There’s no one on this earth that I trust more than Jim. I’d like to think that his mercurial trust in me was somewhat stabilized after I tied my dissertation up in a nice little package two weeks ago and tossed it out the window for him, but I don’t know. I may never know, all things being equal and Jim being, well, Jim. He said some really amazing things to me that day, after the press conference. He didn’t say ‘I’m sorry’, which would have been nice, but he did say a lot of things I needed to hear, things that succeeded in soothing my emotionally overwrought state of mind. The problem is, I’m still not sure how much he actually trusts me.
This has been my thought process for the last several days. And it doesn’t matter that Jim - along with everyone else - seemed all gung ho in the bullpen about me becoming his partner, because when I remember the hurt and anger flying out of him when he thought I’d betrayed him twice, I have to wonder how much of that camaraderie was truly heartfelt. I wonder if he really wants this friendship over, but has decided to do the honorable thing, because I sacrificed my life’s work to keep him protected. I don’t know what Jim wants from me. I’m used to having people tell me what they want - or at least expect - from me, but I’m completely out of my depth, here. And see, the thing that really puts the icing on all this is that, as strange as it sounds, I’m in love with him. Just hearing myself say it sounds ridiculous, but I love him so much, it makes me crazy sometimes. I don’t know when it happened, but let me tell you, I could create another entire dissertation on how.
Familiarity is supposed to breed contempt, but it had the exact opposite effect on me as far as Jim was concerned. The more we became tangled up in each others’ lives – both personally and professionally, the more it seemed unimaginable that I could live without him, and the more my love for him took on epic proportions. My protectiveness knew no bounds. It still doesn’t. And although that has gotten me into trouble in some cases, it has served us both well in others. Unfortunately, it was the tiny slip of that protective stronghold that hatched the nightmare of late. You can’t protect someone once the harm has already been done.
So we’re at an impasse. I love him and trust him, but I can’t tell what’s in his head, consequently, I’ve been mired in some of the most tenacious depression of my life. Clearly, it was more obvious than I thought, because Jim took a good, long look at me a couple of days ago and said with a shake of his head and a purposeful stride towards Simon’s office, ‘That’s it, Chief. You and I are getting the hell out of here.’
The man is a detective, after all.
Which is why I’m currently pitching a tent with him, in the middle of a small, quiet campsite with lots of really tall trees and a softly gurgling creek nearby. It’s the middle of the week so no one’s here, and I am more grateful for that than you can imagine. The ride out here was quiet once the obligatory chat about work died down. After all, I didn’t have any tales about school to balance it out, and that realization and all its implications hit me squarely and shut me right up. Just as I was beginning to feel the tension of the city peel away from me, I remembered that we were driving right into a period of distraction-free time alone together, which made me that much more anxious. Jim would occasionally glance over at me and I could tell he wanted so badly to ask, but he didn’t. He kept driving and kept silent, letting me off the hook.
So, now the tent is done, our supplies are set up, Jim is prepping firewood and I’m already looking for an escape.
“Jim, I’m gonna go take a little walk around for a while. You need me for anything else?” My hands are shoved into my pockets and I’m feeling that prickling sense of unease associated with avoidance.
He looks up from his nest of kindling and nails me with a very telling stare. He can’t take much more of my silence; it’s written all over his face and in the line of his shoulders, but he continues to arrange the wood and eventually returns his eyes to the task.
“You want company?” he asks, and the fact that he doesn’t look at me tells me that he knows my answer.
“No,” I reply.
He nods. “Dinner will be ready in an hour or so,” he tells me. He doesn’t spare me a glance as I turn and leave.
It’s oddly warm today. The breeze feels great blowing through my jacket and sneaking under my shirt and I can feel my ponytail being lifted a little off the back of my neck. I still haven’t decided if I should cut my hair or not (or more accurately, I haven’t decided if I plan to be a cop, which would make that decision for me). From the moment I decided to let it grow long all those years ago, I’ve never had it short, so I don’t really know what I’d look like these days. I try to imagine myself shorn and decked out in dress blues. I don’t see it.
My mind is wandering and I find myself thinking about several things that seem to have no common thread. For now, I feel free as I walk through nature, still slightly edgy but slowly beginning to relax. Aside from the occasional cicada or scurrying woodland animal, the only thing I hear is this incessant hum that sounds vaguely like distant traffic. It’s the amazing lullaby of wind sung through those super-tall trees that’s one of the reasons I love coming to places like this. I don’t know exactly where we are, though, so I’m not sure where this is. I followed the signs on the interstate, and then I gave up after several turns onto increasingly remote roads. We went south and east and that’s pretty much all I can tell you. Jim, obviously, has been here before and was right on the money to bring me here. That overwhelming sound makes me feel like nothing can touch me, and right now, that’s what I need.
I also think I need to tell Jim the truth. We’ve been together for too long now for me to start holding back from him. I feel like he should know how I feel about him, how I feel about the PD and how I feel about my life. The truth is I’m up in the air about everything right now except for what I feel for him - that couldn’t be clearer to me. I want him to love me and believe in me and know that public humiliation and destruction of a dream are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what I’d do for him. Nothing in my life has ever hurt worse than getting up in front of those cameras and saying what I said, but I would go through it again in a second. I’m not sure he understands that. I don’t think he truly believes that someone could love him that deeply, and he damn sure wouldn’t expect it from me.
In the middle of a small clearing ahead of me, there’s a big rock with my name on it, so I make my way over to it, clear away fallen twigs and stones and have a seat. The grass is warm and it feels good to stretch my legs and back as I sit down and get comfortable. I sigh deeply, close my eyes and just wait. I try to clear my mind and use my surroundings as a mental sanctuary for a few minutes. I go through some lightweight guided imagery and after a few moments, I’m slightly surprised to feel tears. I consider myself a lucky man to have never been made to feel ashamed to cry – at least, not by anybody I gave a damn about. Granted, I don’t cry often, though it occurs to me that at the press conference I came pretty close. No, I’m much more prone to anger or irritability to express pain. But every once in a blue moon, the only release I’m able to achieve comes from letting myself get a little weepy. So, the tears are coming and I let them, not even bothering to wipe them away. I’m reveling a little in the burn of my eyes and the slow, slightly ticklish hot streaks on my face. I keep my eyes closed and cover them with my hands, and before I know it, the sobs are coming. I don’t try to stop them, either, because I know this is necessary. This needs to happen. I pull my knees up and hold them, and invoking all the sadness, fear, frustration and confusion, I slowly and silently fall apart.
Before I even come upon our campsite, I can smell dinner. Jim has made what smells like hamburgers. I didn’t see him pack the food, but if I know him, there will all sorts of fixins involved, and probably chips and beer, too. Maybe even some cole slaw. The possibilities alone are making me step a little livelier.
Jim hasn’t lifted his head, but I know he can hear me. I’m about fifty yards from our tent, so I might as well be sitting in the tent at that distance. When I get there, he looks up and then rises slowly, staring at me with increasing concern. Ah, yes. I forgot about the crying.
“Blair, what’s -- ?” he begins with such tenderness, I almost start up again.
I hold a hand up and stop him.
“Not now, Jim,” I say softly. “I’ll tell you later.”
He sighs and runs an irritated hand through his hair, shakes his head and turns away from me with a muttered ‘fine’.
“Jim?” I need him not to be pissed off like this. His patience is gone, but I just need him to wait a little bit longer.
“What?” he snaps.
I stand there for a few seconds and then ask him to look at me. “I will tell you, okay?” I assure him sincerely, putting a hand on his arm for emphasis. “I’ll tell you because I want you to know what’s going on. But… Can we just eat first?”
He’s noticeably relieved because one of us has finally acknowledged that something is amiss. His face softens and he even manages a bit of a smile before he sits down and starts making a plate for himself that includes a healthy amount of cole slaw, which makes me laugh for the first time in what feels like years and earns me a curious look.
“Oh, trust me,” I answer with a wave of my hand, “it’s nothing. Let’s eat.”
So, we eat quietly and I try to force food down past the knot in my stomach. Once dinner’s over, my brain thinks s’mores sound like a good idea. But not only could I not eat anything else if you paid me, but I can feel that Jim’s getting antsy. Or, maybe I’m just projecting. Either way, I can’t avoid the inevitable, so I lean back against a tree, take a deep breath and dive right in.
“Jim, do you trust me?”
He’s shocked by the question. It’s evident that this isn’t how he expected the conversation to begin. “Of course I trust you. Why would you even ask something like that?”
“Well, given recent events, I wasn’t too sure,” I shrugged.
For a few long seconds, he just looks at me, something like sadness in his eyes. Regret, maybe. “Chief, I had a lot sprung on me, ya know?” he ventures apologetically. “I don’t think you can blame me for being…”
“A prickly jerk?” Gotta work on that inside voice.
“That’s not fair.”
“Maybe not, but it’s true, Jim. And I don’t blame you, actually, but you were still a jerk.” I wait a couple of seconds and then I give him a little smile, enough to let him know that even though I meant that, I’m not really holding any grudges. Then, because I need to know this, I ask him, “So, do you, uh, forgive me then? For putting your name in the diss?”
He looks a little perplexed and worried at the same time. “I forgave you a long time ago,” he says, as if he can’t believe I’ve missed something so obvious. “What, you need it spelled out? When I asked you to work with me again, that was my forgiveness. I know now that you weren’t trying to expose me or make me out to be some sideshow attraction.” He tosses another small log on the fire. “You have too much integrity for that.”
“Do you honestly believe that?” I ask, staring at my hands.
“Well, I’m glad. But you should know that my integrity really doesn’t have a lot to do with it.” I bring my eyes back up to his face and I can feel the tiny smile again, this time fleeting and nervous. “I love you, Jim, more deeply than I’ve ever loved anyone in my life. This partnership stopped being about you a long time ago. It’s now about us, and I know you know that.” The words coming out of me sound strange and I can hear deep emotion in my voice. I take another steadying breath and close my eyes for a second, opening them again to finish my thought. “But you need to understand very clearly the lengths I would go to protect you, even if you weren’t a sentinel. You need to believe me when I say that you are everything to me, Jim. If you don’t, then we need to reevaluate whether or not I can be your partner on the force, if not your partner in life.”
Jim seems to be taking this little declaration pretty easily. He’s staring into the fire, and it occurs to me that he doesn’t look surprised, like maybe he knew this was coming. And to be honest, that would be a pretty viable assumption. He once said to me at a crime scene, You’re looking,, Chief, but you’re not seeing. I may be the observer in this outfit, but when it comes to observation, Jim trumps me without even breaking a sweat.
“Blair, I meant every word I said in that hospital. There’s no question of whether I want you to be my partner, because number one, there isn’t anybody else who could, and number two, there just isn’t anyone else who’d I’d want with me.” He looks at me and shrugs one shoulder. “Besides, you’ve been my partner for years; the badge is a technicality.”
I nod, conceding his point. It’s the difference between living with someone and being married – the ceremony makes all the difference in how the world sees you. Gee, I wonder where I came up with that analogy. I give an inward chuckle as I wait for him to address the crux of this conversation.
“You know, I have wondered….” he says finally, then stops and seems to get lost in a thought. Just when I’m about to ask him what, exactly, he’s wondered, he speaks again, but he’s still looking off into the distance.
“About us, I mean. I’ve wondered what it would be like if we were… more… than what we are. On the surface, it sounds so weird, you know, you and I as “partners”. He puts quotes in the air with his fingers, which for some reason, I find endearing, so I smile. Then his eyes find mine and it’s all I can do to stay with him. I want so badly to look away, but since he’s baring his soul, here, I can’t do that to him. “But, it’s really not, is it?” I think this might be a rhetorical question, but I shake my head anyway. “It’s not so farfetched. I do love you; I have for years at this point. But all the things we’ve been through have brought a depth to that love that I didn’t expect. I never knew I could feel this much for one person and it scares the hell out of me, Chief.”
I don’t know what to say to that. I want to assure him that his heart is safe in my hands and that he has no reason to be afraid. But of all the fragile moments in our relationship, this one’s most definitely one of the top five. I smile softly at him and stay quiet.
“I never really allowed myself to think too deeply about us being together, because I honestly didn’t think you’d be interested. But I think… maybe even more than that… there was the possibility that you would be interested, and I just can’t….” He stops and looks very uncomfortable all of a sudden. He shakes his head and curses under his breath. I’m not sure where he’s going and he looks so lost that I have to say something.
“What is it?” is what I settle on.
He looks at me again and surprises me by looking a little angry. “If you laugh at me, I swear - ”
With a sigh, he makes his quiet confession. “I can’t be one of your conquests, Chief. I can’t take the risk that you’ll break my heart, because I couldn’t stand it if you did. If we’re going to be together, it’s for real, no bullshit and no fucking around. I don’t want to play games with you and I won’t let you play with me.”
Ah, so this is the problem. I could take this sentiment any number of ways, but I’m mostly latching on to a combination of feelings that make me want to do what I always do.
Protecting him from me was not on the agenda, however.
“Jim, I want to tell you something. I’ve only been in love a couple times in my life. The first time I felt things more deeply than I thought possible, and the second time it was even better; the intensity and all the emotional layers in both relationships blew my mind. I put my all into them and worked on them and honored them as best I could, but neither lasted more than a couple years. Both times, I didn’t think I’d get over it, but I healed, was grateful that I’d had such good experiences, learned from the pain and kept going. I’m not sure what I can do to make you believe this, so I’m just going to say it and hope for the best. I gave as much as I was able to of myself back then, but I realize now that there’s so much more, I just needed the right person to find it. You have. You’ve tapped into something I didn’t even know was there,” that thickness in my voice is coming back, but I plow on. “and you’re so much a part of me now, it’s scary. I will never break your heart, Jim. I’ve already had my moment of not handling it carefully enough, I won’t make that mistake again. I told you earlier that you’re everything to me. I meant that.”
“What if you meet someone? ”
The man exasperates me sometimes. “Why are you torturing yourself with ‘what ifs’? What if we die tomorrow and never know how good it could have been between us? And besides, what if you meet someone? Who can say what’s going to happen down the road? I’m telling you that right now - and for the foreseeable future, I love you. I want you, Jim. I don’t want anyone else, and I don’t imagine that’s going to change anytime soon. I’m pledging my life to you, what else do you need me to say?”
The look that’s on his face is tearing me up, but I can’t comfort him and that makes it worse.
“I want so badly to believe you, Chief, but I just….”
Well, I’m not sure whether to be hurt, offended or just annoyed, but I know one thing; I’m tired. In fact, this whole day has been exhausting, and quite frankly, this conversation is heading into the unpleasant faster than I’d like. I think I need to cut that short right now.
“Okay, look,” I begin quietly. “We’re both tired. At least I am, so why don’t we just get some sleep and talk about this tomorrow? I think it’s important that we hash this out and figure out what it is we both want from each other, but at this rate, one of us will just end up pissed off and not only do I not want to go to bed angry, I’d rather not have to deal with you being angry!” He’s smiling which is an excellent sign. “Besides, we shouldn’t be upset when we’re talking about something as amazing as being in love, right?” I finish with a small, encouraging smile.
He gives a brief chuff of a laugh and looks at me for a few seconds. “I suppose you’re right about that.”
“Okay,” I smile, and just like that, we switch to “friend” mode. I get up and start the ‘turning in’ process – cleaning up, locking down, and settling in for a good night’s rest under a blanket of stars and the hum of the trees. Now that it’s time to get into our tents, it’s obvious that neither of us is quite sure what to say or how to say it. So, we just say good night and figure that it’s good enough.
I’m wide-awake. As bone tired as I’ve been, I’m not even close to sleeping. Those stars really are pretty incredible tonight and I find it relaxing to look at them through the mesh flaps of my tent. It’s cooled off out here considerably, but since I have plenty of layers and a toasty sleeping bag, I can afford to let a little air in for the sake of some natural beauty. It’s strange how there can be so much light in the sky, but it’s still so freakin’ dark down here in these trees. Somehow, that’s disturbing and soothing at the same time.
It’s nearly impossible to let go of the conversation Jim and I had a couple of hours ago, so I’ve stopped trying. Instead, I’m obsessing over how to convince him that he’s the one for me. The thing that worries me is that I’m not at all sure I can. That’s not the kind of thing you can actually tell someone with any kind of true believability, you have to prove it with action. But, if he doesn’t let me get close enough to him to do that, then we’re back to square one, and thus, back to me staring at stars. I can see the Big Dipper above a little cluster of shadow-like trees, and if I really work at it, I can make out the other big constellations. I can also hear Jim breathing in his tent. He doesn’t snore, but he breathes loudly when he’s asleep, and that sound puts me at ease in a way that I can’t begin to explain. I want to sleep with him. As long as the list is of things I want to do with him, sleeping with him definitely hovers near the top. I want to hold him and kiss his forehead while he sleeps and watch him relax, then curl up next to him. He makes me feel solid when I’m around him, like I have substance and meaning. When we’re together, I feel like we’re indomitable. It wasn’t until I met him that I ever had feelings like that for any friend or lover, the feeling that there was absolutely nothing we couldn’t handle, as long as we handled it as a team. That bond is so strong between Jim and me that even if nothing comes of this romantically, we’ll still have that. That alone makes things a little easier to deal with.
Unfortunately, the cop question still lingers. Of course, if I have to do something as potentially harrowing as being a police detective, obviously I will do it with Jim or I won’t do it at all. Can I cut the mustard is the question. I’ve wondered a million times what it would be like as Jim’s partner on the force, what it would be like to carry a gun and actually be able to say ‘Drop your weapon!’ without sounding like some parody of a cop show. What would it be like to arrest someone? To shoot someone? I think I could maybe do it, but it would certainly mess with my identity. I think about my mom a lot and what she would think. She seemed pleased enough at the station when they gave me the detective offer – which I still can’t figure out, given her feelings for authority figures – but I wonder what she really thinks about it. More than anything else, she’d mainly be worried about my safety, I think. Telling her that the vast majority of my work would be spent behind a desk wouldn’t make her feel any better, I’m sure, especially since she always had the uncanny timing of showing up when some variation of hell was about to break loose. I’ve never told her half the stuff that happened to me over the last few years. She probably would have demanded I not only stop working for the PD, but that I stop associating with Jim, too. Since I had no plans to do that, I thought it best not to even entertain the possibility. I like to believe she’d be proud of me. If for nothing else, proud that I’ve stood up and done something I believe in, regardless of her ideology. I have a few days left to decide. Until then, there’s a more immediate problem I need to deal with.
It’s 7:50 and Jim’s up and gone somewhere. At first, I thought he’d probably gone to relieve himself in the trees nearby, but I’ve been up for about 20 minutes and he hasn’t come back. I don’t have anything else to do while he’s not here (I don’t exactly feel like hiking, although it’s bright and gorgeous and a perfect morning to do just that), so I might as well make some food. I feel calmer today than I have in weeks. Even with the somewhat unresolved issues between Jim and me, I think we made some definite headway last night – about our relationship and about the partnership, which, for me, are practically one and the same.
The coffee’s going and while I heat the small skillet over the butane for bacon, I think about how lucky I am. With the giant mess that was and tends to be my life, I still feel pretty optimistic about it. I’m in love, first of all, and that’s a major thing for me – Jim’s reticence about it notwithstanding. The strange thing is, I’m not worried about that. If Jim decides he wants to nurture his feelings for me and really make us into a couple, I’d be beside myself with pleasure. If not, I think that might be okay, too. Because, he still loves me, see? There’s still absolute love between us that will never go away, whether we share a bed or not. He’s still my life in a way no one else will ever be, and I know without question that I occupy the same place in his heart.
I look up from the pan in time to see him walking towards me with a towel draped around his neck. As he gets closer, I see that his hair is wet and his t-shirt is sticking to him in a few places along his arms and chest. I wonder if he went running or something and I turn the bacon as I call out a greeting to him.
“Good man, Sandburg,” he says with a grin, glancing at the bacon and reaching for the coffee pot and the mug I have sitting out for him.
I reach into our food carrier and pull out some eggs. “I didn’t know where you’d gone, so I started breakfast. Where did you go, anyway?”
“Went for a swim.” He inclines his head vaguely eastward, I think, toward the creek, and then runs the towel roughly through his hair with one hand while he takes a sip of coffee. “You should check it out.”
My insides freeze. Jim and I have touched briefly on my dislike of bodies of water ever since I found myself face down in a fountain. We don’t talk about it much, but then it doesn’t exactly come up in conversation. I don’t like having phobias of any kind and I try to face my anxieties when I’m called upon to do so. Jim needs me in a helicopter? My fear of heights can fuck off. Jim needs backup? I’ll shoot anything that moves. Going for a dip just for the hell of it, though, that’s an entirely different animal. It’s been a long time now since Alex drowned me, but I haven’t been comfortable in water since, and somehow, I don’t think today’s going to be an exception.
I take the bacon and put it on a plate, keeping my eyes off my partner. “I can’t do that, Jim,” I tell him quietly. “You know that.”
He takes another sip of his coffee, then sets it on a rock next to where our campfire was last night and begins to walk over to me. I don’t raise my eyes until his hand brushes my face, then they come up immediately. His cheeks are pink and at this range, I can see the rough shadow of his stubble coming in. The chill in the air is making his eyes like blue crystals and he’s giving my face a serene once over that’s threatening to take my breath away. When this man gives you his full attention, it’s pretty astonishing.
“Chief, it… it’s not that deep,” he says, and I can tell that it isn’t what he meant – or wanted – to say.
I look at him narrowly, bristling slightly, even though I can practically see the word ‘sorry’ appear above his head. “You know what I’m going to say to that, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I know,” he says quickly, “that was a stupid thing to say, and it’s not what I…Chief, it’s just that I don’t want….”
And he stops. He stops and shuts his eyes, then heaves a deep sigh. When he looks at me again, I know in the span of a heartbeat that he’s going to kiss me, but it doesn’t stop the gasp of surprise when he does. He comes in quickly but gently, pressing his mouth to mine in a way that seems meant to comfort more than anything else. I’m comforted, all right.
When he pulls away, he leans his forehead against mine and I pay attention to his slightly quickened breaths against my lips. I bring my hand up, laying it on his cheek in the mirror gesture of his and shut my eyes again.
“I don’t want you to be afraid, Blair,” he says.
He couldn’t have put it more perfectly if he’d tried. I open my eyes and run my thumb across his lips. “I could say the same to you.” He smiles and nods against me and takes my hand to kiss the palm, then places it back on his cheek. A few more moments go by, and then I ask, “Will you let me love you?”
In answer, he takes my mouth again, deepening the kiss with slow and easy skill and I know he’s made his decision. He breaks off, just enough to give me a whispered ‘yes’, and then continues to weaken my knees.
Jim convinced me to go into that creek. After we packed up the truck, we walked to the creek bank, where he coaxed me into the warm water, telling me that all I needed to do was replace my bad experience with a good one. I reminded him that dying wasn’t a bad experience, it was the bad experience, therefore, anything would be good in comparison. To that, he replied, “You just have to make things complicated, don’t you?” which made me laugh. Once we were both in, though, he stayed near me, gentling me with kisses and reassuring me with his touch, promising that he wouldn’t let anything happen to me ever again. I smiled at that promise, knowing that it was impossible to keep, but that he’d do his damndest to, and noting that this experience beat the other one hands down.
It’s the theory of replacement that’s sticking with me now that we’re at home on the sofa, my head in his lap as we sit talking. I’ve replaced my academic career with one in law enforcement, a move that’s actually been happening for years now. The love I’ve had for Jim has been replaced by something deeper and impossibly more profound. Mistrust has been replaced by trust, confusion by clarity. It feels like I’ve switched myself out, becoming another person yet feeling exactly the same. And I realize as I lie here looking up into my partner and lover’s face, that replacing one thing for another is not a bad thing, so long as it’s for the better.