The Gift - Arrow
When Jim came back to himself there were people all around him pointing, staring. And the whispers—"Jesus, what a weirdo"—"What's wrong with that guy?" —"Epileptic?"—"Eww, he's drooling."
Fuck. He'd zoned out.
In the middle of the fucking Food Court.
"Hey, mister, you okay?" Some blond kid with a backpack and a concerned frown.
Jim waved him away with a grunt, wiped his chin with the back of his hand—yup, spit—and walked off with his head hunched low to hide the flush of total humiliation burning his cheeks.
Fucking senses. Jim found himself suddenly and irrationally furious with Sandburg. Sandburg, who kept insisting the senses were a 'gift.' Yeah, but Sandburg was happily at work, wasn't he? Not here at the mall making an ass out of himself in the middle of a herd of Christmas shoppers. Sandburg wasn't the one who needed a babysitter so he wouldn't go all slack-jawed staring at the pretty blinking lights instead of finding one stupid present for his roommate.
Sandburg could take this fucking 'gift' and shove it.
The loft was blissfully quiet and dark, and Jim was lying on the couch with a freezer pack draped over his aching head when Sandburg bounced in noisily smelling of cranberries and snow and cinnamon and—Jim sniffed—blood?
He was up and off the couch before Blair had shrugged off his jacket.
"What happened, Sandburg?" The kid looked okay. Hair a little wild from the damp.
"What? Oh! Nothing, Jim. Little incident with the parking meter. Well, the meter maid, to be precise, and a snowy sidewalk, and he knocked me against the meter and, man, those new ones have some sharp edges." Sandburg waved his forearm, indicating the dark patch. "No biggie."
"Parking Control Officer," Jim said absently. The blood was dry. He could smell that. Still made him uneasy, though. "PCOs. They hate it when you call them meter maids."
"Well, this PCO took me out for a cinnamon latte in apology, and he was really nice, you know? Those guys, they really take a lot of heat. Everybody hates them. He told me some ugly stories. I guess they have a thin pale blue line."
As Blair was babbling he uncuffed his flannel shirt to roll it up, giving the cut a cursory glance.
"You need to clean that. Get it wrapped up."
"Yeah, yeah. Sheesh."
"When was your last tetanus shot?"
"Ha. The last time I got shot, dummy. Don't be such a mom."
Jim shook his head and backed off, returning to the couch and his freezer pack. It was still cold, so he rested his head against the back of the sofa and laid the thing over his forehead. Freaking perfect invention, these flax seed freezer packs. Had it over frozen peas any day. They even smelled good. Jim sighed.
"I take it the flax pack is a hit."
That, of course, was a dig. Jim had been pretty resistant to the idea—"What, now you want me to put granola on my boo-boos, Sunshine?"—but just at first. He'd gotten better at listening to Sandburg's wacky ideas. Mainly because they almost always worked out pretty good.
Jim made an ambivalent noise, not wanting to encourage Sandburg to switch into anthro-mode.
"What was the trigger this time?"
Too late. Jim sighed and opened his eyes. "Zoned out. At the mall," he added reluctantly.
"The mall—Jesus, Jim, what the heck were you doing at the freakin' mall during Christmas season? You know it's—"
"Yeah, I know, Sandburg. Christmas carols and chemically flocked Christmas trees and blinking lights and the overwhelming odor of fake eggnog—which, please explain to me why people think something that smells like a plastics by-product is supposed to be festive? Or even edible?"
"So?" Blair plopped next to him on the couch with a whump. "Why'd you go, then?"
"Why do you think?"
"Because you're a blockhead?"
Jim pulled off the pack and threw it across the room. "Because maybe I wanted to pretend for a split second that I'm normal and not some useless freak—"
"Jim! You are not a—"
"—who can't go shopping for a measly present without zoning out in the middle of the Food Court!"
He heard Sandburg shift uncomfortably. "Oh, shit. Right in the Food Court?"
"Yeah. Tell me about it." Jim's cheeks heated up again, and he stared longingly at the freezer pack, which was now wedged between the speaker and the balcony door.
"Why didn't you wait for me to—?"
"Because you're the idiot I was trying to buy a present for. Moron."
"Oh." Sandburg sounded pleased.
Jim grimaced. I'm going soft on the kid. Gotta watch that. He couldn't help it, though. Sandburg was just...damned lovable.
"So, did you have any success?"
"You mean, in looking like a moon-faced psych patient and almost getting hustled to Security by the mall rent-a-cops?"
Blair laughed. "Sorry. But, you know, Jim, you don't have to get me anything. I mean—" he waved his arm and nearly pegged Jim in the face—"you give me all this. A place to stay and everything. And you put up with my tests and my hair in the drain trap—"
Jim crossed his arms. "I just wanted to get you something, all right? For all the tests. And the babysitting. And the dodging bullets and yanking me out of a zone before I get myself killed. And the stupid flax pack."
Sandburg laughed again, looking embarrassed. "Well, if you really want to give me a present, I know just the thing. And you don't even have to go to a mall for it."
Jim felt uneasy. "That's cheating. I may not know much about giving presents, Sandburg, but I know they're supposed to be a friggin' surprise."
"Not this time." Blair pushed himself upright and turned toward Jim. "In fact, if you give me this, I'll call it Hanukkah and my birthday wrapped up in one. It's something I've wanted for a long time."
Jim frowned in growing suspicion. "Is it the type of something that might break the bank of an underpaid cop?"
"Nope. Won't cost you a penny. Except a little gas for the truck."
"Yeah? What is it?"
"Nuh-uh, not telling you yet. First we have to go there."
"Out there, Jim," Blair said with exaggerated patience. "Come on, man, go with me on this without asking a lot of questions. Right now. Think of it as part of the present. Road trip, sans fake eggnog. Should be worth it."
Jim couldn't say no to that smile. To those damned puppy eyes. "All right, all right." He stood and retrieved his coat, raising his eyebrows when Sandburg grabbed a scarf and wrapped it around his neck, then handed Jim his. Then Blair pulled on a hat and winter gloves as well, handing Jim's over.
"That sweater gonna be warm enough?" Blair asked.
"I've got another one in the truck, and some blankets."
"Good, good." Sandburg sounded excited and distracted. "C'mon. This is gonna be so cool!"
A little voice was screaming that cool, in Sandburg's terms, could involve international terrorists or a rock slide and the need for Emergency Services, but Jim kept his mouth shut and followed Blair down to the truck.
At least there wouldn't be any blinkin' lights.
Blair insisted on driving—"It's part of the deal, man"—so Jim kibitzed and tried not to hate the fact he didn't know where they were going or how long it would take or even what he would be expected to do when they got there.
He realized he had control issues. But how the hell else should he feel when everything else in his life was already so out of control? Ever since the senses. The goddamned senses that were always so much more trouble than they were worth. He'd never understood why Blair just couldn't get that.
Jim looked up with a start to see—nothing. Nada. A big, open glade, covered in snow, ringed by pines—Jim absently identified Douglas firs, Scotch pines, Fraser firs and some blue spruce.
"What is this place?"
"It's an old Christmas tree farm. Company went bankrupt and the land went back to the State Parks Department. I just thought—well, this is my Christmas or Hanukkah or whatever present, so I might as well get it next to the trees. Since you never get a tree for the loft."
"Huh." Jim peered out the truck window. It was a pretty spot. Quiet. Nice smell.
No blinking lights.
"Okay, you got me here. Let's do this thing."
"How do you know I want you to do anything?"
"Because you always do, Sandburg. Always."
Blair laughed and pulled his cap down. Jim climbed out of the truck, his boots crunching in the new snow. He sniffed the air.
"It's going to snow again real soon."
"I know." Blair stood next to him and rubbed his gloved hands together. Now that they were here, he seemed more nervous than excited.
"So, what's the deal, Chief?" Jim softened his voice. "What do you want?"
"What I want..." Blair blew out his breath, then seemed to shake himself. "Thing is, Jim, we're always working on getting your senses under control, trying to handle them in a crisis situation, as if they're something you have to fight all the time just to get on with things, and I guess I know you don't think of them like a good thing, even if I do...and you never get to use them for anything good, always to find a murderer or a bomb but never just to know..." Blair seemed to lose his train of thought.
But he was right. That pretty much was how they dealt with them.
"So..." Blair continued slowly, "You never really talk about them, about what it feels like, except in a negative sort of way—'I can't do this,' or, 'This or that is killing me.' So, what I want...I guess what I want is for you to tell me what it feels like to be a Sentinel. What it's really like, on a good day, when you're just taking it all in. I've always wanted to know what it's like to be you. I want to feel that. In a good way. So....make me know what it's like."
Jim was speechless. "I—I don't know if I can—"
Blair stared up at him stubbornly, hopefully.
"Seriously, Chief, I'm not sure—you know words aren't my thing." He had a sinking feeling he wouldn't be able to give Blair his present. And that sucked.
"Just try, Jim, okay? Try to tell me—relax and use them, use your senses for something good and just open your mouth and make me understand how it feels. Like I'm the one feeling it."
Jesus Christ. Kid doesn't ask for much, does he? This was going to suck, no two ways about it. Might as well get it over with.
"Where do I start?" he asked helplessly.
"Let's start with sight," Blair said eagerly, encouraging.
Jim stretched out his vision. The late afternoon light was glinting softly on the snow in the trees. Blues, greens, yellow—the snow trapped the color and magnified it.
"The snow isn't white," Jim said rustily, and then cleared his throat. "It traps the colors of things, hides them underneath. But it's translucent, too, so I—" He hastily amended, "I mean you can see—" He stopped again, feeling like an idiot.
"That's good. That's great, Jim. I can see what?"
Jim rubbed his hand over his eyes and tried again. "You can see through the layers, the color is bouncing off from the inside, see? But if you get too close, it all turns to mush." Frustrated, Jim turned away from the trees to look at the field. "Or, okay—let's take the horizon. See how when you look out, your eyes try to focus on something, trying to get a lock on distance, but...but there is no limit, you know? You just keep going, focusing out and out, like jumping outward, and after a while it's like you're flying, you're just speeding over the snow going faster and faster, and then you hit something, like a tree, or a hill, or a bird, and wham!"
Jim smiled. He'd forgotten this. It had been a while since he'd had this much time or room to range outward with his sight. "See that dove?"
"No...I mean—yeah, okay," Blair said, sounding strange.
"You're following him. He's flying, and you're flying with him, riding on his wing. It's like a ride-along." Jim laughed a little, embarrassed. "God, this sounds stupid."
"No way." Blair coughed. "Keep...keep going, Jim."
Jim refocused on the dove. "He dips, you dip, then he rises fast and that's when you realize you can see it, he's caught a thermal and the air looks different somehow, it's warmer-looking. And he wheels up...up...and you go with him."
"Up," Blair said, croaking strangely.
Jim closed his eyes, red thudding behind his lids. "This isn't working, is it?"
"What? No! Jim, this is perfect. This is just what I wanted," he said urgently. "Try smell now. What are we smelling?"
Jim sniffed sharply once to clear his nose, then took in some long, deep breaths. "Snow. I love the smell of snow, I mean—it's clean, like iron, but it also picks up other things. Green things. The pines are all there. Scotch is different from Douglas. Douglas fir reminds me of..." Jim stopped.
Jim opened his eyes. "Bud's cabin," he said shortly. "The whole thing was surrounded by Douglas firs. He used to kid that it was Christmas all year-round up there. I thought that was the greatest. It was the best place to be, anyway...I got him all to myself for a whole week one summer. He told my dad it was to teach me his quarterback secrets, but we hardly played football at all. We mainly just sat around and talked—" Shit. Why am I telling him this?
Back to smells. Jim took another breath. "I smell you. I like the way you smell. Like cinnamon, and that shirt must have been in a cedar chest."
"Yeah." Blair was quiet. "What else?"
"Deer piss." Jim grinned, "And bear, Chief, but it's old. And something like cat, maybe a bobcat, possibly a cougar." Of all his senses, smell gave him the least trouble. "They all mix together, most of the time, but there's a lot there, always. Tons of stuff."
"Sound," Blair prompted him after some silence.
Jim closed his eyes, and something cold pricked his nose. He opened them again to catch a snowflake on his eyelid. "It's snowing."
"Yeah, it is. But no copping out."
"Right. Okay." Jim closed his eyes again and focused on sound. A few more flakes fell on him, making him wish he'd worn a cap. Then the fall grew heavier, and all of a sudden Jim could hear it. Could hear them all falling, a thousand tiny impacts.
"The snow falling...it's so soft, but it's there. Tiny puffs. One after another, so close together, like someone is tapping a pillow. Or lots of pillows, tiny pillows, so soft and so many you can feel them like a hundred pats on your eardrums, hear them melting on your skin. Snow is..." Jim's voice failed him. "I love hearing snow." His knees felt weak and he knelt and bowed his head, suddenly overwhelmed.
The snow was cold against his knees.
"Jim—" Blair was whispering. To protect his ears, Jim realized.
"So many," Jim whispered back. "They sound different when they hit the trees. Soft thud when the snow gets too heavy and falls in a clump from one branch to another. And...you can feel the sound on your skin, if you listen hard enough. You can't do this in the city," Jim warned. "Only out here where it's safe to listen this hard."
"I promise, Jim. I'll be careful."
Jim felt a squeeze on his shoulders, and realized Blair had moved to stand behind him, close.
"Feel them burn on your skin? Like little stabs of fire?"
Jim stuck out his tongue, tasting the air, catching the flakes. "They taste like sky. They taste like earth and sky." His whisper had turned hoarse; he was barely able to get the words out.
Blair knelt suddenly beside him and wrapped an arm around his shoulders.
Jim leaned in. "This was supposed to be your present—" His voice cut off.
Blair's voice hummed low in his ear. "It is, Jim. It's the best."
And, Jesus, it was. Jim had forgotten this. Maybe he'd never really appreciated it. Not until Blair made him see it, hear it, feel it—and that was what Blair had wanted. For himself. Because... What kind of—what kind of freaking love was that? What kind of crazy, perfect love?
Jim's eyes stung hot, and he shook his head.
"I—" Jim had to cough once. "I want my present now."
Blair laughed a little, breathlessly. "It's back at the loft—"
"No, it isn't," Jim said roughly. He turned and let himself look at Blair. Let himself really look at him for maybe the first time in a long time. Because he hadn't been looking lately—had been afraid to look too closely, afraid to see it.
Crazy, perfect. Blair's eyes—snow around the crisp blue—were wide and a little awed. Curly hair scattered with white. Jim pulled off his glove and put a hand on Blair's cold cheek. The blue eyes widened further.
But no wariness there. Just love, and a wild understanding, just as Jim leaned forward and took his present—a brief, warm kiss.
When he pulled away, Sandburg was smiling in disbelief.
"I hope you don't mean that the way it sounds, Sandburg—" Jim said gruffly.
"I mean, as in—holy shit."
"Yeah." Jim lips felt numb, strange. "Thanks for my present."
"You loon. You total weirdo."
"Takes one to—mmph!"
Blair's lips had grabbed his, and this was no sweet softness, here. This was heat to melt the snow still falling between them, blanketing them as their mouths pressed close together. Jim's breathing grew heavier, and he had to pull back, to Blair's murmured protests.
"My ears are getting cold," Jim said feebly.
Blair almost growled, and the sound hit Jim funny right in his gut.
"Let's go home," he said, and this time Sandburg grinned wide, his whole face getting into the action.
"Sounds perfect. Let's go. Let's go!"
Jim rose and grinned back, the pressure in his chest easing, the air expanding. He felt free somehow. He felt like he could breathe in the whole world.
That, he decided, must be Blair's gift.
Blair gave him the world.
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Acknowledgments: Thanks to Patt for the cover and interior art. Previously posted on Arrow's Live Journal.