I didn't mean to slam the door. In fact, coming up in the elevator, I'd gone over it really quite carefully in mind. Just go in, I'd told myself, close the door quietly, answer his questions as vaguely as he'll let you, tell him you're tired, don't feel well, whatever, then go to your room and stay there, preferably for the rest of your life.
And hey, if I weren't human, maybe I actually could have managed it. No, I take that back. If I were Jim, I could have done it, acted all silent and stoic, like I wasn't ten different kinds of pissed off and hurt and betrayed and a whole long laundry list of other unpleasant emotions. But I'm not Jim. I have the distinction of being Naomi Sandburg's son, and her motto is and always has been "let it all hang out." I learned at the feet of the master.
All of this is to say that I slammed the door really loudly. I felt bad about it. I mean, the walls and floor shook. Even I felt it, and I'm not a Sentinel. Jim was sitting on the sofa, watching the Jags on TV, so it wasn't like he had any protection for his sensitive ears. To his credit though, he didn't yell at me. I mean, he started to. I saw him take a big, deep breath, but when he turned to let me have it, he saw how agitated I was. It must have surprised him, because he let out his breath without so much as a bark and went all gentle instead.
"Hey, Chief," he said. "You're home early."
"I didn't expect you until much later. Something go wrong?"
"You could say that."
"You have a falling out with Adelle?"
"You could definitely say that."
"I thought you two were really getting along."
"So did I."
"Want to talk about it?"
I shook my head and hoped he'd just let it go. I really didn't want to have to explain this to him. "I think I'll just go to my room and do some work or something," I told him.
"Okay," he said, still watching me with those incisive, laser beam eyes of his, as if he could see right into me and ferret out my secrets, whether I wanted him to or not. "But let me know if you change your mind about talking, huh?"
I nodded. "Thanks, man," I said and hurried off to my bedroom, shutting the door behind me, though not locking it. I don't have it in me to lock Jim out, ever.
I threw myself down on the bed and took refuge in my little 7x9 corner of the universe. This was the one place I'd ever felt really and truly safe and protected, here in this glorified broom closet, with nothing much more than my single bed and all my many books for furniture, like a freshman dorm room, even though I'm twenty-eight years old, for God's sake. But where else could I get around-the-clock Sentinel security, ever vigilant, that not only watches over my physical safety, but cares about my emotional well-being too? Nowhere. And that's why I could so easily imagine myself at forty-eight still coming back to this cramped little cracker jack box, forgoing conventional pleasures like a wife and kids and a queen size bed, just so I could go on feeling the peculiar and wonderful comfort that comes from knowing Jim's on the other side of the door, looking out for me.
Still though, there are just some things Jim will never be able to protect me fromlike betrayal and humiliation. I could still feel the waves of humiliation washing over me, along with the sick, cold shock I'd experienced when I first realized what she'd done. But the worst part had to be how she just stood there smiling up at me, waiting for me to say something, to compliment her, tell her how much I liked it, as if she hadn't just ripped me open and spread out my entrails for everybody to gawk over. She just kept looking at me, so expectantly, so proud of herself, as if she hadn't taken something that was so private, so sacred, so just between us and exposed it to the whole damned world.
Artists. What moral universe do they inhabit?
I sat there stewing over that a good long while, until Jim finally knocked at the door. I'd been expecting it. I mean, Jim complains that I'm like a dog with a bone when something's bothering him, but let me tell you, Jim Ellison is the very definition of persistence. Sometimes, I'm convinced he uses subtle techniques of persuasion on me that he learned in Special Ops. He does it with only the best intentions of course, to get me to go ahead and spill whatever's bugging me, which we both know I'll do at some point anyway, that old Sandburg "letting it all hang out" thing again. I don't really mind that he knows how to push my buttons, although I do often wish I could figure out his technique.
"Come in," I called to him.
He opened the door, but lingered in the doorframe, just the way he had when Maya kicked my teeth in, wanting to help, not wanting to intrude. "Hey, Chief, I was just having a beer. You want one?"
"Sure," I said, and he disappeared, coming back a moment later, two open bottles in hand.
"Here you go," he said, handing me the beer.
"Thanks, man," I said, tipping back the bottle, letting the sharp, cold alcohol rush down my throat.
I hadn't realized before how thirsty I was. I guess shame leaves you feeling kind of parched. I took another long gulp. It wasn't helping really, but it was something to do. Another big swallow, and I'd nearly finished it. Jim took a sip of his beer, watching me carefully over the lip of the bottle.
"Hey, man, you want to get me another?"
Jim's eyes narrowed. I knew what he was thinking. I never have been much of a drinker, and here I was throwing back the brewskies like there was no tomorrow.
"Do you really think that's such a good idea, Chief?"
Sometimes Jim acts just like a big brother or a surrogate father. At times, I find it heart warming. Other times, it makes me want to throttle him.
"I'll get it myself, man," I said, huffily.
I stood up, and I guess the alcohol had kind of gone to my head. Like I said, I'm not much of a drinker, and I'd downed it like Kool-Aid. Jim was by my side so fast Superman would have had a hard time keeping up with him, hands under my arms, keeping me from falling on my face.
"Whoa there, buddy. Why don't you sit back down, huh?"
"Okay, man. That's probably a good idea."
I sank back down on the bed. My head was still spinning a little. I'd had a few drinks earlier in the evening, and gulping down that beer had definitely put me over my limit. Jim sat down beside me, one big hand on my shoulder, watching me intently, frowning, with that ultra serious expression he gets when he's trying really hard to figure something out. He gets it at crime scenes and when I'm acting weird. I'm never really sure how to feel about thatthat somehow his cases and my inner life fall into the same category of puzzles for him. But I do appreciate the effort he puts into understanding, both me and his cases.
"Hey, buddy, you okay?" he asked, sounding honestly concerned.
I nodded. "Yeah. Thanks, man."
"So are you ready to talk about it?"
"I don't know..."
"You always tell me it helps."
I couldn't help smiling at that. "Sometimes I really wish I didn't talk so much."
He smiled back at me but let the obvious zinger pass, already in serious discussion mode. "So tell me what happened with Adelle."
I colored a little just thinking about it, feeling the heat of embarrassment rising again. "Just promise me you won't laugh. 'Cause I know it could be kind of funny if it hadn't happened to me, but it did happen to me, and I'm not finding it even remotely amusing right now."
"I'm not going to laugh at you, Chief," he insisted, looking mortally offended.
I nodded. I believed him. Even if it was something Jim wouldn't have taken to heart for himself, he'd take it to heart for me. That's what it means to him to be my best friend.
I sighed and geared myself up to spill my guts. "So you know Adelle's an artist, right?"
"Well, her speciality is figure painting. Nudes. Male nudes, to be precise."
Jim stared at me, amazed. "Chief, you didn't..."
I shook my head. "No, and that's the problem. When we first started going out, she asked me if I'd pose for her sometime, and I said I didn't feel comfortable with it. She kept on and on about it, and I finally said that either she accept my answer or we stop seeing each other. She let it go, and I really thought that was the end of it. But tonight, we went to the opening of this group show she's in. So we're talking and looking at the art, drinking champagne, having a fine old time. There are, like, tons of people I know at the gallery, nearly the whole damned anthro department. Eventually, it registers that people are staring at me and smiling, some of them even giggling. I check my fly. I ask Adelle if I have anything caught in my teeth. I'm seriously puzzled why all these people keep giving me the once over."
Jim smiled. "You just attract attention wherever you go, Chief."
"You don't know the half of it, man. So, Adelle and I finally get to the last room, and I realize why everyone's been staring. There on the far wall are these three enormousand I do mean enormouscanvases, Adelle's entries in the show. And they're all of me."
Jim frowned. "Nude?"
"Worse than that," I said, swallowing hard.
I put my hands over my face. I couldn't watch Jim's reaction when I told him. "Erotic. That's what Adelle really likes to paint, sensual scenes of aroused men."
"But how, if you didn't pose for her?"
"She drew it from memory, from when we...well, you know."
"And you didn't give her permission to do that or to show the drawings?"
"No! Of course, I didn't. Jesus, Jim, you know me. I feel exposed if I'm only wearing two layers of flannel. I realize what people sometimes think about me and my runaway libido, but I'm seriously not into exhibitionism. I know it may not seem like it, but I'm actually pretty choosy who I'm intimate with. I don't want to share that with just everybodycertainly not with everybody who happens to wander into the downtown art gallery."
I felt his hands on mine, pulling them away from my face, so he could look at me. It kind of surprised me that he wasn't laughing. In fact, he looked quite serious.
"Come on, Chief. That wasn't what I was suggesting. You know I don't think that about you. I was just trying to gauge exactly how big a violation this is."
"It feels pretty damned huge to me, man."
He nodded, squeezing my shoulder. "I'm sorry she did that, Chief, that she betrayed your trust. I know that must hurt."
"She didn't even think she'd done anything wrong. She got pissed off at me because I was upset and ruined her big night."
Jim shook his head, disbelievingly.
"I just feel way too exposed right now and kind of ashamed," I confessed, in a small voice, knowing Jim's Sentinel hearing would still catch it.
"She's the one who ought to be ashamed. You didn't do anything wrong. Human beings are meant to be sensual, Chief."
"I just would have liked to keep it private."
He nodded, touching my hair for a moment, very briefly, brushing it out of my face. "I can understand that. So what did you do about it?"
"Threw one absolute fit and insisted she take them out of the show. She actually had the gall to argue with me about it. She said it was the best work she's ever done, that she's had a lot of interest in it. She even said she was considering making it into a series. I told her that would happen over my cold, dead body. Finally, I had to threaten to go to the gallery owner and talk about suing to get her to promise they'd come down, that she'd have it done just as soon as the gallery closes tonight. I don't know, man. I still don't trust her. I'm going back tomorrow to make sure. I do not want those drawings up for everybody in Cascade to see."
"I'll go with you."
"You don't have to do that, man. I can take care of it. Really."
"I know you can, but just in case you need any help, I'll have the badge. That should get those drawings off the wall pretty quickly, if they haven't already been taken down."
I appreciated Jim's offer of help. I really did. It was Jim's great strength as a friend, action-oriented guy that he is, that he always wants to do something to make things better. The only problem was that if the drawings were still up when we got to the gallery he'd see them, and I wasn't so sure I could handle that. Having Jim's cool, analytical Sentinel gaze taking in erotic images of me in all my naked glory crossed some kind of line in me, traveled into territory I didn't feel quite prepared to handle.
"I'm not sure..."
"I won't look," he promised.
I had to smile. This man knows me way too well.
"I just want to be there with you," he said. "I don't like the idea of somebody taking advantage of you. I want to be part of setting it straight."
He held my gaze with such pure, unadulterated earnestness that I couldn't look away or deny him. It was such a classically Jim position to take. I was his partner, for better or worse, and he didn't like people messing with me. Not the bad guys, not the other cops down at the station, the ones outside Major Crimes who still sometimes gave me a hard time, not even my egocentric, glory-obsessed girlfriends. You've just got to appreciate a guy like Jim.
"All right then, you can come," I told him. "And I appreciate the help. But you're not going to look, remember? Promise me again."
He smiled. "I promise."
"Okay, so tomorrow, lunchtime?"
"I'll pick you up at the university."
I nodded, and he gave me one final pat on the back before getting up and heading for the door. He turned around to face me in the doorway.
"We'll get the drawings down, Chief. Don't worry."
I smiled at him. Now that Jim was on the case, I had no doubts.
Jim was cool and steady beside me as we headed into the gallery the next day, all calm resolve and purposeful determination, his usual efficient cop self. I was a nervous wreck, worried about what we'd do if they refused to take the drawings down. Sure, I was ready to threaten to sue, but I didn't really want to draw any more attention to myself. Enough of my colleagues had already seen the exhibit, and I'd spent all morning dodging jokes and knowing glances. At this point, I just wanted to minimize the exposure, no pun intended.
"Go see if they're still up, Chief. I'll wait here."
I nodded, appreciating the way he hung back, keeping his word. I made a beeline for the last room, and there they still were up on the wall. There I was, large as life, all of my everything on display. I hurried back to Jim.
"They're still there," I told him.
He nodded and took out his badge to show it to the receptionist. "I'm Detective Jim Ellison of the Cascade Police, and this is my partner, Blair Sandburg. We'd like to talk to the owner or manager of the gallery please."
The young woman looked up in surprise. "Is there some problem, detective?"
"Nothing that we can't resolve I'm sure. I just need to discuss a private matter with whoever is in charge."
The receptionist nodded. "That would be Miss Talmedge, the curator. I'll let her know you're here. You're welcome to wait in the gallery. I'll send her in to you."
Jim nodded, and I followed him in to the first salon. He looked around, taking in the paintings and sculptures on display. The style and quality of the work varied wildly. Some of the works were rather traditional, portraiture, even a few landscapes. In contrast, there were some highly experimental pieces, abstract explosions of color and texturessome great successes, others far less so. I watched Jim, curious about what would attract him. It turned out that he had impeccable taste.
I joined him in front of one of the more complex and subtle paintings. "What is it about this one?"
He cocked his head, considering the question. "I don't know how to say it, Chief. The ones I like best...it's as if I can get lost in them, all my senses merging, like I can taste the brightness of the colors and hear the rhythm of the lines."
He appeared so rapt, so lost in the painting. That fascinated me, and I watched him with the same interest that he paid the art.
He turned to me and smiled a little wryly. "Weird, huh, Chief? I'm not exactly the art appreciating type."
I shook my head at him. "Maybe not before you got your senses, man. But it follows that Sentinels would have a natural aesthetic appreciation, that beautiful things meant to appeal to the senses would bring you pleasure."
He smiled at me again, the one that lights up his whole face, that always feels like a gift. "I guess you're gonna make an art lover out of me yet, huh, Chief?"
I smiled back at him, touching his shoulder. "You better believe it, man."
The sound of someone clearing her voice made us both turn around.
"Do you like it?" she asked, gesturing toward the painting Jim had been enjoying. "This artist has a great deal of promise. I expect big things from him someday. I can make you a good deal on this piece. It will easily be worth ten times the amount in only a few years."
Jim shook his head. "I'm afraid we're not here to buy."
She pouted a little, flirtatiously, obviously finding Jim pretty aesthetically pleasing. "Oh, well, there's never any harm in trying. I'm Marielena Talmedge," she said, extending her hand for Jim to shake. "Vicki said you wanted to speak with me?"
"Yes, Miss Talmedge. I'm Detective Ellison, and this is my associate, Blair Sandburg."
She turned to shake my hand and smiled brightly when she recognized me. "Ah, yes, Mr. Sandburg, the subject of one of our artist's work. It's so nice to meet you. I feel as if I already know you."
I took my hand back and rubbed it on my jeans, perhaps not as discreetly as I might have, but the way the woman looked at me gave me the heebie-jeebies. Jim didn't seem to like it either. He stepped in front of me, shielding me, something that might have annoyed me in other circumstances, but suited me just fine in this case.
"I don't know if you're aware of this, Miss Talmedge, but those drawings were made of my partner without his knowledge or consent. In fact, he doesn't consent to them being on display. He requested that the artist have them taken down. She promised they would be removed from the exhibit last night, but apparently they weren't. I'm here to make sure they are."
The Talmedge woman looked at him appraisingly. "Yes, Adelle did mention something to me about the model having second thoughts."
"I never had first thoughts about it," I insisted, really quite annoyed.
"My partner never signed a release. He didn't pose for the drawings. He had no knowledge of their existence before the opening last night. So I think you can understand why we'd like to see them come down as soon as possible."
"You're not trying to strong arm me, are you, detective?" she asked, leaning in to Jim like a cat, practically purring, making me want to puke.
"Let's just say I believe there's never a need for reasonable people to sue. I'm sure we can come to some agreement here."
"Have you even seen the drawings?" she asked. "They're amazing, brilliant, really quite beautiful. Certainly nothing to be ashamed of."
"Mr. Sandburg has a right to his privacy. It's being violated as long as those drawings are on display."
"You haven't seen them, have you?" she asked again.
"No," Jim told her.
The woman watched Jim closely, and her expression turned suddenly smug, as if she'd just figured out some great secret. "But you'd like to see them, wouldn't you?" she asked.
I expected Jim to make some cutting remark, to put her in her place, but he went silent. I could almost have sworn I saw him blush.
"They're in there," the woman said, pointing. "Why don't you have a look, and then we'll talk about taking them down."
Jim looked at me, and I could see it in his face. He did want to see them.
But he shook his head and said, "No, thank you. We'll just wait here while you have someone remove them from the exhibit."
She paused a long moment, watching us both in this really intense way, enough to make me squirm, looking from Jim over to me and then back again.
"No," she finally said. "I don't think that's acceptable. I want you to see what you're forcing me to withhold from the art-going public. Hell, I just want you to see them, period. Call me a romantic. So that's my offer: go see the drawings and I'll have them taken down right away. Or don't go see them, and you can have your day in court, by which time half of Cascade will already have an intimate appreciation for your partner."
She actually winked at me when she said that last bit. I couldn't believe this woman. What was her point in all this? Was she just a sadist or what?
"So what'll it be?" she asked.
Jim looked at me, asking me what I wanted to do with his eyes.
Finally, I nodded. "It's okay, Jim. Go see the drawings. I just want them off the damned wall. Today."
I said the last part with emphasis, for the curator's benefit, hoping she'd realize just how serious I was.
"It's a deal then," she said. "You go on ahead and enjoy. I won't disturb you. It should be a private moment between the two of you."
I had no idea what she meant by that, but I pulled Jim by the sleeve and headed off for the last salon. I just wanted to get it over with, so I could put this whole fiasco behind me, once and for all. I'd already promised myself never to get involved with another artist, ever, no matter what the attraction.
Jim stopped me, his hand on my arm. "We don't have to do this. We can think of something else."
I sighed. "No, it's easier this way, and then I can just have it over and done with."
I half expected Jim to keep protesting, but he didn't. He just stood there, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, looking sheepish.
"It's this way," I finally said.
Jim froze in his tracks and gasped when saw he them. I turned red. This was just as bad as I'd thought it would be. It wasn't the nudity or even the eroticism that troubled me most. It was the intimacy. She'd caught my most vulnerable, private moments and broadcast them for the world to see. And now Jim was seeing them.
In one of the canvases, I was lying on my side, the rumpled sheets from the bed tangled across my legs, one arm behind my head, eyes closed, falling asleep, cock half hard, obviously in the aftermath of lovemaking. Another was a portrait, just my face and a little of my shoulders and chest, but my head was thrown back, eyes wide and dilated with desire, my expression dazed and ecstatic, caught up in the moment of orgasm. But the last, that was the most humbling of all. I still couldn't believe Adelle had put that on display or that she'd even painted it. I was lying back against the pillows on her bed, legs spread, face intently focused, one hand on my cock, the other fingering a nipple, pleasuring myself, making myself come, because she liked to see me, liked to watch.
And now Jim was seeing it, all of it, all of me.
I had to close my eyes as he examined each canvas, with Sentinel care, taking his time. I couldn't stand to watch him watching me in those pictures. Finally, I felt him standing next to me again.
"They're beautiful," he whispered.
It wasn't exactly what I was expecting. My eyes flew open wide, and I stared at him.
"You know what I see when I look at these drawings? A beautiful, sensual man. That's nothing to be ashamed of. The only shame is that this idiotic woman didn't have sense enough to value the great gift you gave her. She should have treated itand youwith a hell of a lot more respect. She was a fool not to."
I couldn't stop staring at him. "I don't know what to say..." I stammered.
He shook his head slightly and put his hand on my shoulder. "No need. Look, Chief, this never should have happened. You shouldn't have had your trust violated like this. But I wish you didn't have to hate these pictures. They're a part of who you are. The only thing wrong with them is that they were put out here for everybody to see. This part of you should just be between you and...someone who cares about you."
There haven't been many times in my life I can say that I was honestly dumbstruck, but this was certainly one of them. I'm not sure what I expected Jim's reaction to be. Maybe I thought he'd rib me a little or be embarrassed. A part of me had been kind of afraid it would disgust him, and he'd look at me differently afterwards. I don't know. I guess I should just give up trying to predict him. He surprises me like nobody else can.
He slung an arm around my shoulder and guided me out of the salon, back to the main reception area. The curator was waiting there, watching us without even trying to hide her curiosity.
"So, detective, did you enjoy the exhibit?" she asked Jim.
He glared at her with his hardest, coldest stare, the one he usually reserves for suspects in criminal investigations. "We held up our end of the bargain. Now take them down."
She pouted again. "But you've seen how fabulous those drawings are. Surely you can't mean to stop other people from enjoying them?"
"Take them down, Miss Talmedge, or I'll make it my mission to see you're sorry you didn't."
"It's not nice to threaten, detective."
"Or renege on a deal."
She sighed. "Very well, then. I'll take them down and return them to the artist. But, of course, I have no control over what happens to them from there."
"Leave that part to me. Just make sure they're down in an hour. I'll be back to make sure they are."
"Don't you trust me?" she asked, resuming the flirtation with Jim, which was seriously beginning to get on my nerves.
Jim didn't bother to answer her. "Come on, Chief. Let's get out of here."
"I'm down with that plan."
"Detective?" she called, just as we were going out the door. "Aren't you at least going to thank me for making sure you got to see them?"
Jim flushed with anger, and the woman laughed. He pulled me outside and let the door slam loudly behind us. We walked back to the truck, got in, buckled up.
"What was that all about?" I asked him.
He wouldn't meet my eyes, fumbling with the keys in the ignition, keeping his gaze directed straight out the windshield. "Never mind her, Chief. She's just trying to push my buttons. It's nothing for you to worry about."
"Whatever you say, man."
He put the truck into gear and headed back to the university to drop me off, leaving me to puzzle over it the whole way, wondering just what the hell had happened back at that art gallery.
I got back to the loft that evening after one long, confusing day. Jim had called a couple hours after he left me at my office, to let me know he'd gone back to the gallery and the drawings were down, packed up to send to Adelle. I couldn't help spinning out a little bit about what she might do with them next. I mean, I was really and truly grateful that Jim had gotten them out of the exhibit, but as long as Adelle had them in her possession, it felt like she had a part of me, something I hadn't given her, that she'd just taken, against my will. I won't say it was like being raped, because I have too many women friends who've been through that and I'd never want to diminish the ordeal they survived. But what Adelle did to me was a violation, and it wasn't going to be over until I got those drawings back or knew for certain they'd been destroyed.
Jim promised we'd talk about it when I got home. He sounded so certain we'd sort it all out that I started to feel a little more confident. I mean, heck, Jim's a resourceful guy, and I'm not lacking in the smarts department either, if I do say so myself. Between the two of us, we'd come up with something. We'd just have to.
As for the rest of it, namely Jim's unexpected reaction at the gallery, I had decided that discretion truly was the better part of valor. Like I'd told him, his Sentinel senses predisposed him toward a certain artistic appreciation. I was just going to accept that Jim found something aesthetically pleasing in those drawings of me. I didn't need to know more than that. For once, I wasn't going to question everything to death.
Okay, so maybe I was a little bit of a coward. There are just some places even Blair Sandburg, intrepid adventurer, hesitates to go.
When I got home, Jim was already there, whipping up a batch of his special spaghetti sauce, the one he won't give me the recipe for no matter how much I bug him about it.
"Hey, Chief," he called, as I came through the door.
"Hey, man," I said and hung up my coat, tossing my keys onto the table, joining him in the kitchen. "Smells good. Thanks for making supper."
Jim shrugged. "My turn, Chief."
I smiled at him. "But that usually means Chinese take-out or pizza delivery."
He batted my arm, lightly, playfully. "Don't go getting fresh on me, junior."
I held up my hands in mock surrender. "No way, man. Can't go getting the old guy riled up."
"You're killing me here, Chief. Now, go get cleaned up or something while I finish up in here. We don't want you insulting the cook and talking your way out of a meal, do we?"
He turned back around to the counter to finish chopping vegetables for the salad.
"All right, all right, I'm going," I said, reaching for the spoon while Jim's back was turned.
Of course, it's completely useless trying to sneak anything past a Sentinel. I'm sure Jim felt the air currents shift as I reached toward the pot. He whirled around and smacked my hand away before I could even pick up the spoon.
"Out," he said.
I sighed heavily, dramatically, and slunk off toward the bathroom. Jim shook his head at me, but I could see the smile in his eyes.
I went into the bathroom, took off my clothes, jumped into the shower. I do my best thinking while using up the loft's precious supply of hot water. I tried to explain that to Jim once, but he didn't really buy it as an excuse for why I kept leaving him with nothing but ice water in the mornings. Anyway, as I stood there under the steamy spray, I felt really relieved that everything seemed to be normal between me and Jim. I mean, whatever had gotten into him back at the gallery didn't seem to have come home with us. I felt really pleased with my decision to let it drop. It had worked out just the way I'd hoped.
I finished up in the bathroom, wrapped myself in my bathrobe and padded back to my bedroom.
"Hey, Chief, hurry up and get dressed. Dinner's just about ready."
"Be right there," I told him and threw on a pair of comfy old sweats and my favorite oversized sweatshirt that I'd borrowed from Jim once upon a time and never returned.
When I came out of my room, Jim was just finishing putting dinner on the table.
"Hey thanks, man," I said, taking a seat. "Everything looks great."
"Eat up," he said, joining me at the table.
We ate dinner and talked about our day, the problems I was having with some of the complainers in my intro class, developments in one of the cases Jim was working, the gossip about Brown's blind date with the woman down in Records. Apparently it hadn't gone that well. It was pretty much the usual, comfortable routine, me and Jim, the way we always were together. We skirted around talking about what happened at the gallery, but I was fine with that. I mean, we'd taken care of the problem, and now we were putting the issue to rest. I was proud of myself, actually. See, I thought to myself, I don't have to talk things to death. I can be a man of discretion.
I made Jim go and relax while I cleaned up the kitchen. That's our rule: one of us makes dinner, the other washes up. He turned on the tube and flipped channels for a while, finally settling for the news on CNN. I finished up in the kitchen and joined him on the couch, bringing us both beers.
"Thanks," he said, as I handed him one of the bottles.
We watched TV together for a while, not saying much, just kind of hanging out together, like we always do, nice and normal. I relaxed back against the cushions and drank my beer. A commercial came on, and I really don't know what came over me. Before I had time to think, I'd picked up the remote and muted the set.
"Hey, Jim," I said. "Can I ask you something?"
"Sure, Chief," he said, turning to look at me, probably expecting some Sentinel-related question for my research.
"Why did you want to see those drawings of me?"
I swear to God that it shocked me to hear it coming out of my mouth, almost as much as it shocked Jim. But who had I ever been kidding? I am not now nor will I ever be a man of discretion. Gotta be me. Gotta be Naomi Sandburg's son. Gotta let it all hang out.
Jim sat there staring at me, mutely, a little helplessly. I'm sure he'd thought I was going to let it go, and that had probably been a big relief to him. Poor Jim! I felt certain he was hoping I'd take the question back if he just sat there long enough without answering. Under any other circumstances, he might have been able to outwait me, but not this time. This time, I had too much riding on it.
"Because it was the only chance I'll ever have of seeing you like that," he finally said, so quietly I almost missed it, mumbling so indistinctly I wanted to make him say it again, just so I'd know I'd heard him correctly.
Only I knew he couldn't, wouldn't say it again. And I also knew way down deep in my heart exactly what I'd heard.
He watched me intently as I took it all in. His face was more open than I'd ever seen it, a wild, desperate hope written on it, like this was his last chance somehow. I don't know how long I sat there. Vaguely guessing at something is not nearly the same as having it finally spelled out for you, beyond any misunderstanding or shadow of doubt. Jim wanted me. That way. Taking that in was like trying to chip away at a stone monolith with a plastic spoon. I didn't even know where to start. I constantly wish I had better control over my facial expressions. It would really help me out in life if my face wasn't a walking billboard for every last thing I'm feeling, and it was never more true than in that moment. I sat there too stunned to speak, and Jim watched the shock, uncertainty, doubt, disbelief all parade across my face.
When I saw him close up and the hope die in his eyes, I hated myself for not being able to say something, to tell him it was all right, for not being able to reach for him, to reassure him, to do something, anything.
"I'm sorry about this," he told me. "I never wanted this to happen. I hope you won't feel you need to move out, but I understand if you do. I'd still like to have your help with the Sentinel thing, you know, if you still want me as your research subject. I don't have to have your answer right now. You probably need some time to think about it."
He got up and went upstairs. I watched him go, feeling a lump forming in my throat and a sick sensation uncurling in the pit of my stomach. God, I can't tell you how much I hate to see Jim hurting, and knowing I was the cause of it really sucked. But Geezus, Jim wanted me. That truly stunned me. It took my breath away. How was I supposed to string two words together when Jim wanted me? And that wasn't even the full extent of it. It wasn't just some sex thing for him. I knew that. Jim loved me. I guess the handwriting had been on the wall for some time. I just hadn't let myself see it.
It seems kind of funny now that the least of my struggles was over Jim being a guy. I mean, it should have been a big deal, considering I'd never slept with another man before. But Naomi raised me not to be narrow, and I'd found other men attractive on occasion, just not enough so to venture over to the other side of the fence. After all, there was plenty to keep me occupied in the playing field I already had experience with. But if there was anybody who'd make it worth my while to switch teams, it was definitely Jim. I'd do anything for that man. I'd already come to the point where I couldn't envision living any other life than the one I had with him. He was my family and my hero, my partner and the best friend I'd ever had. It didn't feel like such a far stretch from what we already had to becoming lovers.
No, the real stumbling block was my pure, unadulterated terror that somebody might need me this much. I didn't know if I could do it. Naomi never could, and like I said, I learned at the feet of the master. I mean, I already had these terrible panic attacks where Jim was concerned anyway. He counted on me with the Sentinel thing, and nine times out of ten I was flying by the seat of my pants, pulling answers out of my ass, trying to act like I knew what I was talking about, when I was really just making stuff up as I went along. That amount of responsibility alone scared the shit out of me. I couldn't hold Jim's heart in my hands. I couldn't risk hurting him. I'd hate myself too much if I disappointed him.
I listened for clues to what Jim was doing up there, but I heard nothing but silence. Suddenly I felt so small and cowardly, sitting by myself in the living room, letting my fear rule me, when I'd already done the damage I was so worried about, when Jim was all alone upstairs, probably not even sure if we were still friends. The expression on his face when he realized I wasn't going to say anything flashed across my mind again, and I felt a stabbing pain in my chest. //I am not my mother. I am not my mother.// I had to keep telling myself that as I picked myself up off the couch and walked quietly over to the stairs. I climbed up to the bedroom and stood at the top of the steps. Jim sat on the edge of his bed, as still as a statue, his elbows propped up on his knees, holding his head in his hands.
"Jim," I called to him quietly.
He didn't move or acknowledge me. I didn't blame him. I'd put a hole in his heart. It was up to me to fix it. I crept a little closer.
"Jim, I'm not going to move out. It's pretty much my plan never to leave here. You may even have suspected that, what with the week I was supposed to stay turning into three years now."
That got his attention. He looked up at me, and I'll never forget the expression of relief and gratitude on his face. It nearly broke me. I do not now nor will I ever deserve to have anybody look at me like that, especially not somebody as kind and decent as Jim, like I was his everything and my agreeing to live with him in his comfortable home free of charge was the best present he'd ever received.
"Thanks," he said, his voice all scratchy with emotion, something I'd never heard coming from him, not in any of the painful circumstances I've seen him go through.
"Can I just ask how long you've known?"
"About me? Or how I feel about you?" he asked.
"Both," I said.
"I think I've pretty much known I was bisexual all my life. I mean, there were times when I fought against it, tried to keep just to women. But it never lasted. In the last couple of years, especially after Carolyn, I had to face that I really do prefer men. And not long after you came into my life, I realized that I prefer one man in particular."
I nodded, trying to absorb all that, all that it meant about our time together. "Were you ever going to tell me?" I asked him.
He smiled at me, a little wearily, the sadness still in his eyes. "I would have done almost anything to avoid having this conversation with you. I let this whole situation with the drawings get way too out of control. I guess deep down I knew it was a bad idea to go with you to the gallery, but I really did want to help. Then when that woman insisted I see the drawings, I should have refused, but...well, I just couldn't help myself, I guess. And after I'd seen them, I didn't have it in me not to tell you how beautiful I thought they were. I didn't want you to be embarrassed or worried about what I was thinking or anything. I was so relieved when you didn't seem to find anything weird about my reaction. I guess I let my guard down, because you really took me by surprise just now, Chief. If I'd had any presence of mind at all, I never would have said what I did. I'm sorry."
I sat down beside him on the bed and put my hand on his shoulder. He flinched a little, but I didn't take my hand back. Instead, I squeezed his shoulder, trying to comfort him. "I'm not sorry. I'm glad you told me."
I don't know what he was about to say. I'll never know. I couldn't stand the pain and uncertainty in his eyes anymore. So I leaned over and kissed him, my lips pressed against his, his breath mingling with mine. God, it felt so right. Nothing had ever been that good before, so natural, so much like coming home. Jim hesitated, an understandable reaction after my earlier stunned silence. I felt him stiffen as if he was about to pull away, so I opened my mouth beneath his, offering him a temptation I hoped he wouldn't refuse. And he didn't. He sighed sweetly into my mouth, opening himself up to me, welcoming my exploration, kissing me back.
I don't know what I'd expected from kissing a man, how I thought it might be different, why the idea made me nervous. A mouth is a mouth, whether it's a man's or a woman's. You don't do anything differently when you kiss a man; it's all the same familiar movement of lips, the slide and play of tongues, the teasing, the tasting each other. Only this time it was Jim I was kissing, exploring, savoring, and that did make it different. It made it special. It made me never want it to end.
But Jim did finally stop, pulling back to look at me, probably a good thing since we were both out of breath. "You don't have to do this, you know," he said.
I touched his face with my fingers, hoping it would communicate what I wasn't yet certain I could put into words.
He reached for my hand and pressed it to his lips, kissing my palm. "I'd never want you to do anything you didn't really want. I'd never ask that of you. You know that, right?"
I nodded, keeping my hold on his hand, a little afraid he was going to try and send me away out of some misplaced concern for my freedom of choice.
"I realize you're not...I know you haven't been with a man, at least not as long as you've lived here. Have you ever been with another man, Blair?"
I shook my head.
"No, I didn't think so. Oh God, Blair, what are we doing? I don't know what I was hoping for. I don't expect you to throw off a lifetime of experience just because..."
"I love you," I told him.
That stopped him, mid-sentence, his mouth hanging open like he couldn't imagine what to say next, the most stunned look I've ever seen on my partner's face. Well, hell, it shocked me too. I hadn't expected just to come out with it like that, although as soon as I'd said it I understood exactly how true it was. I understood why it had been so easy to imagine myself still living in that same little room twenty years down the road, just so I could be near Jim. I didn't regret telling him, not at all. I realized I could never regret anything with him.
"Don't say that if you don't mean it, if you're not entirely sure. I just couldn't stand it if..."
"I'm completely sure, Jim. I really love you a lot. I can't say that this is how I imagined our relationship evolving, but since I've known you, I've never envisioned my life without you. There's no one else I could ever say that about. I want this. I want to be with you. Only you, ever."
He watched me intently, his eyes never wavering from mine for an instant, so I could see his entire reaction, the way the wild hope leaped back into his eyes, the way his jaw worked overtime as he struggled to keep some semblance of control over his emotions. I'd driven my super cop, my tribal protector, my stoic Sentinel to the verge of tears. That touched me so much it made my heart hurt. It made me want to cry.
"We don't have to rush anything. We can take it slowly," he said, his fingers playing in my hair, the hope slowly creeping into his voice now too.
He was so close to believing this was real, that I was for real, but I still needed to push him over the edge into total acceptance before he'd do anything more than kiss me. And I wanted more. I wanted everything, and I wanted it so ferociously I couldn't believe I'd managed to go without it this long. I'd run out of words to convince him, so I decided to let my body speak for me. I trust my body. It's wise in weird ways. It understood long before my mind did that Jim was the one for me. It had been trying to let me in a thousand different ways: like how I could never stand close enough to Jim, how I soaked up his heat, looked forward to his hand on the small of my back as he guided me out of the bullpen, appreciated his arm slung across my shoulders as he walked me away from a crime scene, the way I leaned into the belly pats and all his other little touches since the very first day I'd known him.
My body knew all along. It was my brain that couldn't keep up.
I pulled him down onto the bed with me, held him close, latched onto his mouth like I was never going to let him go, which pretty much was my plan. I could literally feel Jim's doubts melting away. I knew I had him when he shifted positions, bringing our bodies into more intimate contact. His erection pressed into my thigh. His hands cupped my ass, pulling me against him. He devoured my mouth. Man, I had never been kissed like that before. My Jim was a force of nature once he got unleashed.
I don't know how long we made outa while I'd say. My lips were swollen and bruised, and when he finally pulled back, I couldn't stop panting. No one had ever kissed me quite that breathless before.
"I want to see you," he rasped against my ear, his face buried in my hair, breathing me in. "Can I look at you? Please?"
"Yes. Please, Jim. Naked. Both of us. Now."
Jim didn't wait for more of an invitation than that. He launched into a frenzy of undressing, his shirt, my shoes, both our socks, pants, boxers, all our clothes, until we were both naked and staring at each other. Jim's a beautiful man. That didn't come as any surprise. I'd seen him half-dressed often enoughleaving the bathroom with only a towel wrapped around his waist, coming to breakfast in nothing but boxers. I already knew what a truly splendid body he has, and the parts of him that had always been hidden from me were no less beautiful, also not a surprise. But I was rather taken aback by how possessive I suddenly felt of him, how greedy I was, how I wanted his naked beauty to be mine and only mine, for the rest of our lives.
I don't know why that's what made me suddenly start trembling uncontrollably. I guess I was putting too much pressure on myself. I just wanted to love him so well, be enough for him, so he'd always be mine. Of course, Jim felt every little shudder and tremor as it passed through my body. He wrapped his arms around me, cradling me against him, murmuring reassurances.
"I just want it to be good. I don't want to..." I started to say.
He shook his head. "You can't disappoint me. This is already more than I'd ever hoped for."
He was looking at me with such earnestness, such sweet longing that I had no doubt Jim would be content if all we ever did was lie naked together in bed. I, on the other hand, had much bigger plans.
"I'm just nervous," I told him. "You know, because it's all kind of new to me."
He nodded, stroking my hair tenderly. "I understand, but you don't have to be nervous with me, Chief."
"I want you to show me. Show me how good it can be between men."
That made Jim smile, and he propped himself up on one elbow, to look down into my face. "Making love with another man...it's not really so unlike making love with a woman. The basic principles are the same. It's just the terrain that's different," he said, stroking his hand down my arm.
"Different how? Tell me what you like about men's bodies."
He kissed my forehead. "What I like about your body, Chief."
I smiled. "My body then."
He ran his hands across my shoulders and down my arms. "A woman's all softness, all hills and valleys. A man is flat planes and the play of muscle. I love that. I love to feel how strong you are, Chief, the way your muscles flex whenever I touch you. You've got such a powerful body, so much strength in your arms, such powerful legs. It's so good to finally be able to touch you, Chief, really touch you."
I shivered everywhere his hands brushed my skin. I responded to every word he said, panting like I'd just run a marathon. No one had ever made me feel so cherished, so desired. He never looked away from me, not once. He held my gaze, his expression so passionate, so intense.
"Then there's the matter of a man's nipples," he said, circling a finger lazily around one of mine, teasing, not quite touching. "Different shape from a woman's, different texture, but still so sensitive." He lightly brushed my nipple with his thumb.
I bucked up into his touch. "Mmmm. God!"
"You're so responsive, Chief," he said, stroking and teasing me. My nipples had never been that hard, that aroused before.
"They taste different too," he told me, his tongue snaking out, licking first one and then the other, suckling them, making me writhe beneath him and beg for more.
He moved on, kissing his way down my chest and belly, and I moaned out loud.
"I like how hairy you are," he told me. "I like the way it feels when I touch your stomach, so warm, so soft."
"I like how smooth you are," I said, caressing his chest.
Jim gasped at my touch and put his hand over mine, guiding me as I explored him.
"You have such large, strong hands, Chief. It feels so good to have your hands on me, a nice firm touch, but still so gentle. I could never look at your hands, never watch you gesture with them, without wondering what it would be like to have you touch me. It's so much better than I ever even imagined it would be."
I kissed him and stroked his back. It amazed me how I'd failed to see this, to understand how good it would be between us. I was so in love with this man, and it was not a recent occurrence.
He broke the kiss and moved back down my body, licking and fondling, kissing and teasing me. By this point, I was desperate for him to touch my cock. He nuzzled the curls at my groin, just shy of where I wanted him. I could feel his breath on my straining erection, tantalizing me, but that was as much as he would give me.
"Your scent is the strongest here, the most essentially you. I love the way you smell. One of the nicest things you ever did for me was when you switched to those scent-free body products of yours. I know you were only trying to go easy on my nose, but I still found it so erotic, to be able to smell you, not soap or perfume, but you, just you."
I stroked Jim's head, running my fingers through his short, soft hair. I couldn't catch my breath. I wanted him too much. I wasn't sure I could hold on much longer.
"And then there's the taste," he said. "People always say it's bitter, but I've never thought so. Truth is every man tastes different. Can I do it, Blair? Can I taste you?"
"Oh God, yes. Please, Jim."
"I love you," he told me, and then his mouth descended on my cock and my mind turned to mush.
I don't know how I could ever describe what it was like to have Jim go down on me, how amazing it felt to have him exploring me so intimately, his lips and tongue and mouth moving on my cock, Jim using his senses and my every whimper and gasp to gauge how best to please me. It was hard to wrap my mind around the fact that it was Jim doing this to me, blowing out my every synapse with the force of his sensuality. It was the like the world had tilted off its axis, and I was suddenly alive in some other universe where previously impossible things were now the stuff of everyday reality. I mean, Jim was sucking my cock, humming contentedly in the back of his throat like I was the best thing he'd ever tasted. Jim was leaving me shaken and shuddering with the sheer eroticism of his every movement, a mind-blowing sexual experience that was so much hotter, so much more intense than even my steamiest fantasies.
This was my Jim making love to me, for all he was worth, with all his very great skill, with a depth of affection for me that I could not even remotely imagine deserving, but for which I was so very grateful.
Oh God, it was so damned good. Too good. I was going to come, way too soon, but I needed release or my brain was going to explode. Still, I didn't want to come in Jim's mouth. I couldn't allow myself that intimacy, not when I didn't know if he wanted it or not.
"Jim!" I said, pushing at his shoulders, trying to pull away from him while I still had the strength and some semblance of rational thought.
But he wouldn't let me go. He held my hips down and took me further into the back of his throat.
"Noooo!" I cried. "Gonna come. Don't want to..."
He pulled back from my cock, just for a moment, and I moaned at the loss.
"It's all right," he told me. "Want you to come for me, Blair."
Then his mouth was on me again, all wet, soft heat and mind-blowing suction, working me greedily, pushing me right up to the thin line of no return and then over it, into the spiraling darkness, the endless well of euphoria. There was a loud, jagged wail filling the room, and it took me a moment to realize it was me, screaming my head off. The edge of my consciousness started to blur, and I thought I was going to pass out. I could feel the muscles of Jim's throat working as he swallowed my cum, his tongue revisiting all my most sensitive places, drawing out my orgasm, leaving me weak and spent and trembling.
You know, I think I really did pass out at some point. The next thing I knew he was holding me, my head resting on his chest, his arms wrapped around me, his hands stroking and comforting me as he murmured reassurances, words of love, nonsense endearments.
"Are you all right, buddy?" he asked me.
I smiled. I didn't have to see myself to know I was glowing. It was the best sex I'd ever had, with the person I most loved, ever, in my whole life.
"I'm so far beyond all right I don't even know what to call it," I told him.
I felt his arms tighten around me, and I basked a little longer in the unbelievable contentment of having him hold me. But eventually it did occur to me that only one of us was feeling satisfied. I found the strength to push myself up on my elbow, and I stroked up and down his side lightly with my palm.
"Let me love you, Jim."
I didn't have to be a Sentinel to feel him tremble. "Yes, please, Blair."
I'd never touched any cock but my own. I thought it would be familiar, but it wasn't. Touching Jim didn't feel anything like touching myself, even though maybe it should have. I took him in my hand and gently explored him, like it was the first cock I'd ever seen, ever touched. He was so hot, already slick with his own juices. I could feel the blood pulsing beneath my hand, so warm and alive. I moved my hand, seeking out his sensitive spots, his hot buttons, concentrating my attention wherever Jim seemed most to want it, storing away that information for future use. I circled my hand around him, and he began to thrust into my fist, lifting his hips off the bed. Suddenly, I could picture him doing this to me someday, moving inside me, his cock sliding in and out of my body, possessing me as I'd never imagined anyone would. It really excited me, yet another surprise. In fact, if I hadn't just come, the thought of Jim taking me would have pushed me right over the edge.
Jim's face was red and sweating with the strain. He was so close now, holding on by the thinnest thread.
"That's going to be my body someday, where my hand is now," I said, sharing my fantasy with him. "Would you like that, Jim? Would you like to be inside me? To be connected like that? I would. God, Jim, I'd like it so much."
"Yeah, Jim, do it. Come for me."
He screamed my name, my first name, and exploded over my hand, his essence hot and sticky. He trembled all over, and I soothed him, running my hands over his body, gentling him. He struggled to regain control of his breathing, and I snuggled against his side, laying my head on his shoulder. He wrapped his arm around me and pulled me closer.
"Thank you," he managed to say.
I smiled. "No, thank you."
He laughed softly. "I suppose in a weird way we have Adelle to thank."
I nodded. "And that annoying woman at the art gallery."
"Somehow she knew."
"The way I feel about you. It's why she insisted I see the drawings. She could tell."
"Maybe she was just obnoxious."
"No, Chief, she knew. I could see it in the way she looked at me, at the both of us."
"Well, I guess now I'm glad she was so damned pushy."
"I meant what I said, you know. You really are so beautiful in those drawings."
"I don't know about that. But I don't mind them quite so much anymore, now that they're not on public display. I mean, they brought us together. I just hope..."
"I wish I knew what Adelle was going to do with them. I mean, as long as she still has them, I'll always have to worry where they're going to show up next."
"She doesn't have the drawings anymore, Chief."
"What? Who? How do you know?"
"I bought them. They're down in the storage area."
Jim smiled at me. "You'd make a great journalist, Chief. You ask all the right questions."
I elbowed him. "Tell me."
"I knew you'd worry, and I didn't want that. So I went over to her studio and offered her whatever she wanted for them. Apparently, it was the biggest sale she's ever had. She was pretty thrilled. One of the terms of our deal was that she not use your image in any of her future work. So you have nothing to be concerned about ever again."
"I can't believe you did that."
"I hope you're not mad. I know I said I'd let you handle it."
"No way, man. This has got to be the nicest thing anyone's ever done for me."
"There was some self-interest involved, Chief. Like I told you at the gallery, those drawings should be between you and someone who cares for you. And now they are."
"What are we going to do with them?"
"I'd say that's up to you."
"I did want them destroyed."
"Now, it feels like...they're part of us. I don't think I can destroy anything that's part of us."
"I'm kind of glad you feel that way."
"You want to keep them?"
"They're you, Chiefthe wild, beautiful, sensual you. I love those pictures."
I grinned at him. "If we put them up in the living room, our friends are going to get an eyeful. I don't think Simon's heart can take it."
He grinned back at me. "Not to worry. Simon's safe. I have no intention of sharing. Maybe we'll turn your old bedroom into our own private art gallery."
"Just for the two of us, huh?"
He nodded. "I'm smart enough to know what I have, Chief, and I plan to keep it all to myself."
"I'm going to remember you said that."
Jim pulled me closer. "So am I," he promised. "For the rest of our lives."