The Scent of Roses
by Kate Holland
I still can't believe I came this close to being run over by a garbage truck. My memorial service would have been a riot as people tried not to laugh when they heard how I bought it.
Except I didn't die because Sandburg risked his life to save mine.
The little punk impersonates a doctor, tricks me into going to visit him, pisses the hell outta me (who's he calling a throwback?), then goes and saves my life.
And not just from the garbage truck. I thought I was finally going crazy until I met Sandburg.
He might drive me that way yet. One thing's for sure, it won't be dull.
But it wasn't Sandburg saving my life which impressed me, because all that proved was that he had fast reflexes and good instincts (though don't get me wrong, I was grateful). No, what impressed the hell out of me was the fact he had the stones to stand in the middle of the road and announce to the world that he was scared shitless.
I guess 'That sucks!' qualifies - I'm still getting a handle on Blair-speak.
It's a rare man who'll admit fear in public but there wasn't a trace of self-consciousness in his announcement, just--
You have to wonder what he eats for breakfast to generate that amount of energy.
Anyway, that was the first time he won my respect. It was enough to make me forget the lie which had brought us together and start to take him seriously.
Save a guy's life in some parts of the world and he becomes your responsibility. Imagine that scenario, Blair Sandburg responsible for my safety.
Maybe that's not so far out. He helped keep a busload of people alive.
Perhaps I can work with him. Hell, I have to. What alternative do I have?
The paperwork took forever, as usual, but at last we were free to go home. I'd already called Carolyn and cancelled our dinner because it was pretty obvious I wasn't going to be ready for eight. Besides, after the day we'd just had I wanted a quiet evening over a takeout and a game, not armed warfare when I was least expecting it.
It's ironic that the statements and reports had taken longer than tracking down Veronica. Sandburg had made his statement. It was a masterpiece, never once actually acknowledging that we knew one another. I'll give the kid one thing, he's one hell of an observer - and unlike a lot of people, his memory doesn't fail him under stress.
I'd hoped to drop him off at Rainier and be back at the loft by nine but a water main had burst on Seventh and Vine and traffic was stacked. Tempers were fraying, car and truck horns blaring and I thought my head was going to split open with the noise. Finally we were free and I put my foot on the accelerator - I needed some time alone to process what had happened. Decide exactly how Sandburg and I were going to work together.
I almost ran the damn light in my preoccupation, only our belts stopping us from slamming into the windshield, the heels of Sandburg's hands smacking into the dash. He gave a quickly stifled yelp.
"What?" I demanded, on the defensive. So help me, if he made one crack about my driving -
It was then that I noticed the gravel burns on the heels of his hands. Nothing serious but they had to smart.
"Did the paramedics take a look at those?" I asked, resisting the urge to get out of the truck and give the guy behind me a ticket for being such an asshole. The noise was spiralling out of my control and -
Pulling into the first parking space I saw I switched off the engine. I wanted to throw up.
Damn it, I wanted to be normal!
The noise of the traffic was splitting my skull open, the reek of diesel and gas and hot dogs and the decomposing seagull under the bush in the front yard at the end of the block and my clothes felt like wirewool scratching my skin and that damn noise I'd been hearing ever since Sandburg took me off to smell the roses was driving me crazy and--
"--hear me, Jim. That's good, man. Yeah. Excellent. Follow my voice." His voice gentled. "Hey, how you doing?"
I blinked and focussed on Sandburg's tired-looking face less than a foot away from mine. While he was making a pretty good job of hiding it, I could see he was almost as terrified by what had happened as I was.
"I did it again, didn't I," I recognized flatly. I could feel the tension crackle down my vertebrae.
"Yes, you did. But you responded to my voice pretty quickly."
"What if I don't?" That damn sound was back again. The one I'd been trying to pinpoint through the noise of Cascade at night.
Sandburg slapped me lightly on the forearm - the one he'd been holding. "That's not gonna happen, man. We'll get on top of this."
I gave him a quizzical look. "What's with the 'we', Professor?"
"I wish. I'm just a simple TA."
I gave him a skeptical look. It was becoming increasing obvious that there was nothing simple about Sandburg.
I had a headache that was making me squint, even my skin was starting to hurt, and the air was thick with the stench of city life.
"We will crack this," Sandburg said, his eyes never leaving mine as he patted my forearm again.
The barrage of sensation muted until it was back at a level close to normal. An ambulance sped by, siren blaring, and I didn't even flinch.
Sandburg gave an approving beam. "See, you've got it under control already. That is so cool. How - ?"
"Not now,"I snapped. That damn noise was back, clearer and louder than before.
The silence must have lasted for all of thirty seconds.
"You want me to drive?" he asked. He was darting these worried looks my way when he thought I wouldn't notice.
"Not in this lifetime," I growled.
Damned if Sandburg didn't just grin and relax back in his seat. Then he was talking nineteen to the dozen about male dominance amongst some tribe or another.
Truth be told, it was kind of interesting. His voice isn't the kind that grates on the nerves and he had the knack of holding the attention. I was feeling pretty good by the time I pulled up beside his car.
The two tyres I could see were both flat.
"Oh, man. That's the second time this semester," he groaned. As he got out to look at the damage I checked the area - everyone was snug in their dorms, the perp long gone.
Without warning it began to rain.
"Get back inside," I told Sandburg, who was looking like a kicked puppy as he surveyed his four flat tyres. "It doesn't look like you'll be rushing off anywhere tonight." I fished my phone out of my jacket pocket and handed it to him. "You want to call recovery?"
He shook his head. "No point. I couldn't afford to renew my sub. Hey, enough with the disapproving looks. I know it was dumb, OK? But there were these books I just had to buy and - "
"Take your hand off my arm," I told him.
It was a simple request, quietly worded. Well, maybe I could have phrased it better but from the expression on his face you'd think I'd just smacked him across the mouth. His eyes widening, he put up his hands, palms outwards in the universal sign of non-aggression. The really odd thing was that he didn't look scared, just - Hurt, damn it.
"Chill out, man. There's no need to go postal on me. That headache's come back, hasn't it? There are some herbal teas you should try. I'll make you a list of - "
"Sandburg, shut up," I told him mildly. "I didn't mean that the way it sounded, all right?"
He gave me those big eyes. "Oh," he said, just before the fifty megawatt smile kicked in. No wonder the girl in the perfume shop was so helpful. Fetishes, yet.
"So how did you mean it?" Sandburg asked, approximately five seconds later. Grass won't ever grow under his feet, that's for sure.
"I meant will you stop touching me. I should have added 'stop talking'. I'm trying to pinpoint the source of this noise I've been hearing ever since - "
"Yeah? That's so cool. Try to focus - "
I gave him a look. I should have known he'd just grin at me before giving me a pat of encouragement.
"You can do it, man. Just concentrate, filter through the levels of noise and start to tune them out."
Bolstered by his confidence, and with the reassurance of knowing he'd haul me out of a zone, I started to do as he suggested. It was like clearing out a cupboard, removing items one by one until you were only left with -
I blinked and concentrated some more.
No, that sound was definitely coming from Sandburg. I checked him over but I couldn't see anything to account for the noise that was -
I couldn't decide exactly what it was doing, just that I didn't like it. Well, that wasn't strictly true. It wasn't that I didn't like it - it was kind of comforting even while it seemed to sharpen my ability to concentrate - it was just that I didn't like the idea of anything I couldn't identify.
I sniffed a few times and felt Sandburg push me away.
"Cut it out, man. This is seriously weird. You'll be telling me what I had for lunch next."
"You skipped lunch," I reminded him.
"As I recall, I didn't have much choice." For a moment the energy was gone, revealing just how tired he was. His hands were throbbing and he had a headache at least the equal of mine, although some of that could be due to low blood sugar.
"You were kind of busy," I conceded, driving out of the car park.
"Where are we going?" he asked.
"Back to my place for a pizza and beer. We should talk."
"Well, that's a new one," said Sandburg dryly.
I grinned despite myself, and batted his curls. "Set a few parameters," I said.
"Why doesn't this sound like fun?" he mused.
"Are you up for it or not?" I demanded, surprised by how much his answer mattered. My life in the hands of some irresponsible -
Unfair. It wasn't Sandburg's fault I was a freak, even if he didn't seem to view my abilities in that light.
"Sure. That is, on one condition." Like magic the bounce and fizz was back.
"Of course I'll pay," I said. "I figure it's the least I can do after you saved my life."
"I don't need payment."
Damned if I hadn't offended him. Not that he said anything but it was in his flattened voice and his breathing and heartbeat had changed and--
I guess I did take that left turn kind of fast.
"Jim! You want to tell me what's going on here because I can tell you I'm *this* close to freaking, man. Jim? Oh jeez, please don't zone while you're driving."
"I won't zone," I told him, pulling up only a few yards from the entrance to the loft. "I just wanted to be able to talk to you. Come on up."
"OK," he said, but he looked spooked.
Halfway up the second flight of stairs he stopped dead.
"You want to tell me what that was all about?"
I gave him an encouraging push forward. "Chill, man."
"Now you really are creeping me out," he said with conviction, but the smile was back in his eyes and he went up the rest of the stairs like he had springs attached to his feet.
I unlocked the door, flicked on the light, checked out the place, and let him in. Pizza ordered, I took a couple of beers from the fridge, tossed one to Sandburg and told him to make himself comfortable.
Big mistake. His jacket going one way, the contents of his backpack were spread across the coffee table, couch and boards before I could blink.
It didn't take either of us long to dispose of those beers. I fetched another couple.
"So what was the rush to get here?" asked Sandburg, once he had stopped giving my place the once-over. While he didn't reach for his notebook, I was under no illusions - he hadn't missed a thing.
"I finally realized what it is. That noise I've been hearing. It's you."
He looked vaguely indignant. "Like your stomach doesn't rumble when you're hungry."
I batted his head with the heel of my hand, with just enough force to ruffle those curls. He turned and grinned at me, fearless. Though that was no surprise. Even when I'd thrust him up against the wall of his own office he'd been prodding my chin with his finger.
Balls the size of Texas.
"So what - specifically - is this noise I'm making?" Sandburg asked. "I hope it's nothing disgusting." If he had a self-conscious bone in his body where bodily functions were concerned I was the Emperor of China.
"It's your heartbeat. And when you touch me it makes it easier to focus, to filter through the input."
He gave me a look of blank surprise. "What do you mean, when I touch you?" It was about then that he noticed his hand resting between my shoulder blades in the lightest of contact.
"Oh," he said, looking disconcerted and uneasy at the same time.
"Your hero Burton didn't mention this then?" I said dryly. It was kind of nice to see him at a loss for a change.
Sandburg shook his head, mind clearly elsewhere.
Luckily the pizza arrived just before he started with the questions. Not that eating slowed them down any. He must have damn good lungs because he rarely pauses for breath, but eventually he wound down, the pizza a distant memory, beer finished and a mug of coffee going cold in front of him.
"The main thing is that you're already getting a handle on your senses. You're doing great, Jim. But like it or not, some tests would really help. Maybe certain everyday chemicals or foodstuffs are impacting on your senses. You really should think about investigating - Damn, is that the time? I should go. I'm giving an eight o'clock class tomorrow."
"I'll drive you home," I said, just before I saw my three empty bottles on the table.
"I don't think so," he said. "I'll get a bus."
"At this time of night? I'll call a cab."
"Uh, no." He'd insisted on paying half the cost of the pizza and it was just occurring to me that expenditure might have cleaned him out. I didn't know much about teaching assistants but I could remember what it was like trying to make ends meet as a student.
"You'd better have the couch then," I said. Damn, where had that come from? I must be mad. Give Sandburg an inch and he'd be rummaging through my life, video camera in hand.
"No camera," I added.
"Jim," he protested, but that tooth and gum grin of his acknowledged the hit. "OK, I get the picture. Thanks."
He began to clear away the takeout cartons, neatly disposing of them in the trash before rinsing off the forks we'd used. That little display of domesticity didn't impress me - I'd seen the way his belongings were travelling through the loft like some fast growing mold.
"I didn't expect you to be such a neat freak," I remarked when he swung round and caught me watching him.
"Leave food or dirty plates around and you risk attracting all kinds of vermin," he said absently.
"Roaches?" I asked with sympathy. Been there, never want to do that again.
"Something like that," he said vaguely.
It occurred to me that Mr Let's Talk It Out was probably pretty good at keeping his own life a closed book. There again, he was an anthropologist, I was his subject.
And I'd been dumb enough to offer him a bed for the night.
"This is a great place, Jim."
"Yes, well, don't get too fond of it, Darwin. Come morning you're out on your ear. What time do you need to be up?"
He grimaced. "Six thirty. I'll be as quiet as - " His voice trailed away. "Which won't make any difference where you're concerned, will it." His shoulders slumping, for a moment he forgot to project and it was obvious just how tired he was. "I don't know why I didn't think of it before. I can walk home."
"Relax," I told him, the flat of my hand against his chest. "I'm usually awake around seven. It won't kill me. Go take a shower while I find you some bedding. Help yourself to anything you need. You'll find clean towels in the cupboard outside the door."
He ambled off with a mumbled thanks, the shower splattering into life a little while later.
I swear he fell asleep the moment his wet head hit my dry cushion. Trying not to think about it, I headed into the bathroom.
How could one sleepy grad student do so much damage in so little time?
Still, it wasn't like he'd be making a habit of it.
Showered, the bathroom cleaned, I fell asleep to the sound of his heartbeat.