Green Eyed Hope
Prequel-- No Happy Endings
"Jim?" a woman asked, her voice familiar, but Jim couldn't place her.
"Jim, it's Naomi."
"Naomi?" Jim searched for something nice to say, but in the end, he really didn't like Sandburg's mother. The woman had upended their lives and then vanished off to one of her retreats. "Blair isn't here yet," he said before she could drag him into some conversation about karma or some crap like that. He frowned at the clock as he realized just how late Sandburg was.
"I know," she answered after a brief pause. "I don't know how to say this."
"Whatever you have to say, just say it," Jim said, his stomach already twisting in fear as his imagination recycled his worst nightmares. Blair had left. Blair was with his mother at some damn retreat. He'd given the kid as much space as he could. He'd shoved his own needs into a corner and locked them up, but Blair still needed more space.
He could hear Naomi take a deep breath. "Jim, Cascade General just called me. Blair's in the ICU. He had an accident."
"What?" Jim nearly whispered the word because he suddenly found he didn't have any air in his lungs.
"The hospital just found me. There wasn't a phone at the campsite where I was staying, so I just found out less than an hour ago, but two days ago, a car spun out on the ice and hit Blair as he was going through an intersection. They said he hasn't woken up yet, and I can't get there until Thursday."
Jim couldn't gather his thoughts enough to even answer that.
"I assumed you knew. I mean, I know he changed his contact information, but I thought the police would have gotten a report or checked on him when he didn't show up for work. But then you said he wasn't there like you expected him." Naomi's nervous words trailed off.
"Blair had the last two days off. He's not late enough for me to start looking for him. What do you mean he changed his contact information, why didn't the hospital call me?" The knots in Jim's stomach tightened until his gut ached. His worst nightmare had been Blair finally leaving, that having his own apartment and his own life wouldn't be enough and Jim would lose the last of him, but this… this was worse.
"I know this is a shock, but I really think you should talk to Blair about that. Oh dear. I really hope you can talk to him. I want to get there, but I can't get to the airport until tomorrow."
Jim could hear the soft crying start on the other end of the phone. Blair hadn't woken up yet after two days. Gripping the phone until the plastic groaned, Jim struggled to find his balance as the bullpen wavered in and out of focus.
"I've got to get to the hospital. I—" Jim stopped. "I've got to go," he finished as he unceremoniously hung up on Naomi. Two days. Two days alone in the hospital and Jim wasn't even listed on his contact information. Jim grabbed his keys and left without even telling Simon where he was going.
~ ~ ~
In the past, Jim could always count on the hospital bending rules; after all, Jim was Blair's official next of kin, and Jim held his power of attorney. Jim knew exactly what most of the nurses thought of their relationship, and the women would look the other way when Jim sat at Blair's bedside, or when Blair sat at Jim's. That's how it worked. Standing at the nurse's station with his teeth clenched, Jim was ready to wake Blair up just to kill him for taking Jim's name off that paperwork.
"Visiting hours are over," Nurse Crotchety repeated, and her brown eyes didn't have an inch of leeway in them.
"Call it police business," Jim said, his fantasies drifting toward murder and mayhem.
"If it was police business, you would have said that in the first place. Besides, Mr. Sandburg can't answer questions in his current condition." She crossed her arms and gave a smug grin that just pushed Jim's last button.
"I'm going to check on my partner, and if you don't want a shadow who will ticket you every time you step off the curb outside a crosswalk, you'll get out of my way," Jim growled as he walked past the station.
"Hey, you can't go down there!" Nurse Crotchety yelled as she came storming out from behind the desk, her bony elbows jutting out like an uncoordinated scarecrow as she tried to dart in front of Jim, only to miss when he broke into a jog. "I'll call security!" she hissed as she chased him down the hall. She never would have caught him except for the fact that Jim had to stop and check the window on each room. That let her dig bony fingers into his arm, which he ignored as he dragged her down the hall with him.
"My badge trumps their hospital ID," he answered tersely as he finally found the right room. Blair looked pale against the white sheets, his hair shaved on one side and cut short on the other. Now it was real. Before they were only words. Blair hadn't woken up for two days. Words. Seeing Blair looking small in the middle of a sea of medical equipment, his face stubbled and his arms a Technicolor of bruises, the accident had become startling real.
"You can't be in here," the bitch complained as Jim opened the door. Letting go, she trotted her bony ass back toward the nurse's station before Jim silently crept into the room. He'd never seen Blair on so many machines, not even after he'd died. A large white bandage covered one side of his skull, and Jim fought against the hot tears that threatened.
"Hey, Chief," he whispered as he moved to Blair's side and touched a limp arm. "What are you doing still sleeping? Of course, maybe you're just trying to avoid me. You took me off your contact information, Chief, why did you do that?"
Using a foot to pull the visitor's chair closer, Jim sank down as he held Blair's hand in his own. He didn't really need an answer, he already knew. Blair had been slowly withdrawing ever since the dissertation. Okay, truth be told, it had started with Alex—with Alex and that damn beach. That's when Blair's words had dried up, and they never came back even after he took the badge.
Jim had tried giving Blair space, and he kept waiting for that puppy-like enthusiasm to bring Blair bouncing back to him, but that saying about letting go of what you loved and it would come back to you—it was bullshit. What you loved didn't come back, not when you didn't know how to love right.
Jim ran a finger gently over the stubble that was left of Blair's beautiful hair. He was going to be pissed. "Hey, buddy. You're going to miss all the fun at work. We've got a triple homicide. I drew it yesterday when you were off, and I was planning on tapping you for it. Of course Rafe thinks he can get you to help with that series of high-rise burglaries, but like I told him, murder trumps jewelry thieves." Jim closed his eyes against the image of Blair's face slack and silent.
"We need to talk to you a minute, would you step into the hall, please?" a polite voice asked from the door. Jim took a deep breath and turned to find a familiar security guard standing at the doorway. "Detective Ellison?" the man asked, visibly shocked.
"Gary, right?" Jim asked, vaguely recognizing the man from the hospital drug thefts he and Sandburg had worked.
"Yeah. Oh god, that's Detective Sandburg?" The guard stepped into the room, and Jim shifted so the guard could see Blair lying in the middle of the wires and tubes and machines, dark circles under his eyes making his eyes look sunken in the pale face. "I didn't know. I'll talk to Mrs. Delgado, explain this," the guard waved vaguely, and Jim knew exactly what the man was thinking. If he didn't, the blush on the man's face would give him a good clue, but Jim didn't care what the guard thought as long as he kept the nurses away. He nodded and the guard backed out of the room.
"Chief, I know you need your space, and I'm trying really hard to be okay with that," he whispered desperately, "but you can't leave. Not like this." Jim tightened his hold on Blair's hand. "I've learned to live without your hair clogging my drains, but I can't do this if I don't get any part of your life. God, I'm pathetic." Jim fought another round of emotion that threatened to choke him. The pain pressed at him until he could feel the strain of it pulling his heart.
Jim rested his forehead against the edge of the bed. The harsh smells of the hospital and the sour stench of Blair's body was almost enough to zone, and Jim let himself float on that feeling and on the way his senses pushed reality away until he couldn't hear the beeping of the heart monitor and the whine and drip and whir of the other machines.
He'd tried to not need Blair. He knew it wasn't fair for him to do anything else, and so he'd dated women and helped Blair move his crap to that shitty apartment of his, and he'd dropped as many hints as he could about not having a problem with a gay partner even if he just couldn't understand the attraction himself. He'd been supportive, and he'd tried to minimize how much of Blair's attention he demanded so that he wouldn't lose the right to some small piece of Blair's life when Blair finally found someone to love. He'd tried to live with less. Right now, he just wanted to scoop Blair up and take him back to the loft and never let him leave again. Right now, he resented every second he hadn't had with Blair because now he realized he might not get any more. Jim finally gave up, warm tears sliding silently down to drop on Blair's bed as he realized that he was a selfish bastard. He wanted back every second that he'd sacrificed in the name of Blair's freedom.
~ ~ ~
Jim sat up fast. His senses stabbed out and the sounds and smells of the hospital flowed back toward him so fast that Jim had to clamp down on an immediate urge to vomit. A man in a white coat stood at the end of Blair's bed.
"Your captain explained that there has been some sort of confusion with the paperwork. You and Ms. Naomi Sandburg share power of attorney?" he asked. Jim nodded mutely. Obviously Simon had found out where Jim and gone, and obviously Blair's power of obfuscation had rubbed off on the man. Jim reached for Blair's hand, hating the feeling of the fingers lying lifeless in his hand. Blair was always moving, his hands dancing in time to his words.
"I thought I would brief you before Ms. Sandburg arrives. She agreed that you were authorized to make unilateral decisions until she arrives tomorrow afternoon."
Jim took a deep breath and braced himself for the worst. "What's the diagnosis?" Jim asked as he focused on Blair's closed eyes.
"He took a blow to the head, that's the worst of the injuries. We operated to repair hematomas in the right hemisphere of his brain. The worst case scenario is that he will remain minimally aware for the rest of his life."
Jim grabbed the side of the bed as the ground lurched.
"However," the doctor quickly said, "that's not the most likely outcome."
"Give me straight answers," Jim growled as he finally turned to face the doctor.
"Brain injuries are unpredictable. The test results indicate there is still activity in the right hemisphere, so I do have hope that he will recover some function, but he is likely to be a different person when he wakes up. He may have trouble controlling the left side of his body or seeing out of his left eye. He may even have trouble with spatial perception or suffer personality changes. Until he wakes up, there really isn't a way to predict the actual damage. I just don't want you to expect him to wake up and be the same as he was before he had this accident."
Jim jerked his head in a rough nod. "Fine. We wait."
"I'm going to send in a nurse to discuss the possibilities—"
"No," Jim cut him off. "I'm not discussing anything until Blair wakes up. My partner has pulled through some rough spots." Jim refused to say how many rough spots Jim himself had caused. Jim had run off to chase Alex even though he knew Blair would follow. Jim had practically abandoned his partner during the whole Ventriss mess. Jim couldn't love his partner. That last was the worst. If only Jim could love him the way Blair wanted… if Jim could just look at Blair and see something besides a little brother, maybe this wouldn't have happened. Maybe Blair would be home tucked into Jim's bed instead of driving back to that shithole apartment with its beautiful view of Target's loading bays.
"Having unrealistic expectations won't help Mr. Sandburg," the doctor started in his patronizing tone. Jim took an angry step forward, his face tight with a frustrated need to take his anger out on someone or something and the doctor decided prudence was the better part of valor and fled.
With the doctor gone, Jim sank down into the chair again. Without fury to prop him up, Jim could feel the despair and fatigue and loss pull him down, and he didn't fight. Putting his forehead back down on Blair's mattress, Jim surrendered to the half-zone where he didn't have to smell and hear and see Blair's pain. Faint regrets pulled at him, but even looking back on the mess that had become their lives, Jim couldn't find the moment when he could have saved their relationship. He could have affected the details of their slow drift, sped up or slowed down the moment when Blair left him, but he couldn't change the fact that he and Blair didn't share the same definition of love. His love for Blair would never be enough. And now, the small part of Blair that Jim had managed to hold on to was slipping away. Jim clung tighter to the lax hand. He couldn't do anything else.
~ ~ ~
Jim walked into the hospital room where Naomi was reading to Blair from an old book with ragged corners.
"How is he?" Jim asked.
"Drifting in and out," she answered in the same sing-songy voice she used to read to Blair. "You look terrible."
Jim scrubbed his face with a hand. He probably did. After two weeks of leave he'd had to go back to work, so he was tired and cranky and worried about the fact that Blair would sleep and wake and gaze around the room without actually engaging with either his mother or Jim. The doctors kept calling the progress promising, but Jim didn't see much to cheer about. Naomi sighed and put the book down on the table.
"I'll let you have some time with him," she said as she stood up.
"Naomi." Jim stopped. This probably wasn't the time or place, but he'd wondered for weeks, and he had finally worked up the courage to ask, either that or the lack of sleep had finally impaired his judgment enough that he was going to ask a question that he didn't want the answer to, one or the other. "Why did Blair take me off his contact information?" Jim focused on Blair's hands, which twitched randomly.
Naomi sighed. "I think you need to talk to Blair."
"I can talk all I want to Blair, but he's not talking back," Jim pointed out with a dry laugh that almost turned into a sob.
"I hear you," Naomi agreed softly, and god Jim had come to hate that phrase. Jim just stood in the doorway, not letting Naomi escape until she offered him an answer, and she sighed again before giving in. "Blair felt like you were trying to move on with your life and he was clinging too much. He didn't want you to feel like you had to be there."
"Blair wasn't clinging," Jim protested. "I've been his next of kin for almost four years."
"And Blair loved every day of that," Naomi nodded. "I know I didn't give him something important when he was a little boy. I thought the road offered him more than a stable home. But Blair didn't want you to feel like…" she stopped and took a deep breath. "Blair didn't want you to be obligated. You weren't his family, and he thought he needed to make those boundaries clear between you again, that too much had been blurred so that your lives were tangled in each other's."
Jim didn't say anything, but he'd liked their tangled lives. He'd liked nagging Blair and giving him shit about making a mess and sorting through tofu monstrosities in his refrigerator. Or at least he'd liked their tangled lives until he'd grown uncomfortably aware that Blair was interested in more than a big brother. "Naomi," Jim said, and he didn't have any other words. Naomi put her hand on his arm.
"I do hear you, Jim," she promised him. Then she detoured around him and left him for his hours with Blair. They'd watch a game while Jim filled him in on all the cases, and once again Blair would aimlessly stare at one random point after another, his eyes reflecting nothing but a dull awareness of the world.
~ ~ ~
"Jim. Oh man, you have to save me from the sadist," Blair insisted as Jim came in at the end of the physical therapy session. Blair stunk of sweat, his blue t-shirt stained wet as he struggled with the parallel bars. His left leg still kicked wide with each step and the foot landed on the instep so it couldn't bear his weight. Jim could see Blair arms tremble from the hard workout.
"One more lap, and I'll let you escape," Randy promised as he walked behind Blair, his hands at Blair's waist.
"I should warn you, my partner is special ops. He can so totally kill someone with a paperclip," Blair said with a knowing look in Randy's direction.
Randy just laughed. "Creative death threats do not work. Come one, one more lap, and this time, get the weight on that lazy leg of yours and not your arms," he prompted.
Blair huffed in frustration as Randy practically lifted Blair, helping him turn so he could walk the length of the parallel bars back toward the waiting wheelchair. With slow and painful steps, Blair covered the distance silently. Jim listened to the labored breathing, the drag of Blair's left foot across the mat as Blair struggled to get it to respond to the brain's signals again.
The doctors kept talking about how lucky he was. He had recovered with his personality intact, minimal vision loss in his left eye, and a seriously lazy leg, but he had recovered. Some days Jim felt like they were lucky. Other days, watching Blair struggle to walk a dozen steps as he panted and made that little whine that only Jim could hear every time he put weight on his left leg… those days Jim refused to call them lucky.
"You're still the reigning champ," Randy congratulated Blair as he virtually collapsed into his wheelchair. Blair drew a deep and shuddering breath as he gave Randy the best smile he could manage. After seeing how some of the patients took their frustrations out on the physical therapist, Jim had to think Randy appreciated the effort. The therapist patted Blair on the shoulder. "And now I deliver you to your big, buff boyfriend, no need for threats or paperclips," he joked.
Blair stopped breathing for a second, but Jim just moved in, unlocking the wheelchair brakes with practiced ease before aiming them toward the exit.
"Oh man, I’m sorry. I don't know why Randy would say something like that," Blair finally recovered enough to say as they reached the elevators.
"Don't worry about it, Chief." Jim could smell the distress, so similar to the sharp scent of fear. The sweat on Blair's body magnified the scent until his nose itched.
"I mean, I know you aren't interested. I never gave him the impression that we were together." That sounded almost desperate, and Blair twisted around in his chair, bracing himself on the arms so he could look up at Jim.
"Calm down," Jim said, his hand landing on Blair's shoulder. "Most of the hospital thinks we're together, and if that makes it easier for me to get information about when you're trying to hide some complication, I don't mind," Jim said as he raised one eyebrow. Blair at least had the decency to blush at that reference.
"You're like a pit bull. I told you it wasn't any big deal," he muttered.
"Yeah, that's what you said. The doctors thought it was a little more serious than that. But like I said, the rumor doesn't bother me, Chief." Jim tried to ignore the hopeful look on Blair's face. He tried to ignore it, and when that didn't work for more than two seconds, he tried to mentally list all the reasons he should give this a try. It would make Blair happy, it would keep Blair close, it would mean he could take Blair home. Jim frowned. It would mean Blair would expect to share his bed, and that's where the fantasy sort of fell apart for Jim.
"Chief," Jim sighed as the elevator appeared. He pushed Blair in, swinging the wheelchair around so Blair would be facing front.
"Oh man, you do not have to explain. I don't expect—"
"Chief," Jim cut him off, his voice sharper than he intended, and Blair immediately fell silent. "Blair, I'm not interested in you like that."
Blair was already nodding. "I get that," he said, sounding suspiciously like his mother with her favorite catchphrase. "Look, I'm doing really well in therapy, and as much fun as your whole blessed protector thing is, I've got it from here."
"No, you don't, and I don't think I'm explaining myself well," Jim said. He felt Blair slipping away again, but this time Jim didn't want to let go. Yeah, he should. He should let Blair go and find some partner who would return Blair's love the way Blair wanted. He'd find some gay lover who wouldn't care that Blair was in a wheelchair and his left side wasn't fully functional and that he'd developed what Blair considered a small complication: intermittent stereotypic movement disorder. After seeing Blair sitting on his own left hand in an effort to prevent it from jerking out of his control, Jim didn't consider the complication all that small.
"Look, I don't need the pity. You weren't interested before, and you sure aren't going to be interested now," Blair snapped. The elevator doors opened, and Blair shoved off, wheeling himself forward across the smooth tile while Jim hurried to catch up.
"Blair!" he called, catching one handle on the wheelchair, and pulling Blair to a stop near the front doors. The van would be here soon to take Blair to the transition house where they were teaching him how to be handicapped in a world that wasn't all that wheelchair friendly. It might be years before Blair could walk well enough to give up the wheelchair, and with the movement disorder, a walker was out of the question. Blair chose the transitional house over Jim's place, and Jim could still feel the sting of that rejection. And from the stubborn look on Blair's face, Jim was about to face a whole lot more rejection. Jim didn't know if selfishness or love was motivating him, but he wasn't giving up easy again.
Taking a firm hold on the wheelchair, Jim pushed it outside and parked it under the shade of a tall tree next to a stone bench.
"I'll tell Randy to back off," Blair said, his voice defeated.
"Blair, I don't give a shit what Randy thinks or the guys at the station or most of this hospital."
Blair glanced up with eyes filled with pain. "Oh man, I wish you did," he whispered. Jim smelled the salt of Blair's tears. Blair never cried anymore. Jim reached out, but Blair immediately wheeled himself back a foot or so, just out of easy reach. "Look, I just need some space."
"Blair, talk to me," Jim asked. Blair started laughing, but it was an ugly sound, full of hatred and anger and a darkness Jim hated hearing come from Blair. "Blair?"
"Blair… not Chief, but just Blair." Blair nodded as if that made any sense, which in Jim's mind, it didn't. "If this were just homophobia, I could do something to make you magically discover that you were just using your anger to hide all these hidden desires and then from there it'd just be one short fall into your bed. Man, I know that fantasy," Blair nodded miserably.
"Blair, I don't—"
"Yeah, I know. Total fantasy. Because it's not that you're this homophobic jerk. No way. No, you just honestly aren't attracted to me, and right now, that's not so surprising," Blair gave another dark laugh.
"I wish I were, and there's nothing wrong with how you are now," Jim pointed out as he got up and crouched in front of Blair. It let him rest his hands on Blair's thighs, and yeah, it was a dirty rat-bastard thing for Jim to do, but he was willing to play dirty to keep Blair this time. He'd tried playing fair, and he didn't like how it turned out. Blair shook his head.
"You have worse vision than I do," Blair snorted.
"Man, I’m too tired to do this." Blair leaned back and closed his eyes, and Jim could count every stress line across his face.
"Blair, I don't want to lose you," Jim admitted quickly. "I don't want you going to that damn transition house, I want you coming home."
Blair slowly shook his head. "No way. You want to move on with your life, and you should. Your reproductive drives have got to be going nuts. It's time to pass on the Sentinel genes." Blair sounded so damn tired.
"Don't I get some say, or is this all about instincts, and I'm just around for the ride as my body hijacks me?" Jim asked. At least that got Blair to open his eyes and look at Jim. "Chief, I want you to come home."
"Not compatible, man," Blair said sadly.
"Just because I don't want you in my bed doesn't mean I don't want you in my life."
"I think the future Mrs. Sentinel might have something to say about that."
"What is it with you and my Sentinel mating urges? Is this still about Alex?" Jim demanded, anger quickly rising up to challenge the hopelessness he'd felt a second ago.
"Is it?" Blair asked, and that totally threw Jim off. Blair was supposed to get defensive, not go all indecisive so Jim didn't have a target to attack. He paused as he regrouped.
"I don't want to reproduce," Jim finally said.
"You could have fooled me."
"Well, obviously I fooled myself as well because I don't get it. Why would you be so sure that I was trying to reproduce, that there will be a Mrs. Ellison to object to you living under the stairs? For that matter, why would you think that I would care what a Mrs. Ellison would think even if I did lose my mind and decide to marry again?"
"You dated half the station," Blair almost shouted. "Debra from the DA's office and Cynthia from records and Jessie from the ME's office."
"I was trying to show you!"
"Show me what? That you could fuck half the women in Cascade? That I was cramping your style? That it's hard to bring the girl home when you don't know if the junior partner is going to be hanging out in his underwear on the couch?" Blair voice rose to a shout.
"I was trying to show you that I didn't mind if *you* dated," Jim snapped right back. "I never brought those women home."
"Because I was there!"
"Because I didn't want to! If I wanted to bring them home, I would have told you to make yourself scarce for the night."
"Only now, you can't. Now, I'm the cripple who you're feeling sorry for. Of course, maybe you want to play martyr. Maybe you want to be able to show off your crippled partner who you're so good about taking care of. Not buying, Ellison."
"Listen you little shit," Jim snapped as three months of patience ran out in one second. "I fucking love you. And if the love I can offer you isn't enough, then fuck you. I want you home because it's your home. You belong there as much as I do and it feels wrong every time I step through that fucking door, and it has since you moved out. I was trying to give you your space so you could find someone who could offer you something better than some dried up old cop who'd rather use his own hand because relationships are just too fucking complicated for me to deal with. I wanted you to be happy. And if that's some sort of crime, then just go fuck yourself, Sandburg."
Jim stormed away. It was only in the truck that he realized he had just broken something so valuable that he could never replace it. But by then the van from the house had appeared and Sandburg had vanished inside. The attendant was still standing on the curb helping a second patient, an ambulatory one, into the front passenger side, but Jim couldn't have part two of this conversation in front of an audience. He couldn't have part two of this conversation at all. Jim thought he should cry at the loss of something so important in his life, but he couldn't. He could only feel numb.
~ ~ ~
Jim answered the knock at the door in his bathrobe. "Simon?" he asked.
Simon looked at him and pulled the unlit cigar out of his mouth. "You sick?"
"Just lazing around the house. It's my day off," Jim said defensively. Simon leaned against the doorjam and looked Jim up and down. "Do you want something?"
"I just thought I'd check on my favorite detective. I hear he got into a lover's spat with his ex-partner down at the hospital yesterday."
"Don't start," Jim warned as he turned his back and headed for the couch.
"Are you going to tell me what's going on?" Simon asked.
"Nothing. Nothing is going on, and nothing ever will and apparently friendship is not that important," Jim said without emotion as he turned the mute button off. The sound of racing cars and tires against asphalt filled the loft, drowning out the silence that Jim had grown to hate.
"You plan to explain that comment?"
"I swear. I've seen you two go through just about everything together, but I never thought I'd see you attack the kid when he's still in a wheelchair."
"Are you planning on closing the door?" Jim asked as he ignored the condemnation in Simon's voice.
"Fine." Jim turned the race up.
"I had planned to tell you what an asshole you're being."
"I already know," Jim answered. He was an asshole; he'd never tried to deny that.
"I had the same conversation with Sandburg."
"He already knows I'm an asshole, you don't have to tell him," Jim said helpfully.
"I actually had a conversation with him about how he's an asshole," Simon said casually. Jim looked up at his boss who was still standing near the door. Simon kept going in the same nonchalant tone. "Did you know he's been accepted into Rainier for a PhD in cultural anthropology?"
"Yeah, I know. Bitch Edwards is gone and the administration that's left is pretty grateful that he didn't sue them for more once the dust settled from the dissertation disaster. But what the hell gives you the right to go over there and call him an asshole?" Jim demanded.
"He was one of my men. And when a man acts like an asshole, he has to expect someone to call him on it."
"He's having a hard enough time without you giving him shit, Simon," Jim said, bothered that Simon would have come down on Blair. Jim had destroyed his relationship with Blair, but Blair would still need a support network of friends, and Jim had thought Simon would be part of that.
"He's having a harder time because he's so damn bullheaded," Simon snorted. "Look, I'll be downstairs, but if I hear anything louder than a bump, I swear, I'll throw both of you in a cell until you make nice."
Jim heard the whisper of wheels across a floor about the same time as Simon's words registered. Blair pushed himself over the door jam with some difficulty, having to back up and take it at a better angle to get through, and Jim just watched as Blair stopped near the kitchen table.
"Blair?" Jim asked.
"I'll leave you two to it," Simon said. His hand lingering for a second on Blair's shoulder before he walked out the door, closing it behind him.
"You love me?" Blair asked softly. Jim closed his eyes and gathered his emotional reserves. He wasn't prepared for this.
"I can't be your lover," Jim said quietly.
"Man, I don't care about that. Okay, so I care a little, and I still plan to have a fantasy affair with you because fantasy is a perfectly healthy part of sexual function," Blair said, his hands dancing in front of his face as he tried to illustrate the normalcy of sexual fantasy with a few waves of the hand. "What I hated was that you looked at those women with all this love and caring and you never looked at me like that, not like before."
Jim opened his mouth, but Blair pushed himself closer. "No way," he stopped Jim. "You had your say, and now I'm having mine. Man, you were my family. You were home. And then you stopped looking at me with any love and I thought I had ruined the only place I've ever felt like I belong. I’m always on the outside, only with you, I somehow got this key and instead of being the funny looking guy on the edge, I was your partner and I was here for poker night and for betting at the track and the guys would threaten me for racing tips." Blair stopped when a tear escaped. He took a deep breath that did nothing to stop the next several escapees from sliding down his face. "You found out how I felt and you just cut me off."
"I never cut you off. I just didn't want to give you the wrong impression," Jim objected, desperate to do or say something to stop the pain he could see in Blair's face.
"I got the impression that you couldn't love me like a brother because of how I felt—that there was something wrong with me and you didn't want me around. You started dating all these women and spending all this time talking about how you didn't mind me being gay until I got the feeling that you did mind and you were just too polite to say it." Blair wiped at his face and took several breaths as he got his composure back.
"I never stopped loving you like a brother," Jim said as he stood up and came around the couch. He wanted to touch Blair, to find comfort in that contact that used to come so naturally between them, but now the gesture felt forced.
"I wasn't feeling the love, man," Blair confessed.
"Shit. I never meant for you to feel that way. I just didn't want to give you false hope. I didn’t want you giving up some perfect partner because you were waiting for me. I didn't want to ruin your life." Jim stopped, determined that he wasn't going to cry. He clenched his jaw, and Blair studied him for several seconds.
"I just want you back," Blair confessed softly.
"Even if I don't want sex?"
"Do you love me?" Blair asked, his voice uncertain and every vulnerability etched across his face.
Jim didn't even have to think about the answer. "Yes. Even when I'm being an asshole."
Blair let out his breath in a gust, and Jim moved forward, not sure how to touch Blair any more. Blair used the arms of his wheelchair to push himself up, and Jim wrapped his arms around Blair and held him.
"I'll always love you. I just don't want you to look back and hate me because you gave up your life for me. I couldn't survive that," Jim confessed, his grip on his own emotions wavering as he felt Blair's body tremble. "Just make me one promise. If you meet some perfect guy, tell me you won't say no to him because of me, and promise that if that perfect guy comes along, I'll still be your family, promise me that," Jim begged.
"That's two promises," Blair hiccuped. "And I promise. I'll always love you, man. I just want my family back."
"You got it," Jim promised. He wasn't crying. He wasn't.
~ ~ ~
"Slow down there, speed racer," Jim complained as Blair zipped down the hall that connected their new kitchen to the second apartment they'd bought and remodeled to turn the loft into one large three bedroom apartment. "And aren't you supposed to be using the cane?" he yelled as Blair disappeared around the corner to his office.
"Yeah, yeah, nag, nag," Blair yelled back before he reappeared, racing back. "I'm late for class, I don't have time for the cane," he said as he braced himself on his good leg and leaned forward to grab his lunch out of the refrigerator.
"They can't exactly start class without you, Dr. Sandburg," Jim pointed out as he gave Blair's short pony tail a tug. He got a glare in return.
"Man, have you never heard of the fifteen minute rule? If I don't get to class, I'm not going to have a class to teach."
"They wouldn't do that to you," Jim said with confidence. "We have a new case if you have any consulting hours left after Special Victims sucked up all your availability last month."
"Totally. I have ten or twelve hours left this month, and my students would so do that to me. Now give them a month, and they will discover that I am way too fascinating to miss. I'll have them eating out of my hand, but on the first day, they're just looking for any excuse, man. Any excuse." Blair shoved his lunch into the saddlebags hanging off the chair and reversed toward the door.
"Take the cane," Jim called as Blair pulled the door open.
"Mother Hen Ellison, strikes again," Blair complained, but he grabbed his cane and dropped it into the sleeve built into his chair for it. "I promise I'll use it at work," Blair said as he rolled out the door, using the rope tied to the knob to pull it shut behind him.
Jim drank his coffee and listened to Blair head down the elevator and out to his van. The motor from the chair lift sounded a little slow. Jim would have the shop check it out. Blair started the van and pulled out, and Jim had a small twinge, the same as every time he listened to Blair driving off. The accident hadn't been Blair's fault. The woman who hit him had been on a cell phone, lost, calling for directions, and not paying attention on icy roads. Blair had just been there. Even so, Jim could admit to feeling a twinge of worry every time Blair got in a car by himself. He even suspected that Blair knew about his irrational fear. But then that's what family did, they worried about each other. Jim finished his coffee and headed for work.
~ ~ ~
Blair watched the class wander out of the building in pairs and small groups. A few loners gathered papers and rearranged books, but no one looked particularly interested in hanging out with the professor. Blair couldn't blame them. Two weeks in, they were still covering the boring bits. Let him get into initiation ceremonies, and he'd have them eating out of his hand and hanging around after class to soak up the stories too X-rated for the class proper. It was just that with the wheelchair, students were a little slower to warm up to him. That was just one of the many joys of a disability, but considering all the good he had in his life, Blair was not about to complain.
One student seemed to linger a little too long. Riley. He was a post-grad student, one of Blair's advisees, but so far Blair hadn't seen much of him.
Rolling the chair over to that side of the room, Blair watched as Riley reordered his books for the third time. "Riley, right?" Blair asked. He ran his fingers over the hidden pocket on the side of his chair where he kept his cell phone, still a little nervous.
Last week, Riley had pinged Blair's radar so strongly that Blair thought the man might be a Sentinel. He had that same manner Jim and Alex had shared—the habit of scanning a room and allowing their eyes to wander away even during a conversation. It was like there was too much information swimming around them to ignore it for long. Jim, however, had insisted that he wasn't getting anything on his own radar, not even when, the following day, he cautiously sat in the seat Riley had chosen. Now Blair felt a little silly because he'd decided the guy was a soldier, which accounted for him pinging Blair's Jim radar. Well, that and he was cute. Cute and military always pinged Blair's radar.
"Yeah," he agreed. "You're a great lecturer."
"And you're full of shit. This intro stuff is boring no matter who presents it, but I'll knock your socks off later," Blair said with a smile. Riley smiled back, but the expression was guarded and small. "So, you're moving over to anthropology?" Blair asked. "I got a look at your records, and it looks like you have an impressive background in psychology, why the move?"
Riley shrugged and watched the last of the undergrads clear out of the room. Blair let him have his silence. Even if Blair didn't understand the need for awkward silences in a conversation, his years with Jim had taught him to just go with the flow on that front. Eventually Riley looked back toward him. "I just don't think I can deal with psychology anymore."
"Oh man, anthropology has just as much psychology, so don't think you're going to get away from the ethical standards or the deviant personalities." Blair smiled encouragingly, even as he tried to get this guy to see that changing fields wasn't going to fix whatever screw he had loose in his life. It would, however, force him to take a bunch of undergrad classes that he was probably not going to enjoy.
Riley cocked his head and really studied Blair for a long second before carefully composing an answer. "I just want to study societies, not individuals."
Oh yeah, he was waiting for Blair to make an argument so he could counter it. Man, maybe it was built into soldiers to turn every conversation into a fucking contest of wills, but this guy was enough like Jim to drive Blair right up a wall. He rolled his wheelchair forward an inch.
Riley blinked in surprise. Yep, just like Jim, he acted surprised when someone wanted to truly listen to his ideas. And if he was really like Jim, he was about to totally shut down and demand that Blair just sign the paperwork where it required an advisor's signature. Thankfully, the wheelchair was a great defense against getting bullied, so Blair didn't expect this one to slam him up against a wall the way Jim had.
Riley leaned back in his chair and studied Blair for several long seconds. "Why are you in a wheelchair?" he asked. Okay, that was a surprise, but a non sequitur was just as much of a non-answer as Jim's favorite—the clenched jaw. Although, to be fair, Jim had mellowed in his middle age.
Blair shrugged. "A woman on a cell phone hit some ice and slammed into me in the middle of an intersection."
Blair wasn't bothered by the details of that accident. If anything, he was grateful that his injury had helped to repair the damage between him and Jim over months of misunderstandings and pain that had followed his outing himself. He could live with Jim's lack of lust, but the idea that Jim didn't love him as a brother, as a human being—that had been slowly killing him. That was the gut shot that left Blair withering and slowing fading into a depression that he couldn't handle. The accident had forced a conversation that had repaired the damage done by ignorance and carelessness on both sides. Now the fact that Jim was not even a little bit gay was an open sore, but at least it wasn't a fatal one. All in all, Blair sometimes thought he had traded two good legs for one great friendship, and that was a trade that he was happy to make.
"Most people avoid that topic, I assume you're going for a point."
Riley leaned forward. "I am. Why does our society value convenience so much that someone would be on a cellphone when driving? I can't believe the woman was evil. I can't believe that an individual carries all the blame when an entire society forms a set of rules, and that individual lives by them without questioning the ultimate consequences. So what I want to know is how does one culture decide to value tradition, and another progress?"
"Gemeinschaft and gesellschaft," Blair echoed softly, shocked at the flow of words. Clearly Riley and Jim were not the same. Riley nodded his head, not even shielding the confusion and pain for one second before he looked away and shook his head and a wry expression replaced the raw emotion.
"Exactly. I see things going wrong. I see good men and women getting caught up in something so big that they can't seem to disengage long enough to really evaluate their own action. What I want to know is why a culture allows that to happen."
"Oh man, figure that out, and they're going to be throwing Nobel Prizes at you," Blair pointed out. Riley smiled and gave a half shrug.
"I know. I know it's impossible to understand..." His voice faded, and Blair understood that Riley wasn't searching for some esoteric truth; he wanted to understand something that had gone horribly wrong in his own life. It wasn't the best reason to get into an academic field, but it wasn't the worst, either.
"Hey, buy me a cup of coffee, and we can talk about specializations and see if we can minimize your time in with the undergrads," Blair offered.
Riley looked up, and for a half-second, Blair could again see pain etched deep. However, Riley covered that with a boyish smile. "You bet, prof. One cup of coffee coming up."
He picked up his bag and slung it over his shoulder before heading for the door. Pushing his chair after the other man, Blair wondered if all soldiers came out with such deeply hidden damage or if the damaged ones just somehow gravitated to him. Either way, he should call Jim and let him know he was going to be late getting to the station—Blair had a feeling that this one wasn't going to be rushed into telling his stories, and Blair had an equally strong feeling that he really wanted to know what Riley was hiding behind his smile.
~ ~ ~
Jim stirred the chili and watched Blair who was leaning against the cluttered table. His bad leg was stuck out awkwardly so he wasn't actually putting any weight on it, and Jim wanted to go lean playfully into Blair, shoulder bump him until he worked the weak leg. However, he wouldn't do that in front of Blair's company.
"That pattern of confirmed racial profiling... whoa!" The need to brace himself on the table kept Blair from gesturing with his hands, but his eyes still lit up with that weird sort of glee he got when someone showed him really exciting anthropology. Jim smiled at his partner and almost made a nerd joke, but Riley looked equally excited, and he was clearly not a nerd. Jim never thought he'd miss the parade of dweebs that he had learned to tune out as they sat in the living room and went off on some ridiculous conversation in a bizarre attempt to impress Blair. Jim wasn't sure that Blair even understood that many of the men and women who followed him home smelled of desire and nervousness. Riley, however, was different. One look, and Jim's instincts screamed to life.
"Man, this is incredible. We so need to publish this." Blair gave a half-hop, half-shuffle to the side to look at the multicolored maps from a new angle. "How sure are you on your estimates?"
Riley turned a chair around so the back faced the table. Sitting straddle, he leaned his arms on the back of the chair and looked at the work he had carefully laid out. "I don't know, but I figure we'll know in five or ten years."
"We can publish with this. But if your projections are wrong, that is so going to be hard to live down."
"I'll take the risk," Riley said, and from his smile, he was proud that Blair had found his work worthy. In reality, Jim suspected that the work was more than worthy. Blair hadn't ever talked about a student the way he raved about Riley. It reminded Jim of the way Blair had once been so excited by every Sentinel test, and Jim struggled to shove aside that ugly bit of jealousy. He'd always insisted that Blair had to have a life—that he not tie himself to some worn-out cop with issues. And now that it looked like there was some growing spark of interest, he could feel a nasty urge to smother it and cling to Blair. Jim stirred the chili so fast that it sloshed up the side and beans spilled over and tumbled down onto the white stovetop.
"Oh man, Jim, you have to come look at this. This could totally change the way departments approach racial profiling problems. This is..." Blair sat down in his wheel chair, finally freeing his hands to gesture grandly. "This is incredible. This is closer to a dissertation than a Master's thesis."
"It is my second time getting a Master's," Riley pointed out, but a hint of a smile lingered. Jim moved to a point just behind Blair, resting his hand on his friend's shoulder.
"So, I assume all those squiggles mean something," Jim said.
Blair rolled his eyes and backhanded Jim in the stomach.
"Watch it—I'd hate to have to take you in for assaulting a police officer, pipsqueak." Jim ruffled Blair's curls. He'd gone through a short hair phase, but now he was starting to let it grow, and the curls reached just to the edge of his jaw—long enough to get good and tangled.
"Ignore the Neanderthal," Blair told Riley. "He actually does have a degree and a brain, but he likes to pretend he's the muscle around here. It makes him feel all full of testosterone. However, if you want to really convince police captains and officials to use your projections, we're going to have to find a way to make this way easier to follow." Blair's voice turned thoughtful, and Jim could almost see the wheels turning in his brain. After years of being a part-time police consultant, Blair was the perfect person to translate geek speak into something the police could use, so Jim didn't doubt he'd come up with something brilliant. Hell, Riley would probably do fine on his own. And boy didn't Jim hate admitting that?
"If this really can help departments target potential profiling, it's a good thing," Jim offered. Riley looked up and gave a quick nod. Jim gave a quick nod in return and then headed back to his chili. It was funny; in a lot of ways, Jim understood Riley better than he did Blair. Riley was a military man through and through, and Jim understood his silences and his expressions. Jim even respected Riley's intelligence, but he just couldn't bring himself to like Riley.
On the other hand, he couldn't bring himself to dislike him, either. Oh, he had reason to dislike Riley. When the twinges of jealousy had first appeared, Jim hadn't been able to really put his finger on why he felt that way. The first time Blair had invited his new pet project home, he'd made it more than clear that Riley would be back out the door in two seconds if he didn't meet Jim's approval. Even now, Jim had no doubts about Blair's loyalty.
Instead of using his cane, Blair wheeled his chair around to Riley's side of the table as they talked about where to publish. The fact was that Riley had a more academic bent than Jim—he couldn't deny that. Jim had gotten through school without trouble, but the idea of earning two Master's and then going for a doctorate left him wanting to grab a fishing pole and disappear into the mountains. Riley, however, was almost as excited about all this as Blair. But that didn't make Jim jealous—it just made him doubt Riley's sanity.
And Jim had surprised even himself when he'd looked at Riley's military record. A friend had pulled a few strings, but even the string pulling only got Jim a record that looked like Swiss cheese. Riley had more blacked out periods on his military service than Jim, which meant he'd been pretty deep into the covert ops. In the past, that might have sent up some serious red flags, but Jim's senses worked their best with Blair around to center him, and Blair's disability would keep anyone from looking at them twice. Instead, as Jim looked at the long redacted sections, he realized that Riley could probably handle himself, even around some of the weird shit Blair tended to attract. Besides, for a man to be in covert ops that deep for that long, he must have a spotless psychological profile. Jim didn't mind that tacit stamp of mental good health.
For a while, Jim actually thought it might be Riley's physical qualities inspiring the jealousy. Looking at Riley, Jim could honestly admit that most people would call Riley 'cuter'; however, Jim thought he would probably be called more classically handsome. In terms of fitness, Jim assumed they would have a draw in most contests, so that wasn't it.
For weeks, Jim had struggled to identify the source of this discomfort he felt whenever Blair brought Riley over to discuss his work or the research they were doing on patterns of criminal behavior. With the chair, it really was easier for Blair to meet him at the loft where the bathroom was set up for him and the tables were the right height for his chair. However, Blair always kept Riley away during those times that were Jim's. Riley never came over during a Jag's game, or when Blair had papers to grade. Jim would prop the pillows at the end of the couch, and Blair would lay with his feet on Jim's leg as he ripped through essays with a red pen.
It took Jim a while to figure it out. Part of the problem was that Jim always filtered out a certain level of desire, a baseline of pheromones that Blair just constantly leaked. At one point, Jim had accused Blair of being so horny he'd do a table leg, but he'd eventually figured out that Blair would rather do him. As an open-minded heterosexual male... or asexual male because Jim just did not have the energy for that type of relationship anymore... he could respect that Blair had a right to lust after him. As long as it didn't hurt Blair, Jim could even encourage a little lust. In a way, it was a compliment that someone was still attracted to him. But once he'd started paying attention to those pheromones, Jim had finally figured it out.
Blair's lust wasn't surprising and Jim found it didn't particularly bother him. Hell, Riley's own military background and many of his mannerisms were close enough to Jim's own, that Jim would have chalked up any Blair lust to some sort of extension of his desire for Jim. Even more importantly, Blair would cut off his good leg before he would ever get involved with a student, so there wasn't any cause for jealousy there.
Nope, Jim found himself jealous for a whole different reason. He was jealous of Riley because Riley was attracted to Blair. Oh, he might be in denial because the man never gave any outward sign, but when Blair would get really excited and throw his hands around, Jim could smell the subtle shift. Riley was attracted to Blair's enthusiasm, his intelligence, his occasionally nasty sense of humor. Some part of Riley wanted Blair, and Jim was intensely jealous of that.
Jim wanted to lust after Blair. He wanted to look at Blair and feel that deep longing for something physical. He wanted to give back to Blair the same depth of love that Blair offered him. Yes, he loved Blair with all his heart, but he always felt like he was cheating Blair by not loving him with his body. Jim envied Riley's ability to feel even a kernel of desire, because with even that much physical attraction, Jim would be able to give Blair something he needed.
"Earth to Jim!" Jim shook his head and looked up. Blair had already covered half the distance to the kitchen, hopping on his good leg and dragging his stubborn foot. Riley was looking away, clearly offering them the sort of privacy soldiers offered each other in barracks and in tight quarters when it wasn't possible to give more. And the chili was burning.
"Sorry, just daydreaming." Jim gave Blair a reassuring smile. It hadn't been a zone, but from Blair's worried frown, he thought it had been. "You two bored me into a daze with all your talk," Jim teased. That seemed to ease some of Blair's worry because he shuffled back to the table, even remembering to try and use his weak side.
"Whatever," Blair said dismissively. "Go on, play dumb. You know, one of these days, Simon is going to see right through that and he's going to put you up for the captaincy."
"All the more reason to play dumb," Jim pointed out as he ladled out chili. The burnt smell was so faint that he was fairly sure only he could smell it.
"So, not interested in a promotion?" Riley asked, finally looking back at them since the need for any privacy had passed.
"I don't need the stress," Jim said firmly. He put the bowls at the end of the counter, silently requesting Riley to assist. Riley took the hint, the way Jim knew he would, leaving Jim free to gather up the crackers and shredded cheese and the green onions he'd chopped earlier.
"Command is not always the best place to be," Riley agreed. Jim studied the man, and put one more piece of the puzzle into place.
"I wouldn't know." Jim reached the table and arranged the fixings as Riley put the bowls out. "By the time I had my own team, my commander betrayed us to a local drug lord, and the chopper was shot down. I lost my first team before boots were on the ground." Jim sat down and watched Riley. If Riley could be a better man that he was—if Riley could actually love Blair as more than a brother—maybe it was time to see just how far Jim could trust him with their family secrets. Blair looked at him with shock and confusion, but Jim focused on Riley.
His words had caught Riley just before he sat, and for a second, Riley looked like someone had hit the pause button halfway through his attempt to sit. Then he lowered himself into the chair. "I had a commander like that. One of her own men actually took her out, but not before there was a lot of friendly fire."
Jim nodded. "So, Chief, why don't you explain this brilliant new idea and I'll poke holes in it until you two can get it waterproof."
Blair slowly smiled. For Blair, Jim would actually pay attention to the data and help them see it through a police officer's eyes, and for Blair, Jim would let someone else in close enough to fall in love. Jim just wasn't sure that Riley would be the man. After all, the first soldier who loved Blair hadn't been good enough to find a way to love him completely. Of all the shitty things he'd done in his life, Jim regretted that one the most. Hopefully Riley would prove to be the better man in more ways than one.
~ ~ ~
Blair pushed himself up out of his chair and hopped to the edge of his desk. His leg ached dully, but Blair had been pushing himself too hard today. He'd been trying hard to pace. Jim would probably just smile at how much weight Blair was putting on his bad leg. So would Blair's physical therapist.
But Blair had to face reality. His leg had improved to a certain point, and he knew how damn lucky he was because he could get out of the chair and transfer. He could stand for short periods of time and bear some weight. However, months of pain and physical therapy and Jim rubbing his leg every night, Blair had accepted that he wasn't going to improve any more. He didn't have some trump card to play or any secret powers. Nope, he'd been luckier than most, and he could keep hitting his head against the wall that was called physical therapy instead of its more proper term—physical torture—or he could accept reality.
When he was younger, he so would have kept pounding his head against the wall. He'd inherited more than a little of Naomi's idealism. But Blair would have been miserable every time his muscles spasmed, and he would have hated himself for failing every time he couldn't push more weight. He would have blamed himself, and that was a fool's game. His leg wasn't his fault and no amount of positive thinking or sage or just pushing through the pain could change certain physical realities. Nope, he'd do the best he had with the cards he'd been dealt. And life hadn't dealt him any trump cards. Or if it had, he'd played them. And besides, it wasn't like his life was bad.
A little part of Blair felt like a giant hypocrite. He had a roommate who loved him like a brother, he had two jobs he loved, he had published two anthropology books, and Riley's work was looking good enough that they could probably co-author another. He should be on top of the fucking world. He should be burning incense and thanking the universe. He should show a little gratitude.
But he couldn't. It was bad enough falling in love with Jim, but now he'd done it again. Twice he'd managed to fall for men so straight the math department could use them as fucking rulers. Obviously, Blair needed more therapy. Either that, or he needed to go back to women. His track record with women sucked and he pissed them off before getting to third base at least half the time, but at least they generally liked him. They thought he was cute.
Pushing off from the desk, Blair did a single hop, did a half step on his bad side, and twisted so he'd land in his chair. Of course he landed wrong and poked himself in the kidney with one of the armrests, but that wasn't even surprising given his day.
Yep, it was time to admit defeat. He'd tried ignoring his feelings. He'd tried reminding himself that a teacher who had any sort of sexual feelings for a student was way into ethically creepy territory. He'd tried just focusing on the work they were doing together. Riley had great ideas, and his military background and psychology training gave him a perspective on anthropology that Blair loved. A lot of times, Blair was alone in his love for applied science. Or if other anthropologists did want to do applied work, they wanted to investigate the disappearing cultures of the world. Riley was someone who shared his love for the law-enforcement community. They'd done really exciting work.
But he couldn't keep doing it. It was like his leg. He'd tried and tried and tried, and now it was time to admit defeat.
Blair got up out of his chair and hobbled to his desk. He was going to be asking Jim for a massage tonight, but he just couldn't totally repress his need to pace. Riley was going....
The knock at the door made Blair's stomach clench. He had to do this. It wasn't like this hurt as much as when he thought he'd lost Jim. That had ripped his fucking heart out. This was just... it was poking a big hole through it. He'd survive.
"Come in," Blair called. Riley walked in, a frown pulled his eyebrows down as he stared down at the papers in his hand. It was probably more data from their field trip to New Orleans.
"I think I found...."
"We need to talk," Blair interrupted Riley. Riley looked up in surprise. For a second, Blair almost expected Riley to demand answers. Sometimes Riley and Jim were so similar that the wondered if maybe his libido wasn't confusing them and running after the first cute soldier to cross his path. Of course, the alternative was also possible—he was a masochist. He was a masochist with a kink for getting shot down. But Riley wasn't Jim. While Jim would have demanded answers, Riley waited in silence with a quizzical expression on his face.
"Blair?" Riley eventually asked.
"Oh man. Okay, this is totally not about you, but I am in way over my head. I mean, between teaching and my work at the PD and this article I have due, I am totally feeling overwhelmed. Like with the leg, I just have to know my limits." Blair smiled and patted his bad leg. "It's tiring, you know?" Blair tried to keep his voice light and carefree, but Riley's frown deepened.
"Blair, we have most of the legwork done already."
"I really do think you're ready to go. Dr. Copperly is willing to look over your final numbers, but I'm going to have to back out of my commitment to you. You have no idea how sorry I am, but I can't things slide at the university or down at the PD."
Riley closed the file that had his papers. "You're too busy to work on this?" he asked.
Blair gave a helpless shrug. "I really wish I could work with you on that, but I am so just not doing okay." Blair obfuscated his ass off. He wasn't lying about anything, but he sure as hell wasn't about to tell Riley why he was overwhelmed with the idea of working with him. There was masochism and then there was just flat out stupidity. Blair was not about to be stupid enough to ruin any chance they had to work together once Blair got over this stupid-ass crush. God, he was an idiot.
"Anyway," Blair continued, "my leg is killing me. Man, I am going to be begging Jim for some massage tonight. Sometimes living with a former medic is a total advantage, even if he is a neat-freak with tofu issues. So, I left Dr. Copperly's office number with my secretary, and she has copies of all my notes. I am not holding anything back because you totally deserve the credit for this whole study." Blair settled himself in his chair, and only then did he realize that he truly was physically exhausted. He started pushing himself toward the door.
"Would you like a hand?" Riley asked.
Blair closed his eyes. Okay, that was why he totally kept getting his libido all tangled up. Cops and soldiers were supposed to be stoic and unemotional or they were supposed to be testosterone-drive assholes. Instead, Jim and Riley cared so much and they were such ethical men that Blair just couldn't help but fall for them. He didn't understand why they weren't both happily married and getting all emotional over little girls and ballet recitals.
"Nah," Blair told Riley. "I have it. The truth is, I should be working my weak side harder anyway, so a little extra effort just makes me feel less guilty about skipping out on physical therapy. So, you're welcome to use my office. Just make sure the door is closed when you leave." Blair smiled and wheeled himself past Riley Finn. Damn. Life hated him.
He got all the way to the van before his eyes started to sting. While Blair normally appreciated Naomi's mothering skills, there was a part of him that resented that she had never taught him the stoic skills that allowed Jim and Riley to talk about dead friends with only flashes of emotion slipping through like lightning in a thunderstorm. Blair's first tears slipped down as he used the lift to get his chair up and into the van. He had no idea if he was crying out of frustration or loss, but he sure and hell couldn't go home until he got himself under control. He'd set off every Blessed Protector nerve Jim owned, and Blair didn't want to set Jim against Riley. They had some sort of strange soldier-camaraderie going.
Blair was exhausted when he finally rolled off the elevator. The loft door was the last obstacle, but Blair ached at the thought of it. Normally he braced himself with his good leg and leaned forward to work the lock, but his fingers were trembling with emotion, and his lower back ached from his earlier pacing and his three hour drive through the suburbs of Cascade where kids chased each other down sidewalks. Blair hadn't hurt this much since last time he went to physical therapy.
Staring morosely at the locked door, Blair started digging in the small pouch that hung on the inside of his armrest on his good side.
"Blair?" Jim opened the door and looked at him with some confusion. The worst part about living with a Sentinel was that they always knew when you'd had the shitty day from hell. And the second Blair saw Jim's face, he knew that he'd done a pretty sucky job of hiding his distress.
"Man, I do not want to talk about it," Blair said, rolling forward. Jim reached out and caught one of the handgrips to give Blair a push. With a sigh, Blair abandoned any pretense of control and let Jim push him inside and close the loft door.
"Bad day?" Jim asked, pushing Blair over to the couch. He locked the wheels on Blair's chair and then offered his arm. Normally Blair could transfer in and out of the chair easily, but his bad leg was on the verge of a spasm, and his good one ached with exhaustion. Reaching out, Blair locked his hands around Jim's arm and shoulder and used his friend to swing his body around and onto the couch.
Sometimes it drove Blair crazy when Jim wouldn't talk, but the upside was that he didn't push others to talk either... not unless they were suspects and Jim wanted information.
"I'll get the Ben Gay." Jim turned and headed for the bathroom. At the end of the couch, he paused at the table, picked up the TV remote, and tossed it onto the cushion next to Blair. Yeah, he'd had a rough day. He'd given up something he wanted, but he definitely still had what he needed. Blair wouldn't trade his life with Jim in for anyone. He sure as hell wouldn't trade it for some totally heterosexual student. Nope. Blair was happy; he just needed to focus on all the parts of his life that did make him happy.
"Hey, did you see the Jags traded for Atkinson?" Blair yelled.
"Yeah, I caught that," Jim yelled back. "Sandburg, where the hell did you leave the Ben Gay?"
"I don't know. Try the bedside table." Blair flicked on the television.
"If you'd keep your shit in the same place, you might be able to find it." Jim was sounding a little cranky.
"Yeah, yeah. If I'm ever that anal retentive, I hope someone shoots me and puts me out of my misery."
Jim came out of Blair's bedroom with a tube in his hand. "With your luck, you shouldn't be joking about that.
"Whatever." Blair smiled. Yep, life wasn't bad at all.
~ ~ ~
"Finn in there?" Jim asked Karla. Blair always said that his accident had two upsides: good parking and Karla. The university hired her to work part-time just for Blair, transcribing his notes since his one hand didn't function as well with very precise tasks like typing. Jim thought that it was a pretty poor trade considering how the chair limited Blair's life, but that was Blair—always looking for the bright side.
"Yep," Karla agreed. She leaned back in her chair and looked him up and down with a sharp-eyed speculation. "So, are you about to do something Blair is going to kill you over?"
"Could be," Jim agreed. Luckily, he also trusted Karla to not tell Blair that he'd lured Riley Finn to the office. Karla understood that sometimes Blair didn't take care of himself and he needed a little push to get back on track. Sometimes that meant Jim brought him lunch, and sometimes it meant dragging him out of his wheelchair for a swim in the campus pool before all his muscles cramped up. This time it meant verbally kicking a little ass.
"I'll go to your funeral," Karla promised, "and I'm on break." Standing up, she grabbed her purse and made a show out of leaving the front area. Blair had the first office and the other professors weren't actually in their offices often. That gave Jim and Riley Finn a little privacy.
Jim walked over and pushed Blair's office door open.
"Jim!" Riley sat up on the couch and dropped his legal pad on the cushion next to him. "I thought Blair was coming."
"He's at home nursing a bad mood," Jim answered honestly enough. He didn't mention that Blair would be in a worse mood if he found out about Jim's plan. Hopefully this would work or Jim could just kill Riley and hide the body. Either would be a tactical success.
"Jim, did I do something that's made him uncomfortable working with me?" Riley stood up and asked the question with such an honest openness that Jim was caught off guard. The short answer was 'yes,' but Riley would misunderstand that. Damn it. Blair had better understand how much Jim loved him because Jim would pretty much cut off an arm to avoid this conversation.
"Sit down," Jim said, gesturing toward the couch. Riley slowly sank, watching Jim cautiously—the way you might watch an unstable commanding officer. It was a little amusing considering that Riley had left the military a major, one rank above Jim.
Jim rubbed his hand over his face and figured it was probably best to just get this over with. "Blair thinks that the only ethical solution to his current problem is to cut off all contact with you, particularly as a student."
"He... what?" Riley's voice went up and his eyes dilated—two clear signs of distress, and two confirmations that Jim was right that the feelings were mutual. Riley was probably silently nursing his own version of a bad mood, even if he hid it better than Blair who wrapped himself in every emotion like a well-worn coat.
Fuck. Jim really hated this. He rubbed his face again. "He likes you, Finn. You're his student, and he likes you which puts him in an ethical dilemma. Worse, he's under the impression that you aren't attracted to him, so he thinks you're going to have some sort of heterosexual horror if you find out he's attracted." This was either going to put these two on the right path, or Jim was going to have to sign over his half of the loft and run for the hills before Blair found out what he'd done. Shit. And he was the one who always complained about Naomi's meddling. He was starting to have a little more sympathy for her because Blair invited meddling by always putting his own needs last on the priority list.
Jim wanted some sort of reaction, but Riley just blinked up at him like his brain had gotten stuck somewhere in the middle of that revelation. "He likes me?"
"Shocking, isn't it?" Jim asked with a bit more rancor than he probably needed.
"I was going to say ironic," Riley said with a slight smile that did not make Jim feel any better about this whole mess. "Trust me, I know how bad teacher-student relationships can get, and I have a whole lot of respect for Blair for not doing something unethical. He's a better man than I am in a lot of ways." The grimace suggested that Riley had his own story of questionable ethics. "But Jim, this doesn't mean we can't work together."
Jim clenched his fists and tried very hard to remind himself that it would be hard to sneak a body out of the building in the middle of the day. Not impossible, but hard. "You can't ask him to work with you when he has feelings for you." Jim tried very hard to ignore his own bit of dark irony. Hell, he asked Blair to live with him, to love him, to call him family... and yet Jim couldn't find Blair sexually attractive. "You either need to decide if you can man up to your own feelings for him or you need to get out of his life so he can heal."
Riley chewed on his lip and seemed to be collecting his thoughts, so Jim leaned back against the wall and waited for whatever stupid thing the man was about to say. Jim could almost smell the coming stupidity.
"You don't want me being interested in Blair... not like that." The pain on Riley's face made Jim hesitate, but it wasn't like he didn't already know that Riley carried baggage. Hell, Blair seemed to have a kink for baggage because he certainly fell for guys who had it in spades.
"Of course I don't," Jim said loudly. "Do you think I want this for him? I want him to fall for some college professor who will encourage him to have a nice boring life and go to physical therapy a little more often. I want to go to bed at night knowing that he's not going to get a gun shoved in his face tomorrow. Between following me out to scenes to profile for the department and you hauling him out to New Orleans—"
"I never—" Riley started to say.
Jim threw his hands up in the air in disgust. "You took him to study the patterns of racial profiling and police corruption. You and I both know that the only thing more dangerous than bad guys are the good guys who've lost their moral compass, and that's what you hauled him down to investigate—an entire city full of police who had lost their moral compasses. I'm only starting to get over the ulcers I got while you were gone. And part of me appreciates that you respect him enough to know that chair is not going to stop him from doing dangerous work, and part of me wants to beat the holy shit out of you."
"Jim..." Riley was clearly ready to defend his choices, but Jim did not want to go there. He already knew Riley was right, which is why he'd stood in the airport and watched them get on a plane when his stomach was tied in knots. Riley could have his moral victory on the work front, but he was still acting like an ass when it came to the relationship.
"Save it, Finn," Jim cut him off. "Right now I'm trying hard to not seriously hate your guts because I wish I could give him what he wants, but I can't. I'm not attracted to him. But you are. I know it." Jim took a step forward, struggling with his own anger and guilt and hot need to fix this for Blair—to keep anyone else from hurting Blair the way Jim had. "But if you're going to start lying to yourself or to me or, god help you, to Blair, just let me know, and I am very capable of hating you. In fact, I might suggest that you'd be wise to get your degree and find some other police department to study because there will be a long line of people hating you if I tell them that you turned your back on Blair."
"I'm not turning my back." Riley was angry now—angry and defensive.
"No. You're just letting him turn his back."
"That's his choice."
"No. It isn't. He's trying to take the high road here and not pressure you. He thinks you aren't attracted to him, but you and I both know that's a lie." Jim watched as his words sunk into Riley. He could see the flash of panic, the need for denial, he was even pretty sure Riley was trying to decide whether or not Jim was about to throw a punch.
"You never said it. You never gave him one fucking clue, but that doesn't make it less true."
Riley seemed to pull back into himself, the anger evaporating and something that looked like panic taking its place. "I have never dated men."
"Bully for you, Finn. Do you want a fucking medal? Do you think that's something to brag about? I'd date him in a second if I could make myself feel just one bit of attraction, but I can't. However, he leans over a table and gets excited by some pretty piece of data you dug up, and you go leaking pheromones, so don't play games. It makes you look stupid."
The growing anger fell away as Riley stared at him in shock. "You can smell pheromones?"
Jim could feel his jaw muscle ache. This was part of his life he still hated sharing, even after he'd admitted to the brass that he had enhanced smell and hearing. However, if he wanted Blair to have a full and complete life—including someone who could love him—that meant Jim had to let someone past his knee-jerk reaction. And the fact was that Jim did respect Riley. The man kept his confidences and the covert work he'd done hadn't soured him on the world. He still had this odd idealism that Jim associated more with men like Blair than he did with any covert ops soldiers he'd known. Jim took a deep breath and ordered himself to stop acting like an asshole, because it looked like Riley might be willing to at least consider the possibility of a future with Blair.
"I did mention that Blair wrote a book on people who have one or two hyperactive senses. Mine is smell. So yes, I can smell pheromones."
Riley ran a hand over his face and sighed out a soft curse. "Damn."
"Do you plan to deny it?"
"No. I mean, yes, I am attracted to him, but it's not that simple." Riley looked up, and the expression wasn't defensive—it was fearful.
"It never is, Finn. The gender doesn't make it any less complicated. And you know, I'm a fucking hypocrite because you sure as hell don't see me out there risking myself. But if you let Blair walk away, you're a real ass." Jim walked over and grabbed Riley's papers, tossing them onto the end table so he could sit on the couch. He was too old and too fucking tired for this conversation. Maybe Riley felt the same way because for long minutes, they just sat in silence.
Eventually, Riley spoke up. "I'm not exactly good with relationships."
"None of us are. And that includes Blair. Look at the assholes he keeps falling for."
Riley gave a dark laugh. "His taste in men sucks."
"Yeah, it does. Sadly, it's actually better than his taste in women. The last two women he really fell hard for both just about got him killed. Hell, he even came inches from being sentenced as a drug runner in Canada once. Simon's fast-talking and some lucky footage on a security camera saved him."
Riley looked at him with horror and more than a little confusion.
"It's a long story," Jim left it at. "I'm just saying we all suck at relationships, Finn."
"More than you know, Jim. The last two women I loved, I betrayed both of them."
Jim frowned at that. True, sometimes he didn't exactly have warm, fuzzy feelings for Riley, but he would never suspect the man would ever betray someone. Jim's guts clenched. He had issues with betrayal.
"I got stupid trying to keep up with a woman who was twice the soldier I ever was." Riley gave another dark laugh before he rubbed his eyes.
Jim was shocked. There weren't many women in covert ops, so either she was a specialist attached to their unit, or she'd been quite the woman to actually get accepted into covert ops--a field where women technically didn't serve. "She survive?" Jim asked.
Riley's laugh was dark and full of self-hatred. "Yeah, she was tough. Too tough for it to make any difference that I was too screwed up to provide any support."
Jim sat next to Riley and considered this new twist. Things might not have been as simple as Riley suggested—Sarris' daughter would say Jim had betrayed her father and the whole team who had died in Peru. In battle, sometimes it wasn't as easy as supporting your team. Sometimes reality got in the way. "The second woman?" Jim asked cautiously. He wanted to give Riley the benefit of the doubt.
Riley made an unhappy noise. "She wanted to save the world. She volunteered with one of those charities that send people around the world when she ended up in the middle of..." Riley let his voice trail off, but Jim could fill in the blanks. Military action meant refugees and that meant charity workers who often did end up in the middle of the battlefield. Riley took a deep breath. "She really proved herself when some things went down, and she joined my unit. She was good, but she always had to be better, faster, more accurate, more alert. She went in the field when she had no business even holding a weapon." Leaning back on the couch, Riley ran both hands through his hair and then stared at the ceiling. He didn't need to finish the story, though, because Jim had seen it often enough. Put people in stressful situations, and they'd search for something to give them an edge.
Riley nodded. "I tried to get her off them. When I couldn't, I had to turn her in before she got someone killed, but we were more than just teammates, and she--" Riley stopped.
Jim flinched. He could just imagine how that would tear a unit apart. Soldiers stood together, they watched each others' backs. But an officer couldn't allow that sort of dangerous behavior in the field. It was a no-win situation. Some days Jim was thankful that his own career had been derailed by Peru.
"Wait." Jim sat up. "This was someone you were involved with? In your unit?"
For heavy seconds, Riley didn't answer, and Jim could feel his own growing horror. When Riley did answer, it was little more than a whisper. "She was my wife. The higher-ups cut us a little slack on the regs. We dealt with unique situations." Riley kept staring at the ceiling.
Jim had been through the misery of conflicts within a unit, and he'd been through a miserable divorce, but he would have seriously considered eating his gun if he'd had to deal with both at the same time. Riley had as much reason to be gun-shy around relationships as he did.
"Well, fuck," Jim said softly.
Riley answered with another dark laugh.
"Blair really does have horrible taste in men." Jim sighed.
"I do care about Blair, but I'm not sure he really needs to deal with this baggage."
"Blair's good with baggage," Jim said with more than a little disgust. He almost wished this would drive Blair away, but if Blair was willing to deal with all the shit Jim had hauled into their friendship, Riley's baggage wasn't going to be a blip on the radar.
"He wouldn't want to deal with this much. I have a horrible track record with relationships, and before Blair, I never felt any sort of attraction for men. Not after high school anyway." Riley looked at Jim like he was begging for permission to ignore his feelings. No fucking way was Jim going there.
"He'd want to deal with it," Jim said. "He'd listen and tell you it wasn't your fault, and forgive you. He'd never really understand, but he'd forgive you with his whole heart."
"I'm not sure I'm ready for that," Riley said softly.
"Then tell Blair that. Tell him you're too fucked up to pursue something, but that you are attracted to him. Don't let him think that you don't care about him." Jim stood up and sighed. Nothing was easy when it came to Blair. "Don't let him think you're one more person that just can't love him."
Riley stared at him for a long time before he nodded. "I'll talk to him."
Jim nodded and headed for the door. There really wasn't anything else to say.
~ ~ ~
Blair sent his chair rolling forward as the doorbell rang again. "Yeah, yeah, the crippled guy is fucking coming! Hold your horses." Blair yelled at the door. He was almost hoping some door to door salesman was knocking because then Blair could totally feel justified in ripping the guy a new one. His chair bumped against the wall and left a streak of black from the wheel along the wall.
"Oh man, considering you just dragged me out of tub, this had better be fucking good." He ripped the door open, and all his anger evaporated leaving behind huge loads of embarrassment. Riley stood in the door slowly turning red.
Blair tightened his robe and flicked the hem so that the fabric slipped down to cover his knees. Fuck. Nice, he wanted to avoid Riley, so of course Riley's was going to show up on his doorstep. That's what he got for being in such a pissy mood, but karma didn't usually catch up with him this quick.
"I'm sorry. This is a bad time." Riley was backing up.
Blair sighed. While he really had wanted a little space from the man, it didn't seem fair to curse him out and then send him away without even finding out what he needed. "Nah. I always answer the door in a robe. It cuts down on how long the Jehovah's Witnesses hang around," Blair said with a shrug. "What's up?" Using his good leg, Blair pushed himself back from the door and rolled backwards toward the table. He seriously needed to get a handle on his lust. If Riley needed help with his work, he had a right to ask for it, especially since Blair had been his advisor until Blair had turned the paperwork in the day before.
"I... I really can come back later," Riley offered. He hovered at the open door.
"I am probably not going to be in a better mood," Blair warned. He pushed himself up and headed for the couch. Grabbing the blanket off the back, he dropped down on the couch and draped the blanket over his lap. Note to self—do not answer the door without putting on underwear.
"Blair." Riley stopped and ran a hand over his face.
"Okay, I've seen that look. I already have one emotionally constipated friend, and I happen to know you're way more verbal than Jim, and I'm tired, so just spit it out." Riley looked up, and for a second, he had an expression that looked almost amused. Great. Just what Blair wanted... another ex-soldier who considered him a joke. Okay, that wasn't fair. Jim was an incredible friend, but every time Blair mentioned Riley, he got this bemused expression on his face like he was so much better or wiser than Blair. It was the sort of look parents got when their kids did something particularly stupid and amusing, and Blair was just not in the mood. The last thing he needed was one more man treating him like a kid brother. He crossed his arms and glared at Riley. "I am so not in the mood for whatever oddness you have running around in your brain," Blair snapped.
Surprise flashed across his face and then Riley's face started slowly turning pink. Suspicion crawled through Blair's guts. Questions about methodological approaches did not inspire blushing.
"I.... Maybe I should come back later. I shouldn't have just shown up without warning." Riley started backing toward the open door.
"Oh man. I'm sorry. That was totally out of line," Blair hurried to say. "I do not want to try and chase you down in the wheelchair to apologize again, so seriously, come in."
Riley hovered near the door, his eyes darting around the loft.
"You are officially freaking me out here. What's up?" Blair leaned forward.
With a shrug, Riley pushed the front door closed and took a step inside. "Jim came to visit me." The tone was carefully neutral, but Blair's stomach lurched painfully. Fuck. Fuck and more fuck. He was officially killing his best friend because there was only one reason why Jim would have tracked Riley down.
"Oh man. Is this something I'm going to be hiring a hit man over?" Blair asked. Yep, if he could still walk without getting tangled in his lazy leg, he'd be running for his room right now because he so did not want to deal with this. Either that or he'd be running out the door to go find Jim and murder him.
"I hope not," Riley said, but from the twist of his mouth, he considered it an option.
Blair sighed. "Sometimes I really wished that the whole universe was just a figment of my imagination and I could just wish things away." He ran his fingers through his curls and leaned back on the couch, letting his eyes fall closed. "But if I'm imagining all this, then I would have to consider the possibility that I am a real masochist."
"What?" Riley's voice sounded sharper than Blair expected.
"Hey, I can just imagine what Jim said because that man is the master of projection. He never met an emotion he didn't try to foist off on someone else. Feel free to just ignore him."
"And if I don't want to?"
Blair opened his eyes and looked at Riley. Riley was a lot closer than he expected, standing next to Blair's chair with one hand resting on the back. "Okay...." Blair let his voice trail off, not sure what he was supposed to be saying. Maybe Jim hadn't done something stupid. Maybe they were talking about totally different things. It's not like it would be the first time his foot had a close encounter with his mouth.
Riley was standing stiffly, and he stared at a spot somewhere over Blair's head. "Jim said that you were attracted to me."
Blair cringed. Damn. They were definitely talking about the same thing. "How much does a good hit man cost these days?" Blair tried to smile at his own joke, but he just was not feeling the humor.
"Don't blame him," Riley said. He finally made eye contact with Blair, and his eyes shone with an expression Blair couldn't identify. "He really loves you, you know."
If Riley had tried, he couldn't have found words that hurt more. Blair knew Jim loved him, and he knew that Jim couldn't be in love with him. The love kept them together as partners and friends, but it was a constant reminder of what Blair couldn't have. Maybe Riley recognized something in Blair's expression because he quickly moved to sit on the couch next to him.
"Hey, I would give a lot to have someone care about me as much as Jim cares about you. Actually, I took it as a bit of a compliment that he talked to me instead of hitting me in the back of the head with a shovel and hiding my body."
Blair looked at Riley with horror.
Riley gave a breathy laugh and shrugged. "The shovel threat was a tradition. And if someone didn't measure up, I'm not entirely sure it was only a threat. So, I figure Jim thinks I measure up."
"That's seriously disturbing." Maybe Blair had been sheltered from violence being Naomi's son, but he would never threaten a family member's prospective romantic interest. And considering Jim's history with women, he would have had some justification.
"Maybe," Riley agreed with another shrug. Then he fell silent, and they were left sitting on the couch in this weird imitation of those days after Blair had first told Jim that he was gay. That was back before the accident, back before he'd gotten his own apartment, back when Jim was trying so hard to pretend it didn't matter that he made Blair feel like that was all that mattered.
"You're not gay. I get that," Blair started.
"That's just it," Riley cut him off. "I've never been gay. That doesn't mean I'm not..." Riley waved a hand inarticulately.
Blair raised an eyebrow at the man. "If you can't say it, trust me, you aren't."
Riley looked over with a sheepish grin that made Blair's heart clench with desire. "Bisexual. There, I said it. Blair..." Riley blew out a breath before visibly gathering himself. "Every culture I've been in has pushed me away from that part of myself: the Baptist church, my Midwest family, the military. And I am bisexual, so it's not like I had to repress all my sexual feelings to just avoid the cognitive dissonance of putting myself in conflict with the values of the groups I chose to belong to. I just got used to ignoring that part of myself."
"Do they teach repression in bootcamp?" Blair was only half joking on that one.
"I think they teach it in high school," Riley answered. "They definitely teach it on the high school football team. Between slapping each other on the ass and getting drunk and falling asleep on each other, they pound heterosexuality into every cell. That's a culture than needs documenting."
Blair wasn't sure what he was supposed to say to that. He'd been through this pain with Jim, and he didn't want to get closer to Riley. If Riley was tangled up in his own head, Blair so did not need that mess. He had issues with his own sexuality, and maybe if he hadn't been so busy chasing and getting shot down by every girl on campus in an effort to not be gay, maybe he would have realized he was falling for Jim before he got his guts ripped out by that rejection. He couldn't do that again. He couldn't survive having someone else he cared about give him the 'let's be friends' speech, and that meant he couldn't afford to care about Riley. He couldn't afford to feel any sympathy for the fact that he had repressed his desires. He couldn't afford to feel this attraction that made him long for just one lingering touch.
Blair hissed in a breath when Riley let his hand rest on Blair's knee. Logically, he should tell Riley to not invade his personally space; emotionally, Blair wanted to cling to that touch.
"Blair, I am interested. And maybe I'm so good at repressing that I would have ignored that if Jim hadn't pointed it out."
With a snort, Blair pushed Riley's hand away. "Not a good sign. Hey, I am all in favor of you finding yourself, but if you want to experiment a little, I would recommend the Sunray bar down by the waterfront. They have a good reputation."
"I'm not looking to experiment," Riley quickly said.
"Then we're done." Blair looked at Riley and just prayed that he would leave so Blair could scream or break something or go hire that hit man. He was still deciding on that last one.
"I've never been one to experiment with a relationship," Riley said, choosing each word with a careful deliberation that surprised Blair. He hadn't expected Riley to take the subject so damn seriously. "I was raised to believe that relationships grew out of friendships and out of respect, and I know I feel both of those for you. I can't promise anything, but—"
"But you want a chance to break my heart?" Blair asked. He didn't mean for the words to come out so sharp, but they did. The tone stopped Riley. He pulled back until he was perched on the very edge of the couch looking like he was ready to run.
"I want a chance to just see where this goes. I can't promise anything more than that."
Blair's chest ached with emotion. God, he wanted this. He wanted this so much that it scared the shit out of him. "I don't know this is a good idea."
"I know it's not a good idea," Riley interrupted. "I told Jim—I have a long history of doing the wrong thing in relationships. I've only had two real relationships in my life, and both women hate me." Riley frowned for a second. "One hates me, I think the other just pities me, but who knows. Buffy may hate me, too."
"Buffy?" Blair couldn't help smiling at that name. He'd gotten some serious ribbing growing up with a name like 'Blair' but growing up with the name 'Buffy' must have been pure hell.
Riley smiled. "She was a lot tougher than you'd think. She had the blonde routine down pretty good though... all the way up until she drop kicked your ass into the next county."
"Yeah. She was a soldier, and she was one hell of a fighter. She was more of a fighter than I was." Riley fell silent, but his expression twisted into something dark and full of guilt. Maybe Blair didn't have happy memories of all his lovers... all three of them... but he'd never get that look on his face.
"Blair, this scares me. Yeah, I haven't really seen myself in a gay relationship before, but trust me, I've learned to adjust my self-image on a fairly regular basis. What scares me is that I... I really suck at relationships."
"Join the crowd," Blair said with a snort. Between his semi-professional ability to get shot down, his aborted run at seducing Jim, and the few lovers who had all drifted away after a few months, Blair had no room to talk.
"I had so many insecurities that..." Riley stopped and ran a hand over his face. In two seconds, he seemed to have aged about ten years.
"Riley?" Blair reached out, but stopped his hand an inch before he touched Riley's arm.
"Full disclosure," Riley said. Blair rolled his eyes at the military jargon, but he waited in silence, unwilling to interrupt whatever internal struggle Riley had going. "I didn't know where I fit. She was better than I ever could be as a fighter, and by then my whole identify was tied up in my military service and fighting ability. I couldn't handle feeling so inferior, so unimportant. I... I got addicted." Riley stopped again. This was clearly killing him to admit.
"Whoa, you do not have to explain anything to me," Blair assured him. Ignoring the little voice of caution in the back of his head, Blair rested his hand on Riley's shoulder.
"Yeah, I do," Riley said. "You need to know that I am not exactly a catch when it comes to relationships. I'm interested in you Blair. You're brilliant and creative and you have a joy for life that I lost somewhere along the way. I really am attracted to all that. But maybe I was in denial because I'm terrified that I'm going to do something to fuck you up because my exes will all explain just how good I am at disappointing people."
"Your exes and mine can compare notes," Blair admitted with a grimace. "They all just got tired of me. They drift away. Man, I may look all wild and crazy from the outside, but once you get inside, I'm just... I'm me. I'm not good at entertaining people long term." Jim was the first person to stay in his life long-term, and that hadn't exactly turned out the way Blair had once hoped.
"I'm not looking to be entertained."
"You say now." Blair stopped. He hadn't realized just how much insecurity he was carrying, and he hadn't even gotten around to sharing his paranoia about his bad leg with its atrophied muscle and thick scars.
"I do say. I've never looked for anything but a life partner. But I can't say I've been the best partner in my relationships."
"Ask Jim about his failures as a partner. You two can bond over your mutual issues," Blair suggested. Fuck. Riley was supposed to be homophobic or not gay or just willing to take Blair's resignation as an advisor and disappear into the sunset. He was supposed to leave Blair nothing more than a few random 'what if' fantasies and a dull ache. This offer of something real was infinitely scarier and messier and had a lot more potential for disaster. It had potential on all sorts of fronts.
"I was hoping we could get lunch and talk shop. I have the historical data from the LA integration of the police force."
"Oh, sexy," Blair teased. Slowly, Riley smiled.
"Like I said, I don't look for entertainment. I should add that I really don't do entertainment or romance very well. I'm more for awkward moments and offering to talk over work."
"I can handle that," Blair said. "I would prefer to not handle that when I'm naked." He pulled the cover closer.
"Not yet?" Riley asked quietly.
"Not yet," Blair agreed. "Maybe you could give me an hour?"
"An hour. You've got it. I'll meet you at Angelino's?"
"It's a date," Blair agreed. Riley gave him a smile that almost made Blair forget all the little fears creeping through his heart. Standing up, Riley started for the door. Halfway there, he stopped and turned to look at Blair like he was about to say something. Blair waited, but the moment passed, and Riley turned back around and headed out the door.
Blair pulled his wheelchair closer and transferred over. It wasn't until he rolled into the shower and transferred to his shower chair that he realized that his face was aching from smiling so hard.
~ ~ ~
Riley walked out of the room, the first rays of the morning sun just starting to creep across the floor.
"Hey." Riley looked up, surprised to see Jim standing in the kitchen with a cup in hand. "Want one?" Jim gestured toward a second cup sitting on the island.
"Sure," Riley agreed, not sure what the protocol was for this sort of a morning after. While he'd prepared himself for the shy and awkward moments with Blair as they tried to feel their way around this change in their relationship, he hadn't given any thought to his conversation with Jim. Tactically, that was a bad move because Jim and Blair were as close as the Scoobies ever had been. Dating one meant that you had to negotiate relationships with all of them. He watched as Jim poured coffee into the new cup before he came forward and claimed it.
"Blair won't be up for hours. He has a long-standing hate-hate relationship with mornings." Jim leaned against the counter and cupped his hands around his cup. Riley nodded.
"I should get a shower." He gestured toward Blair's bathroom, grateful that the apartment was large enough that he could make an escape from Jim without leaving and letting Blair get the wrong impression. He'd enjoyed last night... a lot. Enough that he was starting to wonder if his bisexuality wasn't a case of misdirected homosexuality.
Jim reached out and put a hand on Riley's arm, stopping him. "It can wait. The water pipes rattle in the wall and Blair probably needs more sleep. He didn't fall asleep until a long time after you did." He pulled his hand back and curled the fingers around the cup again.
Riley drank his coffee and tried hard to not react to that bit of information. The longer he knew Jim, the more he suspected that scent was not the only enhanced sense, but Riley could also understand why a man would want to hide that. "Was he upset?" Riley asked.
Jim delayed his answer by taking a long drink of coffee. "No. He was just too wired to get to sleep, I think. But he's going to sleep for at least two or three hours."
Riley cringed at that. He respected Jim, but he didn't totally understand the relationship he shared with Blair, and that was uncomfortable. Sometimes he felt like the interloper coming between two people who already had a partnership that excluded him. He'd felt that with Buffy. Looking back, he could admit that he had handled that particularly poorly. He'd offered Maggie Walsh as a substitute for Giles, he'd encouraged Buffy to patrol with him and the soldiers, and he'd said a dozen little things to try and pull her away from her world and into his. And Sam... she was so damn beautiful and strong and he had talked his superiors into allowing her to join the unit. She chose to leave her charity work, but he had been there pulling on her, encouraging her to leave her world behind and join him in his. It was like he didn't know how to make a place for himself in someone's life, so he just pushed others out. That realization had hurt because part of him wanted to blame Buffy and Sam for his failed relationships, but the fact was that he carried much of the blame, and now that he'd found Blair, he desperately didn't want to make the same old mistakes.
"You have any workout clothes in your car?" Jim asked in a non-sequitur Riley didn't quite follow.
"I'll get you some of mine. We're about the same size." Jim turned to head up the stairs toward his loft bedroom on the far end of the apartment from Blair's suite. Riley realized that Jim was dressed for working out in a pair of sweats and a t-shirt with the Jags' symbol on the back. Clearly Jim intended them to work out together, which was... odd.
After a few seconds, Jim came back down with sweats and a t-shirt. "Your shoes from last night will do, but you should bring over a good pair of workout shoes." Jim handed over the clothes.
"We're going to work out?"
Jim leaned against the counter and studied Riley for long seconds. As the sun came up, Riley could see the dust dancing between them. "Yeah, Finn, we are. Let's see if your training has rusted."
Riley snorted. After seeing what he'd seen, he would never let himself become one of those pot-bellied ex-vets whose only exercise was lifting a beer. Men like that ended up getting eaten by things that went bump in the night, and Riley was not going to be anyone's victim... not again.
"Let's see if you can put your muscle where your mouth is," Jim said, his lips twisting into a grin.
"You're on, old man."
"Watch it, Finn. Your face and a training mat are about to have a close and personal relationship, and that's after we see if you can keep up with me on the run."
Riley smiled. Competition. He could do competition. Hell, he loved competition, and this was familiar territory. "We'll see, Ellison. You might just learn a new trick or two." Riley headed for the main bathroom to get changed.
~ ~ ~
Jim dialed down on scent, the BenGay annoying him more than he was willing to admit. The first time he said anything, Blair would exile it from the loft, and there were days that it was the only medicine that could ease the cramps that would rip through Blair's twisted muscles.
"Man, I cannot believe what an idiot you are," Blair huffed as he shifted around so that he had easier access to Jim's left leg. Jim groaned as Blair worked the stiff muscle. "You two are going to give yourselves testosterone poisoning. Seriously. Did you have to beat up my boyfriend?"
Jim smiled. "Yep," he answered without opening his eyes. Blair retaliated with a sharp pinch on the back of Jim's calf, but it was still worth it. When Jim didn't complain, Blair huffed again and then went back to working Jim's leg. It hurt like a bitch, but seeing Riley limping and admitting defeat had been worth every ache and strain.
"Stupid, fucking testosterone-driven stereotypical assholes with their hyper-developed territoriality. I am not a fire hydrant you can piss on."
Jim opened one eye to get a better feel for just how angry Blair was. Hyphenated insults usually meant that he was moving past normal Blair-pissiness. Sure enough, Blair's lips were pressed into a thin line, even if his fingers did keep working the sore muscles in Jim's leg.
"I could point out that you keep falling for testosterone-driven assholes."
Blair stopped rubbing long enough to give Jim a dirty look. With a sigh, Jim rolled to his side, forcing Blair to give up on the leg rub, even if Jim did need it. Damn. Kicking ass was a lot easier when he was younger. "Blair," Jim started, but he wasn't sure how to explain this. Blair took his hesitation and pounced on it.
"So, am I going to wake up to a bruised and battered Riley every time he spends the night?"
"What? No." Jim started to sit up, but Blair cursed and practically fell forward onto Jim's legs, his own twisted leg caught under his body in a way that scared the shit out of Jim, but Blair just started massaging Jim's leg again as if they weren't in the middle of a fight that Jim didn't even quite understand.
"So, is this you trying to tell me I have to pick him or you?" Blair demanded, the sharp edge of his voice suggesting that he was either about to start screaming or crying.
"No!" Jim twisted around and caught Blair's wrist, forcing him to stop. "No, I would never make you choose." Looking into Blair's face, Jim knew that Blair would choose him. He knew it in the pit of his stomach, and a little fear whispered that Blair might change his mind later. In a year or two, if Riley was still around, Blair might change his mind about which man was most important. Jim ignored that voice.
Blair was still looking at him with wounded eyes, and Jim carefully tugged at him, forcing Blair to straighten out his weak leg and lay down next to him in front of the fire where Jim could look into those dark blue eyes. He waited as the manic energy and formless fears slowly faded and Blair was finally looking at him instead of being distracted by whatever thoughts he had bouncing around in that big brain of his. "I would never make you choose. You have a right to have a life, and I want that for you," Jim promised him.
"Then is it Riley? Don't you trust him? Is it a territory thing because he's in your house?" Blair tucked an arm under his head and looked at Jim with all this confusion, and Jim wasn't sure he knew the right words to explain this.
"First, this is our house. When you bought the second apartment, you put more money into this place than I did with the original loft," Jim pointed out. Blair rolled his eyes, so Jim figured he'd missed Blair's main point. However, Jim thought that he needed to make that point if Blair thought the place was just Jim's. "Second, I like Riley as much as I'm going to like anyone you take to bed."
"Then why hurt him?" Blair asked seriously.
Jim sighed. Shit. He wouldn't have to explain this to Simon or Rafe. He wouldn't have to explain it to another soldier, and he hadn't needed to explain it to Riley. They'd arrived at the gym sweating and ready to test their hand-to-hand combat skills until most of the men at the gym had abandoned their own routines to watch Jim and Riley throw each other to the ground over and over. The thud of flesh against the training mat and the feel of sweating muscles sliding under his hands as he tried to put someone in a headlock—that was familiar and comfortable.
"Why let him hurt you?" Blair asked, his voice softer as he reached out to touch Jim's shoulder where a bruise was just starting to darken the skin.
Jim reached up and caught Blair's hand. "We need to know each other—to trust each other. I can't let someone close enough to hurt you unless I know what kind of man he is."
Blair searched him, frowning as he tried to put the pieces together into a picture that made sense. Jim was acutely aware that his behavior wasn't always logical, but he also knew he'd needed this morning with Riley.
"But you're really okay?" Blair caught his lip between his teeth. Clearly he wanted to say more.
"I'm picking up a third ticket for the Jags game next month," Jim offered. He started to push himself up from the floor only to have his calf muscle cramp so badly that Jim hissed in pain and grabbed for his leg.
"Idiot," Blair said, but he no longer sounded angry. "Just lay down so I can work the muscle. Come on, man, dial down the pain. Let it fade away." Blair talked and Jim shifted around to lay on his stomach while Blair opened the BenGay tube again, working the cream into the muscle. "I should probably tell you that you deserve this for beating up my boyfriend," Blair complained softly.
Jim smiled and let his eyes fall closed. Riley might be Blair's boyfriend, but Blair was still his. "Probably you should," Jim agreed. "Oh, and Riley's coming over next Monday for a rematch. He must like getting his ass kicked."
Blair was silent as he massaged the hard knotted muscles in Jim's leg.