Title: A Fair Distance: Ball and Chain. Chapter Five
Beta’ed by t_verano She surely didn’t know what she was getting into when she agreed to beta this story, so thank you, T, to the tenth degree. Picture by slipperieslope
This is the second arc of A Fair Distance. The first arc,Running on Empty, can also be found at sentinel_epic and at 852 Prospect
There are now three Standalone stories from A Fair Distance
The beginning of this story
A Fair Distance:Ball and Chain. Chapter Five
I couldn’t believe what Jim wanted me to do. I couldn’t believe Jim Ellison wanted me to walk into this restaurant with him, holding his hand. But Jim was calmly unlocking the cuffs to free my right hand, leaving them dangling on my left hand. I wasn’t sure I’d gotten through to him what agreeing to his custody meant to me emotionally. Hell, I wasn’t sure what it meant to me, which is why there was going to be some serious meditation in my near future.
We were at the far side of the parking lot; there weren’t any cars near us at all, and Jim had come around to my door, opening it with a grin and holding one of the sweatshirts he’d bought me in his hand. He had told me his plan – and Jim always had a plan – to let us go into Quiznos without people noticing that the short, scruffy guy was in handcuffs.
“Jim, they’ll think we’re gay.”
The big galoot was laughing at me. “Sandburg, I’m hungry, and you need to pee. Now, I can go through the drive-thru, but that won’t solve your problem. Do you think you can wait till I find us some isolated road and pull off?”
I consulted my bladder, which was emphatically screaming NO! “O-kay, O-kay. No, I don’t want to wait. But how are you going to hide the handcuffs?”
Jim tapped my nose, which made me want to bite his finger, and unfolded the sweatshirt. He dropped it over my head, which also annoyed me greatly. I quickly threaded my arms through it before he could decide I was a three-year-old and needed the help. I pulled it down, and then down some more. It was pretty big on me and the sleeves covered my hands. Fishing out a hair-tie from my pocket, I pulled my hair back and twisted it up. When I pointed to his hat, Jim handed it to me. I jammed it on my head, and I tucked my mop of curls under the orange University of Tennessee ball cap.
Jim took my left hand and attached the loose cuff to his right hand. He had two big extra-thick rubber bands on his wrist and used them to secure the handcuff as high as possible on his arm. He tucked my hand into his and tugged at me to slide off the truck seat. With my sleeve practically covering my hand and our hands clasped, the cuffs were hidden.
“All right, Jim. I bow to your genius. Those are the rubber bands you keep in your wallet in case you go to a crime scene; am I right? To put over your shoes so your footprint won’t be confused with a perp’s? But… everybody is going to think we’re a gay couple out on a date.” Jim started walking toward the door and I hustled to keep up. Sometimes, I think Jim forgets just how long his stride is.
“Sandburg, we are a gay couple.” Jim was laughing at me again.
I slowed down from surprise. Jim had never said that before. Ever. He tightened his hold on my hand and towed me along, till my feet got the message from my brain to catch up.
“Man, if people think we’re on a date, they’re going to wonder what rock you turned over to find me.” I was conscious of the fact that I needed a shave. And that this giant sweatshirt was dwarfing me.
Jim turned and looked me over top to toe and smirked. “You’re cute as a button. They might think you like an eclectic look, part hippie, part adorable.”
’Hippie?’ “Why would anyone think I look like a hippie? They can’t see my hair, and I’m not wearing any necklaces or earrings. And I am not cute. Or adorable.”
But Jim just grinned at me again. ‘I am so not cute or adorable. Kittens and puppies are cute and adorable. What I am is scruffy. Jim is just yanking my chain. Negative reinforcement is called for here. Ignore his comments about being cute. He’ll get bored and stop.’
Jim reached the door first, of course, and pushed it open, ushering us in together. I spotted the men’s room and made a beeline for it, Jim trailing me for a change. Luckily, it was empty and meant for only one person at a time, so we were able to lock the door. We both relieved our bladders, and I thought about yesterday, when Jim had made a joke about seeing who could pee farther.
“You know, I totally won yesterday in the pee contest.” Jim zipped up his pants, and waited for me to do the same.
“So what’s my prize?”
“This.” And Jim leaned down and tilted my head up with his free hand and gave me one very fast, hot kiss. Until I remembered I was contagious, and I pulled away from him so quickly I could practically hear the ‘pop’ as our lips parted.
“Shit. Jim, are you nuts? I’ve got mono and strep. Jesus Christ, what were you thinking? Quick, rinse your mouth out.” And I pulled him over to the sink; he washed his hands – and mine – and then cupped his hand to bring water to his mouth. He rinsed and spat several times, while I reached in my pocket and got out the package of sore throat lozenges. Jim had bought the kind we’d used at home; they wouldn’t hurt him. They had herbs in them that could hopefully keep the germs from getting a foothold.
I let one of the Zinc Echinacea Cherry cough drops fall into his hand and glared at him while he tossed it in his mouth. He looked at me sheepishly, and mumbled, “I forgot.”
“Uh-huh. This is why you need a guide – somebody needs to watch out for you.” I was still kind of steaming. Jim didn’t need to feel like me. If I felt this bad, he would probably feel ten times worse with the sensitivities he had because of his senses.
“You’re right, Sandburg. I need you to be my guide.” And Jim was looking at me hopefully, and I felt such a wave of tenderness for him. My Jim. Shit. That slippery slope had just gotten a little closer.
I gave him a little push towards the door. “If we don’t leave now, everybody in the place is going to think we’ve been doing lewd and lascivious sex acts in here.”
Jim smiled at me and let me manhandle him. The big galoot.
We opened the door and stepped quietly out and I concentrated on sending ‘Nothing to see here, folks. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for’ vibes out into the seating area.
We walked hand in hand, like love’s fucking young dream, up to the counter. Jim proceeded to order me two helpings of chicken soup and himself, after I nudged him when he asked about the Black Angus Steak Sub, a large Tuscan Turkey Sub. To go.
And all the time while we waited, hand in hand, in full view of a fairly crowded lunchroom, Jim acted as relaxed as if we were at home, scooted together watching a Bonanza marathon. I couldn’t figure him out. He had never taken my hand like this when we were lovers, not outside of the loft.
The counter guy acted as bored with taking our order as he did for the next two customers, and soon we were making our way back to the truck, still hand in hand, with Jim carrying our food.
Once we were situated in the truck, handcuffs off of Jim and back on me, Jim taking manly bites of his sub and me mostly slurping my soup, I asked if anybody had commented on us when we were inside. Jim swallowed his mouthful, and nodded yes.
“Man -- what did they say?” And I braced myself for Jim’s face to darken in anger at being called a fag or a queer. Me, I didn’t care. I had been called every derogatory name for being a homosexual by the time I was in sixth grade. Unfairly, too, since that was years before I fooled around with guys. Name calling just didn’t crank my case. But Jim -- football star, quarterback of his team, Army Ranger, Detective – Jim, he might not have had the same toughening up that I’d gone through.
Jim smiled that maddening smile at me again – like he was a fucking Zen Master -- and said, “The two girls in the corner thought we were hot. Specifically, that I was built, and you were the cutest little guy, ever.”
I choked on my soup and Jim took the carton out of my hands and smacked me on the back. When I’d finished sputtering he switched to rubbing my back. I found my voice, and asked, “Nobody said any shit about us?”
Jim replied, “One guy said we were being a bit flamboyant, which started an argument with his lover – his male lover. Apparently his lover would like for them to hold hands once in a blue moon. An old couple remarked to each other that the gays seemed to be coming out of the woodwork and in their day you wouldn’t see men touching like that in the middle of the day.”
Jim shrugged and rested his hand on the back of my neck. I shivered – my neck is so an erogenous zone for me – and he asked if I wanted to finish my soup. I said no; I was done. He withdrew his hand and finished off the last bites of his food, balled up the paper debris, stowed my uneaten soup in the small cooler and started the engine. It had gotten chilly in the cab of the truck while we were inside. Or I should say, chillier. I went to fasten the seat belt around myself, but Jim stopped me.
“Scoot over here, Blair,” and he pointed to the middle of the bench seat. I looked at that space and how close I would be to Jim and I felt myself slide another ways down that slippery slope, again. Because I did it. I snuggled myself right next to Jim, who fastened the middle seat belt for me, and fixed the blanket so I would be warm. He felt my forehead and made ‘hmm’ noises.
“How high is it? My fever doesn’t feel too bad to me.”
“You’re right, it’s around a hundred. You can skip the Tylenol for now.” And Jim backed the truck out of the parking space and turned towards the Interstate.
We headed north, towards Chicago, and I leaned into Jim’s shoulder feeling like once again I was saving up a memory for when this all blew apart. Again. I was starting to think that there was no way I wasn’t going to be in mucho pain whether Jim gave me my walking papers or if I left on my own. Maybe I should just take the sweet before I was forced to have the bitter.
“You awake there, cutie-pie?”
“Shut up, Jim. I am not cute. Those girls must have needed glasses.”
Jim laughed, and I felt like we had fallen into a time warp; Jim teasing me and me grumbling about it. Cutie-pie. If he added that one to the long list of nicknames for me, I’d…
“You want to hear about the rest of my dream from last night?” Jim asked good-naturedly. Man, he’d been in a good mood ever since I woke up. It was nice to see him smiling and laughing. He’d stopped being happy months before I left Cascade.
“Sandburg, you in there or are you falling asleep?”
“No, I’m awake. I want to know what happened. You tell me yours and then I’ll tell you mine.” And I slumped a little more against him; Jim put his arm around me and hugged me closer.
“I couldn’t get into the jungle. I kept going around the perimeter and the vines were too thick; they were impenetrable, until I got out your trusty Swiss Army knife, which cut through them like a hot knife through butter.”
“Cool. Why my knife, though?”
“It was a symbol for you, I think. I figured out that I’d lost it when I found my spirit-guide and I needed to cut through more vines to reach him. I realized I’d been careless with it – with you – and if I didn’t do better I wouldn’t be able to keep you.”
I felt one of those lumps building in my throat, and I swallowed, trying to get rid of it. Jim started rubbing little circles on my arm as he continued.
“My sprit-guide was pissed at me because I’d locked him down by being so angry that I wouldn’t even think about you or how you were. Well, not much anyway. And I’m afraid that I jumped to some conclusions, but all that can wait till later to talk to you about.”
Hoo-boy. I’m sure Jim’s conclusions weren’t flattering to me at all.
“Anyway, my spirit-pal filled me in on how he, or I should say me, I gave you the bite on the back of your neck. How’s that feeling, by the way? We should put some more antibiotic cream on it tonight.”
I shrugged. “It’s healing up.”
“Ah… then the spirit-guide showed me – you would have really liked this part, Chief – by grasping my arms through the vines. and he, ah… transferred his knowledge to me. How you had been near him the whole time while we were apart. You had been keeping an eye on me, sometimes as the wolf and sometimes in human form, but doing it secretly by hiding a lot and running from me when I got too close. And I saw all your lairs, your new homes, all torn apart. He warned me that someone was out to hurt you and seemed determined to keep on hounding you. He couldn’t tell who it was, though. That was my fault, because I’d been so blind to you in the real world.”
Jim fell silent and I realized he was done recounting his dream. Oh, man. This was a lot to take in. The lump in my throat was still there and I made a real effort to contain my feelings. I was in Jim’s truck – there was no privacy. Not that there ever really was, not with Jim’s senses, but in the past I’d at least had the illusion of privacy.
I needed a distraction from all this heavy-duty shit. Jim arm wrestling – kind of – with his spirit-guide, Holy Krishna, I’d have given up Jags tickets to see that. I thought about how cool it was that he’d made a connection back to the sentinel spirit. Jim seemed more in harmony with himself, and I was guessing that was why. His inner spiritual self and outer physical body were in synch now.
Maybe a little humor would be good. Lighten things up. Make this lump disappear instead of filling up my whole throat till it was released in tears. I wanted this truck to be a no-crying zone.
“So, you got the blue-light special last night. Me, I’ve been there a bunch of times since I left Cascade. You know, I think that the spirit plane – at least the plane I’ve been visiting – is your visualization. If it was up to me, I’d have landed on the beach with a stack of books, and cold beer, or maybe Pina Coladas or Mai Tais…”
Jim snorted. “Yeah, alcohol in many and sundry forms – got that, Chief.”
“And a hammock, a big one, big enough for two. I’d save you a place in it, Jim. You could surfboard, and I could snorkel and look at all the tropical fish…”
“Sounds like somebody needs a vacation. We get this mess cleared up, and we’ll go there, Chief. On an airplane, not the spirit plane.”
I laughed; I had missed hearing him crack jokes.
“And I’m always naked when I’m in human form in your spirit world. Man, why is that, anyway? You get to wear your cammies.”
“Well now, Chief, I don’t think I want to give up seeing you naked. On our vacation, we’ll find some private beach and I’ll get rid of your clothes. You’ll be my golden boy, all tanned and warm from the sun. I bet the sun will make the reddish tints in your hair stronger, too… You’ve always been naked in the blue jungle. Guess I wanted you that way for a long time.”
I wiggled a little bit against his side, feeling squirmy, and felt a non-feverish flush spread over my face. Jim could make me blush like nobody’s business.
“Well, um… anyway, I didn’t remember going to Blue Jungle Land until I was in jail at Sweetwater. But as I found out, in my sleep I would go there and creep around in my wolf or human form and spy on the panther or the sentinel spirit. And I kept finding my dwellings all wrecked and I knew I had to locate a safer place. I didn’t know if you were doing that or not. Um… really, I thought it was you. I thought it was because you were still mad at me, even though I believed I’d done what you wanted. And for a long time, I wasn’t sure whether you’d attack me if you caught me. But spirit-you ignored me until real-you was driving to Sweetwater; I knew you were coming, Jim. Spirit-you started to hunt me and I kept running away and hiding. I was scared, but still I was drawn to watch you.”
I drew a shuddery breath, remembering the fear I’d felt as the panther chased me through the jungle and up to the high places.
“The first time you caught me, I was in wolf form; you were the panther, and I was so afraid you were going to tear out my throat. Instead, when you held my head and lowered your mouth to my neck, this light blitzed me and threw me out of Blue Jungle Land, and I remembered all the other times I’d been there. Before that I would forget when I woke up.”
Jim didn’t say anything, but I had felt his body tense up as I described my fear of him. I could have spared him the descriptions, but if there was the slightest chance of working it out with him, then we had to be really honest with each other. It was the only way to fix the wiring. I still mostly thought the Chaos gods would have their fun, and our relationship would continue to spiral out into nothingness. But in the tiny bit of hope that we could re-form what chaos had torn apart, then the truth had to be told.
“When the panther caught me again, it was when you had pushed me into the interview room and up against the wall. It was strange, but I felt it happening in real life – felt you touching me and felt the wall against my back – and on the spirit plane. The panther licked me instead of tearing my throat out, and I felt your emotions, Jim. You felt abandoned by me, when I left. I’m really sorry, Jim. If I’d had any guts, I would have talked to you after seeing you in the bar, and maybe this whole damned last year wouldn’t have happened. I’m really, really sorry…”
Jim held me securely in a one-armed hug and made shushing noises and I concentrated on some deep breathing and willing the tight feeling in my chest to go away. After a while, Jim stopped trying to soothe me and instead made a disparaging comment about a car that was parallel to us. Hearing Jim growl at other drivers was very familiar and in its own cock-eyed way, comforting.
“Simon hasn’t made you take that courteous driver course yet, I see.” My voice wavered only a little bit, and Jim hugged me again.
“He threatens to every time he has to ride with me. I’m just pointing out a few home truths here, Chief. There are so many idiot drivers out there. Hell, you must have seen tons of them, when you were driving a truck.”
And people thought that big, gruff Jim Ellison couldn’t be tactful. He was giving me an out because he could tell I had been close to crying again. ‘Thanks, Jim. I love you for that.’
“Man, there was this one time I was driving a load of milk from a dairy in Wisconsin…”
Blair told several stories about stupid drivers from his trucking days and then petered out. His breathing got heavier and he started blinking slowly. I didn’t say anything to him, just kept him tucked up next to me, his head resting on my shoulder. He eased off into sleep, and I thought about what I hadn’t brought up with him.
I hadn’t talked about my homework assignment from my spirit-pal. All this time, I’d assumed that Blair had been okay with being discreet about us being lovers. He certainly hadn’t objected to not telling anybody. He hadn’t made physical gestures out in public that would clearly spell out that we were a couple.
Of course, we had always touched each other a lot -- had since he’d hornswoggled me into showing up at his office at Rainier. I’d pushed right past his personal space boundaries and shoved him against the wall, irritated at him for trying to sell me such a looney-tunes idea about my senses being enhanced. And because he made me horny. He’d tripped my buttons right from the start, and I didn’t like feeling attracted to this little hippie conman. I was feeling mean about it when I slammed him into the wall, holding him off his feet, and pressing my entire body into his smaller one. I was hard, but Blair’d never said if he had noticed my erection that day. Maybe I’d ask him about it before we return to Cascade.
I’d been attracted to him, but I had kept it locked down – sort of. The way I’d touched him wasn’t the way most male friends touched. But Blair never pulled away from me, never seemed to catch on that I’d crashed his boundaries pretty inappropriately. I’d figured out what I was doing, helped along by overhearing many comments from other people speculating about our sleeping arrangements. I didn’t stop it, though. No, I liked doing it too much to stop. And once Blair had taught me about pheromones and signs of arousal, I knew for certain he was hot for me, too. But he didn’t act on our mutual attraction, not until everything else in his life had been shit-canned.
It had been sweet to finally have him. To lay him out on my bed, touch him in all the places I hadn’t touched him before his admission of desire for me. I could make him mewl and scream, hold him down as he shuddered from my teasing him to the peak of arousal. I liked to cuddle him after sex – he liked it, too, the little shit – but he would always give this great suffering sigh, like he was only letting me hold him as a favor to me. It amused me, mostly.
Towards the end of our time together, it had felt so damn ironic – like a farce – that he would let me hold him physically when I felt he had left me emotionally. I knew it was unfair of me to think he was acting like a whore with me by doing that. But that thought had rooted itself in my mind and it had made me so jealous of whoever was stealing him away from me.
And I hadn’t asked him yet about his lover from Cascade, although whatever relationship they’d had obviously hadn’t lasted very long. I’d decided that I would forgive him; after all, it was me who’d pushed him away at the end. Besides, I didn’t want to hand him too many emotional hot potatoes at a time. Blair was stressed and vulnerable; I’d only seen him have a panic attack once before, after a nightmare about Lash. Findley had told me he’d had a panic attack in jail, and this morning he’d had another one. I couldn’t dump everything I had been angry about – to be honest, some things I was still angry about – on him at once.
And I wanted to make him remember the good times we’d had together. I had never had a friend like Blair; he was so much fun to have around. We’d hang out at home or Blair would drag me to bars to try and pick up girls, but I had usually just enjoyed his company more than cruising for chicks. We went to basketball games and grocery stores together. We camped and fished, hosted poker night, and he’d take me to lectures and museums with him. Blair fit me and I fit him. I wanted us back. I wanted us to grow old together.
I would find out if he’d just caved in about my not wanting to tell anybody about the change in our relationship. Blair tended to put other people’s needs before his own. I should have remembered that about him and not taken it for granted that he’d tell me if he didn’t agree about not being out of the closet.
I had enjoyed holding his hand today. I think that had surprised him. I glanced down at my sleeping friend. My cutie-pie. I chuckled, remembering the look on his face when I’d relayed what those girls had called him.
I couldn’t tease him a lot, though, about being cute. Blair could be inventive and he was a genius. He would take his revenge if I pushed it too much. Still, I could think it all I wanted. As long as he didn’t develop mind reading powers.
I drove and Blair slept for another two hours, until he fidgeted himself awake. He pushed away from me and shook his head a little.
“Yes, my little genius?”
Blair gave me a narrow-eyed look, which he spoiled by yawning before he was done intimidating me into dropping the pet names.
“How ya doing there, champ?” He was starting to look halfway alert and I wanted a status report.
“I’m fine. Just need to wake up a little more. And I’ll drink some water already, so you don’t have to tell me, Mother Hen.” Blair leaned down and removed a bottle of water from the cooler, and drank half of it. He wormed his hand into his jeans pocket and brought out the cough drops, shaking one out and popping it in his mouth. Yawning, he stretched and flexed his legs, and then reached over and picked up his notebook and pen from the floor, barely reaching them. His backpack was also on the floor, and he hooked it closer with his foot, then heaved it up onto the seat.
“What are --”
“I didn’t write down my information on Nathan Bergman before I fell asleep. I thought I’d do it while we’re on the road, and we can talk about the case afterwards. I want to know everything that’s been checked out. And it’d be better to do it now, while I can still think. Because when my fever gets too high, my brain just turns to mush.” He retrieved his glasses, and right before my eyes, Blair Sandburg, Teaching Fellow at Rainier University, appeared.
Blair opened his notebook and started making categories on different pages and methodically filling in the pages. We had maybe another hour before we finished skirting around Chicago, and then another hour or so till we reached the cabin at Kenosha, on the shores of Powers Lake, one of those small lakes that pepper the Wisconsin area near Lake Michigan.
I was ready to be done for the day. And I hoped that Blair would agree to another time-out for tonight. I was hungry to touch him again, and to sleep curled around him – hopefully without shackles this time. Soon, but not this evening, I wanted to make love to him, to make him remember what was good about us. I wanted him to be able to recover his energy and to agree to let me help him. And tomorrow I would talk to him about the things that had pissed me off so much, back in Cascade.
A Fair Distance:Ball and Chain. Chapter Six