This story is rated NC-17 (adults only). It includes violence and explicit male/male sex. If this is what you came for, scroll down. If it isn't, hit the Back button.
part 1 of 2
by Livia and Resonant
"Chief, she's lying through her teeth."
"What?" Blair followed Jim out of the interrogation room, glancing over his shoulder at the woman seated inside. "Why do you say that? I gotta tell you, man, that girl doesn't look like she could kill a mouse." He stepped away from the door and nodded at the one-way glass. Behind it, the young woman clutched her arms across her calico-clad chest and closed her eyes. "Or even stay in the house while somebody else killed it. You're sensing something?"
"Yeah. No. I don't know." Jim rubbed his forehead. Blair gave him a look that communicated five paragraphs of skepticism in a single raised eyebrow. "Well, look, just keep an eye on her, okay, Chief? I'm not thinking of this as a routine question-the-wife thing any more. I think she knows something."
The woman flinched as the interrogation room door clicked open. She opened her mouth, then shut it again without speaking.
"Tell us about--" Jim began, but Blair shot him a quelling look, pulled a chair around to her side of the table, and sat in it backwards. "Mrs. Clay, just a few more questions, and then you're free to go, okay?" he said softly, and she looked at him gratefully.
"Try again to remember anything you can, anything at all," Blair said. Jim was impressed; Sandburg was broadcasting comfort and safety with every word, every gesture. He noticed one long hair stuck to the collar of Blair's blue-plaid flannel, its curls tangled in the fuzzy weave. Jim's fingers itched to pull it off, let it fall away, but he made himself sit still, not wanting to disturb Blair's rapport with Mrs. Clay. "Was there anything out of the ordinary that evening?"
"I've already told you everything I know."
"Well, go through it one more time for me, all right? Maybe something will come back to you."
"All right." She scrubbed her hair back from her face. "I couldn't eat dinner-- I don't know why they call it morning sickness when it hits like that after lunch," she said with a damp little laugh. "I usually feel better if I lie down, and Josefina brings me some ginger tea. It couldn't have been more than five minutes after she left that I heard it, because I remember the tea was still steaming."
Jim watched the woman closely across the tabletop. This itchy feeling of wrongness-- was it something he was sensing?
"What did you hear exactly?" Sandburg was saying.
"At first I thought a branch had broken on the sycamore tree, but then I realized it was coming from inside the house." Jim focused in on his hearing. Her nasal passages were swollen-- pretty standard in a pregnant woman. Heart rate slightly elevated-- that could be a pregnancy thing too, or she could be nervous.
"So you went to investigate right away?"
"N-no. I-- I stood up too fast, so it-- so my stomach--" Sudden heat in her face. No, wait, that was a blush.
"You threw up, yeah." Sandburg became even more soothing. "It's all right. It's perfectly normal." He patted her hand. "And then what?"
"I called for Josefina over the intercom, I think I told you. I didn't-- didn't want to go alone," she said. "It took her a few minutes to come back up from the kitchen, and she said she heard it too and it was coming from Barrett's office."
Blair made a sympathetic little "Mm" noise, but she hardly seemed to hear it. Now that they had gotten her talking, the whole story came spilling out again. Jim could almost feel her muscles relaxing.
"The door was open, and-- and I called out to him, but no one answered. And Josefina went on ahead of me, and she said, 'Senora, don't, don't,' but I came in anyway, and he-- and he--" She pressed her knuckles hard against her mouth and pushed the other hand against her belly.
"Deep breaths." Blair was right there. "Deep breaths through your mouth." He pushed a plastic wastebasket between her feet. "Use this if you need it."
For a few moments there was no sound in the room but Mrs. Clay's carefully controlled breathing. "I'm all right. I'm all right," she said, sighing.
"Mrs. Clay, I'm afraid not everything we've heard about your husband has been good." Blair leaned an elbow on the table to put his face on the level with hers. "Would you say he was a faithful husband?"
She looked up, face brimming with misery. "I never tried to tie him down," she said very quietly. "Sometimes-- sometimes people just need different things. It's nobody's fault." She looked down into her lap at her ringed left hand and her bare right one. "But he always took care of me. He-- he looked after me in his own way."
It was nothing Jim hadn't heard before, the pathetic litany of the cheated defending the cheater. There was nothing overtly off about her behavior, but some inner voice was screaming wrong wrong wrong.
Before he could frame a question, the door clicked open and a sharp female voice said, "If I may interrupt, de-tec-tives," and it took no effort at all to hear the impatience there.
"Oh, Camille," the suspect breathed, "I thought you'd never get here. I keep trying to explain..."
"Annie." Camille's voice was gentle, as if she were talking to a child. "I told you: You don't owe anybody an explanation." She turned back to the two men, gave Blair a quick, dismissive glance, and said to Jim, "Is my client under arrest?"
"Not at this time," Jim said stiffly. He hated the posturing face-off with the lawyers. It was always the same. Now, he thought, she scolds us for wasting our time with innocent people when we could be out arresting real criminals.
"Then I suggest," she said crisply, but Jim tuned out the rest of her speech. He sleepwalked through the motions-- handing Annie a card and saying, "Anything... anything at all," making the official request not to leave town, warning that further questions might be asked, duly noting Camille Mason's ceremonial protestations of her client's busy life and delicate condition.
So much for their unmediated access. The next time he spoke to Mrs. Annabelle Hollingsworth Clay, whatever she was hiding would be buried deeply and protected fiercely. They'd had their chance, and it hadn't been enough. The murdered man's money could provide his widow with one hell of a lawyer.
"So where do you want to eat?" Blair asked once they were in the truck, one foot kicking restlessly at the floorboards.
Jim sighed and consciously turned his mind away from the Clay case; worrying about it now wasn't going to do any good. "Fat Al's?" He wasn't just saying it to hear Blair groan. Sure, the place was a grease fire waiting to happen, but they had great coffee, waitresses who were cheerful without being perky, and the best barbecued anything in Cascade.
Blair did groan. Theatrically. Then he mustered his defense. "Look, Jim, I can't eat anywhere that includes a synonym for 'big' in its name," he said earnestly. "It's one of my rules."
"What? It is not," Jim denied, glancing over his shoulder as he pulled out of his parking space. "Since when?"
"Since always, that's when. No Fat Al's, no Big Pig Palace--"
Jim scoffed at him. "Sure, sure. And why haven't I ever heard of this so-called rule?"
Blair stared out the window. "So I don't always have a thesaurus handy." Glancing over quickly, Jim caught him smirking at his reflection. "But seriously--"
"Yeah, yeah." Jim cranked the steering wheel, turning out of the parking garage onto West Fourteenth. "How about the new Japanese place?"
"There's a new Japanese place?"
"Yeah, Fat Bento."
Blair grimaced, screwing up his face in an attempt not to laugh. "Hilarious, man."
Jim just grinned. But the joke was on him, because of course once he'd mentioned bento Sandburg had to have it, effectively carjacking Jim with his enthusiasm. He ended up parking downtown and following Blair down the street as his partner chattered about "the best sweet-and-sour pineapple sauce in Cascade, really."
Jim had to admit it sounded good, but he still stopped in his tracks as they rounded the corner and came into view of the Hawaiian-themed sidewalk cafe. "I have a rule, you know."
Blair grinned and kept walking in a casual, unhurried stride, presumably acting on the theory that if he could actually get inside the restaurant, Jim would refrain from bodily dragging him out.
"I don't eat anywhere with a transvestite mannequin in the window!" Jim called after him. But Sandburg was already at the door and it was too late to get him into a headlock, too late for ribs, and probably way too late for good black coffee.
Blair waited in the door of the bento bar, pulling it open wide as Jim arrived. "Take a deep breath, Jim."
"Sandburg..." Jim's eyebrows went up as he breathed in automatically, and then his eyes widened and he inhaled deeply. "Is that chili burgers? Is that coming from in here?"
"Just because I like you so much," Blair said, holding the door open for him as he went in.
And it was okay. Blair ordered teriyaki and a shot glass of wheatgrass juice. Jim stuck with coffee, ignoring Blair's wheatgrass proselytizing ("seventeen different amino acids, man, and the chlorophyll content's supposed to be really good for you-- they call it liquid sunshine..."). The cafe's advertising fliers did indeed call it liquid sunshine and even sported a suspiciously new-age graphic of a pyramid-shaped prism splitting a beam of light into a rainbow. Blair insisted that the graphic design was beside the point and that Jim's liver would thank him. Jim explained that any day he didn't actually have a conversation with his liver was a good one, and so it wasn't until the food arrived at their table that Blair returned to the original topic.
"So this thing with Annie Clay," he began, fingers working carefully to slide his chopsticks out of their paper envelope and snap them apart. Morning sunlight reflected off the pale blue-gray restaurant walls, heightening the contrast of his features and making him look almost unnaturally thoughtful. "Is it a hunch, or what?"
"Not a hunch," Jim said, and took a bite of his gourmet cheeseburger-- not bad. The odd feeling he'd gotten from Annie Clay was still an irritant, but given a little time to process, Jim had hoped to be able to explain it somehow. It was still wordless, though, a faraway image that wouldn't come into focus. "It's like there's something I should be able to sense. But it's not coming through."
Blair frowned, but had to chew and swallow before he spoke. "Is it something about her, or your senses?"
"No, no, the senses are fine. I was listening to her heartbeat," Jim remembered suddenly, "and it was a little fast, but she's pregnant, so..." He shrugged.
"Yeah, who knows." Blair nodded. "So sound's okay. What about your other senses?"
"They're fine, Sandburg. I don't think that's it."
Blair pursed his mouth impatiently. "Just describe it to me, okay? What about sight?"
Jim squinted, and the action triggered a sense memory of the interrogation room, the matched gleam of Annie's lip gloss and her shiny pink nails, Sandburg becoming a blur of plaid flannel and pale denim. "I think I was focusing in on her, a little. I mean, more than usual."
"I don't know... It was like if I knew what to look for, I could just see it, see that she was lying," he said, then grunted in frustration. "That's stupid."
There was a moment of stillness, and Jim looked up to find Blair staring into space, lips parted vaguely. "Well," he began, then stopped. "Actually, that's not so dumb, Jim."
"Oh yeah?" Jim said, taking a sip of his coffee.
"Yeah," said Blair, and began to tap his chopsticks against the edge of his plate thoughtfully. "Interpersonal communication happens on a lot of levels, There's lots of little cues people send out, lots of little nuances they pick up on--"
"I know how to read people, Sandburg."
"I'm not talking about the obvious stuff, I'm talking about things that aren't even apparent to your conscious mind. Length of eye contact, whether you make eye contact, these barely audible undertones in the voice that convey dominance or submission-- you start reading some of these studies they do and it's amazingly complex, really," Blair said, and he was grinning now. "In there, with Annie, you were opening up your senses without even thinking about it, weren't you?"
"Yeah, I guess so," Jim said. The snap-thump-whoosh of her heartbeat. The tiny fluttering echo of the baby. That pregnant-woman smell, rich with hormones underneath the oily sweetness of White Shoulders body lotion. But none of that had been important. He'd been looking for something else.
"Totally could've been your subconscious at work, there. Your senses, responding to cues your brain wasn't even consciously aware of." Blair tapped his chopsticks more emphatically, then stopped. "Man, I should have put this together years ago. Barely audible tones-- well, not for you. And that's gotta work on all your senses. Of course you can pick up so much more, all this really subtle stuff, and as far as putting it all together--"
"Sandburg, you want to lower your voice?"
"Right. Sorry," Blair said, looking seriously abashed for about a second. "But think about it. Here's your subconscious, integrating this new information, bringing it out into your conscious mind--"
"So it's basically like a hunch."
"Yeah-- well, no. Information, based on the data your senses are bringing in," Blair said. He was grinning now.
Jim considered it. "Well, that just sounds like what I've been doing all along," he said, then narrowed his eyes. "So maybe I could turn it up. Dial it up, I mean. Use it on purpose."
"Very cool," Blair said approvingly. He pursed his mouth, eyes flickering over the other patrons of the restaurant, then gestured at a dark-haired woman sitting alone, over by the left wall. "Look at her. What do you get from her?"
Jim glanced over, a little more discreetly than Blair had. Black turtleneck, black skirt, silver jewelry. A calm, vaguely distant face. "I don't know."
Blair frowned, shooing Jim's gaze towards her again. "No, come on. Give it a chance."
"Okay. All right," Jim said, if only to stop Sandburg from pointing at people. He took a breath and focused his senses towards her. She had good posture, was idly toying with the straw in her glass of ice water. Her breathing sounded shallow; could be allergies or a cold. He could see the faint brush of her eyelashes, long and clean. Attractive. Mascara was pretty disgusting to look at close up.
"Get anything?" Sandburg prodded.
"Give me a minute." Jim looked harder, studying the set of her mouth, the tension around her eyelids. What the hell was he trying to do? She could be thinking of anything.
"Don't over-think it," Blair coached quietly, leaning across the table. "Just say whatever comes into your head."
Jim sighed sharply. "Caucasian female, early twenties. Five eight, maybe a hundred forty pounds..."
"Jiiim." Blair slumped back in his chair.
"Look, I don't know, Chief." Jim turned back, taking a long drink of his coffee. "Maybe it was just a fluke, you know, something about Annie. 'Cause I'm getting nothing here."
But Blair was turning it over in his head now like a Rubik's cube, and just like a child with a new toy, Jim knew the chances of him letting go of it any time soon were slim to none. "Okay. You know the psychology exercise where they, like, show you a picture and tell you to make up a story about the people in it? Well, do that," Blair ordered. "Don't worry about whether it's for real or not. Just look at her and make something up. Go on, try--"
Jim caught his hand, pinning it to the table before he could point again. "All right," he hissed, and glanced over one more time. "She's, she's at lunch. She works at a bookstore. Or a gallery," he said, although honestly he wasn't entirely making that up. That outfit plus Birkenstocks-- she probably didn't work at Saks 5th Avenue. "She's annoyed, she wants to complain about something," Jim kept on, then blinked. Of course. That was why she looked distant: she was sitting there and not eating. He sniffed the air. "Yeah, her burger's raw in the middle and the waiter hasn't been by. She's had a rotten day; this is pretty much the last straw. She's pissed."
"Here he comes now," said Blair, trying to suppress a fascinated smile.
Jim flicked a glance at him. "He won't stop," he said, and the waiter walked on by, disappearing into the kitchen, utterly missing the hand the dark-eyed lady raised to flag him down.
Blair watched him go, then looked at Jim. "How did you do that?"
Jim just stared at him.
Blair was murmuring under his breath about tests as they entered the bullpen. Blair had been murmuring about tests since halfway through lunch. It was like some kind of weird flashback, back to when Blair had never seemed to stop talking or sit still, and every other phrase out of his mouth had something do with either post-processual analysis or diachronic pedagogies. "Maybe I should do some research first," he was saying now as he scribbled in a worn notebook, "behavioral studies, get the info on where normal levels are, y'know. Set some kind of a baseline so we can figure out how just far beyond the curve you are-- man, this is so cool..."
"Jim," Rhonda called from her desk, covering the receiver of her phone with her palm, "Captain Banks wanted to see you."
"Thanks, Rhonda," Jim said, halfway into his seat. He stood up again, turning back to tap Blair on the shoulder when Blair didn't follow. Blair dropped the notebook with a sigh, then leaned over the desk to add one last frantic scribbled note and followed Jim, muttering to himself about social competence. Oh god, thought Jim, and put it out of his mind as he entered Simon's office. "Hey, Captain."
"Jim!" said Simon. "How's the planning on the Pearson bust coming along?"
"Ah, the Pearson bust." Christ, but he was getting it from all sides today. "Yeah. I haven't really had the time to confer with Lieutenant Henke about that yet, Captain, but..."
"What? Why not?" Simon demanded.
"Well, we've kind of been busy on the Barrett Clay murder." Blair said helpfully. "We spent this morning going over the scene and interviewing Annie." Jim went still in his seat, hands suddenly itching for about six inches of duct tape. Simon had been amazingly tolerant of all Jim's crazy Sentinel shit during the mess with Alex Barnes, and he really didn't want to push his captain any further. One word to Simon about this latest flare-up of sensory weirdness, just one word, and Sandburg would pay.
Luckily for everyone, Simon didn't give Blair a chance to continue. "Oh, yeah. Sorry about that, Jim, but Barrett Clay was a major mover in certain local political circles--"
"A major Mr. Moneybags, you mean, who bought himself some friends at City Hall," Blair muttered, rubbing next to his eye with the side of his thumb.
Simon shot him an impatient glare, but Jim could detect no real anger. Instead, Simon was probably remembering the Ventriss case. Remembering, as Jim was, the stiff awkwardness which Blair had been moving lately, and the battered rawness around his left eye that was still healing up. "Regardless," Simon said, "Chief Brogan specifically wanted you-- and Sandburg," he added in a growl, "on the case. Although he did mention: In future, if you plan to arrest any more pillars of the economy, call ahead to the DA's office. Give them a little warning, you know."
And of course Simon meant it as a joke, but it might turn out not to be one. If Jim's theory were right. "Uh... yeah. Will do, sir."
"Pardon me?" Simon raised an eyebrow.
"Jim thinks Annie might've had some involvement in the, uh, murder," Blair said, no hint of his own skepticism in his voice. Jim slumped a little in his chair.
"Annie Clay?" Simon blinked, waiting until Jim met his gaze. "What makes you think she had something to do with it?"
"Just a hunch." Jim muttered, trying to remember if he kept duct tape anywhere in his desk. Probably not, damn it.
"Just a hunch?" Simon repeated disbelievingly.
Maybe there was electrical tape in the tool kit in the truck, Jim thought. "Well--"
"Well. It would have to be, now wouldn't it, detective?" Simon said sharply, but there was something off in his tone. Jim's eyes widened slowly.
It was real. It hadn't been a fluke in the interrogation room with Annie. It was happening again. Jim glanced away coolly, staring over Simon's left shoulder. "Just trying to do my job here, sir."
Simon growled and reached for a pencil, usually a sign of impending dismissal. "Your job, Ellison, is what I tell you to do. And I believe I mentioned something about a bust."
"I just think it's important to investigate all the possibilities," Jim said, his eyes back on Simon's face. He could hear Blair shifting nervously, already edging in microscopic movements to the door. And maybe yesterday he would've picked up on that and backed off, trusting Blair's instinct more than his own. But not today.
"Of course," Simon agreed. "And since you've got so much free time, Ellison, I'd like the preliminaries for the Pearson bust on my desk by the end of the day."
"Yes, sir," Jim said, a little too stunned to be resentful. After all, he'd seen that coming. Literally, he'd seen that coming, and as he stood, following Blair back out into the bullpen, he was filled with conflicting emotions-- amusement, a little astonishment, and yeah, okay, he'd pretty much just shafted himself into working late on a Friday night. But as Blair would say, it was a small price to pay for advancing the cause of science.
Jim did end up working late. Still, he woke early the next morning. Blair was making noises in the kitchen downstairs: the scrape of a spatula, tuneless humming. Jim sniffed the air and grinned-- bacon, mushrooms, eggs, and cheese. Someone was going to try to bribe him into doing tests today. Well, at least Jim wouldn't have to wake him up. Grabbing his bathrobe, he slung a towel around his neck and headed downstairs.
"Hey, Jim. Get those prelims done?" Blair asked as Jim crossed the living room.
"Yeah," said Jim, leaning on the kitchen counter for a moment. "How about you? Got any plans for today?"
Blair pulled his head out of the fridge, and Jim took the opportunity to zoom in with his vision, focusing in on Blair's right eye and cheekbone. The scrapes and bruises that Ventriss' hired goons had inflicted were barely visible now, even to Jim's eyes, and the faint tracery of blood vessels beneath the skin looked almost completely healed. "Well, yeah," Blair said, and Jim pulled away from the close-up confused blink, a sea of blue and wash of eyelashes. "I thought we could do some tests, if you--"
"Fine with me," Jim said, turning to head down the hall. "But first we're going back to the Clay house. I want to get a better look around."
"What?" Blair put a whisk down on the counter, trying to get a glimpse of Jim's face. "But Simon said..."
"I know what he said," Jim replied, a bit smugly, then went into the bathroom and shut the door.
Now this had to be the best part of the senses-- using sound, smell and hearing to be able to stay in the shower until his spinach and mushroom omelet was exactly thirty seconds away from being done. He tied the belt of his bathrobe around his waist and emerged from the bathroom, toweling his hair dry, just as Sandburg set their plates on the table. "Smells great, Chief."
"No prob," Blair said, sitting down across from him. "Look, I called around and I can't get us any lab time this week, which sucks, but that doesn't mean we can't work on some baseline stuff. I'm so psyched about this, Jim. Listen," he said, turning to a magazine folded open next to his plate. "The processing of facial expressions is poorly understood," Blair quoted, "and it is unknown if different pathways are activated during effortful-- compared to implicit-- processing. Isn't that cool?"
"Sure." Jim made a face; it was too early for anthrobabble. Especially anthrobabble that sounded a lot like it would eventually lead to electrodes being applied directly to his scalp.
"So anyway. What did you mean," Blair continued, "'I know what he said?'"
"Hmm? Oh, yeah. In the office yesterday, Simon was thinking that he trusts my judgment," Jim said, and grinned. "He just doesn't want me to go haring off every time I've got a different idea about a case. And he especially doesn't want to hear about it till we've got, you know... evidence."
"Oh, yeah," Blair said with a grin as he poured himself a glass of orange juice. "Evidence."
"Anything yet?" Blair asked, glancing up from his notebook.
"Nothing." Jim knelt on the sidewalk and swept his vision across the lawn one more time, zooming in until every dewy blade of grass stabbed up like a spear. Carefully, he checked every foot of grass, going up from the sidewalk, up the angled lawn to the Clay house with its tall windows.
Behind him, Blair waited. He wasn't fidgeting, but it was still obvious he was just dying to get to the library or the lab or wherever the tests were going to be. "Anything now?"
"No," Jim growled, He turned away from the lawn, scanning the sidewalk one more time-- and then there was something: a flash of light at the edge of the curb, down under a grate. His vision focused in immediately, zooming in between the criss-crossing bars, pulling his line of sight into the sewer. Hearing cranked up as well, providing Jim with gurgles and rushing as last night's rain guttered under the city. Under a few inches of running water, a sparkle...
He blinked. Blair's hand was on his arm. "What is it?"
The grate was two and a half feet long and almost as wide, and bolted into place. The bolts probably hadn't been removed since their installation, and were practically melded into the metal. It was Blair's suggestion to use Jim's tire iron to remove them, and he was grinning almost as triumphantly as Jim was when their combined manhandling of car tools and city property finally paid off and the thing came up with a wrench.
"All right, your turn," Jim said, and Blair's smile faded.
"What?" he asked, and Jim raised his eyebrows, then glanced down at the grate. "Aw, man, you have got to be kidding me."
"Come on, Sandburg, I can't fit down there," Jim said. "Think of it as an example of the archeological record," he added helpfully. "You're investigating transformational processes."
Blair stared at him with suspicion and disbelief. "Have you been reading my class handouts again? Never mind. No way. That is so above and beyond the call of duty. You want anything investigated down there, you radio for backup." He squeezed his eyes shut against Jim's steady, expectant regard, then flung his hands up in frustration. "It's probably just a paperclip."
"It's not," Jim said, stretching out a hand.
With a long-suffering groan, Blair steadied himself on Jim's arm and carefully lowered himself down into the sewer. He landed awkwardly, crouching in the small space. As he moved forward, one of his hiking boots skidded on a pile of half-disintegrated wet leaves, and he fell forward onto his hands and knees with a splash and a hissed "Shit!"
"Hey, be careful!" Jim said, kneeling by the edge of the grate. "You okay?"
"Hey, Kreskin, guess what? I'm kind of thinking you suck," Blair said under his breath. "Just point me to the damn paperclip."
"It's over to your left," said Jim, "just a little more. A little more."
It wasn't a paperclip; it was a monogrammed diamond and obsidian cufflink. Blair found the other one only a few inches from the first.
"BC," Jim said, reaching past Blair into the glove compartment for an evidence bag. "Barrett Clay's initials... I'll tell you, Chief, somebody went to a lot of trouble to make this look like a robbery."
"Oh, come on." Blair was leaning against the truck, scrubbing at the knees of his jeans with a dirty rag Jim kept in his toolkit. "Now you're thinking this was a hit?"
"Everything fits," Jim said, holding the baggie with the cufflinks up to eye level and studying them. "The shooter does the job, then sees these-- well, if he'd left them behind, we'd have known it wasn't a robbery, right off the bat. So he takes them, but he knows he can't sell them, right? Not without leaving some fence who could connect him to the murder."
"Seems kind of complicated," Blair groused, finally giving up on his jeans and tossing the rag back into the truck.
Jim shook his head as he walked around the truck, climbing into the driver's seat. "This guy's smart enough to cover his tracks pretty damn well. He's smart enough not to get greedy."
"Still could've been a thief, though." Blair pointed out, crossing around to the passenger side. Jim sighed as Blair climbed into the truck, hiking boots squelching on the plastic floormats. Lysol, he thought, extra-strength Lysol, or the truck would smell like Blair's shoes forever. "Like, say he has a buyer already for the bonds he stole out of the safe, but he gets greedy and takes the cufflinks too. Then he realizes the thing about the fence..."
"He realizes it when?" Jim asked, pointing through the windshield to the route they'd traced for the killer. "In the ten seconds it takes to get from the house to the curb?" He started the truck and backed up cautiously into the street.
"Well, maybe he dropped them accidentally," Blair said, picking up the baggie and examining the cufflinks closely. He glanced up in time to catch Jim's skeptical eye-roll. "Come on, Jim. Occam's Razor. The simplest possible explanation is most likely the truth."
"You saw the body, Sandburg," Jim said. "One bullet, straight to the heart. A clean hit. This guy was no klutz. Besides, how often do any of our cases have the simplest possible explanation? What about Dennis Chung?"
Blair looked exasperated. "Well, as I recall, Jim, that actually was a robbery gone bad!"
"Yeah, but my point is--"
"Okay, yeah, I get it," Blair waved his hands, cutting Jim off, "but a hit man? I mean, c'mon, Jim. You're thinking that Annie hired him, right? That's your theory?"
"That's my theory."
"Based on your feeling?"
"Yes, based on my feeling," Jim said defensively.
"Hey, I'm just confirming here." Blair held up his hands.
"You're just stinking up the truck here," Jim growled, rolling down his window.
"Yeah, yeah, everyone agrees. Survey says: Blair needs a shower. So, home, Jeeves," said Blair, pointing dramatically. "And then we are gonna do some tests on this thing."
"You know the thing I can't figure out?" Blair's voice emerged in a puff of steam from the half-closed bathroom door.
"This whole thing," Blair said as he came out of the bathroom, "this whole, you know, nonverbal perception, sixth sense, know which way the waiter's going thing? Well, uh, no offense, man, but..." Blair stopped in mid-tie to point accusingly at Jim. "You are terrible at reading people."
"I am not."
"Jim," Blair said sympathetically, "you totally are. I mean, whatshername, Lynette? I met her, like, twice, and I still could've told you a Jags game wasn't great place to take her on her 35th birthday."
"How was I supposed to know--"
Blair was leaning against the doorframe now, bent over with both hands vigorously toweling his hair dry. Jim frowned, thinking of the water-spots on the floor.
"Oh, and speaking of the Jags," Blair glanced up, "remember how you thought Orvelle Wallace was a murderer? Oh, and that thing with Beverly and Carolyn!" Blair clutched his towel to his chest, wet curls hanging in his face, and laughed. "That was too funny, man."
"Point one," Jim said, stung, "I did not think Wallace was the killer-- I didn't think anything. I was going on procedure like cops are supposed to do, and point two-- Beverly Sanchez?" Jim shook his head. "Jesus, Sandburg, that was, what, two years ago!"
"I know, but it was so--" Blair cleared his throat, manfully stifling his laughter when he caught Jim's glare. "Look, all I'm saying is, you can tell a girl doesn't like her lunch, but there was nothing about David fucking Lash that set off any alarm bells?" He crossed his arms in front of his chest, looking well-scrubbed and smug. "And, hell, you don't have the slightest clue when I'm lying to you--"
"You lie to me, Chief? I'm wounded." Jim really wished Blair would tighten the belt of his robe.
"I mean, this whole thing would make more sense if you were some kind of sensitive, intuitive guy, you know, one of these 'You looked like you needed a hug' kind of guys." Blair and his robe disappeared into his room, and through the open door Jim could hear drawers opening and shutting. "So why is that, you think? If you've got this skill, why haven't you been using it?"
Jim tried to remember if he had ever picked up nonverbal signals from anyone before he got that first "wrongness" signal from Annie Clay's freckled face. He couldn't recall any. Hell, if he'd been able to do this, maybe he'd still be married. "Search me," he said. "You got any explanation, Darwin?"
"No." Blair appeared in the doorway, stepping into a pair of briefs. "But I'll bet I can come up with a theory."
"Because guessing's as good as knowing," Jim observed. He was feeling strangely uncomfortable with Blair's state of undress. Which was stupid-- one thing you could say about the military was that pure repetition took the discomfort out of nudity pretty quickly.
"Naw, man, guessing's way better than knowing. See, there's only one right answer, but there can be an infinite number of guesses. Guessing rules."
"And you have a guess." Maybe he had been watching Blair too closely, lately-- checking his skin tone, the resonance of his voice-- but Blair had been injured, and the kid was too damn stoic about this kind of thing. He'd limp around the loft all day instead of just taking a damn aspirin if Jim didn't keep an eye out. So it was perfectly normal, Jim told himself, to be paying his partner a little extra attention.
"Yeah, I think I do. Try this. What does your body do when there's too much light?" He had stepped away from the door, but now he came back, this time zipping up a pair of disreputable jeans.
Jim averted his eyes again, hoping he wasn't being too obvious about it. Letting on that this bothered him would be a good way to sentence himself to hours of either loud mockery or quiet considering looks. He wasn't sure which would be worse. "Too much light-- I squint. Cover my eyes. My pupils contract--"
"All ways of protecting the eyes by blocking out the light." The voice was muffled behind an enormous tan sweater. "So my theory is that you've been subconsciously blocking all this information-- a sort of self-protective instinct."
"Like repressing the senses." It made a strange kind of sense that his first instinct would be to block out this barrage of information.
"Were you a sensitive kid?" Apparently the reverse strip was over, because Blair was dragging his socks and hiking boots over to the couch. "Although, wait a minute, most children are way more sensitive to emotional cues than adults are, it might be hard to tell if you were any more so than an ordinary kid would be."
Jim thought of Sally's warm approving glances, his father's eloquent silences.
"Okay, all right, don't worry about it--" Blair said hastily, and Jim found that he didn't want to look too closely at his roommate's face. "Let's just focus on the obvious question here, which is, how are we gonna test this?"
"I knew we'd come back around to testing," Jim growled, relieved. "What, you want me to play 'Guess What I'm Thinking'?"
"Not on me, man, no way," Blair said.
"You can dish it out, Sandburg--"
"Yeah, no doubt," Blair agreed placidly. "This loft is only big enough for one human guinea pig. Let's go over to the U and let you loose on some strangers."
The slightly overcast morning had become a clear, warm afternoon by the time Jim and Blair arrived at Rainier. Jim parked in front instead of in the Hargrove Hall lot, and watched Blair out of the corner of his eye as they approached the college on foot. Blair had always seemed at home at Rainier, maybe more so than in any other place Jim had ever seen him. And after he'd-- well, after the fountain, Jim had worried that Blair might be apprehensive about going back.
But he hadn't seemed to be apprehensive at all. He'd gone back to Hargrove Hall, back to teaching, and then less than a month later the Dean had tossed him out in favor of an arrogant little sociopath and his father's dollars. And still Blair seemed to be comfortable on campus; he led Jim confidently down the path, chin up, basking in the sun on his face. And that was good.
Really, it wasn't that much of a surprise. If Blair could forgive Jim for the shit that had gone down with Alex-- if he could come back to the loft after being thrown out-- well, why wouldn't he come back to Rainier, too? Jim shivered a little, and looked around to find Blair. Who was staring at him.
"Hey, what is it?" Blair said, moving closer.
He could hear the fountain, the water being forced through the pipes, the relentless spray and the hissing splash. "What? Nothing."
"You just looked kind of funny for a second there."
"Where are we going?" Jim said bluntly, staring ahead at the looming blockiness of Hargrove Hall, and Blair realized.
"Oh. Oh, I'm sorry. Let's go this way," he said, and turned sharply to the right, finding another path. This one went around the back of the library, squeezing between it and the college bookstore, finally leading to the main quad. The shadows between the two buildings were deep and the silence grew tense.
"Why the hell would you think I'd want--" Jim said, and cut himself off sharply. Too angry. Not quite safe to speak yet.
"I'm sorry," Blair repeated, which didn't make Jim feel any better. Just the opposite. "I didn't... I mean, I don't remember a lot about that night," he said. "Mostly being in my office... then you, and then the hospital. I guess I just forgot," Blair said, and laughed disbelievingly at himself, "that you might, I mean that you..."
Jim turned away again, passing a shaking hand over his face. Daffodil pollen was high in the air, its yellow-green grainy scent suddenly permeating the breeze, the soft powdery smell of it choking him as he tried to breathe. He didn't understand it. Didn't know why the world had suddenly tilted, why he suddenly wanted to hit something, fight something or grab onto Sandburg and not let go, unless it was because this was the first time he'd been this close to the fountain since-- since the very early morning when Blair had died.
"No. I'm sorry," he said, distantly amazed at how his voice shook. He turned away for a moment, painfully aware of Blair standing very still behind him. He took a quick breath, pinching the bridge of his nose, and calmed himself. "Jesus. Sorry," he said, turning to flash a shamefaced smile at Blair. "I don't know what the fuck's wrong with me today."
Blair's mouth was quirked in amusement, but affection shone from his eyes, and behind that there was a cold awareness of Jim's depthless, turbulent sorrow. "It's okay," he said, and laid a hand just above Jim's elbow, squeezing hard and holding on tight.
"Is it?" Jim had to ask. "I mean, all of it? You can come back and it's just... okay?"
"It's okay," Blair repeated. Then he turned, tugging Jim between the corners of the two buildings, out into the light and towards the sunny square. "Come on now. No more stalling."
Jim took a breath and followed Blair. As they emerged into the quad, the main face of the library was over to their right, with a combination bookstore/coffeeshop on the left. A two-lane road described an arc between the far corners of the two buildings, creating a fat, teardrop-shaped, sunlit space between them. Students tended to congregate there, lazing on the steps in front of the library, slouched around the shaded tables in front of the coffeeshop, or sitting on benches in the interior space. Tulips and daffodils were blooming in concrete planters around the benches, creating a spring perfume touched with grace notes of dusty denim, patchouli oil, and cigarette smoke.
Jim stopped and blinked in the sun for a moment. His attention was drawn almost immediately by a cloud of self-disgust radiating almost visibly from a curly-headed girl in capri pants and a tank top, sprawled on the library steps with a jumbo-sized bag of peanut M&Ms. "Should have studied," he murmured under his breath, and winced. Were kids really more sensitive, like Sandburg said, or did they just make a big deal about everything?
"What'd you say?" Blair glanced up at him, then followed his gaze across to the girl. "Oh. Okay. What's her story?"
"Don't you see it?" Jim glanced from Blair to the girl, startled. She'd flunked something this morning, screwed up a whole semester in fifty minutes. It was right there. Wasn't it? The girl's rounded shoulders said she'd expected to fail whether she studied or not. The bags under her eyes spoke of partying instead. Her hands clutching the bag showed how hard she was kicking herself now.
"Not a clue, man." Blair shrugged.
"Huh," said Jim. He turned and walked further into the quad.
After the girl on the steps, Blair began pointing Jim at people he knew, at least by reputation. Blair explained patiently that if he couldn't verify Jim's findings, it was unscientific and therefore unhelpful. Jim saw his point, but suspected that his partner was motivated less by dedication to science than by the fact that the kid was a total voyeur. Still, it was a hell of a rush to be right when he nodded at a blonde TA and said "Cheating on her boyfriend," and Sandburg said he was dead-on for the fifth time in a row.
Watching the blonde stroll off, Jim squinted suspiciously at his partner. "Sandburg?"
Blair was scanning the crowd for more targets. "Yeah?"
"How do you just happen know all this stuff?"
He got a look of total innocence in return. "A college campus is a lot like a small town, Jim. News travels fast. Uh-- those kids over there, do them."
"Sex, studying, sex, overdrawn checking account, sex-- oh, man." Jim breathed.
Jim nodded at a redheaded girl in turquoise leggings. "See that piece of paper in her hand? Her-- her sister, she's dying. She just got the phone message this morning."
"Oh, no." Blair bit his lower lip. "I've met her. Allison something. She's a new anthro major."
"Her little sister," Jim said softly.
Blair put a hand on his arm.
"Time for a break," he said.
Let it go, let it go, Jim told himself as they walked into the coffee shop. And Sandburg seemed to understand; without overtly clowning, he managed to divert Jim's attention with a complicated justification as to why it was absolutely necessary that the test subject pay for the researcher's coffee. And he waited until they had picked up their coffees and cleared a table before picking up the testing theme again: "You know, Jim, some people call intuition the sixth sense." Jim groaned. "Aw, Sandburg, come on," he said. "Picking up cues or whatever, that's one thing, but now you're saying I'm psychic?"
"Blow Megan's mind, wouldn't it?" Blair grinned, then waved that away, sunlight and shadows flickering over his hands. "But really, Jim, this is all normal. And from what we've seen, pretty damned accurate. Really, you're just gonna have to trust what it's telling you. Y'know, Mom has this friend Karen who's really into this sort of thing. Back in, I think it was '85, she was working with this guy, real nice, real normal. He asks her out, but Karen gets this bad vibe, so she says no. A week later, there he is, front page of the paper..." Sandburg spread his hands, eyebrows raised.
"Oh, let me guess," Jim said. "Ex-wife, in the freezer, in handy saran-wrapped chunks."
"Ah, six dead prostitutes under the floorboards-- but you were close," Blair answered, mouth twisted wryly. "So, why didn't she go out with him?" He shrugged his shoulders theatrically, the motion extending to jitter his upturned hands. "No reason! Just the vibe. Karen, she does self-awareness seminars for women now. You know, 'trust your inner voice. Get in touch with the wisdom in your deepest self.'"
"Are rainbow prisms at all involved?"
Blair folded his hands on the table primly, leaning over them. "Karen says that if you could explain the vibe, it wouldn't be the vibe."
"Oh, very Zen," said Jim. "I like that."
"Well, Mom used to do it all the time-- 'Oh, I don't think you should go to that party, Blair, I have a bad vibe,' and then she'd be right, of course. Totally infuriating," Blair said with a grin. "So, yes, some people would dismiss this because it's not quote-unquote rational, quantifiable or whatever, but there's nothing necessarily rational about the unconscious. And just because you and I don't understand how it works, exactly, doesn't mean we can't trust the information that--"
Blair stopped suddenly as Jim snorted with laughter, then jerked a surreptitious thumb towards the group of kids sitting two tables down.
The presiding brunette was clearly audible, even from two tables away. "No! Seriously! This lady was so mean to me! No, really!" she wailed, and Jim grinned at Blair, who was already shaking his head, smirking into his coffee.
"I'm like, all I want to do is get onto the waiting list! Okay?" continued the brunette. "And she was like, it's the first week of classes already? And it's like Monday, I mean, Monday!" the girl explained, and Jim could hear it in her voice: She wasn't just telling this story for effect. She was honestly aghast that Monday counted. "So I'm like, I really have to take this class, put me on the waiting list, okay? And she's like, you can't do that! She's just, like, no!" the girl complained, and Sandburg was starting to choke with the effort not to laugh aloud. "So now I have to track down the teacher and the department head and get, like, their signatures? What's up with that?"
"What's up with that," Jim murmured, and Blair leaned across the table expectantly, "is that the more she talks, the more her boyfriend is starting to wonder why he's still dating the same girl he was with in high school."
"Man, that's harsh." Blair shook his head, then twisted around to look at the group of kids. "Which one's her boyfriend?"
"Blue T-shirt," Jim said, puzzled again. Okay, maybe the depressed girl had been tricky, but wasn't this obvious? Sure, they weren't sitting next to each other or anything. But that was just another clue that the sullen-looking kid was ready to detach from the valley girl and start seeing if what everyone said about college chicks was true.
Blair was shaking his head ruefully. "Just tell me she doesn't want to take anthropology."
"No," Jim said, and without thinking added, "art."
"Hey, Blair!" came a pleased voice from the distance, and a slim blonde in black with a stack of folders approached the table. "Great day, isn't it?"
"Oh, hey! Gorgeous!" Blair grinned up at her. "And yeah, it's a nice day, too." The blonde laughed, accepted the compliment with a theatrical smirk and eye-roll-- but she was actually touched, Jim could see it. Thinking how Blair was always so sweet. "Hey, uh, Jim, this is Sheryl from Computer Science. Sher, this is Jim Ellison--"
"Oh, hi, it's nice to meet you," Sheryl said, then turned back to Blair-- not physically, but her attention just wasn't on Jim any more. "Look, Blair, I have to get over to the computer lab, but I just wanted to ask if you were going to come to Sidney Morgenfeld's retirement bash?"
"Uh..." said Blair, then turned it into a laugh, so quickly that Jim doubted Sheryl had seen any hesitation at all. "I don't know. The Chancellor is gonna be there, and a lot of administration types..."
"So what? Who cares?" Sheryl demanded over her armful of folders. "What are you, a leper? In exile now?"
Blair only grinned. "Just call it keeping a low profile."
"Well, don't," Sheryl said emphatically. "There are a lot of people who are sick of the politics here. You did the right thing and you got screwed for it," she said, planting a hand flat on the table as she leaned slightly into Blair's space. "You shouldn't be hiding out now."
"All right, all right," Blair said, half-growling, and then laughed. "I'll think about it. Okay?"
"Okay," Sheryl said with a wide grin, and waved as she backed away from the table. "Great. Remember, it's Saturday, okay? So you've got today and Thursday to RSVP, and don't you dare forget!"
"Yeah, well, we'll see. Bye, Sher!" Blair said, turning in his seat to wave and then staying twisted in his seat, watching Sheryl for just a few moments too long as she walked away. After all this time, Jim didn't even bother to poke him about it, just rolled his eyes as Blair turned back to the table. "What?" Blair said innocently. "We used to go out."
"Oh-- Blair and Sher, huh?" Jim grinned. "Isn't that adorable."
Blair just smiled. "So, Jim, what are you doing Saturday?"
"I don't know, I think--" said Jim, and then Blair's expectant tone rang clear and he got it. "Aw, Sandburg, no. Don't we have a poker game this weekend?"
"That's Friday. Come on, Jim. I wouldn't ask you this unless--" Blair was giving him the earnest face. "I mean, I want to know! Do most people feel like Sher, or what? You get it, right?"
"I'll think about it," said Jim.
"Hey. Try this." Blair tapped Jim's arm as they made their way back to the truck. "Goatee at ten o'clock. Theater major, right?"
Jim followed his glance. "Nuh-uh. Communication studies."
"Jesus, Jim," Blair said under his breath as the black-clad student approached. "You're good."
Jim looked at him. "That was a trick question, wasn't it?"
"Of course it was! Kids in Comm Studies do not dress like that," Blair said, as though it were obvious. "So now you can look into his mind and see, what, ethnographic diagrams? I swear, I don't see where you're getting Comm Studies from that guy without ESP."
"It's not ESP," Jim said sharply. How could Sandburg not be seeing it? The clothes, the facial hair, the pierced eyebrow-- those were just fashion. But the gaze-- the way the kid's eyes passed over each group on the path and then went out of focus for a split second. Trying to see past the specifics to the processes behind them. Wasn't it obvious?
"Look at her," Jim said, grabbing Sandburg's elbow and directing his attention with a nod. A tall, slim black woman with her hair styled in a wild puff of short braids was walking towards them. Walking slowly, because if she walked faster she might unbalance, fly apart, or just start crying. Her eyes were numb. "I mean, look. You can't see that?"
Blair shook his head blankly. "That's Nika-- I know her. She looks kinda tense. What's up?"
"Tense, yeah," Jim murmured. Her hands were tense... why? He squinted. Because she was telling herself it was time to damn well get on with life. She wasn't really heartbroken. Shocked, angry, but mostly dealing with it. "She broke up with her boyfriend."
"Aw, Nika," Blair said sympathetically, and then, "Oh, man. Her fiance, even. I remember when she got engaged. Damn." He wrinkled his nose for a moment, then squared his shoulders and headed for her.
Jim watched from the path as Blair encountered Nika, putting a hand on her shoulder. His expression was compassionate, understanding-- Jim could have dialed up to hear the tone and the words, but he didn't really need to. Nika looked at him for a moment, pressing her lips together. She looked away, then accepted a hug from Blair. Jim snorted, turning away.
Blair was smiling widely when he rejoined Jim. "That is so cool, Jim. She thinks I'm like Mr. Sensitive now. We're gonna catch a movie sometime. Let's see if you can do that again!" Jim shot him a look.
"What? She asked me. Hey, uh, Jim-- you think you could do that again? I mean, you gotta repeat the experiment, it's part of the scientific process... Hey." Blair's gaze latched onto a dark-haired girl in a tank top and denim cutoffs. "Check her out," he urged, elbowing Jim in the side. "Think I'm her type?"
With a sigh, Jim looked. And then grinned. "Sorry. Maybe if you shaved your legs."
"Aww," said Blair, looking unaccountably forlorn.
Jim clapped him on the back. "Cheer up, Chief. I just saved you from chasing after the one woman in Cascade who doesn't want to go out with you."
Blair smirked. "Hey, man, the chase is the best part."
Wednesday morning's report from Forensics brought a bit of a surprise: The bullet that killed Barrett Clay had come not from a handgun but from the kind of high-powered rifle favored by serious hunters. "So the guy made some enemies down at the skeet-shooting range, huh?" Blair said when Jim called the loft to report this new development. "If I get a break from school stuff, I'll poke around on the Internet and see if he had any hunting connections." But Jim cut the conversation short when Simon appeared at the corner of his desk looking faintly disgusted.
"Managed to fit Pearson into your busy schedule yet, Jim?" Before Jim could formulate an excuse, Simon went on, "Well, you can mark it off the calendar. The heroin shipment ended up in one of the national parks, so the Feds have taken over." His voice suggested that the smugglers were in more danger from bears than from the FBI.
Jim looked around and saw that every tense, harassed face in the room was bent over a phone receiver. Rafe was saying, "An axe handle or an entire axe?" Brown was asking Research to correlate recent downtown sexual assaults with low tides, cocaine busts, and Mercury retrogrades. Megan, hand over her eyes, was sighing, "Please slow down, ma'am, and go back to the part about the tinfoil..."
He turned back to Simon. "I think," he said, "that we'll be able to find something else to keep us busy."
Jim could smell burning dust even before he came through the door that night. The laptop must have been on all day long while he was at the station. "Hi, honey, I'm home."
"Very funny," Blair's voice said from behind the French doors. That was odd; why wouldn't he have the laptop out on the couch, the way he usually did? "There's some spaghetti still on the stove if you want some," Blair called out, but Jim had already followed the smell of garlic into the kitchen.
"So what levers and switches do you have prepared for me tonight?" Jim asked through a mouthful of marinara sauce when Blair finally emerged from the bedroom.
"What?" Even snagging a piece of garlic bread off Jim's plate, Blair was somehow... not there. Jim looked at him curiously, but he was already turning away, pulling the milk out of the fridge as though it took all his concentration.
"You know. Any more mazes for your resident rat to run through?" And wasn't it just ten minutes ago in the truck that Jim had been hoping Blair wouldn't put him through any tests tonight? But he found the lack of enthusiasm vaguely disconcerting.
Especially when Blair, still without looking at him, said, "To tell you the truth, I've been thinking we should hold up a little on the intensive testing until I can do some research. No point in doing the testing until I've got the, you know, theoretical framework in place, right?" When he turned around, his mouth was full of garlic bread. It didn't, of course, stop him from talking. "I've been doing some poking around in the journals-- you did know that Richard Burton coined the term ESP, right, Jim? Now he was never able to correlate enhanced senses with ESP, but I figure, number one, he didn't have modern laboratory equipment-- not that I do either, but there are a few strings that remain to be pulled-- and number two--"
"Jesus, Sandburg, take a breath!" Jim shook his head. "Just tell me the part that has to do with me, okay?"
"Right, right, well, the thing is, none of this has anything to do with you. That's the point. I don't have any tests ready for you because I've spent all day going back through the sources, and now I..." He leaned against the counter with his research clutched to his chest and heaved a sigh, the very picture of industry. "Give me some time, okay?"
"What I want to know is, why now?" Jim blurted out, and Blair sighed. "No, I'm serious. Three years we've been working at this, it seems like it's under control, and now this..."
"Well," Blair said calmly, looking at the floor, "maybe it could have something to do with Alex."
Her name was the last thing he'd expected to hear from Sandburg's lips; Jim narrowed his eyes, bristling as though the other Sentinel were actually in the room. Sandburg's voice flattened to a buzz as Jim scanned the loft, then the rest of the building, automatically with his hearing. He shook his head, hard, gritting his teeth-- cut it out. There's no threat here, he told himself, no threat--
"--exposure, either to her," Blair was saying, staring distantly now out the loft windows, "or the hallucinogens in that drink she gave you." He stopped, looking at Jim, and Jim immediately shoved his disturbance to the back of his mind and focused on looking impassive. You're wrong, was his first reaction, that's wrong, but if he started to argue about it they'd actually have to talk about it, and he wasn't sure why Blair was wrong, either. He stepped past Blair, heading for the sink where Blair had left a small collection of dirty dishes.
He glanced over his shoulder to check and see if Blair had noticed the emotions raging through him, but Blair had turned away before Jim could get a good look at his face. "Oh, hey, I know," he said. Veering off into the living room, Blair took up residence at one end of the couch, milk in one hand and the remote in the other. "You can look at television."
Jim was washing the last few dishes, but even over running water he could identify the voices from the screen: "Oh, lord, Sandburg, no. Not the X-Files again. I have a rule: Any show that can't pay for lights, I don't watch." Even he recognized the objection as token, though. As he made his way to the other end of the couch, he was already focusing in on the actors' faces, voices, body language, resigning himself to an evening of picking through the inner states of FBI agents who were even more messed up than the real kind. Which took some doing.
But all he got was a strange blankness. "I can't get anything from them."
"What do you mean? Nothing at all?"
"It's like they're not real people at all. Look at that," Jim said. "They're not moving. Real people are always moving."
Blair, of course, had a theory: "Yeah, okay, that makes sense, I guess. Actors are trained to control what they communicate, and they're probably a lot more conscious of nonverbal communication than most people are. I mean, no actor ever taps his foot or raises his eyebrows without a reason."
"So can we give this up and watch something decent?"
Jim switched over to a basketball game without waiting for an answer, and Blair threw up his hands. "Why do you even bother to ask when you just do what you want anyhow-- whoa, Bryson's fouled out already? It's not even halftime yet!"
"Yeah, and coach's pissed about it, too," Jim said. "Look at him."
"Don't know how you can tell that, man, coaches always look pissed. It's a coach thing. I think they go down to the zoo and study the leopards for practice."
"He's gonna put the first string back in."
"Little early, isn't it?" But the Jags' coach had already called a time out and was sending his starting lineup back onto the court. Blair raised his eyebrows at Jim as the whistle sounded, a wordless challenge.
Jim grinned. This he could do. "Left-handed pass to their number 31... three-point throw, but he's gonna miss because he's off balance... Jackson's gonna get the rebound... Schenck's pissed because Jackson won't pass to him... fake left... look at number 11 trying to draw a foul... when Jackson passes to Kent, Kent'll pop it right back and... two! What'd I tell you!"
Blair was giving him a grin that contained equal parts admiration and calculation. "Man, if you're this good at poker tomorrow night, you're gonna have to arrest yourself."
"Put your nachos on the table, Brown, because anything in your hands I'm going to win off you in the first five minutes," Jim said over the rattle of grocery bags as Rafe and Megan followed Brown into the kitchen. They needed the break, all of them. It had to be a full moon; there was no other explanation for the unending stream of craziness that had flowed through Major Crimes this week. Megan had dark circles under her eyes, and even Rafe was looking wrinkled.
But it was only a minute or two into the game before Jim threw down his cards in disgust and stalked off into the kitchen. " 'scuse me," Blair said, laying his own hand down and following.
"What's the problem?" Blair said softly.
Jim turned the water on and hissed over the sound, "I know what everybody's holding."
"Whoa, really? Man, you could clean up tonight!"
"Sandburg, poker is a game of skill and chance. Got it? Skill and chance," Jim growled. "And if Simon picks up his cards and I look at his face and see, 'Oh, shit, pair of twos,' then there's no skill. No chance. No fun, you got me?" Figuring he might as well take advantage of the running water, he began washing the bowls from his earlier adventure in homemade hummus.
"Well, just don't look, then," Blair suggested.
"Tell me how!" Jim hastily dropped his voice as Blair made frantic shushing signals. "I'm trying, Sandburg, I'm trying. I don't look at Megan's face, and her hands tell me she's got queens. I don't look at anything, and Rafe's breathing tells me he's working on a flush."
"Damn." It was a sigh of mingled awe and sympathy. "All right, Jim, you've got two choices. You can rob 'em blind and cackle over your ill-got gains, or you can bow out."
"How? Megan already knows something's up. She's been giving me this look ever since the Clay interrogation."
"Just turn off the water and leave that to me--" and as the sound ceased, Blair's voice switched from conspiratorial to aggrieved, as he said, loudly, "Jim, you know my grant doesn't come through till the nineteenth-- I couldn't give you the rent early even if I wanted to. Which I do not, because with the beer you've had you're just going to lose it and it won't do either of us any good."
Leave it to Sandburg to get him out of a jam by making him look like an alcoholic incompetent. Jim made a resolution to have a talk with his roommate later. For now, though, he had a script and he was going to have to play by it. "Fine, then," he said. "I'll just stay in here and make some guacamole."
Sandburg looked at Jim, and at the poker table, and at the wooden bowl on the kitchen island that held his treasured store of perfectly ripened organic avocados, and gave a little sigh. Jim grinned at him: Serves you right for making me look like a drunk. "If you're so broke, what're you betting with?" he said as he dug in the vegetable drawer for an onion.
"We're not having your sorry body, Sandy!" Megan shouted from the table.
"I wouldn't be throwing pearls before you swine," he called back. "No, let's just say that if I lose, Jim and I are going to be eating a lot of ramen when it's my turn to cook. But don't worry," he said to Jim, "I'm not gonna lose. You, man, just watch and learn."
And Jim did watch and learn. Freed from the difficulty of playing a fair game when he couldn't breathe without cheating, he stayed in the background, cut up tomatoes, endured the good-natured joshing of his co-workers, and took in everything he could.
It was astonishing how specific he could get. Joel's "crappy hand" resolved itself into a two, a four, a nine, a jack, and an ace. When Sandburg drew most of a full house, Jim could see that Simon had the missing queen, and that he was going to discard it in a couple of moves. Brown's two kings were both red. Rafe had three tens, and was thinking that Megan smelled really nice--
Well, shit. There was scientific observation, and then there was eavesdropping-- which with his abilities was closer to surveillance. Jim turned away from the table, towards the fridge. "Get anybody a beer?" he said, and counted the minutes until the game was over.
Counting the minutes was something he was doing a lot of these days, Jim thought less than twenty-four hours later, looking around the banquet hall for someone interesting to talk to. He could barely believe he was wearing a jacket and tie on a Saturday night for this. Grimacing, he scratched behind his collar; the fabric was irritating his skin. He and Sandburg might need to switch dry cleaners again. Trying to ignore the itch, he went over to the bar for a drink.
Academic party. Maybe it was just this particular example of the genre, but-- damn, talk about a fucking oxymoron. Blair had given him the lay of the land on the way over, managing to slip in several heavy-handed hints on how to behave-- obviously aware that he could dress Jim up but not too sure about taking him out. "Two things are always constant at college shindigs," Blair had told him, "bad munchies and good booze. And please don't talk to anyone about politics, especially campus politics. Hmmm... probably avoid religion too."
Eyes on the road, Jim had raised an eyebrow. "What about sex?"
"Well, if you can find someplace private, I say go for it-- ow! Hey!" Blair defended himself valiantly against Jim's disgusted smack. "Hands on the wheel, Jim, jeez."
What a joke. Forget quickies in the coat closet; Jim couldn't even find anyone to make small talk with. No one approached him, and everyone he could see was broadcasting something that made him not quite eager to engage them in conversation. The couple in the corner with their marriage breaking up-- the man's back practically turned to his wife. She barely noticed the chill; all her attention was for her lover, over by a potted plant in the corner. He was chatting with a visiting literature professor, desperately sucking up. All over the room it was like that. And no one else seemed to see.
Sure, the first ten minutes or so had been fun enough. Most people tended to like Sandburg, mainly because unless he was in the company of a complete asshole, Sandburg tried hard to be liked. Jim had spent a while relaying flattering comments like "cute," "prodigy," "glad he's not dead," which had made Blair more or less delighted. But "academic snob," from a trim-looking redhead, had wiped the smile right off Blair's face. He'd stared at his shoes for a moment, then patted Jim's shoulder, told him to stay right there, he was just going to say hi to someone... and Jim hadn't seen him for almost ten minutes.
He sighed and took a healthy gulp of drink. Sandburg had been right about one thing. The booze was good.
"Oh hey, Jim!" Sandburg was apparently done mingling, for the moment. Sidling up to Jim's side, he cocked his head expectantly toward a mild-mannered professor type in a jacket and bow tie, chatting with a younger blonde in a green dress. "That's Sidney Morgenfeld, it's his party... Hey, Sidney!" he waved.
"You're a better person than you are a teacher," Jim said as the man held up one finger, then turned back to the blonde.
Blair glanced up. "What?"
"Idealistic. He's not like that any more. That's why he gives you such great performance reviews." Jim said as the older man gestured towards them, obviously telling his protege great things. "One boring, over-academic class isn't going to kill anyone..." Jim added under his breath, and almost bit his own tongue as he realized what he'd just said. "Jesus, Blair--"
"No. That's-- not exactly a surprise," said Blair, but he still sounded as though he'd been punched. "I mean, I've always thought that nothing's boring if you come at it with an open mind," he went on, "that's how I learn, so that's how I teach-- Hi, Sidney."
"Blair, hello. And Detective Ellison. How nice that you could join us. Enjoying yourselves?"
Jim nodded politely, distracted by a sudden twinge of resentment from the girl in the green dress. Sandburg must have something on the old bastard, she was thinking, to get such great appraisals. She flashed mentally on a sordid sexual image, shuddered, and headed for the bar set up in one corner of the room.
Blair had already engaged Sidney in conversation, and Jim was sorely tempted to follow the blonde's example and head directly for another drink. He glanced away instead, and caught an off-glance from a trio just converging in the corner.
Looking down at the drink in his hand, he sipped it, then tilted the glass slightly till the curved surface reflected the small group. He dialed up and focused in with his hearing.
"Geoffrey, hello. Nice to see you outside the office." Poetry teacher, with more than a passing resemblance to Janeane Garafalo. Her voice was pleasant, rich and low, but her glare said, Gee, could you ogle my breasts a little more obviously? I don't feel enough like a showgirl.
"It certainly is." It wasn't, really. "Raye, I don't think you've met my wife, Lisa?"
"No, I don't think so. Nice to meet you." You poor, poor woman. "Are you enjoying the party?"
"We sure are." Geoffrey replied, and Raye winced in horror, reminding herself once again-- never give up your own voice. "Oh, Raye, I wonder if you'd know-- who's that young man, over there? Talking to Sidney. Haven't I seen him around Hargrove Hall?" The head of Anthropology made a beeline for him when he came in. If he's one of Ted's new pets, he could be someone to watch out for.
"Hmm? Oh, Blair Sandburg. Anthropology." Smooth talker, thought Raye. Always showing off how smart he is. Probably overcompensation, something to do with... size.
"Oh, yes, of course. He was involved with the arrest of the Ventriss boy."
"Yep, that's him." Who knows-- maybe if his class was a little less esoteric and a little more relevant to the real world, the kid wouldn't have cheated...
Jim's hand tightened around his glass, and suddenly Blair was touching his wrist, pulling him back to reality a little. Jim glanced around; Sidney was gone.
"You getting anything from over there?" Blair asked.
"Did you know Eli Stoddard?" Geoffrey was saying. "Blair was one of his star pupils when he taught here. Takes after him quite a bit." Just watch him put away the booze.
"They're talking about you. Eli's student," Jim said softly.
Beside him, Blair took a nervous sip of his drink. "What are they saying?"
"Ah-- yes, I see." Wonder if he keeps a bottle in his desk the way Eli used to?
Slightly mocking laughter rose and fell, seeming to curl with an almost tactile sensation in Jim's ears. He shuddered, then snapped out of it as Blair tool a sharp breath-- oh fuck, Jim thought as he realized he'd unconsciously repeated that last damning phrase.
Blair looked more shocked than angry, though his hand was white-knuckled, curled around his glass. "That's not true."
"Calm down, Chief," Jim said, putting a hand on his shoulder, turning them slightly away from the group in the corner. Blair's shoulder was tensed under his hand, and his lips were tight in a grimace of anger.
"But who's he talking to, then?" Raye was speaking again, and Jim tuned in without thinking, feeling her frosty loneliness, the warm creep of her lust.
"Eli's been sober for over ten years," Blair was growling, "way since I've met him-- how can they be so goddamn petty?"
"His, er, life partner is the term, I believe?" Disgust, under an ice-thin veneer of politeness.
"How can anyone remember stuff like that just to laugh about? It's fucking sick!" Blair hissed. He drank deeply, coughing slightly, and looked up at Jim. "And I'm not a snob!"
"No, you're not," Jim said intently, attention torn between Blair and the crowd of vultures in the corner. Blair shook his head, looking lost, then handed Jim his empty glass and reached for Jim's drink. "Look, Jim. Maybe this isn't such a great idea. Any more." He pressed the heel of his hand to his temple, as though he too were hearing the voices from across the room. "I... don't know."
"It's not common knowledge," the bigot was saying-- it was hard to tune out the shuttered rage and repulsion. "I think his partner is a police officer." Why they don't drum him off the force, I don't know.
Jim's attention was drawn back to Blair as he took a sip of Jim's drink, glassy-eyed, then spluttered and coughed, staring at the glass in his hand. "What the hell is this?"
"Vodka cranberry," Jim muttered. "Look, maybe you shouldn't--"
"Never mind," said Blair quietly. He finished it, then shuddered again. "What the fuck kind of girly drink is that?"
Jim shook his head, putting a hand on Blair's shoulder. "Come on, Sandburg," he said. He steered Blair towards the exit carefully, using that as his excuse to avoid everyone else's eyes. "Time to call it a night."
Jim had been listening to the rain for some time without registering it, but when he opened the door and a cool gust of damp air lifted Blair's hair and flipped one of Jim's lapels over, Blair looked up dully and said, "Raining, too." Moving a little too quickly, Blair stumbled into Jim's side as they walked out the door "Sorry," he said, pulling away, and almost fell trying to right himself. "Fuck."
"Sandburg, wait." Jim had to pull Blair back. "I'll bring the truck up. No sense both of us getting drenched."
But instead of going back inside, Blair pressed back against the door under a shallow overhang that offered only the slightest protection from the wet wind. He looked like a dog tied out in the rain, Jim thought, opening his door as he watched his partner take a stumbling step off the curb. "Hang on there, Baryshnikov, hang on." Wrapping an arm around his partner's shoulder, he let Blair lean on him the rest of the way to the truck. "Let's get you home."
Once in the truck, Blair pressed his forehead against the cool glass of the window. "Don't take this the wrong way, Jim, but shit. I mean, shit," he said in a low tone. "I feel like Doctor Frankenstein over here. I don't mean..."
"It's okay, Sandburg," Jim said quietly. And I didn't even tell you how many people think I'm your boyfriend-- he thought about saying it out loud, to make Blair laugh, but decided not to, although he didn't quite know why. It was funny, after all. Wasn't it? There had certainly been rumors down at the station about their relationship, and Blair had always laughed at those. Made jokes about preconceived notions. And how observant some detectives really weren't.
"Listen," Blair said suddenly in the elevator, "I think I'm gonna-- I mean, I'd kind of-- I mean--"
"No, you don't have to leave, I'll take off," Jim said. Blair's head snapped around to look at him. "Hey, Sandburg, it doesn't take any kind of super powers to figure it out. A guy who's had a night like this is going to want to be alone for a bit." Jim gave his shoulder a squeeze. Besides, he thought, I'd like to go someplace where all that meanness and pettiness is aimed at people I don't know. "I'll just change clothes and let you have the place to yourself for a while."
Salem, at least, was the same old Salem. He reached across the bar and brought his huge hand down on Jim's shoulder in the usual bone-shaking clap, and gave him a greeting that was two-thirds unprintable, and went off in search of a bottle of the microbrew Jim favored because it was a little lower in alcohol-- all the while thinking how nice it was to see an old friend who wasn't likely to break anything, or get in any fights, or demand any drinks that involved curacao and blue gin and little paper umbrellas.
It was a shame Salem couldn't seem to hire a DJ who shared his excellent taste in blues. At least the new guy wasn't spinning Celine Dion, the way the last one had-- instead it was a series of prefab power ballads. Jim leaned against the wall and settled in for a spell of sentinel-enhanced people-watching.
At first it was a rush to look around at the women and think, "That one wants me. That one too. Damn. That one too." But the downside quickly became obvious. Jim had never realized there was so much wrong with him. Boring clothes. Geeky socks. Showing up at a bar alone and therefore obviously a psychotic stalker.
And after the sixth set of eyes skated over his hairline and dismissed him, Jim decided to look at something else.
It was the girl's haircut that first caught Jim's eye: a wheat-colored pixie cut spiked with rattails of various lengths. Somebody ought to tell her that the '80s are over, he thought. And then they ought to go tell the DJ, too.
She had two guys with her, and Jim amused himself with trying to sort out the relationships. Neither guy had a hand on her, or was otherwise signaling allegiance. She was listening to the dark-haired guy and laughing, but she had some sort of radar on the lank-haired one with the glasses that were too dark for indoors. And he was equally aware of her.
Lovers-- no, former lovers, Jim thought. Shadeboy screwed up, cheated or something, she said, "Let's just be friends," and he actually took her up on it.
And the dark-haired guy-- he said something, and the girl and Shadeboy both laughed absently, and Jim suddenly caught something like longing. Here he was, entertaining two old friends, and somehow he couldn't get through to them, they were so focused on each other. Jim bit back a sympathetic grin. Poor guy, he thought, haven't you figured out yet that a good sense of humor is no match for unrequited love?
As Jim watched, the guy leaned close and shouted in Shadeboy's ear, and Jim focused in on sound in time to catch, "-- any more goddamned .38 Special, I'm gonna puke, Rich, I swear to god." Shadeboy laughed, and the guy said, "Be right back," and moved off through the crowd, headed toward Jim on his way to the bar.
Jim was so caught up in trying to make sense of the triangle that he didn't notice he was staring until the guy looked back. What Jim caught from him was strong, but garbled. He couldn't make the parts of the message match up.
Now why would that be? Intrigued, Jim unfocused his eyes and replayed the gestures. Eye contact. Eyes widening, chin moving up a fraction, heartbeat picking up, nostrils flaring, lips parting-- quick blink-- and then the head turning aside, eyes down and to the side, chin down, shoulders pulling in microscopically, muscles tightening.
The second one was fear, or maybe caution-- what you might feel toward a big dog of unknown temperament. And the first one was... attraction.
Well, that was interesting. Jim opened his eyes and sought out the guy, who was now very carefully not looking his way. He didn't look gay, but then who did? He looked like a class clown who was a little lost without a class to entertain.
Triangular face. Unruly mop of short, dark hair. Nice, compact build. Mobile hands, easy smile. He wasn't dancing, at least not on purpose, but his movement reflected an awareness of the music. Eyes-- Jim sharpened his sight to be sure-- on the brown end of the green spectrum, the color of an army uniform.
And then those eyes flashed up as he caught Jim looking at him, and this time there was more attraction, less fear, and a half-humorous acknowledgment of a shared secret.
He could see the appreciation in those olive-drab eyes as they passed over him, and he had the odd, double-vision sensation of seeing himself through them-- the breadth of his shoulders, the pull of his T-shirt across his chest, the length of his legs, the grace of his stance against the wall. Before he thought about it, he uncrossed his arms and slid one hand behind his back: displaying himself. The interest in the guy's eyes turned up a notch.
Those eyes came back up to his, warm with approval. Jim favored him with a slow smile, and something like astonishment came into the guy's face.
And damned if he wasn't getting a little turned on. Damned if he wasn't starting to feel a little thrill of anticipation, just as if he was going to follow through with this.
He wasn't, of course. That went without saying. So it was time to quit messing around. If the guy was really looking for some action tonight, he'd be wanting to get on with it.
Jim raised his bottle in salute, drained it, and pitched it into the nearest can without looking (because not even a sentinel was immune to the temptation of showing off). Then he made his way to the door.
It was a relief to take his hearing back up to normal, though even in the parking lot the pulse of the music was still audible. For a wonder, the rain seemed to have stopped, and the broken cloud cover let a bit of moonlight through to silver the cars. Jim paused, taking a deep breath, clearing his ears of noise and his lungs of smoke. Then he headed along the side of the building toward the truck.
There was a quick blast of noise as the bar door opened and swung shut again. Footsteps, not walking to a car or wandering aimlessly, but heading for him in particular. He turned and looked into a pair of khaki eyes.
Shit. That thing with the beer bottle-- he had intended it as a goodbye, but obviously to this guy it had looked like an invitation. Jim winced inwardly. He hated to tease, even by accident.
"Hey," the guy said tentatively.
Jim nodded at him, and the guy's mouth quirked up: frustration and amusement.
"I should never have quit smoking," he said. "So handy to be able to say, 'Got a light?'"
Jim had to grin. "But nobody else smokes any more either," he pointed out. "So I'd say, 'No, sorry,' and here we'd be."
"Here we'd be," the guy echoed. He sketched a half-shrug and then stuck out a hand. "Scott," he said.
"Jim," said Jim, and shook. Scott's hand was broad and blunt, unscarred but covered with a thin layer of surface callus. Weekend sportsman, hobbyist-- no, wait, those fingertip calluses were familiar. Guitarist. Left-handed guitarist.
He held Jim's hand just a fraction too long.
A week ago, Jim would have seen nothing but a signal of interest, a standard step in this dance. Tonight, though, a handclasp with a stranger brought a rush of insights so clear it was as if Scott was speaking his thoughts aloud: God, it feels good to touch someone for a change. And: I shouldn't hang with those two, they just make me crazy to find someone to really look at me. And: Just because I felt like a whore the first time I did this with a stranger doesn't necessarily mean I'll feel like that every time, does it? And: But damn, he's hot. And he's got a great smile. And he looks... kind.
What he actually said was: "So, Jim." And then, after a little pause, "Nothing personal, but you don't look like the type for this sort of thing."
It wasn't until that moment that Jim realized he was really going to go through with it.
"I'm not," he said. "Wasn't," he amended, and then, wanting to be completely honest, corrected himself again: "Didn't know I was."
Scott's eyes widened microscopically, but he frowned a little. "Well, hey, if you're not..."
"I am," Jim said. "Yeah."
Scott didn't quite smile.
"All right," he said. "So the next question is--"
"Truck's parked right around the corner," Jim said. "We could go someplace."
"You a mind-reader or something?" Scott's mouth quirked. It was a nice mouth. Lips maybe a little too thin, but wide, mobile, with a grin lurking in the corners even now.
Did guys kiss? Jim had only the vaguest idea about the whole thing, and right now he was remembering entirely too much about latex and nothing at all useful about necking. Nice mouth, though. If it was that responsive to Scott's thoughts, it would probably-- Now it was stretching into an open-mouthed grin, and you didn't need to be a sentinel to see a little smugness there. Jim looked up into his eyes, and...
Oh. Okay. Stand around staring at a guy's mouth, and he's going to get the message. Jim smiled wryly, and Scott leaned in a little-- and then rocked back on his heels and gave Jim a slap on the shoulder as a burst of conversation and laughter came out through the opening bar doors. "This, my friend, would be an excellent time to take a little walk," he said.
Jim waved toward the back of the building. "How about a little ride?"
There was just room for the two of them between the passenger door and the alley wall. Jim opened Scott's door for him, and turned, and Scott was right there, close enough that Jim could feel the warmth of his body. Jim's "Do you--" and Scott's "I think--" came out at the same time, and Scott laughed breathlessly, and moved until their lips touched, and just... hovered there, eyes open, mouth moving over the surface of Jim's lips.
And Jim made a little noise in the back of his throat, because he usually thought of kisses as statements of intent but this one was sex all by itself, electric, intoxicating, overwhelming. After a long moment his paralysis lifted and he stepped forward, pressing Scott gently toward the side of the truck and opening his mouth, and Scott approved, Scott was smiling and murmuring "Good" and wrapping his arms around Jim's waist.
The strong arms, the wide mouth, the hard chest against his were all somehow making it hard to breathe. Jim let the scent dial slip, and he was moving down through the smells of smoke and beer and hair gel when he got a whiff of the same Mennen Speed Stick deodorant that was in his own medicine cabinet, and he tore his mouth loose and gasped and pressed his body hard against Scott's, bending the other man back over the curve of the truck, grabbing a double handful of white oxford shirt, pushing in with his hips, suddenly so close to coming that he was shaking with it.
"Wait, wait a second, easy," and Scott's hands closed on his hips and stilled him. Jim leaned his forehead against the metal next to Scott's head, panting, willing himself back under control. "Easy," Scott said again, and he pushed gently until Jim was standing instead of leaning.
Scott tilted his head to one side, then reached back into the truck and snapped off the dome light. Jim's vision zoomed wildly for a moment, picking up flecks of gray in Scott's changeable eyes, then slid back to normal. Scott was running a finger over Jim's wet lips with a thoughtful expression. "Listen," he said. "I want..." and then he dropped to the ground, and with one practiced motion unfastened all Jim's fly buttons at once.
"Shit." Jim put both hands on the truck to steady himself.
Scott looked up at him with a mischievous smile. "Unless maybe you'd rather go back inside and request 'Free Bird,'" he said, and before Jim could choke out a laugh he felt his boxers tugged aside and his cock engulfed.
And damn, the man was good. His hands, his mouth, his whole body were communicating the same clean, uncomplicated pleasure in making a stranger feel good. Jim closed his eyes, leaned his head forward, and let Scott set a pace that was urgent but not hasty, feeling the cold, slightly rain-damp metal of the truck under his hands and the warm wetness of Scott's mouth and the night air all around them. Until just that quickly he was right on the edge, and he touched Scott's hair gently and gasped, "Scott-- you don't want to--"
Scott's hand took over as he turned his face against Jim's palm. "I do want to," he whispered, "I wish I could--" and then he took one of Jim's fingers into his hot mouth, using his other hand to angle Jim's hips away from his face, and Jim came so hard he could barely breathe.
For a moment afterwards all he could do was pant. His hand on the truck was damp with sweat, and the other thumb was rubbing gently over Scott's lips, over and over.
He pulled gently at the other man's face, encouraging him to stand up, and wrapped both arms around him, feeling Scott's surprise and pleasure at the gesture. "Damn," he exhaled against his neck.
He couldn't see the guy's face, but his whole body told how pleased he was with himself. "You know perfectly well how good," he said, raising his head to look down at the spattered side of the truck and his own relatively clean jeans. "Tidy, too."
"One of the sexier virtues, tidiness," Scott agreed. "You, on the other hand, could stand to work on the less sexy but more practical virtue of a soft voice." He bent down to brush sand and gravel off his khakis, leaving two dark damp spots on the knees.
"Oh, shit." Jim peered out into the parking lot.
"Don't worry," Scott said. "Anybody who heard probably figured you were doing something socially acceptable like getting punched in the gut."
"That would have been much manlier," Jim agreed.
Scott was making restless gestures, and Jim instinctively gave him a little space before he realized he was putting himself together to go. "Wait, wait a second," he said. "I can't believe anybody's as unselfish as all that."
"It's all right," Scott said, and Jim was shocked to discover that he meant it.
"Not with me, it isn't all right," he said, and bent to give him the most incendiary kiss he knew how to give. Damn it, he wasn't the kind of guy to come like that and just walk away. Scott deserved better than that. Acting on a sudden instinct, he leaned down and took Scott's earlobe between his teeth.
The response was all that he'd hoped for. Scott's breath hissed in through his teeth, and his whole body shivered into motion, wrapping one arm around Jim's hips and pressing the other hand to the back of his neck.
"Like that?" Jim whispered very softly into that ear, and without waiting for an answer he traced it with his tongue before moving down the side of Scott's neck and back up to whisper in his ear again: "Tell me..."
"What?" Scott's answer was more than half breath, closer to a sigh than to speech.
"Tell me how to make you as crazy as you just made me."
Giving up all effort at speech, Scott took Jim's hand where it lay on his hip and pressed it against his groin, drawing that same hissing gasp as Jim cupped and explored his cock through the pants before undoing the button and zipper with fingers that weren't altogether steady.
The silky heat surprised an "ahh" out of Jim, and he felt Scott's cock twitch under his fingertips. He bent his neck again, pressing Scott's collar out of the way with his face to nuzzle the side of his neck before diving back into his mouth.
He had a new appreciation for those warm lips, that delicately moving tongue, and remembering heated his belly with a flare of arousal that his body was nowhere near ready to respond to.
Scott's hand moved over Jim's nape. "Hey," he said breathlessly, "You're going to get a crick." He moved aside to boost himself to sit in the truck, pinning Jim's hand so he couldn't withdraw it, with a sidelong grin.
"Better," he said, and it was-- the truck equalized their heights so Jim could kiss his fill. He wriggled his fingers under Scott's hand until Scott got the message and let go, and Jim went back to exploring him. Scott threaded a finger through Jim's belt loop and tugged him closer, and Jim began to stroke him faster, feeling hot breath on his face.
"Shadeboy know you do this?"
"Your friend. Shades, earring. You cruise together? Ever do this with him?"
"Shit-- no." But Jim could feel the heat of that thought wash through him. He thought about spinning a fantasy, wondered how good Scott's imagination was, because Shadeboy, though close to his height, was long-haired and scrawny and really there wasn't much resemblance at all. But if Scott wanted that--
But Scott was running a hand up Jim's arm, pushing over his sleeve to grip his shoulder, and Jim felt his pleasure in his own particular body, his bulk, his strength, their uncomplicated desire.
"What were you thinking?" he demanded. "In Salem's."
"Thought you were hot," Scott gasped. "Thought," he added with a breathless laugh, "if you caught me looking you'd beat the shit out of me."
"That sucks," Jim said.
"You get used to-- ah," as Jim applied his teeth to the underside of Scott's jaw. Scott's hand slid up his white shirt to pinch a nipple through the fabric, and Jim watched, transfixed.
He felt it when Scott caught him watching, a flush of embarrassment, inner voice saying, "Slut." What, the guy was ashamed of wanting it? That didn't make any sense.
"Don't stop," Jim said. "Fucking hot."
"Ohh." Scott's fingers went back to work. Jim took his other hand off the back of Scott's neck and started undoing buttons for him, exposing a surprisingly pink nipple in the smooth, golden chest. On the other side, the still-covered nipple was standing up in sympathy. Jim bent his neck and nuzzled it through the fabric.
Scott moaned again, softly, and let go of Jim's neck to scrabble clumsily in his jacket pocket, pulling out a blue bandanna. "Tidy," he said with a hint of a smile, and then gasped as Jim gripped him more tightly, moving more surely. "Hell yes, Jim, don't stop, just-- almost-- just--"
Jim had never seen another man come, and he wanted to pull back to watch, but Scott's mouth suddenly came alive under his, and Jim could feel his pleasure and relief and gratitude and warmth in the kiss as Scott sighed into his mouth and came almost silently.
Jim shallowed the kiss into a soft touch of lips, so that if Scott could read him at all he'd feel Jim's enjoyment of his pleasure, pleasure moving back and forth between them like echoes in a narrow canyon.
"Oh, man," Scott sighed. Jim felt him consider several phrases ("Thank you" and "You okay?" were the first that occurred to him) before he settled for another "Oh, man," laid his head back against the seat, and closed his eyes. Jim gave his cheek a soft kiss and got back a sweet, closed-eyed smile.
Fingers stroking the back of Scott's neck gently, Jim tipped his head back, breathing in and out, listening to the ebb and flow of traffic, the whine of music coming through the walls. Good lord, they actually were playing "Free Bird." He wished Scott could hear it; he would appreciate the joke.
"Getting late," he said after a while. "This was... pretty wild."
Scott gave him a sidelong grin, half amusement, half sympathy. "I'll bet." He was, Jim thought, remembering a summer night when he was sixteen-- and remembering the next morning was enough to make him lay a hand on Jim's arm and say, "People try stuff, you know. It's no big deal."
Jim gave him a warm smile and saw his concern ease a bit. "Yeah," he said. "Gonna have to do some thinking."
"Well, if you want to do any more experimenting, give me a call," Scott said. "There's only two Luniaks in the book, and the other one's an eighty-year-old named Margarethe." He stretched, a graceful arch of his back and arms, and then tucked the left side of his shirt back in.
"Can I give you a ride someplace?"
Scott waved a hand. "I expect they waited for me," he said. "But I just live over on Pina, so I can walk." Jim watched him calculate Shadeboy's probable state of intoxication and decide that walking was his best bet anyway. "No big deal."
"Listen," Jim said seriously, "you're careful, aren't you? I mean, you were ready to get in a truck with a strange man, and no offense, Scott, but I could break you in half..."
Scott grinned. "I'm a good judge of character," he said. "Sixth sense, you know."
"Uh-huh," Jim said skeptically. "Just... look out for yourself. And hey-- your friend? Shadeboy?"
"Yeah?" Scott looked suspicious.
"This is gonna sound crazy, but you should know. He... he could want you. If the thought occurred to him. But he loves her, and it's her he's going to go back to. If she'll have him."
Scott was staring at him.
"Just keep it in mind, is all."
"So you're, what, psychic now?"
Jim shrugged. "Good judge of character." "Jeez, Jim, it's like icicle city in here!" Blair hissed, rubbing his hands together as he climbed into the truck the next morning. "What'd you do, leave the windows open all night?"
"There was a smell," Jim said, and immediately regretted it. Damn it, he was going to have to learn to lie.
Sure enough, Sandburg jumped all over it. "A smell? What kind of smell?"
It was a sentinel thing, and he wouldn't let go until he had an answer; what are you going to tell him now, Ellison?
But the gods were smiling on him today, and Blair supplied his own answer: "Oh, man, I bet that storm drain smell is still in here, isn't it. What, in the seat covers? In the floor mats?-- I was dripping all over the place, no question, that stuff is everywhere, Jim, can you still smell it even after last night?"
It was a sad day when he was actually happy to have his sense of smell tested all the way to the station. Jim rubbed his forehead. It looked like the beginning of a very long day.
Blair was trying to make Jim sniff out the fiber content of the wallpaper when they got into the station elevator, but Jim was rescued by the arrival of Judkin, who was cheerfully waving a sheaf of black-and-whites. "Hey, Blair, we got graffiti this time!"
"All right, Sonia!" Blair shot her a thumbs-up.
"Graffiti is good news for the Civil Rights Division?" Jim asked as Blair pushed the button.
"Well, we've got the usual minor assault and damage to property down at the Paragon-- bunch of cars keyed, couple tires slashed, some guys hassled in the parking lot," she said. "Only this time," she added, turning over the stack of photos, "somebody scratches 'Die fag' on the hood of a pickup."
"Classy," Jim said.
"No, but see, it's good, man, it's good, it proves intent," Blair said as the doors slid open. "It means if they arrest somebody it's not just vandalism, they can charge hate crimes."
Jim thought about Scott's narrow back retreating across the shadowy parking lot of Salem's, and felt a hot wash of anger. "Good," he growled. "Somebody ought to teach those bastards a lesson-- you nail 'em good, Judkin!" he shouted after her.
The elevator doors slid closed. Blair was staring at him.
"What?" Jim said. "Some asshole thinks it's okay to mess with innocent people who are just trying to live their lives..." He trailed off, struck by Blair's expression, which was radiating surprise and, stunningly, pride. Jim was abruptly ashamed of not having publicly declared sides in this battle sooner.
Because he had been on this side all along, hadn't he? Of course he had. It just went along with everything else he believed: You mind your own business, you don't mess with other people's private matters, it was tough enough making sense of your own love life without feeling like you could dictate someone else's, right?
It had nothing to do with Scott Luniak's laughing mouth and guitar-roughened fingers. Or with wanting Blair to be proud of him.
Blair was strangely subdued as they entered the bullpen, and Jim spared a glance from the pile of pink phone messages to see him hastily turning his chair away from the desk. What was up with that? The set of Blair's shoulders was both guilty and relieved.
Shit. He knows what happens at the Paragon because it's happened to him.
As soon as he thought of it, Jim knew he was right, could tap into the memories with terrifying clarity: litter of broken pebble-glass underfoot, some kind of drum-machined dance music hissing through the open club door, sudden painful grip of a stranger's hand on his shoulder--
Shit. Jim was sweating. He'd promised himself he wouldn't pry into Sandburg's private life. Had made it a point of honor, his own personal Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
But damn it, when he made that decision, he hadn't known what it was like. He hadn't known how vulnerable Sandburg would be despite his strength and wiry energy, how easy it would be for some Neanderthal with a Messiah complex to single him out--
He hadn't known Blair could get hurt.
A sudden pain made him look down, and he was surprised to find his fists were clenched. Breathe, Ellison.
Go to Part 2
November 11, 2000