If I sat back and closed my eyes, I could almost convince myself I was still at Rainier. There were plenty of bodies milling around, male and female, all young and under the age of twenty-five. Their voices echoed loudly in the cafeteria. The conversations were the same ones I'd heard on campus on almost any given day. Mostly people complaining about boyfriends, girlfriends, siblings, TV shows, class assignments, tests and the latest scores on the shooting range.
Like I said, almost.
I'd snagged a small table by the wall, near one of the windows. My backpack was perched on the seat across from me, my only steadfast companion these days. In class I sat in the back, took notes, did my assignments and kept my mouth shut. There were only a few raised eyebrows among my instructors when my name was called. No one else seemed to notice. For once, I was content to blend in and go with the flow.
It was easy and frustrating at the same time.
I finished my lunch. After leaving the tray on top of the trash can, I pushed the door open and went outside. It was a pretty day: sunny with a few large fluffy clouds overhead. If I were still at the u, I'd make a beeline for the quad, grab the nearest open grassy spot and catch a few rays.
Beep. I didn't have to look at my watch to know what that meant. I had exactly five minutes to get to my next class on Criminal Law and Procedure. I hefted the backpack over my shoulder and started walking.
After dinner, I headed for the little room I shared with a lanky, blond-haired kid from Yakima. Not surprisingly, he wasn't in. He was friendly, but from the first day on, it was clear he already had a tight-knit group of buddies to hang out with. Considering he was only twenty-two, I must've seemed rather old and out of place to him.
I dumped my stuff on a chair, plopped down on my bed and looked at the calendar pinned to the small corkboard on the opposite wall. Just another thirteen weeks and five hundred twenty odd hours of instruction to go. In some ways I was glad I had the room to myself. I didn't want anyone to see how badly I missed home.
Out of habit, I pulled out the plastic card I carried with me. I rubbed it, feeling the raised numbers against my fingertips. It helped calm me. Jim had slipped it into my wallet just before I left for the academy.
The cell phone had been one of the first things to go after I cleared out my office at the university. I'd been forced to cut back on a bunch of stuff, to keep my expenses down. With everything going on, Jim didn't find out about it until much later.
"Dammit, why didn't you tell me?" he said in that exasperated tone of his.
I had just started to pack my clothes for the academy. "Couldn't afford to hang on to it. Besides, it's not like you don't know where I'll be." I hoped he wasn't going to lecture me. I didn't have the energy for it. There was a ton of stuff spread out on my bed, from underwear and socks to kneepads and my uniforms.
"You know I'd get you another one. All you had to do was ask." He continued to stand in the doorway of my bedroom as I folded one of my tee shirts. As required, they all had my last name spelled out on it front and back, in two inch high black lettering.
"That's okay. Think of all the money you'll save on phone bills." Just as I grabbed a pair of shorts to fold, he reached out and put a hand on my arm. I gulped a bit and looked up. His eyes seemed grayer in the light, but no less intense.
Looming there so close to me, I could feel the heat from his body against my skin. Right at that moment I wanted nothing more than to press my face against his neck and feel his solid body against mine. I wanted him to hold me until I felt, safe, snug and secure.
But I'm not that foolhardy. He was already annoyed as it was about the cell phone. I could well imagine how he'd react to me suddenly plastering myself against his chest for a little reassurance.
I tugged my arm free and turned to grab another shirt. "Relax, tough guy. I'll call if something comes up." There was a lump in my throat as I said that. My old life was gone and the thought of stepping outside the loft, outside of Jim's life for four months, unnerved me.
"Chief," he rumbled.
I peered over my shoulder as I stacked my socks on the bedspread. "Yeah?"
"You sure about this?" He gestured at the bed and my duffle bag.
I nodded. I'd done nothing but think about everything that had happened to us up to this point, from the fountain to the press conference. I was tired of being angry one minute, sad and weepy the next. It was time to get my life moving again before someone decided to do it for me. "Yeah, I am." He leaned and reached out his hand. I knew that if he touched me again I'd either start babbling or shaking so I thrust a fistful of socks at him. "Here, make yourself useful."
He looked down and closed his hands around them, squeezing them once. He pursed his lips and started to say something then stopped. I saw something flash across his eyes, but couldn't pinpoint the emotion. I wondered if it was regret, anger or guilt.
"What?" I asked.
"Never mind. Here, give me the uniforms, too. They're gonna wrinkle if you don't fold them right."
The first few days were an adjustment. I studied the map that had been given to me when I registered. The academy itself was like a compact version of Rainier. There was an administration building, a training center where classes were held, exercise fields, a firing range, a large gymnasium with locker rooms and in-door swimming pool. The residence for live-in recruits was on the east side of the grounds.
It was basically a three-story white stucco apartment building. The women were on the first floor, the guys were on the second and third. I was assigned to room 307.
"Not funny," I said to the universe in general as I stepped inside my new living quarters. Of course it was nothing like the loft. Just two beds, two desks with chairs, small closets on opposite walls, a bathroom and dark gray industrial carpeting throughout. Clean but bland. I yanked the cord on the mini blinds and peered out. Below me were bushes and a chain link fence. Beyond that was the oval running track bordered by a thick stand of elm trees. It muffled the sound of traffic whizzing by on the expressway.
I unzipped my duffle bag and began unpacking. The clothes were hung up and put away, my little alarm clock went on the small shelf over my bed along with a couple of paperbacks. I put my towels and shaving kit in the bathroom and shoved the bag into the back of the closet. I pulled out the desk chair and started flipping through the orientation material.
About a half hour later, my new roommate popped in. "Oh hi. I'm Tim Janzen."
"Blair Sandburg." I extended my hand and we shook.
I relaxed once I realized my name didn't mean a thing to him. He rolled his suitcase over to the other bed and looked around the room. "Kinda small in here."
"Yeah." He was tall like Jim, but thinner. After he poked his head into the bathroom, we chatted for a little bit while he unpacked. Suddenly someone tapped on the door frame.
He turned and smiled at the newcomer. "Hey, Carlos!" They slapped each other on the back. "What room are you in?"
Carlos jerked a thumb at the hallway. "Greg and I are in 318. You should come check it out."
"Sure, in a sec. Oh, this is uh--"
Carlos gave me a quick nod. "Hi, how's it going? Hey, c'mon. Greg's waiting."
"Okay, okay." Tim zipped up his suitcase and shoved it by his closet. "Guess I'll see you later."
"Sure." I watched as they trotted down the hallway, laughing and teasing each other.
By the time I ate dinner, took a walk and got back upstairs, it was almost eight. I wondered what Jim was doing. Probably kicking back with a beer and watching a game on the tube, or maybe he was out with Simon.
Tim was still with his buddies, so I got out my portable CD player and headphones. I quickly thumbed through my CDs, but none of the selections appealed to me. That's when I realized I wanted to hear something else entirely. I put everything down and sat on my bed again.
I remembered seeing a pay phone downstairs. I reached into my pocket to dig out my wallet for some change. As I opened the flap, I saw something colorful under the edge. It was a phone card. That sneaky son of a gun must've tucked it in there after I'd gone to sleep the other night. Any hesitation I had about calling flew right out the window. I jogged down the stairwell and grabbed the nearest phone.
"Hey, Jim, it's me."
"Blair?" Just the way he said my name, with a tiny hint of surprise and gladness made me smile all the harder. "How's it going? Everything okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. I wanted to let you know I got here in one piece."
"Good. You all settled in?"
"Yep. I walked around the grounds and took a peek at the classrooms. Let me tell you, it's like having a major case of deja vu."
He chuckled as we talked back and forth for several minutes. Finally I ran out of things to tell him. "I think I'd better go. Hate to use up this card in one sitting."
There was a slight pause on the other end. "I can always send you more."
I smiled back, even though he couldn't see me. "Thanks, man."
"Good night, Chief."
"G'night, Jim." I hung up and went back to my room.
By the end of the first week, I'd adjusted to my new quarters, roommate and routine. I'd memorized my schedule of classes and signed up for additional practice time on the firing range. In the afternoons, I jogged, swam or worked out in the weight room. In the evenings, I read my text books and wrote to a few people, including Naomi.
For the first time in I can't remember when, she wanted regular contact with me. Even from Carmel. She wanted to know about my classes, my instructors and academy life in general. She apologized for not listening to me, for being out of sync with my life and my goals. She promised to pay closer attention, to communicate more.
I laughed a little at that. We Sandburgs have no problem when it comes to talking. We can do it for days on end. But getting us to admit our innermost feelings is a whole other ball of wax. Still, she was attempting to make amends. I appreciated that, even though I knew after a month or so she'd revert back to her usual nomadic and sporadic ways.
I looked at the phone card I used to bookmark the current section I was reading on communication skills. If Naomi was guilty of not listening to me, I was also guilty of not listening more closely to Jim. I vowed to do better in the future. I thought about calling him, listening to his voice, trying to gauge the kind of day he'd had from the way he spoke and the words he chose. A lot of grunts and one-word answers meant he'd had long, tiring day. When things went well, he tended to be more open, loose and teasing.
I really missed the teasing, along with the pats, slaps and tugs. I missed the way he mussed my hair in the mornings when I tried to drink my coffee. Or the way he'd casually bump my hip as we washed dishes together. Or how closely we stood next to each other on the balcony, watching the sunset.
I don't know how long I'd wanted to make those fleeting moments more. Much more. Shit. Just thinking about how he looked, sitting on the couch, his tee shirt stretched tight across that big chest of his was making me hard. Might as well be at St. Sebastian's for all the good that would do me.
I lifted my head up when the phone rang. Tim had forgotten to take his cell phone. It had one of those annoying high-pitched chirps. I went over to his desk and picked it up. "Hello?"
"Oh, hi, this is Wendy. Can I speak to Tim?"
I looked at his schedule. "I'm sorry, he's not here right now. I believe he's at the gym. Can I take a message?"
"Sure. Just tell him I called. He knows my number." She giggled. "Thanks. Bye."
"Bye." I put the phone down and scribbled her name on the back of a receipt.
Wendy was no doubt Tim's girlfriend. I put my pen down and paced a little. I hadn't had a date in so long, it wasn't funny. But that was entirely my doing. I'd decided long before the whole dissertation disaster I preferred spending Friday nights and much of the weekend at home with my partner.
Yeah, I loved him. The big lummox.
That wasn't so hard to admit to myself here, now that I was a good hour and a half away from Cascade. The question was, how did Jim feel about me?
He seemed different after the press conference -- less aloof, more gentle and attentive even. Or was I reaching for something that didn't exist? I glanced at the message for Tim I still held in my hand. Shit. For all I knew, Jim could be out on a date.
That image did not do good things for me.
I folded my arms and leaned back against the wall. The thought of Jim smiling, laughing, holding someone new in his arms sent a wave of jealousy shooting through me. I could've used a nice long meditation session to calm down, but considering the surroundings, it didn't seem a good time to break out the candles and assume the lotus position.
I grabbed my jacket and went downstairs for a walk.
I ended up walking the track a few times, trying to clear my head. It was cool and breezy and only two other recruits jogged past me in the fading light. I told myself to lighten up and get a grip. Regardless of how I felt about Jim, I was here to finish the academy so I could become his full-time partner in Major Crimes. That was my goal.
Still, the thought of him getting involved with someone else depressed the bejeesus out of me. As I passed a pay phone by the gym, I stopped and turned around. Before I knew it, I had the receiver to my ear and the loft number punched in. It rang twice. On the third ring I called myself an idiot and decided to hang up before the answering machine caught it. Suddenly I heard Jim's voice on the other end. "Ellison," he barked. He sounded a little winded.
I panicked slightly, thinking, oh no, what if he's got someone with him? I reached out to disconnect but just as my finger touched the hook, he said quietly, "Sandburg? Is that you?"
"Yeah, hi." I gulped and stood there feeling like a total dweeb. "Um, I'm not interrupting anything am I?"
He huffed a little. "No. The elevators were out again. I just got home."
"Another late one, huh?"
"You're telling me." I could hear his shoes clumping across the hardwood floor as he unzipped his jacket.
"What are you working on?"
"There was another jewelry heist this morning, downtown near Ninth and Brockton."
That was right in the heart of the jewelry district. "Any leads?"
"Yeah, a couple. Joel and I started interviewing the employees this afternoon. Considering the timing, it's pretty much a given it was an inside job. Just a matter of time before we figure out who's involved."
He sounded tired and I began to feel guilty about calling in the first place.
"What about you?"
"Huh? What about me?"
"You called. Something come up?"
"Nah. I just thought I'd check and see how your senses were doing." It wasn't one of my better obfuscations, but I couldn't bring myself to say what I really felt.
He was silent for moment. I heard the refrigerator door open and close. "My senses are fine." He swallowed something.
"That's good. Look, you've had a long day. I better let you go." I listened to him put something down on the counter.
"You take care."
"Always, man." I hung up. It was dark by the time I got back to my room.
Another week went by. My accuracy on the firing range was improving slowly but surely along with my resolve not to call and check on Jim every night. I told myself the time apart would do us both some good only it didn't sound quite so convincing at night while I tossed and turned in bed.
Classes were going well, even the self-defense ones, but I still felt lonely. Every now and then I'd go to the pay phone by the gym in the afternoon and dial the loft number, knowing full well Jim was out, just to listen to his voice on the answering machine. Then I'd hang up. Talk about pathetic.
Come Friday evening, Tim and his buddies had arranged to go into town to catch a movie. Out of politeness, he asked if I wanted to come along. I shook my head. "No thanks. Maybe next time."
I envied the fact he was going out. Here I was, more or less on the edge of broke, and hanging out in my room by myself on the eve of another weekend. Great. Just fucking great. I didn't even want to think about what Jim might be up to. I needed something seriously tedious to work off my bad mood. I got up off my bed, grabbed my laundry bag and began sorting the dirty clothes into piles.
When I'd finished, I checked my pockets for loose change.
I couldn't wait to get a steady paycheck. With Jim already covering my car insurance, gas, credit cards, food, clothes, books and the roof over my head, I couldn't bring myself to ask him for some spending cash. Instead I had Naomi send me a couple of traveler's checks to keep me going at the academy. But even so, I had to budget myself.
As I shook out one of my pants, something fell on the floor. It was the calling card. I'd used up it up some time ago. I picked it up and rubbed the hard, smooth surface. It reminded me of Jim's skin, except his was warm, soft and supple. I sighed and put it up on the shelf next to my alarm clock. I scooped up my clothes and went downstairs.
The only good thing about doing laundry on a Friday evening was that I practically had my pick of machines. By the time I got back upstairs for another load, I realized the door was ajar and someone was prowling around inside. It couldn't be Tim, so I pushed the door open and nearly had a heart attack.
He smirked at me as I fumbled to put my stack of towels down before I dropped it.
"What the hell are you doing here?"
He leaned against the desk and tilted his head. "You never call, you never write."
We'd only been apart a few weeks but I stared at him like a kid stares at an ice cream truck on a hot August day. Even casually dressed in his black leather jacket and jeans, he looked good. Too damn good. My pulse accelerated as he moved closer.
"Did you at least bring me some more laundry soap?"
"Nah. I brought you something better." He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small, black leather case.
He dropped it into my hand. I stared at it. It was a little Nokia.
"I went ahead and programmed a couple of numbers on speed dial for you."
I looked up and swallowed.
"It's already hooked up to my account," he continued. "You can call me any time now. Day or night."
The way he stressed the word 'night' made me start a little. He nudged me slightly. "No more hang ups on the answering machine, okay?"
Oops. Busted. I blushed. "Okay."
"If you want to talk, just call."
I squeezed the new cell phone in my hand and nodded. "Dial and call. Got it."
He moved right up in my space, forcing me to take a step back. The back of my legs bumped into the edge of the mattress. His voice was low and a little raspy in a way that made me shiver. "Or, since I'm here, you could talk to me now."
My knees got weak suddenly and I sat heavily on the bed. Jim dropped down next me. With our combined weight, I could feel the slats underneath the mattress I'd been sleeping on. I looked down and rubbed the covering of the cell phone with my thumb. It was very smooth. We sat in silence for a few minutes as he waited patiently for me to say something. Finally I spoke up. "Jim? Are you sure you want to hear this?"
"Yeah, I'm sure." He lifted my chin up with his fingers and stroked my jaw with his thumb. Even under fluorescent lights, his eyes looked dark and dangerous. "So, what is it you want to say to me?"
I opened my mouth and closed it.
"You know what your problem is?" he said softly.
I felt mesmerized by his gaze. "No. What?"
I pulled away from his fingers and smacked his arm. "Hah, hah. That's like the pot calling the kettle--"
I looked into his face again. He'd dropped his usual guarded reserve. In its place I saw tenderness, vulnerability and something more -- all of it aimed at me. What little was left of my brain was still cautioning me to look before I leaped while my emotions were chanting, ‘Go! Go! Go!’ I took a deep breath. "Okay, here's the deal."
I leaned my face slowly towards his and zeroed in on his mouth. He sat still, watching me and didn't pull away. I took that as a good sign. "This is what I've been wanting to say." I closed my eyes and touched my lips to his.
It was better than I'd imagined. They were warm and firm yet soft. I pressed against them once and heard him sigh. I brushed my cheek across his and felt his stubble against my skin. He smelled wonderful, clean and masculine. I caressed his hair with my fingers as he opened his mouth slightly and let me nibble on his lower lip. His hand moved past my shoulder as he cupped the back of my head and touched the tip of my tongue with his.
I have no idea how long we sat, wrapped up in each other arms, exchanging soft, lingering kisses. Finally I opened my eyes. He was still watching me. I bit his lip gently then drew my head back.
"How'd you know?" I asked a bit shakily.
"I'm a sentinel, remember? I see things, smell things, feel things. But mostly I hear things. Especially this." He splayed his hand flat against my chest, right over my heart. Leaning over, he nuzzled my neck then whispered into my ear, "So, tell me again."
I laughed and grabbed his face between my hands. Before I pressed my mouth to his, I said, "Okay, but it's going to take a while."
You can bet I had plenty to say.
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