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The Sentinel, Jim/Blair slash, first-time, PG, 15900 words or so.
Room at the Top
"His name is Frank Agnew, and he's the worst trouble we've seen come along since..." Simon trailed off as the year's set of serial murders, terrorist threats, and gang wars paraded across his memory. He winced and pushed on. "In a while. He's an ex-cop; used to work in Vice, Jim, after your time. We think he was dirty from the start, but there's no proof. When the Void ended up short a leader he moved in, left the force and started taking over the meth game. Sometimes things go wrong at his deals, and another gang leader ends up dead. So Agnew takes over his operation. His motto is 'Nature abhors a vacuum.'"
Jim nodded seriously, then said, "Like Blair."
"Hey, I sweep, I mop... this is slander, Simon."
Simon scowled at them. "Will you two pay attention? He's got a big meet planned this weekend, with some pretty fat targets. We think he may try another hit under cover of the drug sale. It's due to go down at a hotel outside of town, the Willard Green. Pretty swank location."
Jim was getting interested. "So we get some guys in, catch him red-handed."
Simon shook his head. "Agnew was one of us, man. He knows all our moves. We'll have to keep the mop-up squad pretty far back in reserve. That means we need someone undercover in the hotel. Someone who's obviously there as a private citizen. No single men, no groups, just a hotel patron taking a holiday with the missus. Only problem is, none of the guys were willing to endanger their wives like this."
Jim was puzzled. "You couldn't send in a female officer to play the wife?"
"Uh-uh. Agnew's sharp, too sharp. He knows the tricks, he'd spot a setup a mile away. No, this has to be on the level." Simon moved his chin. "Uh, as much as we can get it." He leaned back in the chair. "That's where you two come in."
"Us." Jim and Blair looked at each other. "You want us to go undercover?"
"No way," Blair said. "I am not wearing a dress, man."
"Oh, no? What happened to that evening gown, like J. Edgar Hoover?"
"Huh? What come on, that was hyperbole!"
"Guys. Guys." Simon raised his hand. "I don't know what you're talking about and, frankly, I don't want to know, but no one is asking you to dress up as a woman, Sandburg. Which is good, because if you ask me, you'd make a pretty ugly one. No, we need something that looks real. Jim, you have to seem like you're really off-duty, having private time. Very private time."
Jim frowned a little, groping for it. "What, you mean... dress casual... talk about fishing?"
"That's what we do anyway," Blair objected, turning back. "Simon, they're going to take one look at Jim and know he's a cop. Even with a pile of guidebooks and a kayak."
"Exactly. No hope of hiding that. So we have to go all out, distract Agnew and his team. Now be reasonable, and just listen to me. I want you two to go undercover as... well, lovers." He straightened some papers on the desk and plunged ahead, not exactly looking at Jim as he painted the picture. "You just wanted to get out of Cascade and relax, somewhere you can be yourselves, away from the prying eyes..."
"No. Absolutely not, Simon," Jim said, his jaw growing three sizes. "I'm not endangering Blair like that."
"Whatever," Blair said, sounding surprised, but arguing automatically. "I've done undercover before, you know. Last time you talked me into it. News flash: Since I started observing you, I've been kidnapped, hit, locked up, shot in the chest... how is that worse if people think we're together? I'm in the line of fire whether we're, we're, holding hands, or not."
"Holding hands?" Jim looked startled.
"Besides, you used to work with Carolyn, didn't you?"
"Not in the field!"
"Jim. Relax. It's fine. I'll do it."
Simon pointed at Blair. "Now someone's being sensible. I figured you wouldn't mind, Sandburg. I'm not saying nothin'..." he added, when he got his own version of the Blair glare trained on him. "Just, those liberal values should come in handy. Now. We'll make reservations for you at the hotel. You two show up early, establish a presence, uh, canoodle a little bit..."
"You really think this is going to work, Simon?" Blair asked, ignoring his partner. "I mean, will anybody buy it? We don't exactly look like a couple. Jim would be pretty much out of my league, for one thing."
Simon nodded. "I know you two look kind of funny together, but stranger things have happened, and the point is, you don't mind getting a little up close and personal. Hugging... or... whatever." He gave Jim a hard look. "You won't go over all macho and chicken out like some of the guys."
"I'm not afraid of my sensitive side, sir," Jim said, with a sneer and a good helping of what Simon's mother would have referred to as sass.
Simon ignored the danger signs. The Ellison attitude needed a firm hand or it blew up fast. "Good. Then start packing." He slid the file across the desk and, after a moment, Blair picked it up. "Gentlemen, get ready for a romantic getaway. Courtesy of the Willard Green."
FRIDAY, 17:00 HOURS
Jim had declined valet parking. No uniformed drop-out was getting his ham hands on Jim's truck. They sat with the brake on and looked at the building, getting settled in their heads. Undercover. He could do this. No problem.
Blair was peaceful on the passenger side, a little wired up, but no more than usual. He liked going on cases. He didn't even mind pretending to be Jim's... Jim's. He thought the whole thing was funny.
Jim wasn't so sure. They were getting into areas here they'd never talked about, and Jim just didn't know if this was something he wanted to mess with. He rehearsed it in his head: casual. A bored sigh, a vault out of the truck, and Come on, chief. Time to canoodle. They'd laugh about it. Break the ice. Why make it a big deal? It's not like he would ever he had a brief, crazy flash of reaching over, shoving Blair's shoulders back against the car seat and kissing him on the mouth. Blair would probably have a heart attack. Might be worth it just to see his face.
Blair sighed and quit staring out the window at the hotel, which was fancy, schmancy, and points in between. "So, you ready for some... canoodling?"
In Blair's prosaic voice made Jim snort, chuckle, even, and snapped him out of his trance. Nerves. What was he so worked up about? This was only Blair. And no one could see into Jim's brain if he didn't let them.
"Gotta work on your lines, Romeo," he said, and pushed the door open.
They stalled out before they even got to the building, standing over their pile of baggage arguing in low tones about how to proceed. Blair always got carried away in the moment, like he was still trying to prove he belonged there. "We should try to look gay. Hold hands or something."
"If we left Cascade to get a little privacy, I don't think we're that out."
"What kind of cover is it if nobody notices?"
"...What did you have in mind?"
Blair pushed his hair back. "Well, nothing too obvious. We could try walking closer together."
Jim shrugged. "Right." He hefted his bag. They turned toward the hotel and immediately bumped into each other.
"Watch it! Not that close, just, closer." They tried again. They made it two steps before Blair tripped on Jim's foot.
A little experimentation proved that it was impossible for them to walk any closer without getting tangled, so they went back to normal and carried on the handholding debate all the way in the scroll-painted glass doors. Jim dropped his voice as they approached the reception desk.
"I just realized I forgot something."
"Oh no. What?"
He bent low so only Blair could hear him. "I should have carried you over the threshold."
Blair smacked him in the gut. "You try that, I'll kick your ass." He didn't even really sound pissed. His eyes were dancing.
A woman's voice said, "Welcome to the Willard Green, gentlemen."
Blair jumped a little and Jim pulled away and they turned together, focusing on business. Right time to start acting gay.
The first obstacle was staring him in the face. Literally. A long blonde with a short bob and a blue-grey power suit was presiding across the podium.
"We'd like a room, miss," Jim said.
"Danny will see to that." She stepped to one side and a good-looking kid in a uniform stepped up from behind her, looking just a little bit relieved to have her attention off him. The blonde moved around the side of the podium she seemed to have forgotten her skirt, judging by the amount of leg that was showing and held out her hand for him to shake. "I'm Linda Walker, the manager."
Jim, a little late, shook it. "Sorry, uh... you were behind the desk." Her lips were pink. He thought it was natural.
"I like to keep a close eye on my business," she said coolly, in a tone that was either an insult or a come-on.
"I can see why," Jim said. Likewise.
She withdrew her hand slowly, then pivoted and demonstrated her gait down the hall, the words "Enjoy your stay" floating over her shoulder. Her high heels made soft thuds on the carpet.
"Smooth," Blair said, elbowing him.
"I don't know what you mean."
"Yeah." Rolling his eyes, Blair turned to the concierge and propped an arm on the podium. "My partner and I would like a room for the weekend. We've got reservations."
As Blair gave their names, Jim's keen eyesight detected that the kid, Danny, was checking Blair out. At least, he was pretty sure that's what was going on. He was unreasonably annoyed for a second (wasn't he supposed to be the hot one?) But maybe establishing their cover was going to be easier than he'd thought.
Thoughtfully, experimentally, Jim let his own attention focus on the concierge for more than the brief glance and nod he would normally have given him. Jim had been cruised himself enough times that he was pretty sure he could do it too, if he put his mind to it. It was mostly a matter of remembering to instead of remembering not to.
Danny had finished confirming the reservation (last-minute work by Simon, they'd been guaranteed a room but nothing else) when he felt the attention and looked up. His hands stilled on the keyboard and he returned eye contact for a gratifying few seconds beyond normal before turning back to Blair with professional determination. Jim couldn't swear the kid's freeze had been interest rather than panic, though. But he had crossed one of his inner lines. Call it a mixed success. "I'm afraid I can't offer you any of our front rooms or garden suites, sir. There seems to be some sort of convention this weekend."
"That's fine," Blair said, "we're just here for some relaxation. You know..." He grinned awkwardly, trying to decide how far to go with it. "Privacy? Something private?" He swallowed and shot Jim a look. "Uh, believe me. We don't need a suite."
Jim did his bit for the role by moving in closer. He realized a minute later that he'd started to reach over to Blair, and been stopped by habit. Casually, at the right moments, yes; consciously, when people were looking at him and wondering, no. "Just a room. Thanks."
Danny skimmed a polite evaluating look back and forth between them and handed Blair some keys. "I'm sorry, this is the best I can do on short notice, but I hope you enjoy the view."
That turned out to mean a lot of walking in their future. Blair turned back to snag a map on their way past the desk, staggering as his luggage overbalanced. As soon as they were alone in the hall, Blair said, "Nice going, I think the lovely Linda was taken with you."
He kept his ears open as they traversed the full length of the building, checking for sounds of trouble. A meet at this level was big business; not all the gang-bangers would be staying here, but the top dogs and their flunkies would be. No point breaking the law for cash if you don't get to spend it. They passed a spa room, where Blair did an obvious double-take over the pretty masseuse (come on, Sandburg, if she's even out of college yet...) and a dining area that said "overpriced but decent" to Jim's practiced eyes. He thought he heard guns being handled in two of the rooms, and noted the numbers.
Blair talked. "You going to get her number? When all this is over, I mean."
"Maybe." An off sound caught his attention; when nothing followed it, he shook his head and moved on. Too much here, an unfamiliar environment. He'd get a feel for what to ignore. "Right now it wouldn't hurt to keep an eye on her. Our target's done a deal here before, Simon said. Something about the place appeals to him. Maybe he's got inside help, somebody keeping things smooth for him."
"Oh, you mean and who better than the hotel manager?"
"I just think it wouldn't hurt to keep an eye on her." He'd been right the first time, something was definitely happening around the corner of the T junction ahead. He tuned his awareness and concentrated.
He barely heard Blair's voice behind him, "Well, try not to drool."
Shoving, thumping, a muffled shout. The air changed. Perfume... someone was standing in front of him.
"Do you need help finding your rooms, Mr...."
It was Linda Walker again. She must have come down the other leg of the T. Jim shook his head, but the loud angry part of the conversation was over, and he couldn't make his hearing shift back while she was talking to him close up.
"Blair Sandburg, and this is Jim Ellison."
"...Ellison?" she finished.
Around the corner, a door closed and someone moved away down the hall in the other direction, almost running.
"Jim," he said.
"I think we're fine, thanks," Blair said, flapping the brochure with the floor plan. "Room 509, back, back, up, and back."
"There seems to be a convention this weekend," she said, with a trace of apology sliding quickly into pride. "Most of our guests make reservations well in advance."
"I'm sure you're doing your best, Ms. Walker," Jim said.
"Linda." Looking almost startled, she brushed past him and hurried away back toward the front of the hotel.
Blair watched him watching her. "A reeeeal close eye?"
"This is business." Jim flicked the side of the brochure and got them moving again. The other hall was empty.
"I don't know, man. You're doing your she-wants-me walk."
Jim raised an eyebrow.
"You know, that kind of chin-up swishing walk, the walk." Blair didn't demonstrate.
"Swishing?" Jim sputtered. "Men don't swish."
"Well, some men do." Jim looked at him. There was a pause. "I'm just saying! Some men swish."
Jim really didn't have an answer to that. They moved on down the hall. There were mirrors.
"The way I walk has nothing to do..."
Blair patted his arm soothingly. "I know! I know, Jim. Just like the way you dress doesn't indicate anything either."
The elevator doors opened. "The way I dress?"
It was a slow ride up to the fifth floor. Blair was sneaking sideways glances at Jim, a grin at the corners of his mouth. "Hey. Come on, you have got to loosen up. It's just a role. No reason to take it personally."
"Yeah. No reason."
Blair shut his mouth for two seconds and then he'd already gotten going again, a delayed train of thought catching up and coming out. "You know, I don't get what you're so nervous about. You're usually cool as a cucumber. What is it? Are you afraid of running into someone you know?" That scored a minor hit, but Jim shrugged, and Blair hesitated, not sure if he'd got something. Blair had this thing about wanting to know everything about him. Usually, Jim was okay with that. "Well... guess that's not so likely for a cop, at these prices," Blair said, letting it go.
It was more likely than Blair realized, but Jim hadn't been thinking much about that. He thought about it now. If he ran into one of his dad's old friends at this place? Ha. He almost liked the idea.
Blair stretched his arms and bounced on the balls of his feet. "At least we're moving up in the world. This sure beats the last couple hotel cases. And I don't have to wear a beard this time. Hey, get it? No beard?"
"Yeah, you're hilarious." Finding Blair on the floor with a hole in his front wasn't one of Jim's better memories, vest or no vest. Didn't matter that it was in the plan. You planned things you didn't want to happen. Things happened that you didn't want to plan. This whole operation could be heading for disaster, and Blair wouldn't stop grinning like a kid at the circus.
"Here we go, room 509."
It was at the very end of the wing, at the rear of the hotel, built up against a utility closet. One of those afterthought rooms you found even at places like this. They'd packed in all the same fixings in the smaller space, making it somewhat claustrophobic. The media center took up an entire corner and there were enough pillows on the matching beds to equip an army of sorority girls. The view was impressive, probably, but Jim mostly noticed the billows of steam and starch from the outbuilding below, coming right up into their windows. He wiped his eyes and shut the screens quickly.
Jim did a quick search of the room while Blair checked out the free soaps, and they started unpacking. Blair bumped his elbow in the oddly angled closet and swore. "This has got to be the most out-of-the-way room in the place. You think maybe they stuck us back here because we're gay?"
"We're not" Jim stopped. He remembered to keep his voice low but casual. "Place like this, they're not going to care enough to discriminate."
"Oh. Right. I guess that makes sense." Blair actually looked a little disappointed. Damn bleeding-heart liberals.
Jim reached over and tweaked his ear. "Besides, didn't you notice the desk clerk?"
"Danny? What about him?"
"He was checking you out."
"He was not. Was he?" As expected, that perked Blair right back up. "You know, that's kind of flattering. I mean I'm not one of these guys that's too hung up on conventionality. I always figured if the right person came along, hey, I might be open to it. Love is about people's souls, not gender."
"Uh-huh." Jim nodded along with him. "It's just that everyone who's had the right soul so far also had breasts."
"You could say that." Blair snickered. "Lucky me, huh?"
Jim was stacking his t-shirts in the drawer. His ears were ringing. Don't do this. Three, two, one... "So what about my soul, chief?" he asked. Casually, but it came out almost angry. "Definitely not the right one? Since you're so open to the idea."
"I... I... Jim!" Blair stopped with a hanger wrestled into one sleeve, staring like a guppy. Shocked. Horrified? "Oh... man, you had me going for a minute there. I thought you were serious." He laughed and put the shirt in the closet.
Jim's guts recovered from their parachute drop. He shoved the drawer shut and faked a superior grin. "Gotta project yourself into the role, babe."
"Right. Right. Honey." Blair stared down into the mess of his duffel bag and stifled another giggle.
Time to go establish a presence as weekend guests. Jim held the door for Blair, motioning impatiently. He looked down at the top of Blair's head as they walked out. Just like that, he'd slipped. And no fall. A minute ago he'd thought he was on the verge of being sick, and now everything was back to normal. This partnership, friendship, Blair had called it, was steady enough that even the occasional burst of insane honesty couldn't make a dent. It was safe.
Oh, he'd go on making an effort to stay cool, keep it easy, keep looking for that woman who could distract him, end the risk. But it was a relief to know that maybe he couldn't screw it up. Things were going to go on the way Blair wanted them, the way Blair saw them, the way everything had from the beginning, until...
until whenever. Jim didn't want to think about the future. Blair finding a new project, a new enthusiasm, and walking away although something deep down and primitively confident whispered never gonna happen, but that didn't make sense and he'd stopped letting wishful thinking take the wheel years ago. For now, this was his, and it was real and reliable, and he wanted it. Jim walked down the carpeted hall with a close friend who'd just turned him down, and felt, all in all, pretty good.
Their first public appearance wasn't exactly center stage.
Their table looked onto the garden. That would have been more exciting if it weren't getting dark already. They were screened from most of the room on the other side by some dark wood paneling and a lot of ferns; they could see a few other tables if they craned their necks, mostly pinned-up hair and the dark backs of suit jackets, and he had quickly figured out that the swinging door on the other side of the panels led to the kitchen.
"Nice table for two," Blair said. "Think they put us back here because it's romantic, or so nobody would see us?"
Jim shrugged. He'd been wondering the same thing. He wasn't used to getting put in the corner. "Maybe both." Come to think of it, they were probably just underdressed.
"That concierge got the drift, all right. I could see him, you know, drawing conclusions. I bet that is why they seated us here."
"Well, don't get worked up about it, this isn't exactly suffering." He tossed Blair a menu. "Take a gander at the main courses." The usual nouvelle cuisine plus six ways to eat salmon.
Blair went 'oo.'
"I, uh, I hope this dinner is on Uncle Simon."
"You'd better believe it."
Their waiter arrived in a swirl of pressed sleeves and apron. He introduced himself as Jeremy and expressed his desire to be of any assistance, yadda yadda, blah blah, waiters without food weren't very interesting to Jim. Jeremy agreed to give them a minute to actually read the menu, thank you very much, and took off again.
Blair swivelled in his chair to watch him go. "He was gay too, right?"
"That's not one of my senses, kid."
Blair ignored him, turning back and shaking out his napkin with a grin. "This is so cool! It's like a whole underground network in the hospitality industry. And I never would have known about it. I wonder if someone's already done a paper?"
Jim sighed. "It's not like the Mafia, with some kind of secret sign. And they wouldn't give us the gay waiter just so no one else catches our cooties, either. It's coincidence."
"Sure, but maybe he asked for our table. You know, as a favor." He looked significant and cheerful, and when Jim didn't get it through a few escalations of nods and you-knows, continued, "He probably saw you come in, or just heard you were a hunk and wanted to get a better look."
"What - me?" Jim said modestly. "Come on." He looked away. The light probably caught his profile and made the line of his neck stand out, a little. He was pretty sure that was a good angle. Out of the corner of his eye, he checked Blair for effect, but Blair was just gazing at him with the warm googly-moogly eyes.
"You've been great about all this, Jim. I'm really impressed."
Jim snapped his head straight, suddenly mildly annoyed.
"I'd have thought all this stuff would freak you out, and instead you've just, whoosh, taken it in stride. I'm surprised, man!"
"Thought you'd cornered the market on social tolerance?"
"I guess I underestimated you. You know, the whole Special Forces thing, the white socks..."
"Just read your menu."
The waiter came back in less than two minutes. Jim tripped over his tongue a couple times while ordering drinks, stupidly self-conscious and distracted by having to keep a warning eye on Sandburg to make sure he didn't snicker.
Then they were alone again. At a table with white linen, a candle, real silver, a floating camellia in a glass. Jim experienced some unfamiliar awkwardness, turned to scan the room what he could see of it caught the eye of one of the diners, a middle-aged woman who looked like someone's aunt, and turned back to his own table. So what. Those people didn't care who he was with. He had dinner with Blair all the time anyway.
But they were supposed to be acting romantic. He was supposed to be looking at Blair like he... like he wanted to take him home tonight. Like he was dreaming about a white picket fence and his-and-his towels. (Come to think of it, he'd already bought Blair matching fishing tackle, so maybe it wasn't so hard to no, no, don't actually dream don't actually think about it. No reason to get himself bent out of shape.)
The waiter popped up again with a couple appetizer dishes, marinated olives and roasted almonds, "On the house." He lingered by Jim's shoulder and buzzed away again. Blair laughed at him: "See, what did I tell you? You must have made the secret sign by accident."
"Right, like a Triple A discount? Doesn't work that way."
"Oh, like you'd know."
Jim felt his face shut down.
"What is it?"
"Thought I heard something."
He cased the room with his senses, then, just to justify the distraction. Whispers, sniffs, chewing. Meat sizzling in the kitchen. The jerk at the nearest table was wearing too much cologne, L'Homme Nouveau; didn't he know women hated that stuff? Jim thought he heard Linda Walker in the background, ripping into some poor bastard in perfectly measured tones, like a cross between a drill sergeant and an elocution teacher. He wondered what she was like in bed. Might be fun to melt that ice, hear her lose control, see her hair mussed across the pillow. She'd be exciting, challenging. She could take his strength, his stubbornness. Maybe he'd like her.
He looked back at Blair.
Knives tapped on plates. Crystal glasses clinked, in unconnected rhythm, a diamond circle all around the room.
"Jim? Jim?" Blair waved a hand nervously. He's not zoning, is he?
"Nothing." Jim coughed and slugged some water, poking at the menu as if he hadn't lost all interest in it, which he obviously had. "We're supposed to be... you know..." His eyes flicked back to Blair, who suppressed a small jump in his seat.
Very blue eyes. Clear as a baby's and sometimes as hard to read.
Blair calmed himself down through the weirdness stages of excitement his instinctive flattered reaction and reminded himself that eye contact was nothing new, it was just that usually Jim only looked at him like that when Blair was talking, caught up in some idea or other. It was sitting here in silence being looked at that threw him. Like there was something worth looking at, even when his mouth was shut. And then he got it.
"Canoodling," Blair whispered. "Right." He pulled himself together. Of course, they'd known this, they'd planned it well, joked about it that they'd need to put on a show of... couple-type behavior. He could do this. It was weird, but he could do it. He put his chin up, determined to gaze back at Jim with his best lovelorn face he wouldn't try "seductive" on Jim, that would just get him laughed at but two seconds of that warm, wrong, inappropriate look from Jim (his roommate, for God's sake) and he was looking at the table again, praying that he wouldn't blush. "I, uh, I don't think anyone can really see us back here," he said. "Maybe we don't need to."
Jim shrugged and leaned back. "It's good practice. Don't blame me if you can't handle the job, junior." With an aura of obvious off-the-hookness that told a resentful Blair that he could have freaked out Jim just as badly if he'd thought to try it first, Jim glanced around again beyond the screen of plants. "Only one person looking. Female. South wall. Think she was just curious." He kept his action-hero profile turned away for a minute, some thought passing across it like a cool shadow on a hot day, and lowered his head. "This... this is what it would be like." He looked back at Blair. "If people knew I was a Sentinel."
Blair did a mental two-step with an awkward shimmy and was firmly back in the groove of the conversation. "Hey, maybe."
"Some people stare... some people think you're a freak of nature, someone who shouldn't be around kids..." He pushed at the bowl of olives and looked up again. "Some people think it's pretty cool."
"And some people don't give a damn," Blair agreed, feeling that deep-down thrill he got whenever they moved into an area where he really knew his stuff. Because if there was one thing Blair had a longterm acquaintance with, it was living on the edges. Learning how to find what people would accept about you and present that, so you could have your seat at the campfire, your share of food and protection and sexual gratification. And what parts of yourself you still had to hide, because not even that was worth giving them up.
"Yeah." Jim nodded, seeming to like that one the best, nodding again. "Yeah, I guess not."
"Having people know about your Sentinel senses would be different, though, in some ways," Blair pointed out, leaning over the table to focus Jim's attention. "Both easier and harder, maybe. In a way, you're less of a threat, because there's only one of you, but then that also makes you more conspicuous." He'd nearly said 'alone', but Jim wouldn't be that not with him there.
Jim stunned him then by looking up and saying, like a student presenting a proposed paper topic, that same mix of improvisation and conviction, "But what if there are others?" He licked his lips. "You said there've been other cases of people with one or more hyperactive senses. What if there are more people like me, with all of them, who are afraid to come forward? People who don't want to get found, or, or who couldn't handle it when they came online, who didn't... couldn't... make sense of it." Jim had been on the edge when Blair found him, increasingly overwhelmed by chaotic sensory input. Not yet about to go crazy or lose his job, but the possibility was there.
"That could be," Blair said, feeling breathless. "No reason why not."
"Maybe they'd have an easier time if they knew it was real. That it can help people. Maybe if they saw me, read about how this is all built in for, for society, has a whole history, they wouldn't think they were just... freaks. If you hadn't" Neither of them needed to hear that out loud, so Jim stopped and tried again. "If I hadn't found out what was going on... Maybe I could make a difference for someone else."
Jim was getting his mentor face on again. One of these days Blair would have to find out why he had such a big brother complex. "That's great, Jim. That's a really great idea." He was proud of Jim for coming to this perspective, starting to take ownership of his senses and his identity, instead of going on pretending to treat them like an awkward coat someone had shoved him into. "But I want you to think carefully"
What was he saying? This was what he wanted, Jim out in the open, admired, Blair's discovery "about whether you're ready for that. Because once people know, man, there's no going back. You're committed."
Shutters paused and then came down, light and slow, one after the other, over the light in Jim's face. He frowned and nodded, reluctantly. Blair started to reach for him across the table, just like he would have done with Maya or any too-open soul in a harsh world, but stopped in time when Jim said, "When I was in covert ops"
Guys who were in covert ops didn't get sympathy arm strokes from other guys, even long-haired sons of hippies. Blair collected himself to listen, respectful of the manly divide.
"We talked a lot about home. It didn't have to be our homes, our real homes, but just... movie theaters. Hot dogs. Basketball games. Family if we had it. Don't get me wrong, we wanted to be out there, but that was always the promise, that when we were done, we could come back. There'd be this safe, predictable, normal life. Clean sheets and regular meals and kids playing in the street. No violence. That's what we fought for, and when you get home... you need it. Even if it's just an illusion. But it's hard to hold on to, it doesn't fit right when you're not used to it. Not even sure what it should look like." He shook his head, searching Blair's face for understanding.
Blair tried to project that he got everything Jim was saying, absolutely and completely, in a really useful and helpful way, even if he didn't necessarily. The problem was that whenever Jim talked about his Special Forces days, Blair couldn't help getting a big playground charge of "Cool!" like a little kid watching the bigger boys with their toy guns, and he knew that wasn't exactly what Jim needed to hear. He felt guilty thinking of Jim's, well, what was probably trauma classic PTSD from his jungle experiences, if Blair read that right in terms of hot-looking pocketed vests and tough guys making exciting hand signals at each other as they crept through the forest, so he tried to tamp that reaction down and focus on really being there for him.
"You're saying living a so-called normal life is like your reward for all that danger and isolation," he said. "It's a transition back to civilian society, and you don't want to get shut out of the clubhouse."
It looked from the pinch of Jim's mouth that he'd gotten it right. "And this," he waved a hand at the candle and the thick folded napkins, the screen of ferns and shiny dark wood, "I can do this, act different, get in people's faces, tell them if they don't like it they know what they can do. But at the end of the weekend we go home and set this aside. Walk in on Monday and everything's the same, back the way it was. We can relax. Once people know... you can't do that any more. It's not on your terms, you can't choose to deal with it sometimes and not others, it's always out there." He concluded, quietly, "I don't think I'm ready for that."
Blair did reach over then, too moved by the sight of Jim blaming himself for lack of courage, because if anyone had guts and put a hand on Jim's. "Then we won't tell them."
The waiter coughed sympathetically.
"Uh, right." Jim recoiled across the table like a snail into his shell. Blair couldn't remember what he'd ordered afterward. His consolation was that at least no one could say he hadn't been keeping up his side of the act.
Jim ordered in monosyllables. Seriously, he seemed to have picked the foods based on how little time it would take to grunt their names. Jeremy the waiter, trying to redeem bad timing with tact and just embarrassing them more, kept his voice light, skipped listing the specials and made himself scarce.
"My thesis," Blair said, feeling it was important to address this while it was out there, but also rattled enough to know it was probably the wrong time. "I mean I thought we'd figure that out later, we'll handle it however you're comfortable, plenty of time..."
Jim cut him off. He'd gone distant again, of course. "Wait. I definitely hear something."
Blair gave him a skeptical look. He'd never known Jim to fake using his senses, but the temptation had to be there.
But Jim was going all action man, dropping his napkin on the table and pushing his chair back with his foot. "On the terrace. Some kind of fight." He took two head-down steps toward the french doors as Blair nervously checked the rest of the room for obvious gunmen. The doors swung open, Blair jumped up, and then several bodies and objects ended up being in exactly the wrong place in relation to each other and people were shouting and, basically, there'd been a screw-up.
Okay, so there was a reason Blair wasn't a cop himself. He pieced together what had happened by the results: a potted fern on the floor, a white-coated back fleeing into the kitchen, night air coming in from the terrace, their horrified and apologetic waiter with a tray, and red wine dripping down the front of Jim's shirt. Somehow, Jeremy had saved the glasses.
Silence fell in the dining room. They weren't that hidden from the others. The waiter kept apologizing, Jim was holding up a "shut up, it's fine" hand and brushing himself off, the kitchen door stopped swinging. Blair gave up the idea of chasing after the running guy, since Jim seemed distracted and people were looking. On the edge of their tableau, Linda Walker appeared.
Like there'd been a signal, normal talk resumed around the room again. She dismissed the waiter with a quick nod Blair didn't envy him the obvious reaming he was going to get later and apologized for the disturbance. "And if you'll come this way, I'll have that seen to," she finished, with a graceful move toward the kitchen. Jim followed her without looking around, and, with a nervous glance back and a shrug, Blair followed him.
Ms. Walker led them through the swinging doors and into a space of white cupboards, flaming metal the grill smelled fantastic and bustling, focused line cooks. There was no sign of someone having passed through here in a hurry or at least, none that Blair could see. Jim's eyes were shooting around all over the place, rap-focusing like sniper binoculars. Blair had come to recognize that weird flicker as his pupils dilated and contracted at abnormal speeds. He wondered if he should ask if anyone had seen a man run out this way a minute ago, but even if they'd take the time out to admit it, that might draw too much attention to their cop status, so he let Jim scan for clues and stepped up to distract Linda instead.
Linda, and, he suspected, that was Ms. Walker to the likes of him, wasn't having any. 'You must be above this line' to get her attention kind of thing. She simply side-stepped him by a few inches and kept her eyes on Jim's face. "I truly am sorry, Mr. Ellison," she said.
"I said, call me Jim."
"Jim. I'll be happy to have your garment cleaned and return it to you as soon as possible. We have our own laundry facilities at the rear of the building."
Jim brought his straying attention back to her, refocusing on her upturned features with an obvious change of stance. "Uh, that's very kind of you."
"With this kind of stain, the sooner the better. If you'd just let me know when you'd like me to pick it up." There was something in her voice... a little too much intent. She's angling for an invitation back to the room, Blair realized. Hello, package deal here! Somehow he didn't think she'd want the shirt off both their backs. And that could get awkward.
Jim seemed to come to the same conclusion. "No time like the present," he said mildly, and started untucking. Right there in the kitchen.
Blair and Linda stood with what were probably surprisingly similar expressions on their faces as Jim, with slow dare-you self-satisfaction, finished unbuttoning and removing his shirt and handing it to her. The wine hadn't soaked in as far as the white muscle shirt underneath. He might have been sucking in his gut, but the sad fact was he probably didn't need to.
I can't believe I hang out with this guy, Blair thought ruefully. Mister modesty until the testosterone starts pumping, and then all he needs is a thong with some bills sticking out of it. ...Great, now he needed to bleach his brain of that image. At least Jim wasn't going all the way bareback. Bad idea around all those girls, uh, grills. Spitting grills.
Linda Walker raised a pale brow and draped the shirt over her arm. She dragged her eyes back up to Jim's and touched the tip of her tongue to her lip. "I'm sorry I can't offer you an immediate replacement."
"I don't think yours would fit me."
Oh no. Jim was doing his sexy voice.
Ms. Walker aimed her breasts a little more upwards in case he'd missed them. "I'll have our laundry service give this a rush job."
"Thanks," Jim said, seeming to expand outwards a little now that the shirt wasn't holding him in. "Make sure they don't use too much starch."
Her tone was thick as buttermilk, smooth with a tang of challenge. "Any other ironing tips for my staff?"
Oh, God, enough already. Blair wanted the big guy to be happy, no one deserved it more, but, honestly, he secretly sort of hated when Jim flirted. It was just so... so lame. And, he realized, right now, it could blow their cover.
"I'm sure you've got it covered, Linda," Blair said, stepping in up close to Jim and linking arms with him. He'd, okay, he'd never done that while Jim was all tank-topped and beefy, at least not in a non-sports setting, and there was some unexpected body heat and contravened unspoken social mores to deal with, but this was an emergency. "We'll just go back to our room and change. No problem. We'll pick up Jim's shirt later. Won't we, uh..." he tried to make himself add 'honey,' but quailed under the bug-pinning glares of two tall, chisel-featured, frustrated heterosexuals. "...Jim." The power of the WASP shall smite thee, Blair Sandburg. He gripped harder. "Let's go."
Jim turned back to Linda Walker and shrugged. "Whenever it's ready," he said. "You know the number."
Blair towed him away before she could answer.
Jim seemed somewhere between annoyed and amused, but Blair was getting more worked up as he hustled his partner down the room and out, after a few false turns, into the hall. Why was he the one keeping his head in this scenario? He wasn't Jim's boss or his drill sergeant, much as Jim seemed to want to pretend that sometimes. He was just a researcher, an amateur looking for adventure. Jim was supposed to be the cop here, the professional, and sometimes it seemed like he didn't care about his job at all, which was stupid, because he did, he just... saw a woman and lost it. Or something. He slapped the elevator button to the fifth floor and started to fume.
They stepped in and turned around with the doors closing on them: no one in the hall. "Now see here, chief," Jim began.
"Some date you are," Blair burst out, taking the offensive. "I don't believe you sometimes. How was that helping our cover? You couldn't wait a couple days and ask her out then? You're supposed to be with me. Remember?"
He was on his toes, gesturing sharply, almost shoving. Jim was blinking down at him like he'd been poked by his own hand. Blair thought that was a good idea and poked him in the stomach for real (yep, not sucking in the gut at all. Dammit.) "Think about it. Would you bring a woman to a place like this and then pick up on the hotel manager?"
"No, I guess I wouldn't." Jim shook his head. "Of course not."
"Because it's disrespectful, that's why, and your special evening out would end up with you sleeping in the hall tonight."
The elevator doors had opened and a family with a total of two kids, three ties, and four cardigans was looking at them funny. Jim frowned at them and said, "Do you mind?" as he punched the Door Close button. The husband and wife were looking at each other as the gap closed. They were immediately forgotten as Jim and Blair got back in each other's faces.
"You can't expect me to ignore"
"I can and I do!"
"It would have been rude."
"It would have been ruder to your date."
"Maybe if more attractive women threw themselves under your nose..."
Oho, now they were hitting dirty. "Just because I don't look like someone ironed the Man in the Moon..."
"Nothing. Nothing. Listen." The doors slid open again and Blair punched them shut without looking. "Just keep your mind on what we're here for, okay? Relaxation. A romantic getaway. Together."
There was a pause, as Jim admitted the truth of this, caught up to the fact that he should probably apologize for screwing up, figured out that, as usual, he didn't have to, and moved on. "Fine. What do you want me to do?"
Blair threw his hands up and turned back to face the front of the elevator. "Just act like... you know. Just treat me like you would anyone else you'd taken here."
Jim hit the 5 button again and faced front too. He was breathing harder after the squabble, finding his balance. Blair felt like they'd just shot a couple hoops, himself. "All right." Jim shook his arms out. "All right. Yeah. Act natural."
A few seconds later Blair found out what all that grim psyching up was for, as a large, bare arm landed around his shoulders and pulled him in. "Hey!" he squeaked, before realizing that nothing more alarming was happening than that they were standing side by side, with him a little trapped, but not too much. Nothing that might not have happened lots of times before, in public, except for a) Jim not wearing a shirt, b) it lasting for more than a casual squeeze, and c) them pretending to be lovers.
Okay, so, be careful what you ask for.
"Uh, I don't know if it's necessary to, uh..."
"You said to act like this was real. If she's going to a hotel with me, I think I'd put my arm around her."
"Uh, yeah, but..." He didn't have an argument to counter that. He couldn't object to this, he was just uncomfortable. Hot, kind of stifled. Like it was harder to breathe. He didn't want to say intimidated, but, intimidated. Jim was really just overwhelming, physically. And with his sense of humor, you never knew quite how far he'd be willing to go. A little instinctive panic came fluttering up from the depths of Blair's subconscious and he had to get out of this, shake things up.
Blair heard himself talking. "I'm just saying, you might not want to do that," he said, warming with his own brand of outrageousness coming up.
"Why not?" Jim heard the change in tone and was suspicious, but not enough.
"Well, I'm just saying, if we're going to take it that far, who knows. I mean, if I was on a date with a woman and she did what you're doing now, I'd probably..." The lights changed and the doors slid open on the fourth floor. An older couple was standing to one side, looking at a framed painting. Blair gulped and took a breath and slipped his hand down to grab Jim's butt, hard and quick. Then he ran for it.
Jim chased him across the hall, into the emergency stairwell and up the stairs, both of them gasping for air as they pelted up the definitely un-luxurious concrete. Blair had the weight advantage on verticals and slammed out into the fifth floor hall with steps to spare, pursued by a call of "Your ass is mine, Sandburg!"
"Talk, talk, talk, Jim..." He lost a few vital seconds turning to locate their door and Jim ran smack into him, slamming them both into the wall. Just as the elevator doors slid closed behind Linda Walker, who was standing there with a crisp white shirt on a hanger.
Jim gaped. Blair looked up. "Um." "Um." "Uh." They collected themselves like guilty schoolboys.
"Linda. We weren't... I didn't mean..." Jim accepted the replacement shirt with a helpless expression.
"I'll have my staff bring up your shirt when it's been laundered. There's no need to explain, Mr. Ellison." She looked down at Blair, all gracious dignity. "The Willard Green strives to provide a safe and comfortable environment..." She transferred her gaze to Jim, right in the eye. "For all our guests."
Jim slumped in defeat as she turned and walked away.
The elevator door closed again and Blair grabbed Jim and tugged him into the privacy of their own room, where he leaned against the bureau, looking stunned, poor guy. He didn't usually get shot down before the second date. The shirt was considerably more formal than anything they'd packed. Jim held it up at arm's length. "Think she's trying to tell us something?"
Blair grinned at him sympathetically. "At least she didn't throw in a tie."
Jim shrugged and smiled back, with that c'est-la-vie resignation built up after years of romantic misfires, and pulled at the undershirt where it was sticking to his ostentatious abs. "If I'm going to be wearing someone else's shirt, guess I'd better shower."
"You go ahead. I'll siesta." Blair sat on the nearest bed and pushed his shoes off. Jim moped into the bathroom and started the water going, whistling under his breath. Yeah, that pain would last long. Jim was really pretty impervious.
Blair folded his arms under his head and stared at the ceiling. It hadn't exactly been a long day, but he was tired. Take away the soft lights, the high beds, the fancy carpet, and this could be another evening at home. Soon Jim would be getting to the 'walking around in a towel' portion of the program. Too bad that show was pretty much wasted on him, the guy who was always there to see it. He'd thought this case would be fun, a chance to poke at Jim's repression, but the truth was it was starting to bring him down. Pretending to be someone's lover, even a man's, just sort of reminded him of how long it had been since anyone (other than his mom) had really cared about him. Anyone where he hadn't just been fooling himself, or they hadn't ended up hating him. That would be pretty much... nobody he could think of off the top of his head, unless you counted Jim. Ha.
The water shut off with a clunk, and after a minute the door opened and Jim came out in a cloud of steam and, yes, a towel. Blair peeked at him from under his lashes. What if Jim really were his, uh, special someone? What if they'd really booked this room together for purposes of hot vacation sex and romantic dinners? Just ignore the obvious facts for a minute. Would Jim be like a, a sugar daddy, or would it be more like a crazy whirlwind affair? Side by side backrubs from that cute masseuse... shared showers... Blair squirmed on the bed a little as the idea circulated, rousing him enough to notice but not enough to be alarmed by, in his drifting state. He wasn't strict about these things, he knew human sexuality is a complex and lawless mechanism. He heard zippers, change clinking on the counter, a creak from the other bed as Jim put his shoes on.
He tried to imagine making some kind of clumsy pass at Jim. Hilarious. Jim probably wouldn't even get it. I could strip naked and throw myself at him, and he'd just think I was high. Probably knock me out and put me to bed with an ice pack. The thought was sort of comforting, left him safe to explore this piquant offshoot even further. He pretended Jim was still in the towel, just to try and get his mind around the concept because if he and Blair were really together, he'd walk to the foot of the bed now, turn to him and say... Blair's imagination stuttered to a halt.
"You just gonna lie there all day, Sandburg?"
Not bad, Blair thought, though the tone could stand to be sultrier.
"Earth to Blair." The room keys landed with rattling precision next to his ear. "Come on, sleeping beauty, the food's getting cold."
Blair rolled over. My Prince Charming.
They ended up eating at the bar. The flustered staff had cleared their table and couldn't give a straight story about what had happened to their entrees, although probably the way Jim was glaring holes in them didn't help. Blair was relieved not to have to walk back across the entire room anyway, with everyone staring and whispering and wondering what all that fuss had been about. So they went back to the huge mahogany lobby, pulled up some padded stools, and settled for complimentary calamari and onion rings.
Blair was still hungry, but he couldn't complain. If there's one thing a career student appreciates, it's free food. Jim was nursing a glass of white, pretending to drink more than he was, and sitting facing Blair, making him squirm with more of those fake-romantic cow eyes to hide the fact that he was eavesdropping on the whole first floor. Blair tried looking around, but all he could see was rich people; he didn't have the eye for it yet. He was just cover, his job was to help Jim look off-duty well, and gay so he did his best.
It started to give him that funny, floaty feeling he'd gotten so many nights as he sat in so many borrowed homes, weaselled into so many tight-knit social groups, from Mexico to Malaysia, pretending to himself that he'd lived another life. "I am a warrior of the River People," he'd say to himself. Or, "I'm a weaver. I have a wife. Two wives" or "I'm one of three husbands." He'd watch sparks rise to the sky. "In the spring, we'll travel downstream to follow the food supply. I'll help build canoes." In the spring, he'd be back in Cascade.
Jim tensed. His head was cocked, and his face was blank. Blair studied it, waiting. Suddenly Jim fumbled for his hand. Hand? They were holding hands. Uh... yeah, they'd talked about that, but they hadn't actually done it. And they were doing it now. Okay. Well, that was... fine. Yeah. A little funny, but fine. Blair wouldn't have thought it would feel this funny, he wasn't that hung up about male-male contact, but the thing was it was Jim's hand, and something about their relationship just didn't stretch to this.
Jim lowered his head into intimate-whisper range. "Blair."
"Maybe you could try not to look like you're facing an oncoming semi."
"Oh. Right. Sorry." Blair cast a quick guilty look at the main room. Three men were standing in the doorway; they seemed to be considering coming into the bar. Blair subvocalized into his cup: "That's our guy?"
Jim nodded, slowly, making it look like a nuzzle. "He flagged me for a check, but they're moving on."
He let go of Blair's hand, gave his back a casual reassuring stroke, and turned back to the bar, hunkering down over the crumb-filled bowls. He raised his voice. "Can we get some popcorn over here?" The bartender looked worried; popcorn wasn't classy enough. They compromised on oysters.
Blair did a little deep breathing to center himself, accidentally finishing his glass in one gulp. The bartender poured another before he could decide whether to order one. His back felt strange where Jim had touched it. Well, hey, free snacks, nice setting, open affection in a way from someone he admired, and not a big likelihood of getting shot at until tomorrow. All things considered, it was fine, he'd sign up again, sure.
When Jim finally got up to leave, later, he pulled Blair with him and Blair followed, against his hip, in his orbit. It was... he realized, trying to analyze... unsettlingly easy to fall into the physical patterns of being a couple. So natural just to respond and forget who he was with. It seemed like it was easy for Jim, too. I hope this doesn't make things weird after this case is over, he thought suddenly, questioning it for the first time. Their relationship was a big part of his life. He didn't want to think of that as unstable, threatened. Nah, we'd work it out. Forget the whole thing in a couple days. He relaxed and made himself lean into Jim's side as they left the bar.
He'd drunk a bit more than Jim, high on the novelty of free wine that didn't come in plastic cups. Maybe that was why he was slow to catch up when they hit the first real snag of the operation.
They were taking their clothes off, yawning and stubbly. There'd been kicking of stuff that was in the way and simultaneous toothbrushing with alternate spitting. Jim had scattered pillows and turned back the cover on the bed by the door, and Blair was getting ready to crawl into the other one and sleep on his face until breakfast. He hoped it was a large one.
Jim's voice stopped him. "What are you doing?"
"Going to bed?" Nobody accused Jim of being overly intellectual, but you'd think the powers of observation...
"Uh-uh. Over here."
Blair frowned. Huh? He turned around. He saw Jim standing by the other bed in his boxers, motioning to him sharply. The light from the table lamp edged him and made the rest of him dark, unreadable.
"Over... there?" Uh, right? Yeah, it looked like he really had correctly interpreted the directive. This was taking the role a bit far. "Jim, that's... not a double."
"Just get in the damn bed, Sandburg."
"I'm not sure I'm comfortable with this!"
Jim shifted and folded his arms. His voice was forbidding. "Look, you think I want you breathing in my ear all night? I'm not that desperate, junior. This whole plan depends on us being out in the open. If Agnew wants to check our cover, the first thing he's going to do is interview the maids."
The maids. Would know. Which beds were slept in. Right. Blair lowered his head and trotted over, hanging back as Jim crawled into bed and made room for him, climbing in himself shyly and turning off the light with a gulp of stupid something. He scooted down onto his back and pulled the covers up to his chin, self-consciously aware of Jim's bulk only inches away to his right. How had he gotten in this situation? It wasn't, technically, the first time he'd been in bed with a research subject, but this was a little different.
Jim rolled to face the wall, his side pushing the covers up so cold air flooded in. With a sarcastic "Night, sweetheart," he went quiet, breathing steadily, and within sixty seconds Blair was pretty sure he was asleep. Probably an army thing. He was used to close quarters.
Blair kept his eyes shut. His head was swimming. He must have drunk more than he thought.
Somewhere around three in the morning, when Blair who woke up a little, which meant he'd fallen asleep after all was cold, Jim was still warm over to his right and it wasn't that far to scoot, really. It's just instinct. No one could blame him for that.
When he woke up all the way in the morning, white light through the curtains, he was closer to the wall than he expected, and Jim was on the floor, doing push-ups.
Blair went up on one elbow, watching him. His boxers clashed with the carpet. After ten more reps Jim rose to his feet and headed off for a shower, giving a brief, dismissive good morning over his shoulder without turning around.
SATURDAY, 11:00 A.M.
One really large, extensive hotel brunch later, like a bar mitzvah and a retirement party combined, Blair was back in tune with his psyche. How had he fallen for Jim's unfriendly act? Him of all people. He watched Jim putting away piles of french toast (he hadn't shown much interest in the panoply of options spread out on three tables, even though there was dim sum and sushi, not to mention grits and pate) and felt full of fond tolerance. Nobody knew better than him that Jim was a sweet guy, a pussycat. It was only in unfamiliar contexts, with the destabilizing social cues of undercover and a few too many alcoholic beverages in the immediate past, that he started looking like a stranger, and specifically a stranger who knew how to snap your neck like a twig. But he wouldn't. Even in his sleep. Even during a really bad dream. Blair was pretty sure of that.
"What?" Jim swallowed his mouthful, frowning. He wiped his chin, then his teeth. "Did I get it?"
Blair reached over and made a show of patting him on the thigh, under the interested eye of a nearby waitress. "Yeah. You got it."
They finished eating in peaceful silence.
Jim stretched, leaning lazily back in his chair. Yesterday's shirt had turned up in their room with a brief note, no hand delivery from the manager this time. No hint of hell hath no fury, either. Jim had shrugged and put it on again, untucked this time over a t-shirt. No unscheduled stripteases in store.
"So, what do you want to do today? Nice day for a drive."
"Nice day to stay in," Blair said, waggling his eyebrows. Okay, maybe that was going a bit far with the role. Jim shot him a look.
"Later," he said. "Right now I want some air. Check out the grounds. We can... you know... later." He got up and pulled his baseball cap on, and Blair followed him, reluctantly saying goodbye to the forty-three different items in the spread he still hadn't tasted but couldn't pretend he had room for.
Jim waited until they got out on the back terrace, far enough from the building not to be heard by anybody, and stopped to consult.
"Ease up, Jim, I'm just trying to get in the spirit, here," Blair said, getting in first. "You should work on your banter too. Something more like, 'Hey, give an old man some recovery time.' Something like that."
"This is great that you're owning the role, Sandburg, but try not to take it too far. Remember, we don't want too many questions."
"The maids?" Jim waited. "The sheets." He waited some more. "Staying in all day..."
"You mean if we'd stayed in, we would have... oh... oh." Blair was startled into a laugh. At least Jim hadn't insisted they fake that last night! "I get it! Jeez. We should have brought condoms. Maybe they'll think we do it in the shower. Are you blushing?"
Jim muttered something.
"You did not. You brought some?"
"They might search the luggage."
"Hot damn! How many?" Blair clutched his stomach. "This isn't fair, I'm too full, don't make me... don't make me laugh. Ow."
Jim peered down at him disapprovingly. "Hope you don't do this when your girlfriends bring up safe sex."
That set Blair off cackling again, but he pulled himself together under Jim's stony gaze. "No, no, you're right, I just, whoo! Condoms! Okay." They started walking. "So what's the plan."
"Thought we'd check out the hedge maze," Jim said, sauntering along with his hands in his pockets. "Could be the location for the meet."
"Those hedges are a real maze, like at Hampton Court?"
"Sure, only a fraction of the size. Didn't you read that briefing?"
"I didn't think I had to memorize the blueprints!"
Their voices got smaller and smaller, swallowed up by the clouds and the grass underfoot.
"The buyer's car just arrived," Simon's voice said on the phone, small and crackly. "Try to stay low if you can."
"Agnew spotted us already, last night. We're keeping up the cover."
"Is it working?" Simon sounded unflatteringly surprised, considering it was his idea in the first place.
Jim said judiciously, "I think so."
Blair felt the urge to pipe up with "We slept in the same bed!" He didn't. They weren't going to give him a scout badge for that Jim might not even want him to mention it to anybody.
"Have you found the location for the meet?"
"Negative, Simon. We've searched the grounds and the public areas of the hotel, everywhere we could get to. There are several possible places if all they want is to do a swap, but I'm not seeing anything suspicious."
"Well, keep looking. Follow him if you can, but don't attract attention. We still want to shut down that drug deal, but if he's planning a hit, he doesn't care how many innocent bystanders get hurt."
"On it." Jim put the phone away. "Simon says the buyer's here. The meet's tonight."
"Kill time. Look natural." Jim looked off at the distance, studying the back of the hotel. The afternoon sun was starting to weigh down on them through the humid air. "How about a swim?"
Blair, not in the mood to strip down around strangers some of whom might be trying to kill him in a few hours, staked out a chair by the hotel pool and tried to take notes on some seminar reading while Jim did laps, although he watched him sometimes, trying to see if he had a better sense of underwater spatial relationships than the other swimmers. One time Jim popped up at the near edge of the pool to ask what time it was, and caught him staring. Off-guard, Blair stammered and took too long to find his watch, and Jim cocked an eyebrow and then blew him a big smacking kiss before ducking underwater and kicking off again.
Blair flushed and hid behind his book, wondering how many people had seen that all the awkwardness of PDA in an inappropriate social milieu and he wasn't getting laid and starting to resent getting dragged out on this case anyway, just because he happened to live with another man, as if every guy he knew hadn't had male roommates at some point, and most of them still did. Grad students just couldn't afford to live solo most of the time. It was only from the hypernormative masculine viewpoint of your typical police department that he shut his book. "I'm going for a walk," he said loudly.
Splash, splash. Jim's arm over the side. "Oh yeah? Who's gonna hand me my towel?"
Blair stomped out of the pool room, pissed off for no reason he could name.
The rest of the hotel was pretty boring without Jim, even though a couple of the cars pulling up out front had that tinted-glass gangster look to them, and he thought he'd spotted a few bodyguards. He stared longer at what he suspected all right, hoped might be expensive escorts, women with long nails and legs up to there, but moved on before someone decided to make him. The weight room was full of guys who looked like Jim, thick necks in tight shirts. Like a bunch of oxen crammed into those little dog sweaters, Blair thought uncharitably, and stomped on. He paused outside the room with the masseuse. He thought she looked like someone who might enjoy a little conversation, maybe a little chat about what they'd been reading lately just to pass the time. Come to think of it, he kind of had this kink in his neck.
About to open the door, he seized up and made himself walk away. With his luck, she'd turn out to be single and uninhibited with an interest in Incan fertility rituals, and then he'd be the one breaking their cover. With a sense of hard-fought virtue, he went to the hotel gift shop (they called it something else, but that's what it was) and picked up some more reading material and some fancy unscented shaving cream that Jim would like, since he knew Jim was running out, and even snagged a few brochures off the front desk for a sight-seeing trip they weren't going to take. Danny the concierge was nowhere in sight today, probably just as well. Blair didn't know if he was prepared to flirt with someone who wasn't... well...
His partner was out of the pool, one leg in the water, dripping unconcernedly and talking with another man. Like, talking. Curved in to really concentrate, body language sinuous and easy, the intense look and the purring voice. Jim on the prowl. Only with this... man. Jim looked up.
"Blair," he said, maybe a little uneasily. The other man looked between them. He was tan and ripped and almost as tall as Jim sitting down, though not as wide. He had a pale watchband mark on his wrist and lines of shadow under the muscles of his thighs. He probably voted Republican. His bathing suit had a logo on it that must have cost as much as Blair's old car.
"So I see you found someone to hand you your towel," Blair said, his voice shrill.
"I'll just be going."
Jim gave his new friend the low-voiced goodbye. "It was nice to meet you." They made eye contact as the guy slid into the pool and swam away, in a lazy backstroke. Jesus Christ! Blair nearly whapped Jim with the newspapers.
Jim looked up at him, got to his feet and started to towel off. "Have a good time, Sandburg?"
Blair lowered his voice and hissed, "Is everybody here gay?"
Jim scowled at him. "There are hundreds of guests at this hotel, dozens of employees..." He dropped the mathematical argument, glancing around to make sure no one could hear them, and kept rubbing. "More people are than you'd think, if you just drop some preconceptions."
Blair huffed his frustration. He felt left out and stupid. "Those advanced senses. I guess you would know. Forget all that guesswork, you probably just know when someone's attracted to you, like it's written on their forehead."
Jim's voice was deep, a little rough. "Not really."
He sounded almost sad. Blair felt obscurely like he'd done something wrong, and as usual, it made him angry. Who was Jim, to keep putting him off balance like this? Blair knew Jim, he studied him, he was an expert. How dare he start changing every time Blair turned around? With his apple-pie main-street attitudes, he shouldn't have even been able to handle pretending not to be straight, let alone get into it, let alone be good at it.
And I shared a bed with him.
That thought made him feel funny, almost dizzy. Like he was falling backwards into a night that had gone completely differently. One where he'd climbed in under the sheets and instead of rolling over and showing his back, Jim had stayed facing him, reached for him, dropped a big arm over him, maybe pulled him in close to
Fingers were snapping near his head. "What is this, sympathy zoning, now? Anyone home?"
"I'm fine." Blair realized he sounded nasty. He didn't care. "Just fine."
They spent the rest of the afternoon reading separate copies of the same newspaper.
Jim, hair damp from the shower, was checking his gun. Blair was hungry.
"What do you mean, no dinner?"
"We can't get tied down to a table for an hour and a half. We have to be ready to follow Agnew."
"I hate to break it to you, but I won't be too stealthy with my stomach growling."
"So order room service."
"Then we're committed up here instead of down there, how is that better?"
Jim ignored this very logical argument and just pulled on his jacket and headed for the door. Muttering under his breath, Blair followed him. Jim was acting all distant again, ready for show time. Blair's imaginary boyfriend was, like, totally gone. Not that he minded. But he was back being the sidekick again, somewhere between annoying and invisible, and he minded that.
They stepped out into every hall on the way down, but Jim didn't pick up anything until the ground floor. "This way. I think... yeah. I heard his name." They reached the edge of the lobby and started dodging between well-dressed groups headed for dinner. "There over by that wall going into the garden." Jim ducked out onto the near end of the terrace.
It was a warm evening. Agnew's suit didn't look very flashy from the back. His hair was just hair. Blair, who was getting to expect something more flamboyant in a crime lord, was disappointed. Agnew had a few thugs with him, staying in a close huddle; again, apart from the sports coats, your basic thug.
"Come on. Maybe we can get ahead of them in the maze."
Taking advantage of the dim light, they made like they were heading around the opposite corner, then cut across to the far side of the maze and ran along the hedges, piling up at the corners. Jim stopped them at the second one, listening. It was dark in there, the last of the already-faded sunset cut off by the walls of greenery. Blair's breath was coming faster. Adrenaline was great, it was an amazing rush, he'd learned, while you were actually doing something, but during any kind of long slow buildup it just made you feel like a big coward. This is me getting ready for action, he reminded himself, not getting ready to puke, scream, and run. He'd been in enough tough spots by now to know that was the truth, but it didn't make it much easier to deal with.
Blair shifted around, trying not to get distracted by an itch at the back of his neck, the weight of the bulletproof vest, the hundred rustles and cracks and night noises he couldn't identify, and weren't those steps, coming from the other direction? He tapped Jim for attention, then shook him. Jim looked blank, then confused, then pissed, then horrified, as he realized what he'd missed by concentrating. They'd been caught. There wasn't a way out or a place to hide: two hedges, one bench. Before Blair knew what was happening, Jim had grabbed him, swung him around, and pulled his hair roughly out of the ponytail.
He choked back a sound as Jim backed him up against the hedge, bending over him, hands on either side of his face, brushing against his hair. Lips almost touching Blair's, Jim whispered, "I'm sorry." Then he tilted his head and did nothing.
Just stood there, looking like he was kissing Blair, but not... doing it.
Blair went hot and cold all over.
He could hear Agnew's bodyguard come around the corner Jim's fingers tightened and pause, and then leave again the same way. He'd report them. That was about the point where Blair's thought processes fizzed out and gave up, because he was dealing with a major crisis here.
Fever, where Jim's hands were cupping his face. Chills, competing everywhere else skin trying to rearrange itself all over his body. His breath was coming in short gasps. And the adrenaline rush wasn't fear of the men with guns, either. It was much more basic than that: the closeness of the face by his, the body holding him still, the knowledge of what they were almost doing. But weren't going to. The kiss wasn't going to happen and all of Blair desperately wanted it, like a dog lunging forward on a leash, like a train going over a cliff. His chakras were spinning, all right. It was physical. This wasn't acting. This wasn't hypothetical. This was not a joke.
And the joke was on him.
How many years had he been looking for a Sentinel? Okay, so he hadn't exactly had a full social life while he was at it. Maybe he'd missed a few turns he should have taken while he was too busy memorizing Burton's monograph and collecting drawings of noble, sweaty men. Maybe then he'd have had a clue where this was going before he got in so deep. He'd followed Jim around, stared at him, studied him, admired him... snuck glances at him in his boxers... he even dreamed about him at night sometimes. What an idiot. Nice one, Blair. Couldn't he have just kept on repressing?
The only comfort was, he'd been acting so puppy-dog infatuated already, Jim would probably never notice the difference.
...Jim was aware of everything. Every creak and shift of Agnew's shoes, the rustle of his suit, the clicking snap as he bit his thumbnail at the news the maze wasn't empty. He heard and could probably plot the locations of every guard in the center of the maze, surrounding their master. His sense of Blair was limited to a cool touch and a blur, a vague presence in front of him. That helped.
"They're dead to the world, not a problem."
Agnew wasn't buying it. "I still think something doesn't look right about him. Looks cop."
"So he's a cop and a fag. I told you, they check out, boss."
There was some shifting, some kind of byplay, maybe a shrug. "Huh. All right, how's the meet setup? Good to go?"
"Yeah, everything's in place, except"
Agnew shut him off again. "Dammit. Yeah. I know that guy. I knew I'd seen him. Big Jim Ellison. He was in Vice before I got there. Real reputation kind of a loose cannon. They said he was this close to washing out."
"Cop," someone repeated, winning the MENSA prize, someone else swore, and there was the snick-click of guns cocking. The one who'd been reporting on the meet said, "So is he gay or not?"
Agnew said, "Well, there were always some rumors..."
Jim stiffened. "What?"
"Huh? What did they say?" Blair whispered.
"...his partner, and he used to wear this earring. Yeah, could be. We'll keep an eye on him. It's just a few more hours." Agnew bit his nail again. "Hard-core service type like that wouldn't be willing to fake it. Never show his face again." He spat on the grass, it sounded like.
There was some language that made Jim frown. He was looking forward to seeing all these clowns cuffed in the back of a squad car, and ideally some of them with black eyes.
"So we're set up. Handoff's scheduled for nine. Showalmie's playing ball?"
There were significant clicking noises. "Not as much..."
"He will, but..."
"Think he might break, boss. Letting us use the place once was enough. Twice, he's not so cooperative."
"Right," Agnew said. "We'll make things clear to him. And afterwards we'll have to expand our scope this time."
Faint noises in response. Jim probably didn't need to, but he tried to make them take shape anyway, settle them down into patterns. The more he learned about how to handle this the more he found himself pushing, trying to understand everything he was sensing. There was the need to shut it down and protect himself, but also the need to go further, open up. He was so close. It was like a language he could almost read, could almost...
"Jim, ha ha, Jim. Hey there. You're kind of... kissing my cheek."
Huh? Jim went still, made aware of his breath reflected hotly back from Blair's skin. "No, I'm not."
Blair's voice was strained. "Well, not to argue definitions, here, but you're moving your lips, and my face is there, so..."
Jim jerked back and looked down between his hands, defensive words lost at the first syllable. He hadn't been expecting that face. Pissed-off Blair, man's man Blair he could do business with, but this was baby-faced anxious Blair, and the sight hit him like a sucker punch. The gap was too big and there wasn't time for apologies, because... "Two guards are coming back this way. We can't run." We'd blow everything.
Blair closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he was back in the fight. "Then this has to look I wouldn't just stand here and let you kiss me all night, anyway. What am I, some kind of wooden doll? Sit down. On the bench. Sit down!"
After a token resistance Jim folded down bemusedly onto the iron bench, and Blair put a knee on the seat beside him, getting a grip on the back of Jim's neck and letting his hair fall forward to hide their faces. "There. That's more like it." They were farther away from each other than before, but in the shadows, it would look good.
"I... uh..." Jim's breath was still coming back to him off Blair's cheek, warmed and echoing, like some kind of damn sonar. He was far too aware of the few inches of cavern they shared, from their foreheads down to the open v at the base of Blair's neck, the scents of nervous sweat and shampoo and shaving cream, dark and shadowy and private. "Can't hear. I can't hear like this." He shifted on the bench, a brief sharp move that wanted to be escape, then subsided into stillness again. "Your hair's in the way."
"My hair?" Blair repeated, sounding pissed off more than curious, or maybe even hurt. "That's ridiculous. You can hear through walls. You can..." The sound of voices approaching came over the garden hedge, loud enough for normal hearing, and Blair capitulated. "Fine. Let's try this then." He dropped his head to Jim's neck, and braced his hands where they fell. Jim's shoulder and waist. Jim breathed in sharply.
Blair got a better grip, turned his head in a little, lips just barely above Jim's collar, and hissed up at him, "Now try to look like you're enjoying this."
Jim sat like a statue while Blair moved his head slowly up and down Jim's neck, almost but not brushing the skin with his lips, trying to... well, get into the role... incredibly weird though the whole situation was. This kind of setting didn't exactly bring out his best technique. Nosy roommates and unexpected boyfriends were bad enough, but homicidal gang leaders? And knowing Jim was hating this with every white cotton fiber of his being didn't help, although... after what Blair had just realized, he was sneakily a tiny bit pleased with his stolen moment, and if that said bad things about him, well, he never claimed to be a hero. All he knew was this wouldn't come along twice. He'd seen Jim's face.
Of course, getting killed would really ruin the mood. But he had to believe that if Jim thought that would happen, they'd run for it, and screw the operation. Simon would understand. No, Jim had decided this was a risk worth taking. Agnew wasn't crazy, he probably wouldn't go to the trouble of have them whacked in a hotel garden unless he was pretty sure they were eavesdropping; so, they had to give him a better explanation. Simple.
And that left Blair here, trying to act like he really was doing this, mouthing this... taut skin, the angles and dips... corded muscle, how had he never realized, God, don't think about it, just keep going. He ducked under Jim's chin and said hello to his adam's apple, then moved up the other side. Blair Sandburg was nothing if not thorough, as a lover. (Well, maybe not thorough so much as generous. Nobody could say he wasn't generous.) (And sensitive! He had a reputation to uphold, here. He gave it his best shot.)
Trying to picture how they looked from the back, he thought he was doing a pretty good job. He hoped Jim had managed to stop looking like he was being tortured.
He thought he heard a rustle once in the hedges, but wasn't sure. After a few more breathless minutes, Jim tapped his back. A signal, but that didn't mean they were in the clear. He tucked his head down under Jim's chin and waited. Funny, he thought he could almost feel Jim's heart beating, thumping against his chest. He wondered if Jim could hear his. Well, duh, of course he could. But only if he bothered to listen.
He moved his mouth, just barely breathing out: "Are they gone?"
There was a pause long enough for Blair to wonder if he'd screwed things up royally, if there was a man standing behind him with a gun and a smirk, and then Jim whispered, "I think so." He didn't move.
The guards might be coming back? He guessed it would look suspicious if they just got up and left now, although it's not like they were prepared to take this any further, so... As soon as he'd thought those words, several wild images flashed through his mind, leaving him increasingly giddy and unsettled. He couldn't keep kneeling over Jim like this, it just... this just wasn't going to work. He couldn't keep cool. His mouth was watering, his muscles were warm, he was up like a lightswitch and starting to sweat. Jim would notice. He pulled back and gave Jim a begging look.
Jim stared, then jerked away, nodding, and jumped to his feet. They broke in opposite directions. Blair rubbed his face and spun back.
"All right, so that was a little weird. Not what your two average guy buddies do on a weekend. We can get through this."
Jim looked pale. "Yeah, I'd rather not process, if you don't mind, Sigmund. I just want to take a walk. I'll see you back at the room."
"Oh, no. I don't care if you need space. I know what happens if we get separated some goon's gonna have a gun to my head faster than you can say 'civilian observer.'"
Jim swayed longingly toward the exit and huffed surrender. "Fine. There's that bar in the lobby. The meet's not until nine. I could use a beer."
"Oh, great, Jim, embarrassed and plastered. Is that the next leaf in the big book of WASP coping methods? Can't we just" he ran into Jim's hand.
"Quiet. I heard shouting, someone hurt. Something's wrong. I smell... my shirt. No. Starch. And... gasoline." He pulled out his cell phone and broke into a run.
There were big, brightly colored explosions. Blair could have sworn part of the shed blew up twice.
When the dust cleared, Simon's team were screeching up into the parking lot behind the fire truck, Linda Walker was reading the riot act to some cowed and soot-covered employees in white, and Jim had Agnew pinned face down on the concrete, a knee in his back.
"Getting off on this, Ellison?"
Jim growled down at him, "You're not my type."
Agnew sneered into the pavement and raised his voice. "What, too close to your own size?"
Blair winced and tried to ignore the onlookers. Jim didn't bat an eye. "Too crooked," he said.
Call Blair biased, but he thought Jim, kneeling unembarrassed on the gang leader's back like some kind of big animal on its prey, was one of the more magnificent things he'd ever seen.
"Sure was nice of Ms. Walker to give us this free meal, huh? Guess she must be grateful the whole place didn't burn down, just the laundry building." Blair tucked into his steak with gusto.
"Oh, we're paying. She just doesn't know it yet. Can't take freebies," Jim said around a mouthful of pommes frites. "No harm in enjoying the service, though. Pass that horseradish." What? What? What else had he ordered? Blair cast agonized glances at the waiter, trying to decide if it was too late to call him back. "Relax, it's on me."
Grad student pride resurfaced. "I can't let you buy me dinner!"
"Why not? Okay, it's on the department, then. Happy?"
On the other hand, grad student pride lives for meals on the department. It loves them. "You bet." Blair checked out a passing waitress with a water pitcher. Now someone like that might be just the thing to distract him from this sad crush on Jim, which he had been trying to shove back below the surface of his consciousness all night like his own personal Loch Ness monster. She had sweet eyes and a cute little... walk. "Oh, yeah."
Jim snapped his fingers again. "Hey! Some date you are." He waved at their plates. "You dance with the one that brung ya, didn't your mama teach you that?"
Blair laughed, a little unstrung. "That wasn't my mom's philosophy, no."
"Naomi always said you should follow your heart, your gut, wherever it tells you." Which was how he'd ended up Jim's partner. He hadn't thought twice, he'd just jumped. "That way you'll always be in the right place for now... even if it won't be the right place forever." He slowed down as he finished, fiddling with the edge of the tablecloth. Funny, that had always made more sense to him before.
Jim's voice was serious, trying to understand. "What if you want it to be?"
"Jim, we're... we're not undercover anymore. You don't have to... You're still looking at me like that, Jim."
"Am I?" Jim blinked and threw himself back in the chair, turning sideways with an arm on the table, and stared off into space, brow furrowed.
"Yeah no look " Blair dropped his head to his plate and sighed, straightening up again and addressing the tablecloth. "This assignment, man, it's really... messing with my head."
There was a pause. "Yeah," Jim said quietly.
"Spending all this time pretending, that we're... you looking at me, touching me... it's a little... different, you know?"
Jim tossed his fork on the table and faced forward again, head bowed. "Yeah."
"And, you know, honestly, I kind of find myself wondering..."
That was said a little too fast. Blair bit his lip and took a breath. "Even wishing..."
"Yeah." Jim was looking up now.
"Because, you know, I think, maybe..."
Blair's voice sped up, hopefully. "And it could potentially be really cool, and if that was a possibility for us, then I'd really want to explore that. Maybe. If you would." He cleared his throat. "What do you think?"
Jim rose to his feet, sending his chair rocking back, his eyes still locked on Blair's. Voice throbbing with matinee-idol conviction, he said, "Check, please!"
MONDAY, HIGH NOON
A chorus of whistles and cheers greeted the returning detective and his partner, who had gone what most of them considered way beyond the call of duty to pull off the biggest collar of the year so far. Agnew and half his guys were in the slam, and his buyers were running scared. Major Crimes owed the Ellison-Sandburg team some sincere congratulations. Simon put his hands on his hips and smirked.
"And how did you like your little parting bonus?"
"Getting the hotel manager to upgrade us to the honeymoon suite? Very funny, gentlemen. Real touch of class."
"Yeah, hilarious." Blair rolled his eyes. "I liked the rose on the pillow."
Simon called through his laughter, "So which one of you slept on the floor?" He was pretty sure there was some money riding on it.
"Neither one," Jim said, playing it up: punchline coming. "Why waste a romantic getaway?" He slung an arm around Blair's shoulders and, eyes sparkling wickedly, bent down to give him a quick peck on the lips. Hoots and whoops went up all around.
"Hey, cut that out!" Blair dodged away and tucked his hair back behind his ears, joking. "Not in front of the guys!"
That went over like a firecracker. Well, Sandburg had always been able to hold his own, here. Amid all the guffaws, Blair shook his hair back out again hastily. From where he was sitting, Simon was probably the only one who'd seen the... hickey?
But according to the story Blair was telling, it was Jim who'd met a woman. "The lovely Linda, the manager. She was all over him. I thought she was gonna scratch my eyes out..."
Surely not. Just a crazy, far-out thought. Impossible. Just it was a little funny that Jim still had his arm around Blair. And now that Simon looked, Blair was kind of, well, leaning into him a bit. Just for the joke, right? Jim had seen him looking: Simon couldn't help it, he knew that question was written there in his face, crazy or not. Jim's eyes flickered; he let go of Blair and started to step away.
Then he gave a sheepish shrug that didn't do anything to dim the... big, goofy smile he'd been wearing on and off ever since he walked in the door. Oh. That big goofy smile. Simon had seen it before. A line of old, forgotten questions stepped up and started getting answered.
"What can I tell you, sir," Jim said, pitching his voice to fall below Blair's storytelling and the banter of the other cops. "I really commit to my work."
Simon shook his head slowly. "Remind me not to put you undercover as a gangster, next," he said wryly, cracking a smile himself. That Jim Ellison. Even after five years, he still had some surprises up his sleeve.
"Oh, don't worry about that, Simon," Jim said comfortably, settling his arm around Blair's shoulders again. "You could say this was a special case."
Blair groaned and elbowed him. "You're terrible."
"That's not what you said..."
Simon coughed loudly and ordered everyone back to work.