Damn. He was just building another good head of steam in the anger department when Gabe popped up behind him, out of nowhere, with his slow, mesmerizing, and strangely compelling, words. The problem was, Jim wanted to hold on to the anger; it was justified. Sandburg had no right to be so... clinical... about his life; they were friends, for God’s sake.
“What good does it do for a man to have ears that will hear a thousand miles if he cannot listen to the whispers of his own heart?”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” he ground out in frustration. He supposed he needed to try to figure what the hell those words meant, but really, for the life of him, he couldn’t understand why – only that it might be important.
“You should begin by listening to the hearts of others.”
Why were those words even more haunting? Wasn’t it bad enough he was supposed to listen to his own? Now he had to listen to others?
Could Gabe have meant – Blair’s heart?
Bodies shoved against him, jostling him out of his mental exercises. He was suddenly all too aware of the voices rising around him, the smells assaulting him, his own anger rising and falling, ebbing and flowing. He looked around frantically as his mind pushed him to find Blair again. Thankfully, out of all the unknown faces, Jim spotted a familiar one.
“Rafe, you seen Sandburg?” he asked, somewhat brusquely.
Tonight was a night that the unwary should have been vigilant, but the young detective had allowed vanity to take precedence over caution. With his attention firmly fixed on battering away the grimy hand of a homeless man before filthy fingers soiled his newly-acquired Italian shirt, Rafe barely acknowledged him or his question.
Squaring his jaw in annoyance, Jim roughly pushed his way through the mishmash of vagrants and petty criminals, trying in vain to block out the squawking notes of a badly-tuned harmonica emanating from the PA system.
“Rafe! Sandburg?” he barked.
With an uncharacteristically frazzled demeanor, Rafe finally managed to disengage the fingers from his shirt and move the man firmly out of his personal space. “Would you look at that,” he said, rubbing at the fabric in an effort to erase an ugly brown spot. “It’s ruined!”
“Sandburg?” Jim barked again, both his patience and Brian Rafe now skating on inordinately thin ice. “Where is he?”
Rafe jumped slightly before unconsciously taking a step back. “The archives, I think.”
“What’s he doing down there?” Jim couldn’t help but ask. With all this chaos and Blair’s need to be helpful, that seemed the last place he’d be... unless....
Damn that dissertation.
“I don’t know,” Rafe replied defensively. “He said something about needing some space to think.”
“Thanks,” Jim replied, and then, because he needed a quick outlet for all the emotions, and because who better than Rafe to pick on, Jim gave the perfectly-groomed detective a quick head to toe inspection, flashed an evil grin and slapped the clipboard he was carrying against Rafe’s chest. “Simon’s looking for a few community-spirited people to help unclog the blocked drains in the washroom.”
“And?” Rafe asked, caution now taking a front row seat.
“And, I can’t think of a candidate more ‘suited’ for the job.”
“Jim, that’s not...” Rafe started, but pulled up immediately when he caught an all too familiar look flash across Jim’s face. He backed off.
Satisfied that he had control over someone, Jim patted the man on the shoulder. “Good man,” he stated, before turning away and heading toward the elevators. “Oh, and Rafe,” he tossed over his shoulder, “find a clean shirt will you? This department does have its standards – even on a night like tonight.”
Sometimes you had to get your jollies where you could.
Taking the elevator down to the basement, Jim weaved his way through a rabbit warren of corridors and offices that had been aptly christened ‘the bowels’ of the department. He’d latched onto Sandburg’s presence the moment he’d stepped into the hallway, so it didn’t take long to locate his misplaced partner. Going for a nonchalant demeanor that projected, ‘No, we didn’t just have a fight’, Jim said, “Hey, Chief, what are you doing down here? I’ve been looking all over for you.”
Blair shrugged his shoulders before scrubbing his hands over his face. The night was getting old – too old – and now Jim was pretending nothing had happened between them. It was an act he was quickly tiring of.
Moving further into the cluttered room, Jim attempted, without success, to close the top drawer of an over-stuffed filing cabinet, more for something to do then the need to have it closed. Giving up, he turned around, his gaze drawn, almost against his will, to the more than familiar notebook sitting on the desk next to Sandburg. “You’re not really thinking of destroying that are you?” he asked, guilt getting the better of him. “I said I was sorry.”
The look on Sandburg’s face was unreadable as he watched Jim lean back against the cabinet. “Actually, no, you didn’t.” Picking up his dissertation, Blair thumbed the pages, watching as they idly flipped over. “What you said, was that you were sorry for the transgression ‘but’ you thought we were friends.” Blair squared Jim with a disappointed look. “It’s the ‘but’ that kind of nullifies the apology and turns it into a justification for your actions.”
Feeling his anger surge again, combined with resentment against the intent behind the words, Jim replied sardonically, “You planning on trying out for law school now, Chief?”
“Can’t be any worse than where my career’s currently headed.” Blair shoved back the chair he was sitting on and got to his feet. “At least I wouldn’t have to validate my every move to a study subject with skin as thin as rice paper.”
“Hey,” Jim growled, pushing himself off the filing cabinet and standing to his full height. “I’m not the one who’s been sneaking around behind your back asking all those intimate questions.” He edged closer to Blair. “Surely you had enough information for your study without turning your little thesis into an updated version of the Kinsey Report and using the ins and outs of my sex life to do it.”
“You just don’t get it, do you?” Sandburg shook his head with disappointment before gathering his dissertation to his chest and heading toward the door. “But then, when I look back over the past three years, I don’t think you ever did.”
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” Jim immediately challenged.
“Intimacy has nothing to do with your sex life, man. Intimacy is all about your ability to trust – and your ability to love.” Pausing for a brief moment, Blair faced Jim head on. “Or inability,” he added quietly.
“My inability to love?” Jim stated, his voice angrily rising, along with his well-honed defense mechanisms. “You have got to be kidding. Correct me if I’m wrong, Sandburg, but in all the time I’ve known you, I’ve yet to see you make a commitment to a woman that’s lasted longer than a month.”
Through a veil of thickly-clouded anger, Jim ignored the voice inside of his head – as well as the gently whispered words of Gabe – telling him to stop. Neither voice stood a chance at halting his verbal assault.
“Seems to me, Chief, your idea of intimacy is a bunch of roses, a couple of cheap dinners – if she’s lucky – and once you’ve finally dipped your wick, it’s ‘Sayonara Senorita’.” Jim couldn’t help but see the color drain from Blair’s face so, like any good matador, he moved in for the kill. “What’s wrong, Chief. Didn’t hit an intimacy nerve, did I?”
The faint odor of incendiary explosives and the slight tremble deep within the concrete flooring should have given Jim his first clue to the impending explosion, but he was too caught up in his anger to notice; too busy shielding himself from the garbled words that had cut too close to home, despite being spoken by a strange homeless man.
As a deafening sound erupted from the elevator shaft, there was nothing he could do. He was too late to warn, too late to move. As the walls blew in and the ceiling started to collapse, Jim was afraid it was too late to listen to the whispers of his heart.
“Sandburg, can you hear me now?”
“Yeah, that’s better,” Blair called back, straining to project his voice up a small ventilation shaft, several yards above his head.
When the world had collapsed in a terrifying onslaught of sound and fury, he’d felt himself thrown sideways, his dissertation torn from his arms. He’d been battered by pieces of the building, books, furniture, the room itself, until finally and blessedly, the quiet returned. Dazed, he’d found himself buried under the very desk he’d been sitting at when Jim had shown up.
He’d been lucky, he knew that. The desk had actually shielded him from the worst of what he now knew had been a deliberate explosion. Once he’d really come to his senses, his first thought had been for his partner, and his second, after finding him, had been, “Oh, God, no.”
Jim had been sprawled on his stomach, a beam across his back.
“How bad is he, Sandburg?”
The question brought Blair back to the here and now and, taking a deep breath, he said, “Simon, I don’t know. He was still unconscious when I heard you guys and left him to make my way here.” Blair paused briefly, trying to get a grip on his steadily growing panic. The beam he’d removed from Jim’s back had been as heavy as hell to shift and, until Jim woke up, he had no way of telling what damage had been done.
“Simon, what if he can’t move?” He swallowed hard. “What if... what if he’s paralyzed?”
“Sandburg, let’s not go inviting trouble, all right?” Simon paused briefly, grappling with his own growing fear. “You have to keep it together, for Jim’s sake. You need to keep a clear head.”
“Yeah, right,” Blair responded, roughly swiping once more at the trickle of blood that seemed relentless in its effort to forge a path from the gash just above his eye, to the strained muscles in his left shoulder. “How much longer?”
Although the sound was muffled, the frustration in Simon’s voice rang out loud and clear. “I don’t know, Sandburg. One, possibly two hours.”
Blair simply nodded, completely forgetting that no one could see him.
“Sandburg?” Simon prompted, uncomfortable with the silence from below. “Are you sure you’re not hurt?”
“I told you, I’ll live.”
“Not the answer I wanted to hear then, definitely not the answer I want now,” Simon snapped a little too harshly into the dark void. Three years had given him ample opportunity to discover what made Blair tick, and obfuscation lived right at the top of the Sandburg list. “I want a catalogue, now,” he ordered.
Blair sighed reluctantly. “Gash on the head, bumps, bruises, pulled muscles, and an assortment of scrapes.” He shifted gingerly against the wall he was leaning on and tried once again to put a little more weight onto his ankle – an injury he decided to leave off his list. “And a broken friendship,” he added, too quietly for Simon to hear.
Gathering up his strength again, he yelled up, “I need to get back to Jim, man. I’ve let him alone too long as it is already.” Putting as much weight on his foot as his body would bear, Blair pushed himself completely off the wall, lifted the First Aid bag they'd lowered down to him, and limped back down the hallway, Simon's words of caution and 'don't worry, Sandburg' following him, with a promise of hope.
For Jim, coming back to the conscious world had never been a painless affair; this time was no exception. As his survival mechanism kicked into gear, he unconsciously catalogued his injuries while his conscious senses deployed on a mission of their own: to find – by sight, sound or scent – the very essence of the man he inadvertently regarded as more precious than any other. Unfortunately, Jim was coming up empty.
Blair’s life force was missing.
Disregarding the pressure of bruised ribs bearing down on his lungs, and fighting hard to clear a vision blurred by concussion, Jim fought to steel himself against the impending implications of his next action. Bracing his hands against the cold concrete floor, he rolled himself from his stomach to his side, unable to silence the pain as his sore chest protested, dangerously stealing his breath away. But a stolen breath couldn’t compare with the gush of air that rushed from his body as his eyes settled on the floor next to him.
Blair’s dissertation lay crumpled and torn, its brown leather cover barely seen, buried under a pile of debris.
“No,” he whispered. “Please, no.”
Jim’s worst nightmare had taken living form in less than a heartbeat.
Hands, knees, feet and toes.
Blair’s body was buried under a pile of broken concrete and mangled steel, but feeling his own body parts was the only thing Jim was capable of comprehending. Like a man stripped bare of all cognitive thought, Jim simply obeyed the mechanical requests sent out by his brain. Hands received the message first and, scraped and bloody, they pushed him off the floor, followed by knees, then feet.
Toes, you stay exactly where you are, he thought insanely as his body struggled to stay upright.
“Eyes,” he whispered quietly, holding onto the hope that they, at least, would follow his heart to the place deep inside of him that guarded his feelings and kept him safe from the pain they could wield. But, to his despair, his line of sight didn’t falter. It stayed exactly where it had been from the time he’d regained consciousness – fixed firmly on the battered cover of a book that marked the end of his emotional being. The book that marked his last chance to love.
“God, Blair,” he rasped. His vision blurred once more, caused this time not by concussion, but by the tears that welled in his eyes. “Please, God, no.”
Hands, knees, feet and toes betrayed him all at once and Jim felt himself crashing to the ground. But there was no pain as he collided with the concrete floor because his impact was softened by the man who’d never budged an inch from his side, no matter how hard he’d tried to push him away.
Blair had made the slow, laborious trek back to the archive room, arriving just in time to see Jim stand up. Shocked at seeing him, firstly on his feet, and now heading for a certain nosedive, Blair sprang forward, using his good foot for impetus. He rushed to catch Jim, to bear his weight and, despite the pain of his own injuries, to use his own body to cushion the fall. “Take it easy, man, just take it easy. I’m here,” he ground out as Jim’s weight became his sole responsibility.
As the words struck home, Blair found himself being manhandled in an oddly tender manner and, knowing his sentinel as he did, he understood the man’s need to check him over, so he acquiesced and just let Jim do his thing.
“You’re alive. You’re really alive,” Jim finally said.
They were now both on their knees, facing each other, each gripping the other’s arms. “Yeah, man. Alive and kicking and don’t worry, Simon knows we’re down here. Won’t be too long before we’re rescued. Now that you’ve reassured yourself that I’m not some ghost, can you tell me about your injuries?”
“Ribs, concussed, the usual cuts and scratches.” Jim released a breath slowly, awed, but still so shocked by having Blair alive that downplaying his injuries didn’t even occur to him.
“Broken or bruised?”
“And obviously no spinal injury,” Blair said, relief heavy in every word.
Jim shook his head, his eyes still fastened firmly on Blair. “Obviously,” he whispered.
“You know, you have a distinct advantage here – you can see me, but the emergency lighting’s not really dazzling my world, man.” He fumbled around for the First Aid kit. “I've got a bag of goodies Simon lowered down through a ventilation shaft - it includes a flashlight. We, meaning me, could use a little extra light."
Reluctantly, Jim let go of Blair. A few moments later, they had light. Blair perched the emergency lamp gingerly on a chunk of concrete behind him before digging into the pack for the water he knew was there. He pulled out two plastic bottles and handed one to Jim, who took it eagerly.
“Go easy on it, Jim. Your ribs and all.”
“Ex-medic here, buddy, remember?”
Blair looked away and busied himself pulling out First Aid supplies. The next several minutes were spent using the additional bottles of water, along with the antiseptic cream, to clean and bandage what they could.
When they’d finished and were both leaning back against the debris, body parts taped and wrapped, Jim said, “That ankle of yours – you know there’s a break.”
“Figured as much. Doesn’t hurt as bad as a sprain or strain.”
“You can thank adrenaline and your boot for that, because once they’re both gone, it’s gonna hurt like a bitch.”
“Gee thanks,” Blair deadpanned.
“Hey, at least we have matching concussions,” Jim said with a wry grin.
“Want to go for whose is the worst?”
“Nah. I’m not sleepy and neither are you – so I think we’re tied there.”
“Fair enough.” Blair shifted a bit, trying to make himself more comfortable before asking, “Can you hear them? Because I can’t.”
“Yeah. They’re moving slower now. How much do you want to know?”
“Shit, I hate it when you say things like that. What’s about to fall on top of us?”
“Can I skip the technical jargon and just say, we stay put, conserve energy, and if all goes well, they’ll be coming through that wall,” he indicated the west end of the room, “in about an hour – or so.”
“Right. Conserve energy. I can do that. And it’s a well-known fact I’m a great stay-put’er.”
“How’s that spelled?”
“Oh, shut up.”
Since talking strained the concentration required to keep his pain dials lowered, Jim decided to do just that. For now.
Jim could hear the workers more clearly now, and figured it shouldn’t be too much longer. There’d been a couple of times in the last half-hour, give or take, when the ground had shaken a bit and debris had fallen along with more dust. But they were safe where they were, so it had simply been a matter of riding out those few scary moments.
Blair had been silent for the last twenty minutes or so, but Jim knew he wasn’t dozing. In fact, once they’d stopped talking the first time, Blair’s body had tensed up and stayed that way, which was funny, really. He’d been the one holding so much anger, and yet, he now felt totally relaxed – almost as if he’d been sanctified and given all the answers. He glanced over at the papers, still in the same place, and apparently unnoticed by Blair. He thought about their last words before Smallwood's bomb had gone off and blown his safe, secure and somewhat reclusive life apart. Digesting them and finally understanding, he opened up and let them inside. “You were wrong you know.”
“My inability to love.”
Placing two fingers on Blair’s lips, Jim’s eyes pleaded for silence. What he needed to say, what he needed to tell Blair, had to be done in one shot, because one shot was all he had left, and he wasn’t going to blow everything he’d learned in those moments of believing Blair dead. In that moment, he realized that if Blair rejected him, he’d have nothing to give anyone. Feeling himself choke up, he nevertheless managed to croak, “I do know how to love, because I love you.”
“I know.” Blair answered. His warm breath tickled the sensitive pads of Jim’s fingers. “I love you too, man. You’re the closest friend I’ve ever had.”
“No.” Blair’s eyes had always been the window to his soul, and Jim prayed that, just this once, his own eyes would unlock and reveal the long-hidden secret.
“Look at me, Chief. Please, just... look at me.”
Frowning, Blair did as asked. The glow from the flashlight clearly showed the dried track of a single tear that had made its way through the heavy coating of dust on Jim’s face. Surprised, he let his gaze move up until their eyes met.
Blair looked – really looked.
“God... you do.”
Jim nodded, afraid to speak, to break the spell that seemed to stretch between them, connecting them.
He really thought he was prepared for just about anything Blair could say in response; in some respects he knew Blair better than he knew himself.
But this was Blair and he should have known better.
“Good thing I’m a guy, then,” Blair said finally. “Otherwise, I’d actually believe I could change you. But, like I said, I’m a –”
“A guy, I know,” Jim murmured.
“Yeah, and while you’re definitely high-maintenance, I may as well come straight out and admit that I kinda like you too.”
Blair smiled. “You know Jim, I think we really need to work on our communication skills.”
So Jim did. Concussion or no, bad ribs or no, Jim kissed him.
He forgot they both had fat lips.
“Ow,” Blair said.
“Nice thought, though.” Blair touched his cut lip gingerly.
“We’re patient guys,” Blair said.
“Sandburg – we’re guys.”
Blair chuckled even as he shifted gently so that he fit in that nice spot between Jim’s arm and chest. “How soon now?”
Jim cocked his head and, after a moment, said, “Any minute.”
“Cool. Like I said, we’re patient guys.”
No sooner had the words left Blair’s mouth, than Jim’s weight shifted and he awkwardly attempted to stand.
“Jim?” Blair struggled, painfully, to his own feet. “Everything okay?”
Without a word Jim kicked at the pile of loose debris at his feet before gingerly bending down and retrieving the catalyst for what he hoped would help carry him over that last hurdle. Brushing his hand over the cover of the book, Jim closed his eyes briefly. He could do this. Hell, he’d practically been anointed by an angel so he really didn’t have anything to lose. But the feeling of mistrust which he’d kept alive for as long as he could remember was so perfected in the defense of his emotions that he wondered if he’d be brave enough to knock down the stronghold they’d built.
But, above everything else, if he couldn’t bring himself to trust in Blair, then their relationship was over before it even began. Deciding finally to throw caution to the wind, Jim drew in a deep breath. “Chief, you were wrong about my ability to love, but I’m not so sure you were wrong about my ability to trust.”
“Jim, I was angry, you were angry. Let’s not get hung up on this, okay?”
Clutching Blair’s dissertation to his chest like a shield, Jim shook his head. “It’s not something that can be just swept under the carpet, Chief.” He took a tentative step forward. “If I’m going to have any chance – if we’re going to have any chance – I need to learn how to trust.” Reluctantly loosening his grip on the notebook, Jim found the courage to take his first steps. “I figure I should start with this.”
Blair’s heart swelled; not because of the physical return of his dissertation, but because of the true meaning behind the gesture. “I think we’re gonna be okay,” he said, quietly.
Reaching out, Jim trailed his hand down the side of Blair’s bruised and battered cheek. “More than okay.”
Blair remained perfectly still. “Kissing will hurt, you realize that, don’t you?”
“But we’re gonna do it again anyway, aren’t we?”
“No pain, no gain, Sandburg.”
As Jim moved in, Blair couldn’t help but smile. “Maybe we could work on the romance angle next.”
Jim chuckled. “Well, Chief, the rescue team’s about two minutes away. Wanna give them a show that’ll make them toot their horns?”
Blair reluctantly broke contact. “I think we should work on a few of the basics first.”
Tingling his fingers down the length of Jim’s spine, Blair’s hand came to rest, firmly on Jim’s backside. “You know I think this is going to be one of those times when teacher satisfaction will be very gratifying.
A firm squeeze to his left butt cheek had Jim rolling his eyes. “God help me,” he muttered. “What on earth have I gone and gotten myself into?”
“Have I mentioned how dirty you two are?”
Jim and Blair raised their heads up from the gurneys they were both being strapped to and lifted their eyebrows. It was actually quite masterful, Simon thought, the way they could do that – together – in perfect unison. He took out a cigar and said, “I guess I have.”
“You did say Johnny was okay, right?” Jim asked just as the paramedics were about to move him into the ambulance.
“He’s fine, and Smallwood is singing like a bird. Kaplan’s done for, but seems more upset about that coat of his getting ruined when Rafe tackled him. Come to think of it, Rafe’s a bit pissed, as well. Ruined the shirt he’d just put on.”
“Tsk-tsk,” Jim said, and let his head drop back down.
“What about Gabe? You said he got in front of the kid –”
Simon looked a bit uneasy before saying, “To be honest, Sandburg, we know he was hit and bad, but he seems to have... he sort of... well, no one can actually... We can’t find him,” he finished lamely.
Instead of being upset, Blair just smiled all too knowingly as he was lifted into the ambulance.
As two paramedics finally closed two ambulance doors, Simon took the cigar out of his mouth long enough to remind them, “Same hospital, guys.”
The firemen nodded and, satisfied, Simon smiled, turned around and yelled, “Let’s get this place cleaned up, people!”
Blair felt ridiculous. Good, but ridiculous. He was on Jim’s – no, their – bed, naked as the day he was born and, at the end of the bed, an equally naked Jim was stretched out, a red marker in his hand. He was drawing small red hearts on Blair’s ankle cast.
Small, red, hearts.
On his cast.
They’d been kept overnight at the hospital before being released, had been home a week when, finally, their patience had gone on vacation and, ankle cast and bruised ribs aside, they’d made careful love for the first time.
Now, in the post-dawn hours, they were getting silly. Scratch that; Jim was getting silly.
“Could you sign that, ‘Jennie’, for me?” Blair finally said.
Without lifting his head, Jim asked, “Why would I want to do that?”
“Because the gang is coming over tomorrow night and when they see those little red hearts....”
Jim glanced sideways at Blair and gave him an evil grin just before writing his name, between several hearts, in large, flowing letters. He sat up slowly, his ribs giving him a twinge. “There. A work of art.”
Blair reached out and ran his hand lovingly down Jim’s arm. “In spite of my best efforts not to change you – it seems the deed is done anyway.”
Eyes full of love, Jim shook his head. “No, not changed. Just... liberated.” He moved back to the top of the bed, rolled onto his side and, twirling chestnut curls around his fingers, added softly, “Just before everything went to hell that night, and right after you walked out of the lounge, that nut-job angel wanna-be came up to me and... said a few things.”
“He did? What did he say?”
“The actual words themselves aren’t as important as... understanding them. And... while I don’t know what Gabe really was, and I’m not sure I buy your theory... I can tell you that I finally listened – and heard.”
“Wow, I’m... that’s... You know, I really love you, man.”
“Yeah, I finally figured that out.” He rested his head on Blair’s chest.
Several warm, quiet minutes passed as both men just enjoyed the feel of each other, Blair brushing his hand over Jim’s short hair, Jim listening to the beautiful sound coming from Blair’s chest.
Suddenly Jim said, “Did your heart just burp?”
Blair smacked down on Jim’s head – lightly. “I knew it. Change was too much to hope for with you, man.”
“Yeah, well, I ain’t alone in that department, buddy. There’s a peanut butter and sprout sandwich running its own experiment in the living room, and don’t even get me started on the laundry – Ow!” Jim lifted his head to look at Blair. “Did you just... spank me?”
Blair simply batted his eyes.
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Acknowledgments: Beta’d by StarWatcher Cover art by Alyjude.