More often than not these days, Simon found he didn't miss being married at all. Tonight was one of those nights. After working late, he stopped at the tiny little market down the street, known for its high-quality meats, and purchased a big, thick sirloin steak. Once home, he popped a potato in his toaster oven, checked to make sure the tossed salad he'd made last Friday was still good, slipped his favorite CD into the stereo, and took a leisurely shower.
An hour later, he sat down to enjoy his meal, the steak broiled to a perfect medium rare, topped off with a fine glass of Merlot from the Yakima Valley. After dinner, he planned to read more of Sun Tzu's The Art of War and catch NYPD Blue, if it wasn't a rerun.
Taking his first bite of the steak, Simon closed his eyes and savored the dulcet strains of Ella Fitzgerald singing in the background.
Abrupt knocking at the back door shattered the mood.
"Damn!" Simon dropped his fork noisily to his plate and glared through the kitchen to his back door. Who the hell would be visiting at this hour?
"Simon?" called out a very familiar voice. "Hey, man, you in there?"
Sandburg, that's who. Sighing, he dropped his napkin on the table and proceeded to the back door.
Cold and wet from the heavy rain that had started a few hours ago, Blair was scrunched up in his jacket and shivering on the back steps, looking for all the world like a drowned poodle. Even so, he managed a brilliant smile when Simon's face appeared in the door window.
It was on the tip of Simon's tongue to say, Sandburg, you'd better have a damn good reason for being here, but when he opened the door, he found himself saying "Well, come on, get in here already," instead. He handed the kid a large towel from the bathroom off the kitchen and sat him down at the kitchen table.
"Thanks, Simon." Blair rubbed his hair vigorously, then shrugged out of his jacket. "I hope this isn't too late to stop by."
Simon considered his meal sitting on the dining room table and the plans he had for the evening, but the look on Blair's face stopped him. "No, Sandburg, it's not too late. What's on your mind?"
"Mind?" Blair smiled a little too brightly and absently rubbed his leg. "I, uh...." He puffed his cheeks and blew out a breath of air, then looked around the kitchen.
Now Simon was worried. Whatever was bothering the kid must be bad. "You and Jim have a fight? My God, he didn't throw you --"
"No! No, man, nothing like that!" Blair waved his right hand as if to erase what Simon was thinking. "Jim and I are good. Great, in fact."
"All right." Simon got up and grabbed two beers from the refrigerator and handed one to his guest. "Spill it, Sandburg. And I don't mean the beer."
Blair looked at the bottle for several long moments, then took a deep breath. "Okay. I was wondering...." He cleared his throat and tried again. "Simon, I was wondering if your offer from last year was still good."
"But it's been two days since your guy hit a grocery store," Jim commented as the waitress brought their orders. He snatched up a french fry before his plate even hit the table.
"Yeah. We haven't determined his pattern yet, if he has one, but we figure he's due to hit again soon," Henri said.
The waitress plopped the last plate in front of Rafe. "Anything else?" No one answered, so she left them alone.
Jim watched Blair stare at the wall and absently tap his fingers. "Food's here, Chief. Were you planning to eat that sandwich or save it for your scrapbook?"
"Huh?" Blair looked down at the table. "Oh." He picked up the sandwich and took a huge bite, then promptly spit it out. "Ew, man, this is not tuna fish."
Jim grinned. "No kidding, Sherlock. It's a turkey club. That's what you ordered."
"What's up with you today, Hairboy? The lights have been on, but nobody's home." Henri knocked lightly on Blair's head.
"You in love or something, Sandburg?" asked Rafe.
"No, I'm not in love." Blair grimaced at his sandwich and took another bite. "I've just got a lot on my mind."
Rafe smirked. "Yeah, like four pounds of hair."
"Really, Sandburg. What's up?" Henri asked.
Jim was used to his roommate's moods. He could tell that something was distracting him, but Blair wasn't ready to share it with anyone yet. "Plead the fifth, Chief. You don't owe them anything."
"Come on, Sandburg," Henri said, holding his dill pickle like a gun. "Spill your guts before I do it for you."
"I still say he's in love. Or possessed."
Blair flashed them a look of tolerant exasperation. "What is this? Good cop, bad cop, over-imaginative cop?" he asked, looking at Jim, Henri, and Rafe respectively. "Can't a guy have an off day?"
"I know," said Henri more seriously. "Why don't you ditch Ellison for the afternoon, and join Rafe and me? We'll be interviewing the manager of the last grocery store that was hit."
"Oooh, that sounds like fun." Blair rolled his eyes.
"And," Rafe continued for his partner, "we finally got hold of the news footage from the local stations and papers, plus we have the recording Megan took at Beemer's. Which means we get to watch lots of TV trying to spot a common person or persons among the crowds."
"As interesting as that sounds, guys, I, uh...." Blair tossed a brief glance at Jim. "I actually have plans this afternoon."
Jim raised his eyebrows, but didn't say a word.
"Sandburg, will you please calm down?" Simon said as they walked down the short hallway. The closer they got to the loft, the more fidgety Blair became.
"Sorry." Blair ran his fingers through his hair.
Simon frowned. "You're nervous?"
"Of course I'm nervous, Simon. Jim's got... issues. I don't want to add to them."
"This is different. He'll understand." Simon waited for Blair to unlock the door. Instead, Blair sagged back against the wall and tossed his keys from one hand to the other, staring into space. Simon snatched the keys in mid-air and unlocked the door. Since Sandburg didn't seem inclined to follow him, he grabbed the kid's collar and pushed him gently through the door first.
Blair came to a sudden stop and Simon had to sidestep to keep from knocking him over. "Jim! I didn't think you were home yet."
Jim was pulling on an overshirt and trotting down the stairs from his bedroom. "Why wouldn't I be? Hey, Simon."
Blair waved in the general direction of the balcony. "I didn't see the truck."
"There was a delivery truck in the way. I parked out back." Jim paused in front of his two friends, hands on hips. "What gives?"
"Simon's come for supper." Blair grinned uneasily and rubbed his hands together. "I, um, ordered pizza."
"Sandburg." Simon placed one hand on his shoulder and gave him a squeeze for confidence. "First things first." To Jim he added, "Just pretend I'm not here." He retreated to the ugly yellow chair by the woodstove and tried to become invisible.
Jim nodded in Simon's direction and turned his attention back to Sandburg.
Blair ran his fingers through his hair yet again, and kept them there for a few long moments. "Yeah. Okay. Jim, I have to tell you something."
Uh oh. Jim stiffened. His jaw tightened and that muscle in his cheek started pulsating. "So talk, Chief," he said, trying for casual.
Blair looked at Jim carefully for several seconds. "Jim, first, know that we're good. We're great. There's no shit between us now, and I'm in this partnership for, well, forever. Until death or marriage... same thing, right?" Blair waggled his eyebrows and forced a laugh, then sighed. "Okay, bad joke. And even the marriage thing... I'd still be there, okay? Well not there, like, on your honeymoon or anything, just --"
Simon cleared his throat loudly. "The point, Sandburg." He'd realized a while ago that the single biggest problem in Jim and Blair's relationship was communication: Jim jumped to conclusions faster than Sandburg could make a point.
But in this case the babbling may have helped. Jim seemed to have relaxed ever-so-slightly.
"Right, right. Way off track." Blair began pacing, a few steps this way, a few steps that way, building up steam. "You like your privacy, Jim. I know that. And I know I can be really annoying."
"Sandburg, you --"
"Not that you aren't annoying yourself," Blair continued without listening, "'cause frankly, Jim, you can be a real pain in the ass sometimes, you know? But this isn't about that. This isn't even about us. It's about me, and the fact that I'm thirty. I'm thirty, man! My knees creak and I'm not getting the dates I used to and I swear I saw a grey hair the other day. I need space. An office, maybe. Yeah, an office would be nice."
And then it happened. Jim got it. His expression and very posture turned from defensive to amused in the space of a second. As Blair continued talking, Jim leaned back against the post, arms crossed, a slight smile gracing his face.
About time, thought Simon.
Blair was oblivious to the mood swing of his audience. "I just think it's time for me to move on. No, no, cancel that! Not move 'on,' geez, that sounds like Outer Mongolia or something. Changing careers. Marriage and kids. No, I'm really happy with my life, especially now that we've... you know, with the thesis and everything, and we're good. Great. It's just... time, Jim."
"You want to move out," Jim said, trying to help Blair say what he was obviously having trouble saying. "Because you're thirty."
Blair's head shot up, his eyes wide and earnest. "Yeah, man, that's it exactly! You understand."
"Well, Sandburg, I was thirty once, too, you know."
From the surprised look on Blair's face, it was possible he didn't know, but he nodded enthusiastically. "Right! And with my own place, I could write late at night without fear of waking you, and I can have women over without fear of, well," Blair grinned knowingly, "waking you. I can flush the toilet after ten, and take a hot shower for as long as I want, and you won't have to worry about Naomi and her sage, and --"
"Sandburg! Chief," Jim added more gently. "It's okay. It's not like you need my permission to get your own place."
Blair nodded but didn't seem convinced. He resumed his pacing. "This loft was never meant for roommates, Jim. I mean, my bedroom is so small, and your bedroom's out in the open, and when you're living with a Sentinel, it's just... you know. And I've lived alone in temporary places, like the warehouse and student apartments, and I've lived with you here in a permanent place, which has been beyond great, but I've never lived alone in a permanent place, so --"
Jim stopped his pacing roommate by grabbing his upper arms. Leaning over slightly to look Sandburg directly in the eyes, he said firmly, "Blair. It's fine."
"I know, Jim, but with... you know... and everything, I just..."
Jim's face clouded momentarily and he nodded. "Yeah, I do know." Both men remained silent for a moment, until Jim tweaked a thick strand of Blair's hair. "So," he asked with a genuine smile. "Is that what you were doing this afternoon? Looking for a place?"
Blair smile was radiant and he bounced on his toes several times, glancing once in Simon's direction. "I've already got a place."
"Oh?" Jim frowned. "Where?"
Blair seemed unsure of himself again. "Uh, there." He pointed to the floor. "Number 207."
"You're renting from Lathrop?"
"Not renting, man, I bought the place! Imagine me with a mortgage!" Blair grinned, then suddenly turned serious, collapsing onto one of the dining room chairs. "Oh, God. I've got a mortgage."
Figuring the worst was over, Simon joined Blair at the dining table. "You did the right thing, Blair. It's a good place, and like you said, it was time." Turning to Jim, he explained, "He is actually renting the place until a week from Friday, that's the date of the closing. A week and a half's worth of rent will be added to the sales price. Then the place will be all his."
"Mortgage," Blair echoed. His eyes widened and the grin returned. "The place will be all mine."
Jim sat down as well. "Do you need help with the down payment or anything?"
"All taken care of." Blair flashed Simon a quick, self-conscious smile. "Simon had already offered to help me get a place last year when...." he stopped, his face turning red.
Simon watched Jim's face cloud over, no doubt remembering packed boxes and the bright, sunny morning at a fountain that became one of the darkest days of his life.
Jim looked from Blair to Simon. "Thank you, sir," he said softly.
Well, hell. Simon actually felt his eyes get misty.
The moment passed. Jim tilted his head and sniffed the air. "Was that pizza you ordered pepperoni, sausage, mushroom, green pepper, and onion?"
"Yeah," Blair said, his expression brightening once again. "Is it here? Oh, wait, I had them deliver it to my place." He jumped up and grabbed his wallet from the front pocket of his backpack, then ran out the door. Half a second later, his grinning face reappeared. "Hey, you like that? 'My place!' You guys coming, or what? Oh, and Jim, bring some beer. And, uh, napkins, plates, silverware, salad if we have any left, and some kind of dessert. Thanks. Dinner's on me!" The door slammed shut.
Jim eyed the door thoughtfully.
"Well?" asked Simon, now that they were alone.
Jim leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. "No more hair in the sink, no more late-night studying sessions. No more scented candles and new age music and those god-awful algae shakes. No more 'fine art' from a junkyard, no more damn cedar chips on the bathroom floor, no more impromptu sentinel tests when I'm trying to brush my teeth...." Jim's voice trailed off and he sighed.
A slow grin eased across Simon's face. "My God, you're really going to miss the kid, aren't you?"
"I'll try to get over it, sir," said Jim, avoiding Simon's eyes.
Henri paused at Jim's desk and eyed him carefully. "What's up with you? You've been walking around here like an old man all morning."
Jim grimaced as he sat forward. "Beanbag chair."
"You're kidding. Ah. Sandburg's new place. He was telling us all about it."
(Click on the picture to see a larger version
of both Jim's and Blair's places)
"Yeah, he's pretty proud of it." Jim smiled slightly at the memory of their "tour" last night. Blair had a bedroom almost the size of Jim's room, a stacked washer/dryer, and a breakfast bar facing the living room, though most of the layout was very similar to the loft's.
Jim sighed. "Unfortunately, the only furniture he has are two beanbag chairs... and I mean that's the only furniture he has. And Simon and I weren't about to sit on the floor."
"And food storage containers. He told us you gave him all your red Tupperware, too, you sentimental old fool."
"He had to have something to put the leftover pizza in," Jim pointed out reasonably. "Uh, don't you have work to do, H?"
Henri laughed and returned to his own desk.
"Bingo!" Rafe rounded the corner into the bullpen and handed Henri two eight by ten glossies. "Megan and I matched two different faces at more than one crime scene. Serena downloaded the images from video to computer to the Kodak printer."
"Way to go, baby!" Henri high-fived his partner and placed the pictures side by side.
Rafe pointed to the one on his right. "That woman was spotted in the crowds of both Cascade Supermarket and Beemer's Corner Grocer. But your best bet is this guy." Rafe tapped the second picture. "We found footage of him at all three crime scenes, he's wearing an army fatigue jacket, and look -- in this particular image, there's a round lump in his coat pocket. Could be a grenade."
"Could be an orange," Henri said absently. "Or a baseball. Or rolled up socks. Or," he waggled his eyebrows, "he could be glad to see someone."
"You're really twisted, you know?" Rafe pushed away and sat at his own desk. "Megan's getting paper copies made up for distribution."
"Hey, guys!" Blair entered the bullpen, his energy dial on HIGH. Discovering someone he hadn't spoken with yet that morning, he asked, "Hey Rhonda, you heard the news?"
"Sandburg got his own place," Rafe said, beating him to the punch.
"With a laundry, big bedroom, breakfast bar, stove, refrigerator, all his." Henri ticked the features off on his fingers.
"Closing next Friday, yadda yadda," Rafe finished.
Blair looked disappointed.
"You know what this means, don't you, Chief?" Jim asked.
"You now get to host a Poker Night."
Right on cue, Blair's face lit up. "Yeah, I do! Cool." His expression became thoughtful as he chewed his lip. "I guess I have to get a table now. And chairs. And stools, plates, silverware, shelves, desk --"
"Food," Jim offered, remembering last night. "Don't forget food. In fact, why don't we stop on the way home tonight? I need a few things myself."
"Okay. But let's not take a chance with the Cereal Bomber; let's go to a place he's already hit."
"Wimps," said Henri.
"And then," Jim suggested, wincing slightly as he shifted in his chair, "some nice upholstered armchairs might be your second priority."
Cascade Supermarket had recovered nicely from its indoor fireworks display the previous Saturday. Even with Sentinel sight, Jim couldn't detect any marks or smoke stains.
Blair pushed his cart along the dairy shelves. "Eggs, tofu, cottage cheese, milk, feta cheese," he recited as he plopped each item into the cart.
"Eggs, milk, cream cheese, American cheese," Jim countered, dropping those items into the basket he carried.
"Man, I don't know how you can eat orange cheese. American cheese in general is just slabs of tasteless plastic, if you ask me."
"I didn't ask you. And frankly, Sandburg, you're a downer to shop with. You don't see me comparing tofu to, say, a block of gelatinous vomit."
"Yeah, Jim. You always take the high road." Blair grinned and added cream cheese to his cart as well.
When the firecrackers went off a moment later, they looked at each other with shocked expressions, then crouched down by the refrigerated counter as cherry tomatoes landed around them with heavy, wet splats. One woman screamed and a small child started crying.
Blair ran his hands through his hair and growled. "I don't believe this, Jim!" he said loudly, over the noise.
"Believe it." Jim was already up and starting to take charge. Fortunately, due to the late hour, the store had few customers. But those who were there were already beginning to panic.
More pops and bangs and slaughtered vegetables filled the air.
"I'm Detective Ellison with the Cascade PD. Stay calm!" Jim yelled out, diverting a running man who was about to collide with a store clerk. "Please walk to the exits and step outside! These are simply fireworks, and will not harm you." Of course, the last was not exactly the truth, but "fireworks" was a concept people were used to and could relate to holidays and fun. He was hoping that would calm people down.
And, in fact, it did. A missile whistled through the air and exploded brilliantly against the wall above the magazines. More explosive pops along the cereal aisle had the store raining Fruit Loops and Cheerios. Jim stood at the end of one aisle and realized that his advice had worked too well; people were actually stopping now to watch the display.
"Please keep moving! I'm with the Cascade PD and we must evacuate the store!" A few more people took his advice, but others continued to stand and watch.
TAP, TAP, TAPTAPTAPTAPTAP.
"Oh, God, Jim," Blair gasped. Jim spun around and saw Sandburg halfway down the aisle, helping an elderly woman who had apparently fallen. Blair's eyes were wide and alarmed, staring at a grenade that had rolled to a stop less than five feet away. Instinctively, Blair placed his body between the woman and the explosive.
Jim had to think fast. This was a fragmentation grenade, and contained an explosive charge that was designed to break into fragments upon exploding, killing anything within a five- to ten-yard radius. But its most important feature was the time delay. If the pin had been pulled -- and Jim used his extraordinary sight to confirm that it had -- his partner and the woman had less than five seconds before it detonated.
Jim ran down the aisle, considering options every step of the way. There were no heavy display cases close enough to plop the thing into, and too many people were milling around to take a chance on tossing it somewhere else. Jim's gaze turned quickly to Sandburg and the elderly woman, and he accepted that there was really only one option. Blair looked up at him just then, and caught his gaze.
"No," Blair yelled, stricken, his voice catching. "God damn you, Jim, NO!"
No wasn't an option. Jim dropped down and curled his body around the grenade, hoping it would be enough.
Continue on to Act 4...
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