Cliche: "Old flame returns to cause trouble"Sense: Hearing
Afterwards, standing in a sooty puddle outside the smoking remains of 852 Prospect, Jim couldn't believe that he had mistaken a drug lab for a techno house party. This, he thought grimly, crossing his arms over his tattered blue bathrobe, was what growing up in the seventies did for you; so much for his freewheeling "live and let live" attitude. Yeah, okay, maybe he'd taken a couple of purple pills back when he was doing long hours in Black Ops, and in Peru, it was pretty much a given that you'd eat the mushrooms and smoke the peace pipe before passing out in the sweat lodge, but this was 1996, the stock market was booming, and there was a Democrat in the White House. What the hell were kids today rebelling against, anyway — Celine Dion? They didn't know what suffering was; they hadn't lived through disco.
"It's the same guys, can you believe it?" Sandburg, fully dressed but looking a bit singed around the edges, was clutching his laptop to his chest like someone was gonna run out from between the fire trucks and snatch it from him — which, the way this day was going, was even possible. "The same fucking guys who blew up my place at the warehouse; they've been out on parole for what, five minutes?" He sat down on the back of what had turned out to be an extra ambulance; most of the gang members who'd been caught in the chemical explosion had already been carted off, faces covered with gauze, to the hospital.
"I don't know, Sandburg; Simon's running them through the system now. According to the building manager, they signed a lease for the second floor loft a month ago." Jim sighed and shook his head. "Man, I knew there was something wrong with those guys."
Sandburg gaped at him. "You 'knew there was something wrong with those guys'? What clued you in, O Sentinel of the Great City? — the vats of PCP, the heavy machinery, or the fourteen heavily-armed tenants?"
"I thought they were kegs," Jim mumbled. "I thought the machinery was a sound system. Hey, they played techno all the time," he added defensively. "I thought they were — "
" — having a party?" Sandburg's shoulders slumped. "Yeah, me too," and you had to say this for Sandburg; he was pretty honest. "I kept hoping they would invite me."
Jim's cellphone rang, and he reached into his bathrobe pocket and pulled it out; when the first explosion smashed up through the living room floor, he had taken the staircase in two bounds, grabbed his gun, cell phone, and Sandburg, and barreled down the concrete fire steps. Sandburg had been using his laptop on the kitchen table when the floor had burst open not fifteen feet from him, and so Jim had let him slam it shut and take it with him. He'd made himself deaf to anything Sandburg said after that, otherwise it would have been "priceless Inca artifact"-this, and "Oh my god, library book!"-that. Jim was no expert on fires, but he was pretty sure that they only had a few minutes before the building collapsed in on itself and Rainier collected its fines posthumously.
He'd been right about that much anyway. Jim flipped the phone out and held it to his ear as he stared at the smoldering wreckage; he might not have been to a decent party in ten years, but he could still predict the demise of a building, by God. "Ellison."
"Jim," Simon said, concern palpable in his voice. "Sandburg's right; it's the same gang who blew up his place last year. Judge Finklestein let them out on parole two months ago," he added with an audible snort, "as part of a pilot program. You know the drill: our prisons are overcrowded, these are victimless crimes, drug use is a social disease, blah blah — "
"Victimless crime? Those bastards blew Sandburg out of his hole a year ago — and into my apartment!" Jim glared at the rubble of his building. "Or what used to be my apartment. I'll show Finklestein a victimless crime. I'm a victim, here, Simon!"
"I know. I'm sorry, Jim," Simon said, and Jim was brought up short by the deep sympathy in his voice. Right, yeah, he'd just lost his home — except he'd already lost most of his stuff when he was presumed dead in Peru, and the remainder had gone in the divorce. He did have a couple of sweaters he was going to miss, though, and it would take years to really break in another pair of jeans. "You and Blair come stay with me," Simon said. "I'll have a black and white take you to my — "
"Thanks, Simon; I appreciate the thought, but right now, I just want a shower, a motel with cable, and a six pack of beer." He rubbed at his cheek, and was unsurprised when his hand came away sooty. "If Sandburg's nice, he can have one."
"Hey, based on body weight, I'm thinking that's fair. Check in tomorrow, okay?"
"Will do," Jim said, and snapped the phone shut. He drifted back toward Sandburg, who was still sitting tiredly on the ambulance tailgate. "You were right, Chief. It's the same guys — "
"I told you it was the same guys," Sandburg interrupted. "Some of them were, anyway. I recognized them from living next door to them — you know, twice?"
"All right, all right. You were right, have a happy moment with yourself. Me, I need to find a bed and a beer, not in that order."
"Great, fine," Sandburg said, and braced his motorcycle boots on the ground, which was foamy and wet from the fire hoses. "Where are we going?"
He'd planned to take Sandburg with him, but he was still irked by Sandburg's easy assumption of the fact. "Who's we, kimosabe? I offered you a room the last time your place blew up because I had a room. Now," and here, Jim swept his arm toward the fire-scorched rubble, "I don't. You and me, we're on our own."
Sandburg let out a long-suffering sigh and briefly raised a hand to shove hair out of his face before fumbling in his back jeans pocket. "All right, fine, be that way. I can probably find a floor to crash on. I just figured that, what with me still having my wallet and car keys," and here, Sandburg held up his wallet, a colorfully-knitted South American crafts thing that Jim wouldn't have been caught dead carrying, with a large car key hanging off the end, "and you not having any pants, we might maybe join forces and shack up together at the local Super 8." He shrugged elaborately. "But then again — "
Jim groaned and let his forehead thunk against the cold metal side of ambulance. "Can we get beer, at least?"
Sandburg pushed up onto his feet and patted Jim's back reassuringly. "We can get beer, yeah," he said. "And some of those disgusting orange chips that you like. Also, maybe some clothes — I think there's an all-night store somewhere up 22." Jim lifted his head from the ambulance; Sandburg's lips were twisted into a wry smile, but his eyes were oddly serious. "I got this. You pulled me out of the building; let me take care of the rest."
Jim straightened up, jammed his hands in his bathrobe pockets, and fixed him with a baleful eye. "I don't need you to take care of anything, Sandburg. I'm on it."
"Okay, never mind," Sandburg said, and rolled his eyes. He latched onto Jim's arm and began to tug him toward the Corvair. "Forget I said anything. You're on it!"
"I mean, I'm insured to the hilt on this place," Jim said, stumbling along reluctantly toward the car. "Two days, I'll get my credit cards replaced, I'll get in contact with my broker, and I'll put a down payment on something — something big." Something with a spare room. "Meanwhile, you're gonna — "
He had to interrupt his diatribe to move to the passenger side of the car. Sandburg unlocked the driver's side door, slid in, and leaned over to tug up the lock on the passenger side. Jim opened the door, folded himself into the car, and picked up where he left off.
"Meanwhile, you're gonna max out your credit cards on this little excursion," Jim chided.
Sandburg had already shoved his key into the ignition, and he seemed just about to turn it when he paused and tilted his head toward Jim. His blue eyes were huge. "Probably, yeah. But that's what credit is for — "
— and if things were different, Jim thought stupidly, he would just lean across the car and kiss the kid, because after all, he'd grown up in the seventies, and Sandburg was what his father used to call, dismissively, a "nonconformist." But this was 1996, and the stock market was booming, and there was a Democrat in the White House, and he wasn't sure if a forty-something ex-Army captain could kiss a hippy graduate student in the front seat of a Corvair. Then again, Sandburg had just said something about a Super 8 motel, which sounded promising, and "shacking up," which sounded more promising still, and his apartment had just burned down and he was about to go and buy beer in his bathrobe, so really, how much more different could things be?
Sandburg only had a moment to look surprised before Jim cupped his cheek and kissed him, and Jim held his breath until he felt Sandburg's hands fumble for and then make fists in the lapels of his bathrobe. He tasted of smoke and ashes, but his mouth was soft and his tongue pushed hotly into Jim's mouth — and within seconds, he'd taken control of the kiss, shoving Jim back against the seat and half climbing into his lap.
Jim was breathing hard and fast when Sandburg pulled away, though Sandburg wasn't exactly Mr. Put Together, himself. Instead, he was flushed and glassy-eyed, hair corkscrewing in every direction. "You know," Jim said, between breaths, "you're really pushy," and when Sandburg smiled, he was the most beautiful thing Jim had ever seen.
"Oh yeah? What ever gave you that idea?" and suddenly Sandburg was belting himself in, and starting the ignition, and saying, "Let's go straight to the Super 8; we can send out for pizza and beer. Clothes can wait until tomorrow. Or," he added, hooking his arm over the Corvair's back seat and looking over his shoulder with a feral grin, "maybe the next day," — and then they were speeding down Prospect Avenue toward the expressway.
Author's Note: This was written fot the TS Ficathon. Thanks to Terri and Mia for beta help, and to Merry for getting me into this mess in the first place.