Observer Effect by Arrow

Observer Effect - Arrow

It was a few weeks after they got back from Sierra Verde that Jim noticed Sandburg starting to work on his dissertation again.

And after everything that had happened, and in spite of the black guilt Jim still felt for his failure to protect Sandburg, for the way he'd pushed Sandburg away and let himself get sucker-punched by instinct and and fear and God knew what other sentinel weirdness, seeing Blair writing again still pissed Jim the hell off.

There was this way Blair had of looking at him while he was working on the diss that Jim absolutely hated. Blair would be reading or scribbling in his notebook and would look up and peer at Jim over his glasses—a scientist looking at his subject, vivisecting him with his clear, blue stare. And it reminded Jim all over again that this was a test of the Emergency Broadcast System; this wasn't real. Sandburg, in his apartment, sharing Jim's life, his job—it was all an illusion.

No, they were observer and subject, scientist and specimen. Not partners. Not friends.

Well, yeah, they were friends, but that took a back seat to the true purpose of their relationship. Nothing had made that clearer than when Jim had read the introductory chapter of Sandburg's dissertation. And maybe Jim was a fool, because he'd been really, really surprised. Beneath his embarrassment at being stripped open, and his humiliation at having his character dissected and pinned down to the pages in dry, unforgiving science-speak, Jim had felt a bone-deep shock. That was how naïve he'd been. He'd actually thought Sandburg respected him, even looked up to him.

Cared about him.

Goddammit.

After Blair (died) was nearly killed by another sentinel, there was no room left for Jim's anger or sense of betrayal. He had no right to them, anyway, considering his own betrayals; hormone- and fear-based urges had overwhelmed him both in the loft and down in Mexico, making him do things he would never do in his right mind.

But still, no matter how he pushed away his remaining resentment, it surfaced at awkward times, making him curt and irritable, until finally Jim decided to do something about it. After giving it a little thought, he decided justice demanded reciprocity. An eye for an eye. Sandburg's eyes on him, so Jim's eyes on Sandburg.

Along with the other senses, of course. Jim had an advantage in that he could observe much more invisibly than Blair ever could. In the reflections from windows, water glasses, the toaster, the tea kettle; in his peripheral vision, where he would absorb without focusing, and then later retrieve the input and examine it more closely. Blair's heartbeat, his scent, intestinal noises—Jim had always made an effort to respect his roommate's privacy in the past, but now everything was fair game.

Jim looked. He cataloged. He indexed—the twitching of Sandburg's nose when his allergies kicked in. The way he rubbed his eyes when he was tired and then widened them so he could continue to read. The puffy softness of his lips, blurry from sleep in the mornings when he dragged himself with difficulty from his bed. Those soft, red lips...

"Is there coffee?"

"Yeah. Help yourself." Jim watched via the chrome hood over the stove as Blair poured himself a cup, took a sip, and smiled in bliss.

Jim had always been more than a little in love with Sandburg for saving his sanity, his job—fuck, he'd saved Jim's life. And Sandburg was great to look at, expressive and energetic, with features that seemed exotic and unique to him. So observing Sandburg wasn't any hardship.

But the affection Jim felt had shriveled a little under Sandburg's scientific regard. It couldn't survive knowing what Blair's real opinion was of him. So now, when Jim looked, he saw—Sandburg's hands, which never stopped moving, even when he was sitting still and reading the paper. His fingers would tap his leg, or run along the seam of the couch cushion. His hair seemed to bother him constantly—he was always pulling off the band that held it so he could refasten it. If he was wearing it down, he would push it off his face irritably, stuffing it behind his ears until the next time it escaped to fall forward, curling over his cheek.

Sandburg often had something in his mouth: a pen, usually, which he would use to tap his teeth or against his lips. Like an oral fixation. And he read fast, his eyes speeding back and forth across the page.

Jim dutifully recorded the information in a notebook. This was data collection. This is what Sandburg did to him. He didn't use Sandburg's name, though. It would be too dangerous. What if someone were to get hold of it? Instead, he referred to Sandburg as Subject A.

Subject A appears to have a number of personal tics, such as playing with his hair or chewing his fingernails, that he apparently uses to dispel some of his excess nervous energy. Possible OCD? Or an anxiety disorder of some kind. As much as the subject claims to seek inner quiet through meditation or other spiritual rituals, he displays an inability to sit still for any period of time. In one hour of reading, he changed positions eight times, adjusted his glasses twelve times, refastened his hair three times, and pulled two threads from the couch's upholstery.

Sandburg looked up from his book. "We should play some b-ball today. The weather won't hold like this much longer."

"Fine by me."

At the courts, they played one-on-one, which meant Jim could look at Sandburg outright without any need for deflection. He watched the flex of Sandburg's butt muscles as he hunched over dribbling the ball. Jim mentally recorded the sweaty curve of Blair's waist under his palm as he guarded him on the way to the basket. The way Blair's eyes flashed as he made the shot. His delighted grin at the swish of the ball through the net.

Blair made some trash-talking comment, but Jim was too absorbed to make a comeback.

The next day, Jim observed Subject A in action at the police station. He noticed Sandburg had a smile for everyone, but a different physical approach. Henri received a punch in the shoulder; Joel, a hand on the forearm with a brief squeeze. When it came to women, Sandburg reduced the amount of personal space between them, edging closer than Jim would dare to. The ladies didn't seem to mind.

Subject exhibits signs of the male equivalent of nymphomania. Jim looked it up on the web and then painstakingly transferred the spelling to his notebook. Satyriasis.

Jim started to notice something else, too, something that surprised and dismayed him. It seemed like all too often, when he was focusing on Sandburg's reflection in a water glass or a computer screen, he would discover Sandburg's eyes were fixed on him.

A lot. Much more often than Jim had realized before he started secretly observing back.

In the strip of chrome on the vending machine while Jim punched in for his afternoon bag of Fritos; in the water fountain faucet as Jim bent to take a drink; in the glare of the computer screen while Jim painstakingly typed in three weeks of neglected reports. In the periphery of his vision. Always, Blair's eyes were on him, unwavering, with no sign of what he was thinking of the subject pinned at the other end of the scope.

Of course, Jim wasn't showing anything either. He kept his face iron-cool and expressionless at all times, concerned that he would give away the game, that Blair would notice Jim was watching him. Was finally watching back.

He must have slipped somehow though, because Sandburg was too quiet on the way home from the station. The usually exuberant hands were still in the corner of Jim's eye. In the ghostly double reflection from the windshield, Blair's face was stiff and pale.

"Seafood in a clay pot," Jim said suddenly.

Blair's focus snapped sharply and he turned his head. "What?"

"From Tup Tim's. That seafood dish with the fat scallops."

"You mean Pong Pang."

"Yeah, that's the stuff. Pong Pang. With rice. And some Pad Thai noodles."

"Sounds good to me. I'll order ahead." Sandburg dialed Tup Tim and called in their order. When he was done, he turned away and looked out the side window.

After a few more miles the silence was starting to get to Jim. Also, there was nothing further to observe, unless you counted the fact that there was nothing to observe which, with Sandburg, was actually saying a lot.

Something had changed. For a while, Jim couldn't figure out what it was, because after dinner, they cleaned up and watched TV like always. And Sandburg seemed like himself—making sly comments on the impossibility of the physics when the action hero did some crazy stunt. Jim grunted back, but he wasn't really watching. Above the flickering images he was catching Blair's reflection on the surface of the picture tube, distorted by the glimmers of color and light.

It wasn't until the next day, when they were downstairs in the morgue and Jim was examining yet another body, that he realized what was missing. Because in the burnished metal of the autopsy table, he saw Blair, looking not at the corpse, or at Jim, but with his eyes fixed on Dan as the coroner rattled off his findings.

Blair wasn't looking at Jim. Not in the hallway, or in the elevator, or back at Jim's desk where Jim pulled up the deceased's next of kin.

Not in the truck, nor when they were sitting in the widow's living room, Jim holding her pale, damp hand while he carefully explained that her husband, Jason Grauel, wouldn't be coming home.

"Do you know of anyone who would want to harm Jason?"

She shook her head. "He's the sweetest man. Was. Oh, Lord—" She began to cry again. Jim winced helplessly at Blair, who for some reason didn't catch Jim's look.

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Grauel, but I have to ask you a question. You might think this a little strange, but did Jason have any friends in the construction business?"

Jim didn't mention that the bruised skin around Grauel's neck had smelled like uncured window putty.

"No, no, no one like that," Mrs. Grauel said with some distaste. Jim could practically feel Blair rolling his eyes next to him. "Although I do know he was helping his golfing buddy restore some antique boat of his. It was a special project."

"Would this be at Crocker Marina?" Not incidentally just a mile or so from where the body was found.

"Yes, I believe so. Jason was always such a good friend." Mrs. Grauel started weeping again. There was something about it that grated on Jim's nerves, but he couldn't identify what. Maybe it was that her grief seemed too controlled. The way she held her handkerchief and dabbed carefully at her eyes, as if it was all very well and good to weep when your husband had been murdered, but you shouldn't let it mess up your makeup.

He knew his thoughts were unkind, but after delivering this kind of news to hundreds of victims' families, he'd become something of an expert in grief.

"Could you give me name of Jason's golfing buddy? Perhaps a phone number?"

"Yes. Yes, of course."

Mrs. Grauel stood and went into another room. Jim didn't turn toward Sandburg and make a face as he might have, normally; instead, he focused on his peripheral vision to try to pick up Sandburg's reaction, expecting him to be rolling his eyes again, or wincing at Jim in sympathy.

Except he wasn't. He wasn't looking at Jim. Blair was staring at the coffee table, a frown wrinkling his brow, his plump, lower lip caught between his teeth.

And for some reason Jim felt cold. Not that he wanted Blair to be staring at him all the time, taking notes, tracking every fluctuation in Jim's mood.

But he at least wanted something—some connection. Now, though, it seemed there was nothing there at all.

///

Jim floated back to consciousness and knew two things immediately: he was in a hospital bed, and Blair was sitting beside him. Rustle of pages, familiar scent, heavy sigh as the chair creaked with Blair's shift in position.

"What? San'burg," Jim mumbled out. His mouth was sticky and dry. He tried to raise his head.

"Jim. Jesus." Creak of the chair again. "Take it easy, you've lost a lot of blood." And then Sandburg was standing above him, one hand resting on Jim's forearm. "You gotta stop doing this, man. You're giving Simon gray hairs. Here, the doc says you need to take in fluids." Sandburg held a cup with a straw to his lips, and Jim sipped gratefully.

"What happened?" he asked finally.

"You don't remember?" Blair sounded worried.

Jim tried to think back. The last thing he remembered was being in the truck and driving them to the marina. No, there was the yacht. They'd found the boathouse where Hamilton, Grauel's buddy, was restoring his yacht, the Tempus-something.

"Tempus Fugit?" Jim said blearily.

"Yeah. We found the yacht. We found the guy. What else do you remember?"

"He was—he had it up on a cradle and was using a grinder on the bottom. Then he saw us and freaked—"

"I think he saw your badge. I think that's pretty much all he saw, Jim."

"Fuck. He came at me with that thing. That's all I remember. What the fuck happened?"

"Your arm—"

As soon as Blair said it, Jim could feel the twinge in his bicep, until it seemed to take over his whole body; one giant pulse of pain, throbbing through him—

"Come on, man. Jim, stop it, just...Jim!" Sandburg was leaning over him, trying to drag his hand away from his arm.

"Sorry." Jim realized he'd been reaching for the spot where he'd been injured. It was all coming back to him now—the fucking grinder had sliced right through his shirt and ripped his arm open. Blood flying like from a sprinkler head, spun into space by the wheel of the grinder, and Hamilton was howling something Jim couldn't hear above the sound of the power tool. He was trying to keep his bloody grip on Hamilton's wrist, trying to hold the grinder away from them both, and then all of a sudden Hamilton jerked and fell. Jim fell with him, and when the grinder hit the ground it started spinning toward Jim's face, and he'd ducked his head away.

That was the last thing he remembered.

"I remember you conked him with something. Thanks, Sandburg. Sorry about that—" Jim waved his free hand, feeling guilty. Seemed like he was always getting Sandburg into one sticky situation after another.

"No problem. You're the one who almost got his face sanded off."

"Wouldn't want that," Jim said, "but you might think it was an improvement."

Sandburg didn't seem to think his joke was very funny. He was staring right at Jim with a pained expression, and Jim gazed back, realizing suddenly that Blair was looking at him, really looking. The connection was back.

He didn't want to question why or how. He didn't want to fuck it up. So he just said, "Thanks," again, and patted Blair's hip with his good hand. "You're aces, Chief."

Blair glanced away, suddenly agitated. "You're over it then?" he asked in a funny voice. "I mean, you've decided to forgive me finally?"

"What? What're you talking about?"

"Come on, man. You've been completely—for days now, it's like you can hardly stand to look at me."

Oh. Crap. Jim had been looking, but of course never when Sandburg could see it, never in a way Sandburg could tell.

And apparently Blair had noticed him carefully not looking, and had been hurt.

Jim felt like an asshole.

"I didn't mean to—"

"What? Treat me like I'm invisible? The amazing invisible partner?" Sandburg made a weird gesture and threw himself into the chair by the bed, then shifted up and yanked some papers from underneath his ass.

"No. I was just trying to work some stuff through." Jim coughed. "Because of, you know, the fountain—I didn't get a chance to think about everything that happened." His throat was dry, but he couldn't ask for more water. "And then...you started writing again."

"So, it's like I thought—you still haven't forgiven me for what you read. Without my permission," Blair threw out, but then winced with a guilty expression.

Jim took a deep breath and then let it out. He shifted on the bed until he could see Sandburg, who leaned forward a little to meet his eyes.

"The thing is, Chief, I get it now. That's your job. That's just how you do your job. And I know it's like me telling you we have to keep emotion out of it when we're on a case. Have to be objective and all that. But I guess I expected—" Jim's voice went hoarse on him, but he pushed through, "—since it's me—I mean, if I were investigating a crime with you as the victim, I don't know how objective I could be. That's all. That's why I—"

Blair gave a moan and rested his face in his hands. "I know. I know, Jim," he said, his voice muffled by his palms. He lifted his head. "I went back and read it again—you know, trying to read it from your point of view, and, shit, man. I totally understand why you were so pissed off about it."

"You...you do?"

"I do, yeah. In fact, that's what I've been working on—I've been revising what I've got so far. And I'm sorry. I know I never really said that."

"I'm sorry, too," Jim rushed in, wanting to get it in there. They never said they were sorry. They'd never really needed apologies between them. But all he knew was it felt so goddamned good to hear that Sandburg finally understood why it—well, it fucking hurt so goddamned much to read those words. It had felt as bad as when Caro had left him. It felt the same as her disappointment in him, and then Sandburg had gone and interviewed her, for chrissake, so it was the two of them together, maybe laughing at his flaws—

He never claimed not to have them. But that didn't mean he wanted his faults nailed down on paper. Especially the one where he did things out of anger that hurt the people he cared most about.

That was the worst of them. And he'd done it again.

He had to come clean.

"I've been watching you," Jim confessed. Blair was sitting silently, staring at him with an open look, but he frowned now in confusion.

"When? It seems like whenever I look at you, you're sitting all stone-faced looking at anything but me."

"I was watching you the whole time. At your reflection. Everywhere. Every chance I got."

Blair's eyes widened. "Why?"

And that was the question, wasn't it? Because Jim could lie to himself all he wanted about experiments and data collection and being the one to pin Sandburg under the microscope for a change, but the simple truth of it was—

"I like looking at you."

About two seconds after he said it out loud, Jim realized how Blair could take it the wrong way. Or entirely the right way, and Jim's nuts shriveled up on him in simple fear. He felt himself flushing, felt the throb in the torn flesh of his arm as his pulse picked up. Thank God he wasn't wearing a heart monitor or the game would be up right there.

Except Blair was smiling, a shy, amazed smile that made Jim's heart pound even harder.

"Oh," Blair said.

"Yeah." Jim started to raise his hand to rub at his face, but froze when pain flashed through his upper arm. He used the other hand, hiding his eyes behind his palm as he tried to get his emotions in check. "Look, Sandburg—"

"Nah. Don't wreck it. Let me have my moment."

It was Jim's turn to say, "Oh." He dropped his hand, in spite of the heat in his face and neck. He looked everywhere but at Sandburg, until finally the silence got to him and he risked a peek.

Blair was staring at him, chin propped on his clasped hands, that shy smile still curving his lips.

"What'm I gonna do with you, huh?" Blair asked in an abstracted way, like his thoughts were somewhere else.

"Whatever you want." Jim's flush got worse. His ears felt like hot pokers.

"Whatever I want...you know what I want, Jim?"

"No." He sure didn't.

"I want to get you out of here, take you home, get you upstairs into bed..." Blair's voice stopped strangely, like it was cut off. Sandburg had a fairly dark complexion, so it was hard to tell, but Jim could swear he was the one blushing this time.

"Then what?" Jim asked, starting to smile.

Blair waved his hands in a vague gesture. "You know."

Letting himself rest back against the bed, Jim shook his head. "Nope. I don't. I think you're gonna have to spell it out, Chief." The smile just wouldn't go away.

Sandburg made an inarticulate noise. But then Jim felt Blair's hand on his arm again, and the stroke of his thumb.

"Oh, I'll think of something," Blair said, his voice higher than usual. It sounded like he was smiling, that big grin he got when he'd just figured out something important. And then Jim felt the shift of air as Blair leaned over the bed, moving closer, as if he were thinking about kissing him.

He might get spooked, if Jim looked.

So Jim closed his eyes.


The end

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Acknowledgments: Thank you to Corinne for the lovely artwork.

Author's note: In experimental research, the term observer effect refers to changes that the act of observation will make on the phenomenon being observed.