DISCLAIMER : This story refers to characters and concepts from the television show "The Sentinel," which do no belong to me.
At the time I wrote this, I had a whole bunch of stories on the go, but this one just reached out and grabbed me by the throat and wouldn't let go until I wrote it. :-)
"Fold!" Blair threw down his hand in disgust. The cards just hadn't been with him this night, and even his legendary ability to bluff and outguess his opponents couldn't make up for the rotten luck he'd had since the beginning of the game.
He shoved his chair back from the table. "That cleans me out, guys. This poor grad student's completely out of cash." He looked around for sympathy, but everyone was totally concentrating on their cards and ignoring him entirely. It was like being in a roomful of sentinels all zoned out on the poker game.
"I'm gonna get a cold beer. Anybody else want something while I'm up?" No one paid him any attention as he stood, except for Jim, who waved a vague negative in his direction.
Despite the carefully blank expression the big man had schooled upon his face, Blair caught a predatory gleam deep in those blue-gray eyes. He quickly turned away from the group so that no one would see the smile light up his face. He knew instinctively that Jim had a really good hand and was getting ready to go for the kill. Jim's competitiveness was never more apparent -- leastwise to Sandburg -- than during a card game.
Before they'd become lovers, the young man had sometimes found it difficult to read his partner's frame of mind; but now it was as if Ellison's soul were spread out before him and he could read every mood and intention no matter how impassive his beloved's face.
A month! It was a whole month now since they'd acknowledged their love for each other... a month of bliss! A month of exploring each other's hearts and bodies, a month of trying to make up for the time they'd lost pretending they were "just friends."
Blair leaned his head against the cool porcelain of the refrigerator door for a moment before opening it to retrieve a bottle of Dakota Larger. Joel always made sure he stocked Jim's and Blair's favorite beer when it was his turn to host the weekly poker game. It was just one of the little ways that their buddy showed his friendship.
But Joel was a good friend in more than just the little ways. If it hadn't been for Joel's taking matters into his own hands, Jim and Blair would still be dancing around each other trying to hide their feelings from each other and from themselves.
Blair twisted the lid off the bottle and took a deep swig of the amber liquid without bothering to get a glass. As he savored the tart flavor running over the back of his tongue, he remembered another evening and another card game.
It had been his and Jim's turn to host the weekly event, and the game had gone on until very late. Joel had stayed after the others left in order to help them clean up. Then, exhausted, Blair had headed to his bedroom as Jim saw their friend to the door.
Taggert's voice had halted Blair dead in his tracks as the large man had suddenly turned around and shouted at them, "Stop it, the two of you!" He'd continued in a gravelly tone laden with some hidden emotion, "Tell him you love him, Jim. Can't you see it? He loves you. It's in his eyes whenever he looks at you. It's in your eyes too. Don't waste precious time denying what you're feeling. True love is too rare in this world to risk losing."
Jim and Blair had stared at Joel in shock. The tirade seemed to have come completely out of the blue and caught them totally by surprise.
Joel stopped abruptly and looked down at his feet. He was blushing so hard that his cheeks were crimson despite the dark chocolate of his skin.
"Life is so short," he'd whispered. Blair had to listen very hard to hear him. "Don't let a little thing like gender come between you."
Joel had straightened up and faced them then. His huge brown eyes were wide with sorrow and pain. "You ought to be together while you can... in each others' arms... in the same bed... together... while you can..." His voice broke. Then, moving so swiftly that neither Jim nor Blair had a chance to react, he'd pulled the door open and departed, leaving the two men staring at each other.
"Hey, Sandburg." Simon's voice brought Blair out of his reverie and back to the present.
Simon was busily pulling his wool sweater over his head. "Since you're sitting out this hand, would you mind putting this in the bedroom with my coat? Joel keeps this place hotter'n a furnace."
Blair grinned as he accepted the heavy garment. Everyone else was down to their teeshirts, and he'd been wondering how long it would take the captain to admit that he was feeling overheated as well.
When the young man arrived in the bedroom, he discovered that it was cooler than the rest of the cramped apartment. The heating vents were closed, and the window was cracked open to let in a faint current of fresh air.
He dropped the sweater on top of Simon's long trenchcoat and started back to the living room. The coolness was just too enticing, however; and he decided to stay a few moments longer to enjoy it. From the looks of things in the living room when he'd left, the betting was too intense for anyone to notice his absence.
Although the living room had held several paintings and good prints, Joel kept all his personal photos and momentos in his bedroom. Blair wandered around, picking up the occasional photograph to examine it a little closer.
As Sandburg looked around, he began to realize that Joel's entire world seemed centered around his life as a policeman.
Next to a mounted copy of his college diploma, there was a big framed photograph of a much younger, thinner Joel Taggert graduating from the Police Academy. There were several more photographs and framed newspaper clippings of Joel receiving various awards, including one from the governor for bare-handedly saving the life of a child from a pack of dobermans.
Even the personal pictures were all of Joel and his friends from the P.D.
Blair picked up a small Polaroid shot of Joel with Jack Pendergast and Jim. The three men wore hip waders and tacky fishing hats, and each proudly held up a tiny sunfish to the camera. Blair hadn't realized that Jim's and Joel's friendship went back that far.
Even Blair's own face appeared in several of the photographs, usually sandwiched in between Jim and Simon. The best of the pictures including himself was a candid shot of the Cigar Club. The guys were all dressed in their tuxes and proudly posed around Little Stogie. Jim was seated on the horse's back and happily waved an unlit cigar at the camera. Stephen had taken the picture with Joel's camera.
Finally Blair arrived on the far side of the room. There was only one picture on the nightstand, although there was a trace in the dust beside it where another picture frame would normally sit.
Curious, Sandburg picked up the picture and held it to the light for a better look. It was a prom picture of a gawky teen-aged Taggert stiffly holding the arm of a solemn-faced young Afro-American beauty tenderly clasping a bouquet of baby's breath over her distended stomach.
"She was my wife." The young man jumped as Joel's voice spoke softly from behind him.
Joel took the photograph from Blair's suddenly nerveless fingers. He stared at the picture intently before carefully placing it back on the nightstand.
"Hey, I'm sorry, man. I didn't mean..."
"It's okay," Joel interrupted the apology. "You weren't intruding. She died a long time ago."
"I'm sorry. How did she die?" He listened to his own nervous words and realized what he had just asked. "Shit! Forget I said that. I shouldn't be poking my nose into private matters."
"It's okay, Blair," Joel repeated, sitting down on the bed with a sigh. "She was killed in a drive-by shooting the week after this picture was taken." His eyes lost their focus as he continued, "They did a C-section to try and save the baby, but he was just too premature..."
"Oh, man, I... I..." Sandburg groped for words. "I didn't know."
Taggert took Blair's hand in his own big one and patted it gently. Blair felt as though the big black man was offering him the comfort that he should have been offering Joel.
"We had a year together, Blair. It wasn't enough. But we wouldn't have had even that much if we'd waited to graduate from high school before getting married. I'll always have that time to remember..." The smile on Joel's lips was tremulous but real.
Sudden understanding lit up for the young man. He spoke out loud as he marshaled his thoughts. "That's why you pushed Jim and me together, isn't it? Because you're a cop yourself, and you know how dangerous it is to be a cop, and you wanted to be sure that we had time to be together because something could happen to one or the other of us at any time..."
Joel nodded slowly, the sadness in his eyes almost too much for Sandburg to bear.
Impulsively Blair leaned forward and gave the man a big hug. "Thank you, Joel," he whispered. "You're the best friend!"
Then like quicksilver, Blair jumped up and almost ran back into the living room. After hearing Joel's story, he needed to see Jim, to hear his voice and to know that he was still alive.
It was after three a.m. when Joel sat down on the side of his bed. He'd cleaned the apartment from top to bottom after his friends left, trying to wear himself out so that he'd be too tired to think and remember when he tried to go to sleep.
With a sigh he reached over to the nightstand and opened the drawer. He drew out the picture he'd hidden there earlier before his poker buddies arrived. It was a picture he hid away each time it was his turn to host the game.
He laid the frame on his knees, kissed his fingers and pressed them against the cold glass.
He'd chosen to become a policeman in reaction to his wife's murder. Over time he'd learned the difference between vengeance and justice. The police force had become his life and his family. In the long years since Margie's death, he'd given up all hope of ever finding love again. Friendship had been enough.
Then Blair Sandburg had walked into Cascade Central and into Joel Taggert's barren heart... The police observer was so bright, so alive, so vivacious, so beautiful physically and spiritually that Joel had fallen in love with the young man as naturally as a flower opens to sunshine.
By the time he'd realized what was happening, it was too late. He loved Blair with all his heart and all his soul -- and Blair loved Jim Ellison! When you're in love yourself, you can recognize love in others.
If the love hadn't been returned, he'd have courted the anthropologist himself. For a while he'd debated with himself about saying anything to them until he realized that even if Blair and Jim never did get together, Blair would still love Jim -- only the young man would be miserable.
Slow tears leaked from his eyes. One by one they fell upon his hand and pooled around his fingers, obscuring the blow-up of himself and Blair standing side-by-side with Little Stogie. Their arms were wrapped around each other as they each waved smoking cigars at the camera. Until this evening, it was the only time they'd ever hugged.
"Be happy, my love," he husked. "Be happy."
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