began to germinate in his mind.
A week later the sun was shining and all was right with their world. For the moment.
"You need some help with that box, Chief?" Jim asked as the truck pulled to a stop outside the loft the following Friday afternoon. His shiner had cleared up until now it was only a lingering tinge of purple on his left eyelid.
Sandburg eyed the bulky blue plastic milk crate that was overflowing with test booklets. "Nah. This is the easy part. Reading them, that's hard."
Jim grinned, partially in response to the resigned tone, but mostly in anticipation. He'd had a very busy lunch hour today. All week long, he'd been scheming like a kid planning a surprise party. When he'd thought this up, it had seemed like a fantastic idea. But now that the moment was actually upon him, he was no longer as certain.
What if this didn't go off right?
He wasn't impulsive by nature. His entire life had been lived by careful consideration of each and every action, from joining the military, to signing up with covert operations, to proposing to Caroline. Nothing had been done without carefully weighing the pros and cons beforehand. He just wasn't a spontaneous, leap before you look kind of guy. To date, the most impulsive thing he'd done was agree to allow this whirlwind of manic enthusiasm into his home.
That hadn't turned out so bad, Jim consoled himself. But today's plan was a little different. In the back of his mind, he could still rationalize Sandburg's continued presence in his life as a response to his own needs, but this...it was sheer sentimentality. If Sandburg didn't react right to this, Jim knew he was going to feel like a Class A jerk. There was nothing he hated more than feeling foolish.
"Did you hear what happened down in the cafeteria yesterday while you were with the assistant D.A.?" Blair asked, waiting with the crate awkwardly balanced between his hip and the brick wall while Jim unlocked the front door.
More nervous than when he'd given Caroline her ring, Jim shook his head.
As if completely oblivious to his partner's state of pronounced apprehension, Sandburg blithered on, "Well, you know Simon and Joel are on these diets, man. They made a bet about who could steer clear of the sweets longest. When I went down to get my salad yesterday afternoon, there's Taggart on line in the cafeteria with an entire trayful of desserts. I mean there were like five of them. Chocolate cake, pudding, chips, cheese cake...he even had a package of Twinkies there, Jim. Twinkies! They have a longer half-life than uranium. So, there's Taggert with his death by sugar on his tray when Simon comes up behind us. Simon's all over Taggart, wanting his $50 for winning the bet, when Joel looks over at me with those basset hound eyes of his and announces that the desserts are mine!"
"Yours?" Jim chuckled in spite of himself as he finally got the door open. Blair Sandburg had to be the single most distracting force in the universe. The kid could make getting a file into a twenty minute production.
"Yeah. Could you believe it, man! So, there I am trapped under that puppy dog stare and I find myself bailing Joel out, saying, yeah, it's my stash. I figured that'd be the end of it, right?"
Jim grinned. He knew his captain. "Wrong."
"You got it in one, man. Simon parks himself at our table and says he'll just keep me company while I eat my lunch. You know, your captain buddy's got one mean streak. He insisted that I start with those Twinkies of Death. I can still feel all those mega-preservatives, dyes, and carcinogens winding through my blood. It's slow poison, Jim. I'm gonna have to do another purge this weekend just to..."
The ceaseless flow of chatter came to a dead halt as the pair stepped into the loft and Sandburg caught sight of his bedroom. Being almost straight across from the front door, the alteration was hard to miss.
Jim had to admit that the change looked damn good. It improved the appearance of the entire place.
Gone were the tatty curtains that had hung in front of the spare room since Caroline left. In their place stood a pair of elegant, cherry wood French doors, complete with lace curtains.
"J-Jim?" Visibly stunned, the milk crate dropped from Sandburg's hands. The test booklets pooling around his scruffy sneakers were entirely forgotten as Blair stared at the new addition to the decor as though he'd never seen a door before in his life.
More self-conscious than he could ever recall feeling, Jim haltingly began, "I thought that it was time you had a bit of privacy, Chief. If you don't like the doors, we can..."
"Don't like?" Sandburg echoed in a choked up voice. "God, Jim..."
Blair just stood there in stunned amazement for what seemed an eternity. Jim could hear the strained swallows, could almost feel the fierce emotion vibrating through his friend.
Horrified, Jim realized that his roommate was fighting back tears.
Damn. He'd totally miscalculated. He'd wanted to make Blair happy. Instead, all he'd done was upset him.
"I'm sorry, Blair. I thought you'd like..." Jim stammered, feeling like the stupidest, most asinine jerk who'd ever been born. The only way this could have been worse was if Blair had laughed in his face.
"You...you altered your home for me..." Sandburg marveled in a tone that told Jim his friend hadn't heard a word he'd said.
Still defensive, Jim tried to explain, "Yeah, well...it's not like this Sentinel Project is a short term deal. I just..."
His heart practically stopped as the smaller man turned to him. Strange, Jim thought. He'd faced stone-cold killers with less dread than he did this five-foot nothing of a scholar. It was all he could do to force himself to meet those eyes.
When Jim did, the breath was practically ripped from his lungs. There was no derision to be found in Sandburg's expression, no scorn over his sentimental gesture. Instead, there were tears swimming in those crystal blue eyes. Blair's entire face was animated, glowing with joy.
"You got the French doors because of what I told you about Steve's place?" Sandburg questioned, an air of amazement surrounding him, like he still couldn't believe what he was seeing.
His mouth dry as sawdust, all Jim could do was nod.
Blair gulped. "Have you any idea...how much this means to me, man?"
Relieved that he hadn't miscalculated, Jim gave another nod. He felt as if he were drowning in those bottomless eyes. Blair was always enthusiastic and passionate in his responses, but right now the emotions shining in that expressive gaze were more than Jim could handle.
Perhaps this had been a mistake, after all, Jim recognized, but not for the reasons he'd originally feared. Rejection and scorn, he could have fielded. But open adoration and...love? With his dark and violent past, he'd had little truck with either. Certainly not to this degree. On their best day together, Caroline had never looked at him like that.
What that expression was doing to his insides was hard to explain. There was something churning inside him, like the feeling he got when he was too far out at sea and lost sight of the land. Instinctively, Jim sensed that if he weren't damn careful, what was gleaming so openly in those crystalline eyes would swallow him whole.
Jolted by the realization of just what that look made him want from this man, Jim nearly panicked.
But at that exact moment, Sandburg threw his arms around him in an affectionate bear hug. The scents and warmth of that unexpected gesture belayed the panic impulse instantly. How could anyone freak out with the safe loving vibes that were pouring off Blair thrumming through them? Though utterly chaste, at least on Sandburg's end, the hug was transformative.
Confused as the hitherto heterosexual Jim had never been before in his life, he allowed himself to return the hug.
Not knowing where to put his hands, he awkwardly placed them on the white and blue flannel shirt that was the outermost layer of Sandburg's ensemble today. Beneath it, the kid was wearing the sapphire blue sweater that was one of Jim's favorites, a bright white tee shirt, black button down and perhaps another layer or two beneath that.
All hard muscle and heat, Sandburg clung to him as if for dear life. The strength of that grip was surprising.
Even more so was the fact that Jim liked it. No one had ever held him like this. For all that Blair was shorter than most of the women he'd dated, the top of Sandburg's head not even clearing his chest, the inherent masculinity of that hold never allowed his befuddled mind to lose sight of the fact that this was another man in his arms.
Fighting a losing battle with his enhanced senses, Jim tried not to lose himself in the sensual aspects of the platonic embrace. But, try as he would, Sandburg was just too irresistible. The fine-boned body was like living flame...so vital, so irrepressible. One touch, one whiff of the herbal-musky bouquet that was Blair, and the unsuspecting Sentinel was hooked for life.
When the hyper grad student finally disengaged from the hug, Jim felt as dazed as a train wreck victim. His heart was pounding on overdrive, his nostrils flaring to catch that intoxicating scent, his fingertips itching to explore the texture of skin and softness of the frizzed, kinky curls...
With a mental shake, Jim held himself back. Just barely.
What in the name of God was he thinking, Jim screamed at himself. This was Sandburg, the irritating kid that had wormed his way into every aspect of his life, not some shapely beauty.
The fire licking through his loins challenged Jim, daring him to name even one woman who'd affected him like this. It had been years...no, in all honesty it had been never. Not even Caroline had had this kind of physical pull over him.
Truly frightened, Jim's disbelieving mind stared at that realization.
"Jim, you're incredible, man. No one ever did this much for me..."
"It's just a door, Sandburg. Not a diamond ring," Jim snapped, unable to deal with the open worship on those suddenly adorable features, not while this strange desire was coursing through his veins. He had to kill this, now, before it got out of hand. "Come on. Get this crap off the floor. I've got an hour for dinner before Simon wants me back at the station."
Cruel didn't quite cover the blow he intentionally dealt his innocent friend. Jim hardened his heart to the hurt which flashed across his roommate's features. Blair looked like he'd been kicked when he was down.
Although part of Jim longed to reach out and smooth that undeserved rejection away, he forced himself to turn towards the kitchen and get a beer, to act as if everything was normal.
He couldn't give into these weird feelings. If he ceded so little as a single inch, he'd be irreparably lost.
And where would that leave him? Sandburg had a different woman every week. Even if the kid were willing to take a walk on the wild side with him, what could an aging, balding cop have that would be enough to hold this free spirit with the hyperactive libido? Jim knew that he'd end up a laughing stock for sure.
No. The very thought was sheer madness.
Jim knew he was too old for such a life change to be a casual fling. There was absolutely nothing casual about these strange feelings Sandburg aroused in him. If he gave into them, even a little, he'd want to hold Blair and make the kid his own. The realist in him knew that he had as much chance of holding Sandburg's heart as he did taming the wind.
His only hope was to ignore these new stirrings and hope they'd go away.
Feeling like the prick he was, Jim pretended not to see the hurt still threatening to escape from those over-bright, blue eyes. Blair had silent accusation down to a fine art. Knowing that this time the kid was totally justified didn't help him a bit. What he needed right now was some air...air that wasn't permeated with sweet herbs and Blair.
Putting the sweaty beer can down on the counter unopened, Jim decided to practice the better part of valor. "I think I'll just pick up something on my way back to headquarters. I'll see you later."
"Yeah. Right." Sandburg turned away.
He'd almost made good his escape when Sandburg's voice froze him in place.
Please, Blair, keep it simple, he silently begged, overwhelmed.
"Thanks for the door, man. I-I'm sorry about the soapy scene. I know it's not your style."
His throat choking up, Jim wondered what kind of life his friend must have had that someone would treat him like shit and Blair would apologize for it.
The guilt almost killing him, Jim gave another tight nod. "It's okay. I'll see you later, Chief."
"Yeah, see you later."
That hollow farewell hanging in the tense air behind him, Jim fled the scene of the crime, praying that he'd be able to bury these feelings deeper and more unfindable than Jimmy Hoffa's body.
Go to sequel: Mother Knows Best