"What do you think-- lamb or pork chops?" Blair held up the two plastic-wrapped packages. "Jim? Hello? Are you zoning on me, man?"
His partner and roommate, Detective James Ellison, pulled himself out of his tired slump and pushed the shopping buggy closer. After a prerequisite stare at the two choices, he shrugged. "Whatever you want, Sandburg. It doesn't matter much to me." Ellison picked up a package of chicken breasts and tossed it into the buggy, then moved down to the sausages.
Blair considered the two packages and decided on pork chops. He'd had enough 'lamp chop' jokes lately. Not that Jim looked much in the joking mood today. He'd have to tread easy around the big guy.
It had been a long week, culminating that afternoon with the two of them being fished out of the water after they had jumped from the pier near the Science Center to help rescue a woman who had fallen in. They had sat around for almost two hours in damp clothes before they got back to the police station where they could shower and change. Blair had congratulated himself for finally listening to Jim and packing that extra bag of clothes in the truck; he now saw the value in it.
And when he repacked it later that night, he'd remember to add his own shampoo and conditioner this time. The stuff at the police station was so generic, he had passed on using it, just letting the water and a little Ivory soap get the worst of the ocean salt water out of his hair. When he got home, he'd have another shower and clean up properly. The Ivory soap had left his hair flying in all directions and full of knots.
Not that Jim had to worry about that kind of thing, probably why he'd never mentioned to Blair to put shampoo in the emergency bag.
A quick look around and he spotted his partner at the edge of the meat department, a decidedly unpleasant look on his face. Dropping the pork chops in the buggy, he tried not to grimace at Jim's choice of sausage--so not healthy. "The smells from all this raw meat and fish must be pretty bad, huh?" he asked.
Ellison nodded. "Not to mention your hair, Sandburg. It smells even worse than usual."
Blair shrugged. "I'll shower when I get home."
"More fruit salad," Jim muttered, moving the buggy toward the dairy section.
"What was that? We need fruit? But I bought some at the vegetable market near us yesterday. There's lots left." Blair stared at the row of milk cartons and tried to remember which milk he was supposed to get. It was the stupidest thing to constantly forget--if Jim liked 1% or 2%. How long had he been living at the loft now? A year and a half?
"Never mind." Ellison left the cart and pulled open the glass door, retrieving the correct milk.
Oh. Right. "Need eggs?"
Blair put the eggs in the buggy, then glanced back at his friend. "What did you mean by 'never mind'? Am I missing something here? Something bugging you? You're kinda quiet."
Ellison waved off the question. "Just tired, Sandburg. Wind it up here, okay. The place is starting to give me a headache, between the lights and the noise and the smells."
"Try turning the dial--"
"I'm too tired. I don't want to hear about it." Ellison turned away, pausing by one refrigerated counter long enough to scoop up a two-pound block of cheddar cheese.
"Fine. I'm going to get some more shampoo and stuff. Can you handle the bakery section on your own?" he asked quietly, knowing Jim would still hear him.
Ellison turned around slowly and stared at him. "What?" The famous Ellison blank, cold stare. "Think I can't handle choosing which bread to get, Sandburg?" He walked away from the buggy. "It's all yours, chief. You deal with it. I'll get your shampoo."
"Do you know which kind--?"
"I smell it every day. In my bathroom. In my kitchen. In my living room. Beside me in the truck. At my desk. Every damned place I go with you. Yes, I think I can find the rotten bowl of fruit you put on your head."
Blair jerked back in surprise. "What the hell are you talking about, man?"
"You walk around all day smelling like a mixed bowl of fruit. Green apple this. Peach that. Mango this. Banana that. How long has this fruit fetish been going on, Sandburg?"
Blair blinked. "I don't have a fruit fetish. If the smell bothered you, why didn't you say something?"
"The worst part is mixing you up with all those other smells. And then they start to fade during the day. In the morning, banana is strongest. Then around noon, that smell is almost gone and your peach-scented conditioner comes to the surface. If you start touching your hair, tucking it behind your ear or whatever, that seems to release the green apple shampoo scent."
"Okay, man. Okay." Blair held his hands up in surrender, half-laughing. "I'll change them. No sweat."
"And your deodorant-- what scent is that supposed to be?"
Blair had slowly been edging closer as Jim's voice got louder and louder. "Can you keep it down?" he mumbled, glancing around at the onlookers with a forced smile on his face. "I don't want to discuss my deodorant with the world in general. I'm kinda funny that way."
"Fine." Ellison looked away.
"The deodorant is baby-powder scented, okay? Happy?" Blair whispered.
"Delirious. Go get a loaf of bread and head to the check out. I'll get your shampoo."
"And your conditioner."
Blair watched Ellison stomp down the aisle. Yikes. Are you in a bad mood or what? What was that all about? My conditioner? I don't think so, man. Sandburg scooted over to the bakery, grabbing the bread, another loaf of cranberry bread that looked good, and then some bagels. Which meant another trip to the dairy section for cream cheese.
On his way to the check out, he glanced down one of the aisles to see his partner in an intense study of what looked like one thousand different kinds of shampoos, conditioners, cream rinses, hot oil treatments, and other hair products. He started to move on, then ground to a halt when he noticed that Jim was taking the tops off the bottles and sniffing at them, setting a few on the floor at his feet.
Abandoning his laden shopping cart to one side of the aisle, he slowly approached Jim. "Need some help there?"
No answer. Just a lot of sniffing.
"Hey, big guy. It's me, here. Blair? How about I just grab my usual stuff and we can have this discussion tomorrow? Right now, I think we both need some dinner, a hot shower, and a lot of sleep."
No answer. More sniffing. Another bottle put on the floor as Jim made his way down the rack.
Blair stood watching. "I don't think you're supposed to take the tops off, Jim."
One of the previous bottles was retrieved and a scent comparison done between three different bottles. Only one made it back to the floor.
"What are you doing? Some kind of experiment here? Are you identifying the products by scent? Is there some kind of brand name scent they each have? Can you tell which ones used animals to experiment on during the researching? Do some have--"
"Hold this." Ellison thrust a bottle at him, then about ten more. The detective gathered the other twenty in his arms and started off down the aisle.
"Uh, Jim. I only actually need one of each of these. We've got way too many here."
"This way." Ellison disappeared around the corner, and with a plaintive look back at his shopping buggy, Blair scrambled after him.
"Where are we going? The check out's the other direction. What do you need with all these? You're not going to complain about them, are you? Are they being confiscated? What did I miss here? What's going on, Jim?"
Ellison stopped and turned around to face him. "Stand here."
"We're in the toy department, Jim."
Ellison was placing all his hair products on the floor.
"Do you want these down here, too? What are you doing? Are we going to use them as pins and do some heavy bowling here, Jim? I don't think the manager is going to like that much."
"Stand at the other end of the aisle. Against the wall."
Blair shuffled his feet, not going anywhere. "Sounds a little strange, Jim. You're starting to freak me out a little, man. Want to clue me in on what's going on?"
Ellison held up a hand that shut him up. Blair went and stood at the end of the aisle, glaring sideways at a rather large, purple, stuffed dinosaur. After a few moments of choosing a shampoo, the detective seemed to consider something and said, "Stay right where you are," then disappeared back to the personal products area.
"So... do you run into this problem often, here at the store?" Blair asked Barney. "No, I didn't think so."
Ellison was back in less than a minute, tossing Blair a new bottle of his deodorant. "Hold this. And this." A bottle of shampoo followed. Blair stood self-consciously at the end of the aisle, a bottle held up in each hand.
"Uh, what's up, Jim?"
Ellison shook his head, frowning. "Toss it back."
Blair tossed it, then caught a replacement. Ellison sniffed carefully, shaking his head, and muttering something that Blair's un-Sentinel ears couldn't hear.
"What was that?"
"Toss it back."
"Jeez, Jim, what--" Again the abrupt hand motion of the police detective cut off what he was going to say. He tossed the bottle back. "This better be good, Jim."
The next few minutes were a blur of bottles of all shapes, sizes, and colors passing back and forth. Jhirmack. Finesse. Vidal Sassoon. Aussie. Salon Selective. Pert. White Rain. Vital Care. Halsa. At least, Jim seemed to have chosen shampoos for normal hair conditions.
"So . . . what's happening here Jim? Talk to me, big buddy. Is this my own private-scent, aroma-matching thing happening?"
Ellison wasn't listening. He was totally focused on whatever had grabbed his attention with his senses.
Someone needs a long nap, I think, and it's not me. "Jim? Almost done? This is all very interesting, but we could do this better under proper lab conditions." At least, Ellison had chosen the toy department, probably the only area in the store that wasn't a haven of over-lapping odors. It kept any obtrusive scents away from his concentration. The deodorant bottle never changed, but the rest seemed to come and go. Product lines started out together, then were split and tried with different combinations. It was Jim's intensity about it all--and his silence--that was unnerving Blair. The whole thing was just a little too weird.
That and an entire row of Barbie dolls that were all staring at him now.
He caught a familiar-looking bottle and looked at it. "Head and Shoulders, Jim? Are you trying to tell me something?"
No answer. He tossed it back when he was told to.
"Mane and Tail? Wait a minute! Jim, this is for horses!" The shampoo label didn't say anything about people on the front label. "Jim??"
"Toss it back," was the only comment, and Blair noticed with growing alarm that the horse shampoo was put in the stack to Jim's right, not the larger stack to his left.
The store didn't sell horse products, Blair tried to reason with himself. If it wasn't safe for humans it wouldn't be in the store. Did a shampoo made for horses count as something that used animals to test it in research? Possible ethical dilemma here, big guy.
Finally after much consideration, Ellison seemed to have reached some decision. "Let's get these put away, chief." He reached down and scooped up most of the bottles, and Blair rushed to catch one, then clean up the rest of them.
Sandburg smiled sheepishly at one of the store clerks as she stared at him as he passed. "Just a little price comparison. We're putting them back now," he reassured her, trying to find a smile.
By the time he reached the hair products section, Jim had his stack put away, then he reached for Blair's. Finally they were all back on the shelves and Blair was left holding the deodorant and one other bottle.
"Need this?" Ellison asked, taking the deodorant. Blair nodded, and the detective tossed it in their buggy, still waiting for them nearby.
"So this is the winner, is it?" Blair mimed a little drum roll. "Ladies and gentlemen, the winner of the James Ellison Shampoo Selection is . . ." He held the bottle up. "Johnson's Kids No More Tangles Shampoo." His eyes widened. "Oh, come on, Jim. Get serious. This is for kids. I may be vertically challenged, but I don't think that jokes are necessary--"
"It's for long or thick hair," Ellison said, not looking at him. He seemed to be studying the extra-large, economy bottles on the bottom shelf.
"I see that, but, get real. I am not--I repeat, not--putting this on my hair."
"Goes with your baby powder deodorant," Ellison said, still not looking at him as he slowly walked down the aisle, staring at the bottom shelf.
Blair undid the hot pink top of the bottle and sniffed at it. "Jim, this stuff stinks. No way, man."
"No more tears, chief."
"What?" He glanced at the label again. "Jim, you've got a serious problem happening here. Let's get you home and horizontal on the couch."
Finally Ellison found what he was looking for and retrieved two bottles. He dumped them haphazardly into the cart and headed off. "Put it back on the shelf, chief. Let's get going."
Relieved, Blair put the kids' shampoo back and ran after his partner.
As they emptied the cart onto the conveyer belt, he grabbed at the shampoo. Herbal Essences. "Made with Rosemary, Jasmine, and Orange Flower in Mountain Spring Water." He fished around for the conditioner. "Made with Sage, Jasmine, and Soy Protein in Mountain Spring Water," he read. Tentatively, he sniffed at them both, his eyes looking beyond to meet Jim's. The smell was kind of nice. Like the gentle herb shampoo he used to use before the little store closed down and he couldn't get it any more. It made him feel calmer. Quiet.
He nodded at Jim, embarrassed suddenly that the older man would have chosen this. "Thanks."
Ellison shrugged, took the bottles from his hands and put them on the belt for the clerk to ring through. "It doesn't get in the way of you." Ellison handed over the money, then reached back and pulled Blair after him out to the car. "Let's go home, chief. I'm hungry."
They were both quiet on the drive home, and Blair found himself glancing back to the groceries, tucked behind the front seat of the truck. The large economy size. This partnership thing was going to last awhile. Home suddenly had a nice sound to it. And maybe, for Jim, a nice smell to it.
He was glad Jim was concentrating on the road because Blair knew there was huge, silly grin on his face that was going to take awhile to wear off.
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