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Fathers' Day

Chapter Text

 

It felt like he’d been living like this forever. Lost in an eternal limbo, going nowhere despite keeping constantly on the move, striving hard to exist only in the moment.

If there was a purgatory, Blair had to admit, late at night in the dark and the quiet when he could no longer escape the turmoil of his thoughts and memories, then this was definitely it.

He had no intention of turning back, though, despite the fact that his life utterly lacked direction. Nothing to turn back to, in any case. Bridges burned, ties cut, love’s labor lost.

Up the creek without a paddle.

Okay, that last part wasn’t strictly true. He had plenty of paddles, not the least of which was his resourcefulness, which even he had to admit he possessed in spades. Years of trying his hand at any opportunity he was presented with and giving it his best shot had made him into a more employable individual than most. The fact that he’d once been the fastest torch in his crew was the only thing that truly mattered in his current line of work - admissions of academic fraud were completely irrelevant to the guys who did the hiring and firing.

So he strove and he sweated and he pushed himself mercilessly, and he continued to put bread on the table as he aimlessly drifted from city to city and state to state, with no destination in mind other than where the wind blew and work could be found. He kept breathing, kept going, kept his body alive. And if his soul sometimes clamored at him for a bit of nurturing, well tough shit. He’d had his chance once and he’d blown it, big time, and had ultimately lost everything he’d ever truly cared about.

It’s not that he couldn’t have found different work, more rooted in the cerebral than the physical, if he’d wanted to. He was the king of bullshit, the master of obfuscation. When the hard questions came about his lack of references or dubious past, he could have talked his way round it if he’d wanted to. A bit of effort, a bit of creative spiel, and he’d be in, no problem.

But whenever he contemplated doing so his heart would pound like he’d run a marathon. Explanations would mean going there in words, going to that place he tried so hard to avoid even in his thoughts. Twisting the catalyst which had given rise to the worst experience of his life into a positive even he did not feel, and could not possibly convey without lying through his teeth.

He’d told enough lies. He wasn’t about to tell another one now.

So instead he chose the easier path, the toiling of his body in twelve-hour, unforgiving shifts far less daunting than the prospect of putting a positive spin on his worst nightmare. And over time his soft, scholar’s hands became rough and callused with toil, and what little spare body fat he’d once sported turned to hard, corded muscle.

And somehow, he kept breathing.

But oh, it was a lonely road. It wasn’t as if Blair was a stranger to a transient existence, or interaction without true depth. If he was honest, he had to admit that he’d lived almost his entire life hiding who he truly was behind a facade, masking his vulnerabilities behind a confident, jovial mask. But as he watched the camaraderie of his fellow workers from the sidelines, their rough, masculine affinity for their fellows expressed through ribald jokes and pounding backslaps, he’d never felt more truly on the outside than he did now. Their language was not his language; their talk of wives and girlfriends and children, articulated through battered photos plucked creased and worn from grimy pockets and passed around proudly, discourse he could never reciprocate.

He had only one photo in his possession - his mother and his stepfather, taken on the day they got married. But he could never even bring himself to look at it, let alone share it with his workmates.

“See this?” one of his co-workers - Rodrigo - was saying now, holding up a piece of brightly-colored paper as Blair’s crew took a break, devouring flasks of strong coffee and the lunches their significant others (those who had them) had lovingly packed for them. “My little girl made this for me at the weekend. My little Pedra. It was for fathers' day. She’s three years old.”

Blair ate his own lunch – packed by himself, without care or ceremony – and felt a pang of unexpected agony deep in his gut as some of the others – fathers themselves, at least one of them a grandfather – expressed approval as they studied the hand-made card, before launching into their own stories of the previous day’s festivities. “My wife, she cooked dinner,” one told them. “All my children came. My eldest, Eva, she gave us some news. She's expecting her third child!”

It was strange, this deep pain he felt, Blair mused as he watched the enthusiastic congratulations that followed. He’d never known his own father, had never really registered that fathers' day even existed before. He’d never known what it was like to celebrate it; had never known a father’s pride in his child, like these men he worked with. Never would, unless he someday became a father himself.

He couldn’t imagine that ever happening.

The events of that brief interlude, during the long, arduous day which followed, stayed with him like a stone in his belly, weighing him down, so that his sense of outsiderness and aloneness had become acute by the time he walked in the door of his small, stark room with its peeling wallpaper and faded furniture. The noise of the other inhabitants of the building easily penetrated through the thin walls, driving home his isolation still further. A woman shouting, a young baby crying, a man laughing, T.V channels blasting out the evening news and soap operas in Spanish.

It was maybe that which made him do it; which made him make the call. The need to re-establish his own connection with humanity; to hear the voice of someone he loved, no matter what lay between them.

The phone was answered after two rings. “Ellison.”

Blair couldn’t speak, his hand white-knuckled on the phone.

But it seemed no introductions were necessary. “Chief,” Jim breathed. “Where are you?”

The tenderness in Jim’s voice was too much. “I... I can’t...” Blair gasped brokenly. “I’m sorry.”

“Blair,” Jim urged softly. “Come home. Please.”

Blair swallowed, the lump in his throat precluding speech. Jim’s voice was so perfectly kind, so beloved and so desperately longed for, he almost said yes.

Almost.

Then another voice intruded. “Who is it sweetie?” he heard his mom say in the background.

There was a pause. Then Jim answered, “It’s nothing, Naomi. Go back to bed, I’ll join you soon.”

Another pause ensued, during which Blair couldn’t have spoken if his life depended on it. Then Jim murmured, “Come home, Blair. I love you. I miss you. We both do.”

Blair closed his eyes against excruciating, familiar agony, before decisively terminating the call.

Ruthlessly packing his emotions back where they belonged, dry-eyed now and composed, he looked at the phone he held in his hand, before setting it down.

“Happy fathers' day, Jim,” he whispered.

 

Chapter Text

 

Whenever Blair began to feel like he was getting too settled, too mired in routine, he would pack his bags, buy a bus ticket and move on.

He was enough of a psychologist to understand that he was essentially punishing himself by doing so. He didn’t deserve contentment, security or comfort, and so he denied himself those things. He didn’t belong anywhere, and so he would not set down roots or make anything approaching a new start or a fresh connection with others. 

His constant self-denial and the type of work he chose to engage in were physical manifestations of the deep pain he felt. His body’s privation was a way of expressing his internal turmoil; a kind of catharsis which he even, somewhat perversely, sometimes found satisfying. It hurt to work his ass off all day on a construction site, then go home to a sparse, empty room, absent of human companionship and the comforts of home. But damn, so often that hurt felt right.

After a while, moving on became a routine in itself. He grew to recognize the signs of itchy feet. It usually came when he realized that he suddenly knew the names of not only his co-workers, but the names of their significant others too. Sometimes it happened when a well-meaning neighbor would knock on his door to give him a bag of home-baked cookies or a casserole when he got home from work.

Usually, when that happened, he would leave the very next day.

Sometimes, however, Blair had moments of weakness. Times when he longed badly for all the things (and the people) he kept so resolutely at arms’ length. Times when the isolation and the pain ate away at his resolve, and he wished desperately to be held just one more time in his mother’s arms. Times when he didn’t hate Jim; when the memories of all the good things that they’d once been to each other were not obliterated by the great betrayal which had parted them.

It had happened, Blair now knew, in the months leading up to the dissertation disaster. Jim and Naomi had always gotten along well; surprisingly so, in Blair’s opinion, given their differences. 

It had baffled Blair at the time that Jim had been so angry with him, and yet had forgiven Naomi so easily for the mess they found themselves in. Now, of course, it all made sense. Naomi, Blair now understood, hadn’t arrived on their doorstep just to visit her son; Jim had invited her.

Naomi had not known at that time that Jim and Blair had once been more than friends. Not many people did know (although Blair sometimes thought that there were people – like Megan – who had guessed). It wasn’t something Jim had wanted to advertise. He’d thought it would complicate too many things – their working relationship, their standing at the PD, his fucking self-image.

They’d long-since broken up by the time that Blair’s dissertation was leaked. Several months earlier their relationship had been severely tested by Jim’s increasing irritability, and apparently desperate need for space. Blair had stoically endured being flayed by Jim’s irrational anger, thrown out of their apartment and even his own near-death, but had still come back for more, such was his love for and loyalty to Jim. 

But he’d finally reached his limit on a beach in Sierra Verde, when Jim locked lips with the woman who’d tried to kill him. 

Hurt beyond measure, Blair had told Jim the moment they’d arrived back in Cascade that enough was enough. Jim had accepted Blair’s decision to end their relationship with grace, clearly even more upset with himself than Blair was. And they’d never spoken of it again.

Blair had found himself, however, during the months afterward when they still shared an apartment but no longer shared a bed, incessantly questioning his rejection of Jim. He wondered endlessly whether there truly was something fundamentally wrong between them which made them ill-suited as a couple, or if it had actually been Alex’s presence in Cascade which had caused most of their problems. He wondered many times whether he had done the right thing in pushing Jim away. He never came to a firm conclusion, but the whole time he never stopped loving Jim, or hoping that, one day, they’d somehow work it all out. A future without Jim in it had, in fact, seemed unthinkable.

Jim and he remained friends, although their relationship became a little wary and strained, as though they hadn’t managed yet to re-draw the boundaries to accommodate its multiple complications. They ceased to share quite so much of their personal lives with each other, keeping their dates (with one or two notable exceptions) out of their home and out of each others’ faces. 

That, Blair was forced to conclude, was one reason that Naomi managed to slip so successfully under his radar.

It seemed that Jim and Naomi had been seeing each other for a while by the time the whole dissertation mess had come around, keeping that fact from Blair by mutual consent until it got too serious to keep him out of the loop any longer. They’d planned to tell him about it during her visit, but events had overtaken them all and, in the end, Jim and Naomi had postponed breaking the news until the smoke cleared.

Blair had wondered at the time, that fateful day in the bullpen when he’d been offered a badge, why Naomi had been there too, acting so delighted at the thought of him becoming a cop and Jim’s partner. Afterward it had all become clear – it was all so nice and neat, a story-book ending. Her son and her husband, fighting crime side-by-side and coming home to her for home-cooked meals; just one big happy family.

Yeah, right. It made Blair want to ask who she was, and what she’d done with the real Naomi.

Jim and his mom had at least had the grace to wait until after they’d left the PD to tell him the bad news, when the three of them were alone back at the loft. “We’ve had feelings for each other for a long time, although it’s only since Charlie and I ended our relationship that we decided to get together properly.” Naomi had told Blair, glancing at Jim with shining eyes as she spoke. “We were attracted to each other ever since we first met, in fact. You remember, sweetie? When I helped you both with that car theft case?”

“Really,” Blair had said flatly, staring Jim down, despite the other man not being able to meet his eyes. They’d been together back then, he and Jim, during Naomi’s first, eventful visit. He thought they’d been in love with each other. “That’s nice.”

Naomi, of course, had misread the source of Blair’s obvious unhappiness. “I know you don’t like the idea,” she said. “And I understand, sweetie. I do. Jim is your very close friend, and I’m your mom. But what you have to understand is that Jim and I, we have something very special. The kind of thing that comes along only once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky.” She came over and took Blair’s hands in her own, then. “Please be happy for us, Blair,” she beseeched him. “Please give us your blessing.”

Blair had done then what he’d always done when the going got tough – he got going. “I’m sorry, Naomi,” he said, jerking his hands away and breaking contact. And ignoring his mom’s uncomprehending, hurt expression he headed out without so much as a glance back at the two of them.

A couple of days later, when he was certain that the loft was empty, he came back, packed a bag and left for good. 

Occasionally, in his weaker moments, when the longing and the loneliness threatened his resolve, Blair would poke a little at the open wound, just to remind himself why he could never go back. That was how he knew, months afterward, that they’d gotten married. He’d gone online at a public library and entered Jim’s name into Alta Vista to see what came up, then he’d printed out the article he’d found on the Cascade News website, complete with a photo of the happy couple. He carried it with him in his wallet always; his own little piece of paper hell.

He’d found other things too, in different places. Things he didn’t expect but which didn’t really surprise him – he knew his mom, after all, and he guessed Jim would do anything to please her. Messages in personal ads, in newspapers all over the country. Blair, please come home. We love you. Mom and Jim. Also: Blair, my beautiful son, I love you and miss you so much. Please call me and let me know you’re safe. Naomi. And even: Chief, let’s talk. Call me anytime. I love you, Jim.

The recurring theme of love in those messages hurt almost more than anything Blair could imagine. How could two people profess to love him, and yet wound him so deeply?

It was way past time to move on again, Blair knew. He was getting too comfortable here; too settled, his life edging once more toward routine, yet still he hesitated to do what was necessary. It was getting harder every time.

Time for a reality check, then.

Jim answered on the first ring. “Ellison.”

“Does she know,” Blair demanded, not wasting time on niceties, “that we used to fuck?”

"No, she doesn't." There was a pause, then Jim asked, “Is that what you call what we did?”

“I used to put my cock in your ass,” Blair said, driven by harsh emotion to crudity. “You used to put yours in mine. What else would you call it?”

“I’d call it making love,” Jim said softly. “I loved you, Blair. Still do.”

“Yeah, right,” Blair said. “That’s why you blew me off and married my mom.” 

There was another long pause. Then Jim said, “The way I remember it, Sandburg, you were the one who ended it.”

“The way I remember it, you had your tongue down a woman’s throat,” Blair said starkly. “Oh yeah, not just any woman, was it? The one who tried to kill me. “ Blair snorted derisively. “Seems to me it was already over.”

Jim said nothing to that. Blair could hear him breathing, as close as if he was there, right beside him. Tears came to Blair’s eyes, unbidden. Goddamn him. Goddamn Jim for making him feel like this; feel this awful rage and grief and desperate yearning which never, ever went away. 

As if he knew – and god, of course he knew! He was a fucking sentinel, he could hear Blair’s heart pound across hundreds of miles of cable, could hear the painful hitches in his breath – Jim murmured, “I’m sorry. I never wanted to hurt you. If I could turn back time and change everything, I’d do it in a heartbeat. But I’ve got to live with the choices I’ve made and you...” Jim’s voice hitched a little now, “I just need to know that you’re okay, Chief. And not only that, your mom needs to know it. She’s really worried about you. It would help her a lot to her to hear from you, to hear your voice.”

Blair couldn’t talk to her, not yet. He was too angry, too hurt. He could call Jim like this once in awhile, perhaps; could unleash his bitterness and his anger upon him without restraint. But he couldn’t do that to Naomi. She didn’t deserve it – she was the innocent in all of this. 

“I’ll write to her,” Blair promised finally.

“Thank you,” Jim said sincerely. 

“Just promise me one thing, man,” Blair added.

“Anything,” Jim murmured.

“Don’t tell her. About us, I mean. If she ever finds out the real reason I left it’ll kill her. And I don’t want her hurt like that. Okay?”

“Okay,” Jim agreed.

“I mean it, man,” Blair went on. “You fucking hurt her like that or any other way, and I’ll kill you. I mean it.”

“I promise,” Jim said. “I don’t want her to be hurt either.” Blair heard him swallow. Then he needlessly added, “I love her, Chief.”

“That’s more than I need to hear from you right now,” Blair said wryly, “but I appreciate that you care about her. Just make sure you treat her right, man.” Blair couldn’t resist one more dig. “You’d better treat her better than you treated me, anyway.”

Somehow sensing that the battle was over - for now - Jim asked, “Are you doing okay?”

Blair laughed bitterly. “How do you think I’m doing?” Then realising how whiny that sounded, added, “I’m keeping busy, keeping alive. I’m not going to do anything stupid, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“Do you need anything?”

Blair snorted. “Not from you.”

“Can you tell me where you are?”

That was one step too far. “No,” said Blair flatly. “And even if you trace this call, I’ll be miles away from here an hour from now.”

“Okay.” Then, Jim asked tentatively, “Can I tell Naomi you called?”

“Didn’t you tell her the last time?” Blair said, surprised.

“I... I thought it would worry her,” Jim said. “You didn’t say a lot; you sounded pretty upset.”

That made sense, Blair supposed. He vaguely remembered being fairly incoherent. “You can tell her I called,” he conceded. “Tell her I’m okay. Tell her I’ll write.”

“Thank you,” Jim said. He sounded sincere.

Decisively, Blair broke the connection right after that. The thought of some long, drawn-out goodbye was more than he could bear.

Then, hardening his resolve once more, he went to pack his bag and get on the road.

Chapter Text

 

 

Blair truly lost it, for the very first time, under the healing hands of a massage therapist. The intensive relaxation, and the long-denied pleasure of being touched in ways which eased his hurt, unexpectedly obliterated his defenses, allowing him to grieve openly at long last.

“Is there anyone I can call for you?” the therapist asked, clearly dismayed by Blair’s sudden breakdown.

“No,” Blair could only gasp. “No one. There’s no one.” And recognizing the truth of that he delved into the store of willpower which kept him breathing, pulled himself together, apologized and fled.

Over the last couple of years, Blair had gradually gotten over the impulse to unceasingly punish himself, and had gotten on with the business of living. He’d needed to put a lot more space between him and Cascade before he’d been able to truly start over – a different country, a different life, an ocean away. The manual work he’d been using as a prop to keep him from thinking was finally cast aside, and he rekindled the brainpower he needed to drag himself out of limbo and reinvent himself afresh; recognizing once and for all that there could be no turning back.

He’d ended up travelling to England on a student visa, having enrolled on a Masters degree in a redbrick university in the Midlands, financing his study primarily with the generous funds which miraculously appeared one day in his bank account. It was, so Jim told him during one of their difficult, volatile telephone conversations, compensation he’d been awarded for the dissertation nightmare. It seemed that, despite turning his back on everything and everyone from his past, they had somehow failed to completely turn their back on him and had fought, in his absence, to clear his name.

He was almost done with his Masters degree, now, and had been accepted onto a PhD, due to start in the Fall at the same university. He was planning to stay here for the foreseeable future, hiding out where no one from his past knew him, immersing himself in study and shying away from forging new relationships other than those borne out of necessity. He rented a flat near the university, the sparsely furnished basement of a converted terraced house which he could never really bring himself to think of as home.

Blair had re-established contact with Naomi, and it was her sincerely and innocently expressed love and concern for him which had finally helped him to find some measure of peace and the strength to move forward with his life. She still didn’t know what it was that had upset him so badly – Jim had kept true to his word, and had never enlightened her about his past relationship with Blair. And Blair was grateful for that.

These days, Blair was weary of holding onto his anger. It was hard enough keeping a lid on his ever-present sadness, isolated as he was on the other side of the world, let alone finding the energy to stay so intensely furious at the two people he loved more than life, yet who had hurt him so very badly. He made a conscious effort (apart from on certain, specific occasions when he gave it its head) to let the negative feelings go, falling back on techniques his mother had first taught him so many years ago to help him get a handle on it – massage, meditation, yoga. It had helped – some. But true inner peace was still a long way off, and he’d never managed to gain enough equilibrium to agree to meet either one of them face-to-face.

Since he’d gotten back in touch with Naomi, Blair chose to communicate with her primarily by letter and email, because he was afraid if he didn’t take time to consider his words that he would confess everything in a moment of weakness, and that could never happen – he would simply never hurt her like that. He still called Jim on the phone from time to time, though. And he never knew on those occasions who he was torturing more by doing so – himself, or Jim. Their relationship had always been dysfunctional, but during their long estrangement it had reached new heights of co-dependent destructiveness.

Blair made his next call a couple of days after he’d broken down during the massage, waiting until late at night when he knew, due to the time difference, that Jim would have just gotten home from work back in Cascade, but Naomi would be out at a regular meeting of one of her groups. The last few days Blair’s fortitude had been lower than at any time since he’d arrived in the UK, so his hands shook as he dialed, his sense of vulnerability and isolation profound. He both longed for and dreaded this act, compelled to engage in it like a moth battering itself against a flame.

“Ellison.” Jim’s voice when he answered, as always, filled Blair with a conflict of emotion, such that he couldn’t speak right away. Jim, however, with his amazing gifts, easily detected it was him. “Blair?” he breathed.

“Yeah.” The word was scarcely above a whisper.

“Are you okay?”

Blair snorted, and found his voice. “Am I ever?”

There was a pause. Then, “What do you need?”

“To abuse you some more?” Blair said wryly, the unmistakable bitterness in his tone not quite making the words a joke. “Seriously, man, why do you put up with this? You could tell me to stop calling you, yet you never do. And it’s always me who hangs up first.”

“You know why,” Jim murmured, sounding oddly weary.

The resigned tone in Jim’s voice spurred Blair on to the crux of the matter. “You do it because you owe me, right? Or is it because you care? Because if so, you’ve got a strange way of showing it, you know?” He was warming to it, now. Getting into the flow, feeling the rage he kept deeply buried, apart from these rare moments, ignite and begin to burn. “How’s my mom doing, by the way? Hey, you never did tell me who was better in bed. Me, or her?”

There was silence on the end of the line and Blair wished, just this once, that Jim would fight back. Argue with him, tell him to get over it already, give Blair something to rail against other than this goddamn endless contrition and concern. But instead, after the space of several heartbeats, Jim confounded Blair with something else entirely. “Your mom and I… we’re not together anymore, Chief. She’s filed for divorce.”

Blair couldn’t parse that for a stunned moment, his rage derailed before it had barely gotten on track. “What?” he said. “Why?” Then his mood darkened. “Did you tell her?”

“No, absolutely not. This has nothing to do with you and me,” Jim said firmly, though he faltered a little when he added, “She… she’s not been happy for a while. You know what she’s like, Blair. She hates to be tied down to one place, hated everything that goes along with being a cop’s wife. She met someone else, someone who can give her what she needs. And she went with my blessing.”

Shock added a caustic edge to Blair’s words. “With your blessing, huh? So, you’re casting her off just as easily as you did me. Like that’s a surprise.”

“Goddamn it!” At last there was actual emotion there, instead of the endlessly penitent robot Blair had gotten so accustomed to baiting. “I just want her to be happy. Like I want you to be happy.” Jim’s voice cracked and to Blair’s astonishment he could detect pain, real pain, of the kind he’d never expected to perceive in Jim. “I can’t give either of you what you need, because I destroy everything I touch, everything I love. It’s best that she’s gone, before I screw up her life like I screwed up yours.”

Unwillingness to reveal his soft underbelly to this man, who had hurt him so badly, made Blair immediately want to assert that his life was just fine, thank you very much, but something held him back, and it wasn’t just the fact that it wasn’t true. Instead, he asked, “So you’re both okay with this, huh?”

“Yeah.” Jim sounded subdued, beaten. “It’s an amicable split. It’s the best thing for both of us.”

“You don’t sound all that happy about it,” Blair pointed out. “Or maybe you’re just pissed off because I’m calling you, yet again, to tell you what a loser you are.”

“You don’t need to tell me,” Jim said, sounding for all the world like he meant it. “I already know.”

That was too defeatist for words. “Get a grip, man. You brought this whole situation on yourself.”

“Like I said, I know that. I don’t blame anyone but myself, believe me.”

“So, what happens now? You’re not expecting to cry on my shoulder, right? Because that’s so not going to happen, man.”

Jim sighed. “I’ll never ask anything like that of you.”

“You did once,” Blair pointed out. “You asked a lot more of me than that. I gave it, too.”

Silence again. Then whispered, as though it hurt to say it, “I’m sorry.”

“You should be,” Blair retorted bluntly. But the warped satisfaction he usually got out of twisting the knife had dwindled, so that he was impelled to ask, “Are you managing okay?”

“I’m fine.” Short, to the point.

“C’mon, man!” Blair was incredulous. “Your wife just left you. You’ve gotta be a little bit upset, at least.”

Silence. Then, “You want the truth?”

A reckless thing, this; yet suddenly Blair was feeling reckless. “Yeah,” he said. “I want the truth.”

There was a brief pause, then Jim dropped his bombshell. “The truth is, I don’t miss her as much as I miss you.”

That was about all Blair could take. “This conversation is over,” he said, before decisively cutting the connection.

***

Blair got an email from Naomi the next morning. She was in Thailand, traveling with ‘a friend’, as she put it.

She basically reiterated the same thing that Jim had said. ‘It’s for the best, Blair. I love Jim dearly, and I know he cares about me, but we’re not making each other happy, so it’s time for us both to move on and start afresh.’

‘None of this is Jim’s fault, so please don’t be mad at him,’ she’d added. ‘He’s a very damaged person, very deeply hurt by something in his past, that he’s never been able to talk about, not even to me. I know you and he have had your problems, sweetie, but I really do think he needs a friend right now, so I wish that you’d consider putting your quarrel behind you. I’m worried about him, because although we both agreed this was the right thing to do, he seemed so sad and lost when I left.’

Blair’s answer to that was to spend three days working furiously to finish off his dissertation and submit it, working from before dawn until late into the night before falling into bed, exhausted, so he could simply avoid thinking. The evening after he handed it in he headed off into town to watch a play at the local theatre, a completely incomprehensible modern re-telling of Macbeth, presented in an even more dark and gloomy context than the original text. It did nothing at all to improve his mood.

Afterwards, drinking a pint of beer in unapproachable silence in a city centre pub, he looked at the people around him, many of them young students out celebrating the end of term with their friends, and felt lonely and old beyond his years. He’d turned thirty five just a little while ago, and had spent the last five years running from a past which continued to define him, living life as an eternal observer, but never a participant. He didn’t belong, not in this place where he was playing at being an academic all over again, not on the building sites which had sustained him as he travelled right across America, trying but failing to exorcise the pain. Five years after the most devastating moment of his life he was still running, still on the outside looking in, and getting absolutely nowhere.

“It’s time to close the circle,” he said aloud to himself, causing the people sitting at the table beside him to give him uncomfortable looks. Smiling at them sadly, well aware of how odd he sometimes acted around people these days, Blair drained his pint, got up and headed home.

Once there he booked a flight, packed up his meager belongings, and left his flat without looking back.

 

Chapter Text

 

He’d booked the trip at extremely short notice, taking whatever last-minute seats were available that would eventually get him to his destination, however circuitous the route. Consequently, after enduring three flights in the span of nearly fifty tedious hours (many of which were spent sitting around in airports waiting), Blair finally landed in Cascade. A little over an hour after that, unwashed, unshaved and so sleep-deprived he hardly knew which way was up, he finally parked his rental car outside 852 Prospect.

Blair’s palms were clammy as the engine ticked into silence, his breath held as though he was on the brink of a precipice. He knew that he only had to turn his head to see the building where he used to live; the building which housed the apartment that Naomi and Jim had made their marital home for the past five years. At this apex of his impulsive return, however, whatever store of determination had helped propel him back along this path had now deserted him so that, right at this moment, Blair truly had no idea what the hell he was doing here.

As he sat there lost in indecision, Blair registered the moment that a black sedan slid into the vacant lot beside him. The familiar driver who got out and clamped an unlit cigar between his lips compounded his surreal sense of having travelled not only back across the ocean, but also back in time.

Unthinkingly – because if he’d taken even one second to consider it he wouldn’t have done so – Blair opened the car door and got out, intercepting the man before he could cross the street. “Hey, Simon! Simon, wait up!”

Simon Banks turned and fixed Blair with a hostile stare, which halted him in his tracks. “Sandburg,” Simon acknowledged, entirely without warmth. “What a surprise.”

So, Simon wasn’t pleased to see him. Which, Blair supposed, was only fair since, when he’d left, he’d cut Simon off without a word. It had been, he was forced to acknowledge, a shitty thing to do to a friend who’d gone above and beyond to try to help him salvage something positive from the mess he’d created.

“How’ve you been?” Blair tried lamely, attempting to remember how to make small talk, and hoping that he could breach Simon’s frostiness with the judicious application of bland social niceties. When he got no answer, Blair nodded in the direction of Jim’s apartment block. “I, uh, I guess you’re heading up to see Jim, huh?”

“Jim isn’t there,” Simon said bluntly.

“Oh, okay.” Jetlagged and stressed, not to mention thrown off balance by Simon’s obvious hostility, Blair didn’t know what else to say. He wiped a hand over his face, feeling the stiffness of bristles, the rankness of sweat. He was suddenly aware of how profoundly exhausted he was, and he had no idea what to do next.

Maybe Simon picked up somehow on the fact that he was struggling, because his manner thawed slightly. “Look,” he said, “let’s go inside. I think you and I should talk.”

“Inside?” Blair blinked stupidly. “Inside, you mean there?” he indicated Jim’s building. “I thought you said Jim wasn’t home.”

“He isn’t.” Simon sighed impatiently. “Look, just come with me, Sandburg. I’ll explain when we get up to the loft.” And without waiting for an answer Simon strode across the road, forcing Blair, after an indecisive few moments, to scurry quickly after him.

It was only once Blair was inside and following up the stairs in Simon’s wake that he realized what he was doing and where he was heading. He called ahead up the steps, trying to get Simon’s attention. “Hey, man, I’m not sure this is a good idea.” He took the next few steps at a jog, trying to catch up with the other man’s long-legged stride. “I mean, I don’t think me going into the loft while Jim is out, before I’ve even told him I’m here, is something he’ll approve of, you know? We didn’t exactly part on the best of terms.”

But Simon didn’t acknowledge Blair’s protest at all, and he didn’t stop. He reached the top of the stairs and headed straight to the door of apartment 852 and unlocked it. Giving Blair one single, unfathomable glance he went inside, leaving the door open behind him.

Left alone outside in the hall Blair swallowed nervously, his heart beating triple time. Then, with no alternative other than turning tail and running – and wasn’t he here because he was utterly sick of running? - he unwillingly followed Simon inside.

Naomi’s influence on the decor was obvious immediately. The incontrovertible evidence of their marriage warped Blair’s intimate memory of the loft, transforming it into something half-familiar, half-unfamiliar; both homely and unwelcoming at the same time. It was both exactly how he remembered it, and exactly how he’d dreaded it would be.

Tearing his gaze with an effort from the feng shui aligned furniture and batik wall hangings, Blair located Simon by the sound of movement up in the loft bedroom – drawers opening and closing, the rustle of cloth - before he came back down the stairs, a neat pile of folded clothes in his hands which he placed on the kitchen table. “What’s going on, man?” Blair asked, unable to fathom what Simon was doing in Jim’s personal space.

Simon had disappeared now into the bathroom. After a couple of minutes he emerged, a wash bag in his hand, and finally answered Blair’s question. “I’m packing up some clothes and other things for Jim.”

“Why?” Blair asked, a sense of something terribly wrong beginning to take root inside him. “Is Jim okay?”

Simon placed the bag down alongside the clothes, then turned to face Blair. “Considering he almost put a bullet in his head six days ago, he’s doing just fine.”

Simon’s dispassionate words shocked through Blair. “That’s a figure of speech, right?” he said, feeling strangely disassociated. “I mean, he didn’t really try to do that, did he?”

He had barely finished speaking when Simon strode over, and came to a stop intimidatingly close. The big man towered over him, his expression furious. “Six days ago, Jim sank a whole bottle of Jim Beam, and sat here all night with a loaded gun in his hand. And I thank God that by the time the sun came up he had the sense to reach out and call on me for help, before he pulled the goddamn trigger. Because you know what, Sandburg? He’s got one good friend in this world, and it sure as hell ain’t you.”

Blair reeled in shock. The thought of Jim that desperate, that broken, was something that just did not compute. “But he wouldn’t have done it, right?” he objected. “Man, that’s... I mean, I know he and my… I know Jim and Naomi broke up, but...” he was babbling now, uttering two names in the same sentence that he had never, in the whole of the last five years, voiced out loud to anyone else but Jim. Stopping the flow of words with an effort, he pleaded, “He’s okay now though, right?”

Simon folded his arms, staring him down. “No thanks to you,”

“What the hell do you mean by that?” Blair was confused and hurt by Simon’s obvious anger towards him, feeling increasingly like this whole scenario was some kind of bizarre nightmare. Yet deep inside he knew, of course. He knew exactly what might have pushed Jim over the edge; had gotten satisfaction out of being the one to do the pushing, in fact, exactly six nights ago on the phone. Yet for propriety’s sake, for the sake of keeping their dirty little secret, he now had to maintain an attitude of plausible denial. “You’re blaming me? How is this my fault? I haven’t seen Jim for five years,” he shifted into a more reasonable tone of voice, long-accustomed to faking it despite the guilt and horror which clawed at his gut. “Come on, Simon. The man has just broken up with his wife! It stands to reason he’s feeling a little down.”

“You’re some piece of work, you know that?” Simon shook his head, an unpleasant smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. Then Blair reflexively stepped back as a finger was jabbed hard in his chest. “You called him that night to vent your goddamn spleen, and I know it wasn’t the first time. But this time you were kicking him when he was truly down, and you made him believe he had nothing left to live for.” Simon came closer, his voice no less menacing for all that it took on a conspiratorial tone. “He told me everything, Blair. About how he was in love with you, but that you ended your relationship. About how, when he eventually got over your break-up and fell in love with Naomi, you turned your back on the both of them. And about how, in all the years since, you’ve never stopped harassing him.”

Simon’s interpretation was so far from the truth that Blair actually almost laughed, but instead misery choked him – because if Simon was saying these things, then it could only be because Jim had framed it in that way. “You have gotten it so wrong, man. I broke up with Jim because of what happened with Alex, but I never stopped loving him. And when he and Naomi got together, I did the best thing I could for all of us – I got out of their hair.” His voice broke a little, the sadness and loneliness he’d lived with for so long rushing through him like a wave. “And if you had any idea what it’s been like for me these past few years, cutting myself off like that from everyone I ever loved… god, Simon, I swear…”

Simon cut him off. “Oh for Christ’s sake, Blair, give it a rest. Do I look like Dr. Phil to you? You ended it, he found someone else, the end. Leave the man alone, and get over it!”

“Hey, forget Dr. Phil, I always thought this whole thing was more appropriate for Jerry Springer,” Blair retorted belligerently, his mood morphing in a millisecond to antagonism in the face of Simon’s callousness. “I mean, can’t you picture it, man? ‘My gay cop, ex-lover married my mom’. Pretty neat story, huh?”

“You’re sick,” Simon said with disgust. He turned away. “I can’t even look at you anymore.”

“I never figured you for a homophobe, Simon,” Blair said, hurt and indignance at Simon’s dismissive attitude making him brutal. “And hey, if you think I’m sick, what about your good pal Jim, huh? He’s the one who fucked both me and my mom.”

After a few moments of stunned silence, during which Blair was tempted to walk out of the door without another word, Simon turned back to look at him. To Blair’s astonishment Simon was regarding him not with revulsion at his crudity, but with a dreadful kind of pity. “Jim told me you were like this now,” Simon told him, his voice disconcertingly gentle. “Bitter and damaged, and that you’d go on the attack before you’d let anyone get close to you.”

“Yeah, well,” Blair pointed out resentfully. “Forgive me for stating the obvious here, but you started it, man. And you already made it crystal clear that you don’t care about my problems, so quit it with the fake concern, all right?”

Simon sighed hugely. “What happened, Blair?” he pleaded. “You and I used to be friends. You and Jim used to be more than friends, and you and Naomi had the sort of mother-son bond most people only dream of. Where did it go so wrong?”

Blair held out his hands in surrender. “Why are you asking me, if Jim already told you his version? You already believe I’m the bad guy, right?”

“I’m asking you,” Simon said, “because I have no idea what else to do. Because I need to understand your side of the story if I’m going to help my friend – to help both my friends – put this thing right.”

Blair could hear the words, and detect the allusion to continued friendship, but he couldn’t feel the truth of it – he was no longer able to feel anything at all, apart from a sense of exhausted futility. “It’s too late,” he responded, the desperate store of energy which had sustained him during his journey now completely used up. “There’s no cure for this. Not for any of it. There never was.” He blinked rapidly, his vision blurred. “I shouldn’t have come here,” he said. He turned and started toward the door, his steps leaden because he had absolutely nowhere to go.

“So you’re gonna run again, huh?” The disgust was back in Simon’s voice as Blair moved away. “Why am I not surprised? You drive Jim almost to suicide, and you don’t even have the balls to stick around and see this thing through.”

That outright accusation – that Blair was the explicit reason Jim had almost taken his own life – wounded him far more than anything else Simon had said during this brief, excruciating encounter. Blair whirled around, his hands clenched into fists, hurting so much he thought he might die. “What the hell do you want from me?” he demanded, his voice breaking, guilt and grief overflowing, leaving no room even for shame.

“I’ll tell you what I want,” Simon said; calm, cool, efficient, and ruthlessly cutting a clear path through Blair’s anguish. “Right now, I want you to pull yourself together. Then I want you to check into a hotel, get cleaned up, eat, and get some sleep. I’ll come over tomorrow to where you’re staying, and you and I are going to talk. Or rather, you’re going to talk, and I’m going to listen.”

The only part of that plan that Blair had no problem with was the part where he got to hide away in the oblivion of sleep, but he was too dispirited, too dog-tired and too out of options to protest right now about anything else. So, instead, he spent a few minutes consciously attempting to put the first part of Simon’s directive in action, hoping that, once he’d gotten himself under control, dredging up the strength to deal with the rest of it would somehow follow.

But before he got his emotions even halfway in check, it became clear to both of them that any further effort was beyond him. He didn’t resist, therefore, when Simon took him firmly by the arm, and steered him out of the loft.

Chapter Text

Jarred out of a deep sleep by the raucous ringing of a phone, disorientated and lacking any sense of how long he’d been in bed, Blair struggled to remember where he was. He’d had so many wakings in unfamiliar rooms, so many new beginnings, all of which had just turned out to be nothing more than the latest obstacle in his meandering path toward doom. He guessed this was just one more. 

Fumbling on the nightstand he lifted the receiver, grunting an acknowledgment to whoever was calling. 

Get showered and dressed,” Simon told him over the line. “Meet me in the lobby in half an hour.” The phone went dead. 

Memory returned in a rush, and with it the leaden weight in his gut that several hours of exhausted sleep had entirely failed to dissolve. It had a name, that feeling. The same name he’d hauled around with him for the past five years, as painful and crushingly heavy as the hods he’d hefted on numerous construction sites: Jim

Wanting nothing more than to close his eyes once more and banish reality for just a little longer, if not for good, Blair sighed and rose, swallowing down nausea. His chin itched, several days’ worth of beard growth and his own rancid body odor testament to the fact that he’d literally fallen into bed as soon as Simon had deposited him in this hotel room. He hardly remembered arriving here, but he remembered acutely the humiliation of losing it in front of a man who had every reason to hate him. 

That sense of humiliation remained as he showered and shaved, and accompanied him down in the elevator. He felt, as the doors opened, as though he was going to his own execution, a sensation that didn’t let up when Simon’s unsmiling face greeted him with a nod. “Come on,” Simon directed, as Blair reached his side. “I’ll buy breakfast.” The kind offer wasn’t softened by a similarly beneficent tone. 

Blair couldn’t think of anything to say as they took seats in the hotel restaurant. Simon ordered for them both, the words registering in Blair’s mind but not really touching him. A coffee cup appeared in front of him, pushed into his reach by a big, capable hand. “Drink it,” Simon ordered and, not knowing what else to do, Blair did as he was told. His hand shook as he lifted the mug and, when he took a sip, a little of the hot liquid dribbled over his chin before he caught it with his fingers , absentmindedly wiping his wet palm on his jeans afterward. The coffee was wonderful, like nectar; manna to a starving man. Disquieted by the forbidden pleasure it gave him – for was he not meant to suffer? – he placed it down on the table after a few gulps, denying himself the hot, bitter joy of it. He’d drink it; Simon had insisted he must. But not all at once, like a gift. He could only handle contentment in the smallest of increments. 

Food came and Blair ate automatically, not tasting it, merely going through the motions of putting in fuel and keeping his body alive. But as the meal progressed his deep sense of dislocation gradually gave way to a growing awareness of his surroundings: the buzz of conversation, the smell and taste of fried food and coffee, and the acceptance that this was real, he truly had woken up this morning back in Cascade. 

More coffee appeared in front of him; hot and fresh. This time when Blair drank his hand no longer shook, and the self-flagellating, overwrought sentiment which had consumed him previously had fled. He smiled, a little wryly, his dark sense of humor secretly mocking his own ridiculousness. Sometimes a coffee was just a coffee, not a symbolic avatar for all that he was no longer worthy of. Get a fucking grip, Blair, he ordered himself sternly, before draining the mug. 

Having recovered his wits somewhat, Blair glanced over at Simon. The big man looked as tired as Blair felt, additional worry lines at the corners of his eyes delineating the years since they’d last met, like rings in an oak tree. “Thanks,” Blair murmured, after a moment. “For breakfast. And for everything else.” 

“Don’t mention it,” Simon said. He studied Blair, his head on one side. “You look a little better. I was afraid, when you came downstairs, that you’d turned into a ghost.” 

It was hyperbole, but it pretty much described how insubstantial Blair had felt just a little while ago. “So,” Blair ventured, not really wanting to face what he had to face, but resigned that he must now he was here, nevertheless. “What do we do now?” 

“You feeling up to getting some fresh air?” Simon asked. When Blair nodded, Simon signalled the waiter for the bill, and got his wallet out to pay. 

A little while later, shoulders hunched in his warm coat and with a scarf wrapped tight against the Pacific north-west chill, Blair walked shoulder to shoulder with Simon along the waterfront. The tide was in, the water lapping up against the breakwater and the familiar cry of gulls overhead making him feel, oddly, as though he’d never been away. He’d always assumed that being back here would be too painful to handle, but at the moment the comfortable familiarity of the surroundings and Simon’s indomitable figure beside him calmed him in a way that nothing else had in five long years. 

They talked as they walked, Simon updating Blair on mutual friends and local gossip that he’d missed, and Blair answering Simon’s questions about where he’d been and what he’d been doing these past five years. Blair kept it factual, sensing that Simon didn’t want to hear about his pain. God knows, he’d expressed enough of that yesterday, and he already knew Simon’s opinion of the reasons he’d left, and the toxic nature of the contact he’d had with Jim ever since. He didn’t need to hear Simon say it again, Blair was already ashamed enough without having to endure his caustic words a second time. 

Neither of them mentioned the elephant in the room until at last they sat, by mutual unspoken consent, on a bench facing the ocean. Far out at sea Blair could see a tanker and several fishing boats, and nearer a yacht was making its graceful way into the harbour, tacking hard against the wind. 

“Where is he?” Blair asked, after they’d sat together in silence for a while, both of them still staring out to sea. He knew that there was no need for him to clarify who he meant. 

“He’s in Martonmere House,” Simon answered. “It’s a private psychiatric facility.” As if sensing Blair’s shock at the news that Jim had been committed, he added, “It was his decision. He’s staying there for an evaluation, and to get set up with the meds and counselling he needs. He’s going to be discharged at the end of the week, and then he’s coming to stay with me.” 

“Jesus.” Blair felt as though the world was crumbling, the faux peace of a few moments ago obliterated. The thought of Jim laid this low, so low, in fact, that that he had voluntarily checked himself into a psych ward, was almost more than he could bear. That Blair himself had undoubtedly contributed to Jim’s decline through his own selfish actions was unthinkable. 

“I’m guessing you want to see him,” Simon went on. “But before I let you anywhere near him, Sandburg, I need some assurances.” 

“Anything, man. Anything you say.” Shocked to the core, there was no way Blair was going to make this even worse than it was. No fucking way

“Okay,” Simon said. “Here’s the deal. You stay at the hotel for the rest of this week. If you need somewhere that costs less, for a longer term, I’ll help you organise it. You eat, rest, take care of yourself, and take time to get your head together because right now, Sandburg, you are a fucking mess. You do not – I repeat not – make any attempt to contact Jim, or this whole deal is off the table. After he’s discharged into my care, if he’s well enough and if I judge you to be in a fit state of mind, I will let you visit him, in my presence. If Jim gets distressed, or if there is any inappropriate behaviour on your part, I take you out of there immediately, no argument. Do I make myself clear?” 

The implication that Simon believed Blair might deliberately hurt Jim cut him to the core. His fortitude crumbled and, humiliated, Blair put his head in his hands, desperately trying to stem the tide. 

But yet another part of him, something hard and unforgiving, once more mocked him for his weakness. You did this, it said. This is about Jim, not you. Fucking pull yourself together! 

Ruthlessly quenching the pain, every bit as ruthlessly as he’d been doing for the past five years, Blair sat up straight and nodded. 

Then, looking Simon in the eye, he answered firmly: “Perfectly clear, Simon. It’s a deal.”

Chapter Text

Five days after arriving in Cascade, coming off shift in the late afternoon with his hard hat in his hand, Blair was momentarily startled by the imposingly tall figure who intercepted him to fall in step by his side. He relaxed slightly when the familiar voice noted grouchily, “Damn, Sandburg. I thought just this once that you’d do what I asked you to do and stay put at the hotel.” 

“Hey, Simon,” Blair acknowledged.  “I left messages so you’d know where to find me.” He shrugged. “So you found me. I wasn’t about to just sit around and wait for your call, you know? That place was expensive. I figure, while I’m here, I might as well earn a living and stay somewhere that’s not gonna cost me a couple hundred bucks a night.” 

The truth was that the moment he’d gotten back to the hotel after his walk on the waterfront with Simon, the urge to run had been so overwhelming that Blair had come close to packing his bags and leaving right that moment. Heading straight out again to trawl around construction sites and land himself a job had been the only way he’d managed to successfully fight the impulse. 

Since the events of five years ago, Blair didn’t cope well with staying still. The prolonged sojourn he’d spent in England this past year, engaging in the cerebral, had been an anomaly. But at least he’d kept busy, occupying his mind. If he couldn’t do that now, back in Cascade (and there was no way in hell he was going within a million miles of Rainier), then he needed to keep his body occupied instead. 

Blair had to admit that the main reason he’d not left town this time, was that Simon’s caustic and unflattering assessment of him had been a wake-up call that he sorely needed.  Pain and anger, which for so long had dominated Blair’s life, had now been joined by shame and guilt, and right now those emotions were in the ascendant. Goddamn it, what had he been thinking, all those times he’d called Jim to verbally abuse him? It had started out of desperation, a profound sense of loneliness and hurt that had prompted him to reach out to one of the two people he loved most in all the world, despite the fact that those same two people had wounded him so deeply. But over time those calls had transformed into something different altogether; a bitter, malignant secret he and Jim shared, co-conspirators in a cycle of blame and punishment which they’d both been complicit in perpetuating – Blair as the aggressor, and Jim as the victim who had bared his back over and over again to be flayed by Blair’s barbed words, without even a semblance of resistance. 

Abusive didn’t cover it; man, it was sick, and it was way overdue that Blair put an end to it, once and for all. The fact that his own actions had brought Jim to this terrible impasse was not something Blair could run away from, not anymore. It was time for him to face facts – he loved Jim, and he loved his Mom. He’d never stop loving them and, despite what he’d done, he knew they loved him too. It was long-past time for Blair to deal with this, grow the hell up and move the fuck on

Simon snorted.  “Yeah, well,” he acknowledged grudgingly. “I guess I’m just surprised at you slumming it instead of enjoying a few days luxury in Cascade Olympia.” He humphed a laugh. “I never figured I’d see you renting a room in South Town and working construction instead.” 

Blair shrugged. “I’ve had harder jobs, and lived in far worse places, believe me. Upmarket hotels are just not my style, man.” Changing the subject, he asked, “How’s Jim?” 

“He’s fine.” Simon’s answer was clipped; it was clear he was reluctant in the extreme to discuss their mutual friend, despite the fact that he’d sought Blair out for that very reason. “I’ve made it clear he can stay with me as long as necessary.” 

“So, he’s out of the hospital?” 

Simon nodded. 

Blair didn’t like the thought of Jim spending time alone at Simon’s house, especially so soon after his near-suicide. “Shouldn’t you be there with him? I mean what if he needs you?” 

“He’s safe,” Simon said, his slightly affronted tone indicating that he took Blair’s comment a little personally. “I know what I’m doing, Sandburg. Do you really think I’d put him at risk?” 

Blair put his hands up, a conciliatory gesture. “Hey man, I know he’ll be fine with you.” Then, after a pause, he asked, “Does he know I’m here?” 

“I haven’t told him yet.” Simon looked at Blair, his gaze disturbingly direct. “Whether I tell him or not, whether I let you see him, depends on you. Before I decide, I need to be sure that you’re not going to hurt him.” 

The words cut deep, hitting Blair’s guilt and shame head-on. A myriad of caustic responses rushed through his mind, but Blair firmly quashed the impulse to turn pain into anger and go on the attack. Instead he nodded, swallowing hard. “I promise you, Simon. That’s the last thing I intend to do. I’m truly sorry for what I did. It won’t happen again, I promise.” 

They’d stopped walking now, having reached Simon’s car. Simon looked Blair up and down measuringly, clearly assessing his veracity. Then he nodded. “Okay, as long as he’s comfortable with it, I’ll let you see Jim. Have you still got a hire car?” When Blair shook his head, Simon went on, “Then I’ll pick you up at eight o’clock tonight and take you back to my place. Obviously, if Jim says no, the deal is off.” 

“Okay,” Blair acknowledged, feeling a little sick. “Thanks, man. I appreciate it.” It was happening; he was going to see Jim. His heart pounded erratically as though he’d run a marathon. 

The next few moments passed by in a dreamlike haze, as Blair confirmed his address with Simon before watching him get in his car and drive off. As he distractedly walked a couple of blocks to catch the bus home, one name kept repeating itself in Blair’s mind, over and over: Jim

Back home in his tiny apartment, washed and changed out of his work clothes, Blair paced as he restlessly watched the seconds tick over on the way toward eight o’clock. He didn’t even think about making dinner, far too stressed to eat, increasingly fixating on the possibility that Jim might refuse to see him, or that Simon might change his mind. And what the hell was he going to say to Jim, anyway? Fundamentally, he still felt every bit as angry and hurt as he always had. No matter how much remorse he felt about those stupid phone calls, and how concerned he was about Jim’s clearly desperate state of mind, there was no way he’d be able to pretend otherwise. 

So, essentially, he knew what he had to do. He had to go in there, offer a sincere apology, and say goodbye. Then he’d get out of town and start afresh; probably head back to England to do his PhD. He’d keep in touch with his mom, at least by email and letter (he didn’t know if he’d ever be ready to see her in person, it would be far too easy for her to find out the truth that way), but he would cease all contact with Jim from now on. It was way past time for both of them to move on. 

As eight o’clock approached, with no sign yet of Simon, Blair entertained increasing fantasies of not pursuing this thing, but instead packing his bags and running away right now, tonight. He felt sick with anxiety, a sense of deep dread merging with profound longing. Finally, just after eight as he avidly watched the street below through his second floor window, he saw Simon’s car draw up outside. Grabbing his coat Blair bounded out of his apartment and took the stairs two at a time, arriving on the sidewalk so quickly that Simon had only just gotten out, the driver’s side door still open. “Does he want to see me?” Blair asked breathlessly. 

In answer, Simon gestured to the passenger side. “Get in,” he said. 

Blair did as he was told. As Simon pulled out back onto the road, Blair demanded, “Well? What did he say, man?” 

“He wants to see you,” Simon confirmed. “He said to tell you not to worry, that he’s not mad at you.” He laughed, shortly. “If I needed proof that he’s crazy, he handed it to me with that line.” Simon glanced aside at Blair. “For Christ sake, Sandburg. Calm down.” 

Blair realised that he was almost hyperventilating. With an effort he forced himself to stillness, consciously taking time to get his breathing under control. By the time he’d halfway managed it they were already way across town, only minutes away from the neighbourhood where Simon lived. 

The journey had gone far too fast, with Blair still struggling and failing to collect his thoughts by the time that Simon parked up outside his house and shut off the engine. That this was going to be the last time Blair saw Jim was a given, and he hadn’t even begun to deal with how he felt about that. Grief almost choked him, and once more the urge to run was paramount. 

“You feeling okay?” Simon asked. He sounded concerned rather than impatient, which helped, a little; Blair had grown unaccustomed these past several, lonely years to being the recipient of kindness, such that even the smallest suggestion of it filled him with gratitude. 

Blair nodded. He was here, he had to do this thing. “Yeah,” he agreed, having no idea how he’d survive this. “I’m fine.” 

Simon nodded. “Come on,” he directed, stepping out of the car. Blair did the same, and was thankful for Simon’s steadying hand on his back as they walked together up to the front door. 

Inside, the house was gloomy until Simon flicked a switch, the cozy domesticity of his living room revealed in a wash of warm light. The room was empty, though and puzzled, Blair asked, “Is Jim upstairs?” 

Simon shook his head. “Jim’s not here. He went back to the loft.” 

“I don’t understand,” Blair said. “You told me he was staying with you!” 

Simon shrugged. “I asked him to, but he was determined to go home. He’s doing a lot better, otherwise I would have pressed the point. Ultimately, though, it’s his choice.” 

“I don’t get it, man.” This made no sense. “Why have you brought me here, if Jim’s at the loft?” As Blair spoke he heard the sound of someone walking up above; the creak of a floorboard, light footsteps at the top of the stairs. 

“Because there’s someone else who needs to talk to you first,” Simon answered. 

Movement caught Blair’s eye, then; a swirl of rich orange fabric and the subtle aroma of essential oils: lavender, neroli and geranium, a calming and balancing blend good for anxiety, soothing and familiar. Naomi, his mind supplied, shock and apprehension rooting him to the spot. He turned to look as his mother descended the stairs, her beautiful face watching him sorrowfully all the while. 

Blair’s throat ached as she crossed the room, his eyes stinging. “Mom?” he gasped, as she came to stand in front of him, his heart shattered into sharp, painful pieces by the clear knowledge in her eyes. 

“Oh, sweetie,” she said, her slender hand reaching up to cup his face in her palm, before she reached out to enfold Blair in her arms. “Oh my darling, I’m so sorry.” 

Utterly blindsided, helpless to react in any other way, Blair wept.

 

Chapter Text

“Here you go, Sandburg. Drink this.” A hot mug appeared in Blair’s vision. As he reached out to take it he realized that he was sitting on the couch, but the past few minutes were indistinct in his memory, such that he had no clear recollection of how he’d gotten here. The warmth at his side, he dimly registered, was Naomi. She was sitting close beside him, her arm draped around him protectively. 

Blair flicked a glance at Simon as he took the mug in shaking hands. “Thanks, man,” he said automatically, his voice hoarse, too embarrassed to meet Simon’s eyes, feeling far too shocky to dwell on the reason for that embarrassment. He brought the mug close, and inhaled the fragrant steam. Chamomile; soothing and comforting. His mother’s hand at work. 

Blair could sense their eyes upon him as he sipped the hot tea: Naomi’s concerned scrutiny and Simon’s measuring stare. But he kept his eyes down, drank his tea, trying to find a semblance of composure before he had to face them. He felt empty and insubstantial, as though none of this was real. 

The tea at least had the gradual effect of hauling him back into the real world, the satisfying burn of it in his throat as he swallowed dragging him into the present inch by humiliating inch. As reality asserted itself he acknowledged that yes, he had burst into tears and cried like a baby right there in Simon Banks’ front room. Yes, he’d been manhandled between Simon and his mom to sit on the couch. Yes, Naomi was here. And yes, Naomi knew about him and Jim, which was the one thing in the whole world that Blair had determined must never happen. 

Whenever Blair had imagined what it might be like to see his mother again, he had never foreseen it would go anything like this. “I… I thought,” he said, striving to find his voice at last, glancing at Naomi, “that you were in Thailand.” 

“Simon contacted me, Blair. He told me about Jim. I came back to see what I could do to help.” Her voice broke slightly, and her arm tightened around him. “I didn’t expect to see you as well, but I’m so glad I have, Blair. You can’t imagine how much.” 

Blair shifted, meaning to set the now empty mug down on the floor beside him. Without a beat Simon reached out and took it from him. “I’ll leave you two to talk,” Simon said, as he moved away, the mug in his hand. “I’ll just be outside. Call me if you need me, Naomi.” 

“Thank you, Simon,” Naomi said, and Blair recognized the familiar determination in his mother’s voice, the no-nonsense we are so going to discuss this young man implied in her ultra-calm and collected tone. The fond familiarity of that ominous composure, a tactic frequently deployed during his childhood whenever he was in deep shit, brought a poignant lump to Blair’s throat once more. 

After Simon went out of the door, apparently exiling himself from his own home for the duration while the Sandburgs engaged in their collective meltdown in his living room, Naomi kept her peace, simply pulling Blair closer into her embrace, her head resting familiarly against his as they sat together on the sofa. Having long since denied himself the comfort of being held by another human being, it was hard for Blair not to bask in it and so he did, shamelessly soaking up the affection for as long as he could. 

But of course it couldn’t go on forever, and now the big revelation had happened their relationship would be changed forever; how could it not? Realizing there was no other option but to face it, unhappily recognizing that his worst nightmare had come to pass, it was Blair who broke the silence first. “Was it Jim who told you? About me and him, I mean?” He had to know the truth. “Or was it Simon?” 

“Oh, Blair.” Naomi sounded so unutterably sad. “Simon confirmed it, but I knew a long time ago, sweetheart. I worked it out for myself.” 

Blair hadn’t expected that. He pulled out of Naomi’s arms, shifting around little so he could look at her.  “How long ago?” he demanded. 

Naomi knew full-well what he was asking. “I started to suspect about the two of you a couple of years after Jim and I got married, when you’d already been gone for a long time. If I’d known you were in love with him earlier I’d never have gotten together with him in the first place. I’d never have hurt you like that, not knowingly. Please believe me, Blair.” 

“Ma,” Blair said brokenly. “Of course I believe you.” It clearly was the truth, just as Bair had known it would be. And her pain and guilt over that knowledge was exactly why he’d never wanted her to find out, of course. He’d known that hurting him would hurt her. And yet here he was, showing her exactly how much he was hurt, making the whole thing a million times worse. 

“Hey, hey.  Sweetheart, come here.” Blair felt himself drawn back into Naomi’s arms. He held her back helplessly, trying to get himself under control while Naomi stroked his hair gently. “It was easy to work out, in the end,” she told him. “I knew something big had driven you two apart, something that made you not want to even stay in touch with me. After a while, it seemed so obvious. The way you two used to look at each other, like lovers. I don’t know why I didn’t see it back then, but it was obvious once all the pieces fell into place.” She kissed Blair on the side of his face, then held him tight again. “It’s one of the reasons I ended it with Jim,” she told him, her voice sad. “I knew, Blair. I just knew that I’d driven you away, that you were hurting so badly, and not even able to talk to me about it. I couldn’t go on like that any longer.”   

That Naomi had walked away from her marriage because of him hurt Blair past all bearing. “Mom, I’m so sorry. I never meant for you to know. I didn’t want to ruin it for you. I wanted you to be happy.” 

“Oh, sweetie,” Naomi protested. “That wasn’t the only reason, so don’t you go feeling it was your fault. It was over between Jim and me ages ago. Once we got over our initial attraction, we were just not suited to each other; we’re very different people.  I don’t regret for one moment that we drifted apart, but I do regret all the hurt we caused to you.” 

“Did you and Jim ever talk about it?” Blair found himself asking, wondering how, if she’d suspected for so long, that Jim had managed never to admit it. “About him and me?” 

Blair felt Naomi’s head, resting against his, shake in the negative. “I tried, but Jim was so evasive. I asked him if he loved you, and he just said, ‘Of course’.  And he does love you, sweetie. I couldn’t catch him in a lie, because he meant it. But he wouldn’t be drawn into admitting anything about the two of you, about what you shared, apart from his love for you as a friend. He was very good at deflecting questions, very good at telling half of the truth, just enough to stop me from digging more deeply. I know you called sometimes, he didn’t always tell me but I could tell when you’d spoken because he always seemed less exhausted, as though his life’s burden had been lessened, but it never lasted long. He’s a deeply unhappy man, Blair. I think you know that as well as I do.” 

Worried that Naomi might misunderstand, Blair said, “When I called, Naomi, please don’t think I was trying to… to step back in, all right? I wouldn’t do that to you.” 

Naomi squeezed him tight. “I know, sweetie. I know that, don’t worry. Jim told me little things you said, sometimes.  I was relieved that you called, and so was Jim. We both worried about you so much; how you were getting on, were you safe? Were you healthy? I just thought; well, Blair can’t talk to me, but as long as he’s talking to Jim, at least we know he’s still alive.” 

Blair’s guilt assailed him once more. “Aw, ma. I’m so sorry.” 

“Now you just hush. You’re here now, and I love you. That’s all you need to be concerned about, Blair. My darling Blair, my sweet son. And eventually you wrote to me. I was so grateful when I started to get your emails and letters. I thought then that perhaps you and Jim had worked it out, that you were getting on with your life and putting it all behind you. But you weren’t were you? Not really. You’ve had such a difficult time, my darling. And I’m so sorry for that, and I want you to know you don’t have to run from me anymore. I love you, Blair. I’ll always love you. Don’t shut me out again. Let me be here for you.” 

Blair loved Naomi so much in that moment. Her generosity, her pure, unselfish love for him, stole his breath away. And yet he knew, deep down, that there was a good reason why he didn’t deserve it. “Mom, I need to tell you something.” Blair pulled away, sitting back so they could look at each other. He needed to say this face to face, even if he had to watch the look of love she was currently wearing morph into disgust. “When I called, all those times I spoke to Jim.” He swallowed hard. “I said some terrible things to him. I… I wanted to hurt him. I… I wanted him to feel guilty, wanted to punish him. If he was distant and unhappy, if he didn’t share things with you as he should have done, it was probably because of me. Because I never let him forget it.” 

Naomi took his hand in hers. “I understand, Blair. I’d be angry, too. In fact I am angry, goddamn it! What was he thinking! He must have known you still loved him when he asked me to marry him. You’re my son, for god’s sake!” 

“Naomi, please,” Blair insisted, although of course Naomi was echoing the same question he’d also been asking for five, long years. “Please listen.” Blair took a deep breath, then let it out. “The last time I called was the night Jim nearly killed himself. I… I said some unforgiveable stuff. I… I’m pretty sure I pushed him to do it.” 

Naomi shook her head. “Now you listen to me,” she said firmly. “Whatever Jim did or did not do is not your responsibility. Don’t blame yourself for that, Blair.” 

But Blair knew what he’d done, and he knew how much he’d fucked up. “Mom, I need to see him.” 

Naomi was looking at him compassionately. “I know, sweetie,” she said. “I know.” She stroked Blair’s hand, which was still held tenderly in hers. Then she rose and Blair watched as she made her way to the front door. Opening it she called out to the darkness, a waft of cigar smoke drifting in as she spoke. “Simon, everything’s gonna be okay. Please can you drive Blair over to Jim’s place now?”

 

 

Chapter Text

Pulling into a vacant lot outside 852 Prospect Simon cut off the engine, then turned to Blair. “Are you sure you’re up to doing this right now?” he asked. “You could come back another day.” 

Blair nodded. “Yeah, I’m okay. I... I need to see him. And I promise, I’m not gonna say anything to hurt him. I just... I just need to see that he’s all right, that’s all.” And apologize, his mind added silently. And say goodbye. Sorrow and dread settled deep in his gut. “I won’t stay long.” 

“As much as it pains me to say it, Sandburg,” Simon said, “it’s not him I’m worried about right now. It’s you.” 

Blair glanced at Simon. The concern was a surprise, but also brought back into sharp focus the humiliation of Blair’s recent breakdown. “I... I’m sorry,” Blair said. “I shouldn’t have behaved like that, back at your house.” Shame filled him, a sense of deep embarrassment heating up his face. “You must think I’m a total head case.” 

Simon guffawed at that. “Sandburg, you’ve always been a head case. It’s reassuring to see that some things haven’t changed.” His voice sobered, teasing banter put aside, all seriousness again. “I was angry when you first turned up,” he admitted. “It wasn’t easy, seeing Jim in that state, and from what he said I got the impression that you’d pretty much pushed him over the edge. Those damn phone calls, Sandburg! But I didn’t know the whole story, then. I still don’t know the whole story, but I know a lot more than I did, and it’s enough to make me worry. I can see what this has cost you, Blair. And I’m sorry if anything I said made things harder for you.” A hand settled on Blair’s shoulder and squeezed. “What are you gonna do, after you see him? You planning to stay around?” 

Blair’s conviction, that he needed to say goodbye and get out of Jim’s life forever, had weakened after his reunion with Naomi, and he found it crumbling even more in the face of Simon’s unexpected compassion. He no longer had any idea what he was going to do; not really. When it came down to it, he was so very tired of holding onto hurt and anger, and even more of the loneliness that came from always being on the move, always running from the one place he most wanted to be. 

He didn’t answer for a long time. Then, in a small voice, he admitted, “I don’t know. I... I guess it depends. Whether Jim and I... whether we can, I don’t know. Find some common ground, I guess.” Guilt surfaced once more, sharp and angular and unforgiving, closely followed by the ever-present agony of betrayal. “I said some pretty awful things to him, and I still have no idea how to deal with what he did. It helped, seeing Naomi. Knowing that she didn’t know about us. But Jim... he knew. He knew how much I loved him, and he married her anyway.” Tears threatened again, grief so close to the surface always, always; especially now, in the face of all this unexpected sympathy. Blair breathed deeply, trying desperately to get himself under control. He couldn’t go in there like this; he just couldn’t. 

Both he and Simon started when Simon’s cell phone rang. Simon glanced at the display, then shook his head resignedly before answering it. “Didn’t your dad ever teach you not to eavesdrop, Ellison?” he said grouchily, and Blair’s heart skipped a beat. Jim and his goddamn sentinel ears, he should have known he’d hear them arrive, hear their conversation. They were right outside Jim’s building, goddamn it! What had he been thinking? 

Simon was listening to whatever Jim was saying, nodding. Then he said, “Yeah, well go easy on him, okay? He’s had a tough time tonight.” Simon handed the phone to Blair. “It’s for you,” he said. 

Blair could scarcely breathe as he took it, handling the phone like he’d just been given a poisonous snake. Gingerly he raised it to his ear. 

“Chief,” Jim  greeted softly on the end of the line, just as he had during so many calls just like this, when Blair had been the one who’d dialed. There was a soft sigh, then, “Come on up. Please.” Such a kind voice, as always. So dreaded, and yet so desperately longed for. A pause, then, “No matter what happens, no matter what you decide to do, I love you, Blair.” Jim paused again, then breathed, “Come on up, Blair. It’s going to be okay.” 

Blair couldn’t speak, all he could do was sit there with the phone against his ear. Simon took pity on him, and prized the phone out of his hand. “Give him a few minutes, okay?” he said, speaking into it. “If he wants to come up I’ll bring him. But I don’t think you should push him on this.” Apparently he received assent, because he ended the call. 

Blair took some time to breathe, to put into play the relaxation techniques he’d mastered over a lifetime, thanks to his mother’s initial tutoring and the years of meditation he’d engaged in since. He felt scattered, vulnerable, lost; splayed open, as though he was on display. Jim, he knew, would be listening. Would hear his stampeding heartbeat, hear his deliberate breaths, know exactly how hard this was for him. 

Blair had spent five long, unbearable years running from this. Running from the people, no matter how fucked up the situation was, who he loved with all his heart. But the truth was, Blair didn’t want to run anymore. He’d had a taste tonight of everything he’d denied himself for the past five years. It had manifested in the shape of Naomi’s sincere love for him, as well as Simon’s brusque kindness. He had not even realized how starved he was for even the merest hint of compassion, until he’d had a taste of it. 

To leave, and live without it once more? He might as well be dead. 

As dark thoughts beckoned, Blair pulled himself up short. It wasn’t all about him, was it? He was no blameless victim, and there were no winners in this scenario. Seeing Naomi tonight had driven home to Blair how much their separation and the reason Blair had left had hurt his mom, while Jim’s near-suicide had emphasized that the pain was emphatically not all on Blair’s side. Blair had made his own toxic contribution to the cycle of despair that they’d all been locked in. If he ran once more, perhaps eventually choosing to end his life when the loneliness and hopelessness became too much to bear, he’d not only be hurting himself, but them as well. 

It was way past time to face this, for all their sakes. 

Finally, after a few minutes of conscious breathing, Blair gained a modicum of composure. It would have to be enough, it was all he’d got. Turning to Simon, he said, “Okay, I’m ready. Let’s go up.” 

Simon squeezed Blair’s shoulder again, then moved to get out of the car, Blair following a second behind. 

Once inside the apartment building they ignored the elevator and took the stairs, Simon leading the way. Following doggedly in his footsteps Blair felt as though he was walking the path of a dream. He’d gone up these stairs a million times, he could walk them with his eyes closed and never stumble. 

When they reached the third floor, Blair balked for a moment at the top of the stairs. “I just need to get my breath, man,” he dissembled, but he knew Simon wasn’t fooled. However Simon waited patiently while Blair fought the near-panic that washed over him. Jim was close; so close. All Blair had to do was turn the corner and walk down the hall, and the loft would be right there, with Jim waiting inside. 

Finally, knowing he had to go through with this, Blair clenched his fists against the encroaching panic and made himself walk onward. Two steps, three, five, seven. Then in the next breath, they were there. The door was already ajar, a clear invitation, but Blair stopped dead, unable to move another step, like a vampire waiting to be invited over the threshold. 

Blair felt Simon’s arm around this shoulder. “You don’t have to do this,” Simon told him. 

Simon had spoken quietly, and in any other situation his words would have been for Blair’s ears only, except that Blair knew that Jim was inside, listening. He’d have tracked Blair’s encroaching panic, and heard Simon’s exhortation.  If Blair turned back now, Jim would always know he’d gotten this close, and then turned his back. Blair was sure that it would break both of their hearts. 

He couldn’t do that. Not to Jim; not to himself. 

Squaring his shoulders, walking away from the shelter of Simon’s arm, Blair pushed open the door and stepped inside.

Chapter Text

As Blair walked into the apartment he was hyper-aware of Jim’s proximity; could sense, in fact, with near-sentinel precision, that Jim was standing there just inside. Still struggling with the desperate urge to flee, coupled with a confused mixture of grief and shame and near-total exhaustion, Blair didn’t immediately raise his eyes to look at him. Instead he pulled up short, listening as Simon came in behind him. A panicky instinct to take flight, run, hide became imperative as soon as he heard Simon close the door, and Blair fought it with all his will. He had to see this through. He had to. 

There was silence for a few endless moments as they all stood there, and eventually Blair realized that Simon and Jim were waiting for a cue from him. Steeling himself determinedly, Blair understood it was his responsibility to break this impasse. 

He raised his eyes at last, a shuddery breath rushing through him as his eyes focused on Jim. His nemesis, his greatest love, the man he’d so badly wanted to punch out, the man he’d wanted to hold onto and never let go, had changed only a little in the space of five years. Still beautiful, still muscular but with a little less bulk; his face aged only minimally by faint lines radiating from the corners of his blue, blue eyes. His hair, receded only slightly at the temples, was longer and slightly mussed; no longer the neatly trimmed and efficiently groomed style Blair remembered, it was somehow softer and more endearing. And his expression, directed at Blair, was so tender, so kind, Blair thought he’d die from it. “Hey Chief,” Jim murmured, a wealth of sadness in the tone that spoke so profoundly to Blair’s own. “It’s good to see you.” 

A sound broke out of Blair then, and he closed his eyes and clapped a hand over his mouth, trying to stem it. Arms came around him instantly. Strong, capable, the familiar and so desperately missed aroma of Jim’s body as he was pulled close filling his senses like a dream, like all the memories he’d hoarded and brought out over and over in the dead of night, punishing himself with their terrible beauty, lost to him forever. 

Struggling to breathe through it, the impulse to stay and soak up the comfort far greater than the urge to push Jim away, he found himself utterly helpless to protest when Jim said, “Simon, it’s gonna be okay. Just give me some time with him, huh? An hour, maybe. I’ll call you if you need to come back sooner.” 

“Are you okay with that, Blair?” Simon asked, and Blair found himself nodding, agreeing mainly because Simon had already witnessed two of his breakdowns tonight, goddamn it, and he was humiliated enough already without him having to see a third. 

After Simon left, Blair felt himself being steered toward the living area. As he sat down, capably guided by Jim’s hands, Blair dimly registered that the couch had been moved back to where it used to be, before Naomi had moved in and rearranged the furniture. Something about that seemed weirdly symbolic, although Blair didn’t want to think too much about why. 

“Hey,” Jim asked, his voice the type of forced calm that hinted at chaos under the surface. “How about some coffee, huh?” Without waiting for assent he moved away into the kitchen. 

As he heard Jim running water and opening cupboards, Blair pulled a tissue out of his pocket and wiped his face, blowing his nose and taking more deep breaths, reestablishing composure with an act of will. Jim’s retreat to the kitchen had been a kindness, he fully understood. Time Blair needed to stop being a ridiculous wuss and pull himself together. Gratitude warred with Blair’s deep, inner rage. He wanted to be angry at Jim, but right at this moment he found he was far angrier at himself for being so goddamn pathetic. 

By the time Jim came back with the coffee, Blair was more or less back to normal, although he didn’t like to consider how easy it might be for him to lose it again. “Thanks,” he said, offering a brief, embarrassed smile as he took the mug from Jim. 

Jim sat down beside him, his body turned slightly toward Blair. “You’re welcome,” he said. 

“I, uh. I’m sorry. About behaving like that,” Blair said. “It’s been a difficult day.” Whoa, understatement. Make that a difficult five years, his inner voice supplied. 

Jim was nodding. “Yeah, I know.” He paused, looking unhappy. “Naomi called before you got here. She told me that you were upset.” 

Blair had thought he was over the jealousy, mostly, after seeing his mom, but it rushed back now full-force with the power of a tsunami. “Huh, so how about that,” he said shortly. “So, are you and my mom getting back together now she’s back?” 

The bitter question hung in the air between them. Eventually Jim spoke, sounding as though he was in front of a firing squad even though they’d barely gotten going.  “No, we’re not.” Flatly, categorically. “It’s over between us, Chief. I don’t want that, and neither does she.” 

Jim’s denial, which Blair could tell was nothing more than the truth, made Blair feel a little ashamed for his kneejerk reaction. Naomi had told him they were finished, for god’s sake, but Blair guessed he’d wanted to see that same certainty in Jim, as well. Now he had it. “Okay,” he conceded. “But I’m not too happy about you two talking about me behind my back.” 

“We both care about you.” Jim shrugged. “I’m sorry if it upsets you.” 

Blair kept his peace for a moment, drinking the coffee Jim had brought him. Eventually he looked across at Jim. The other man was pale and unhappy, his eyes downcast. Blair’s first impression, that Jim hadn’t changed all that much, was belied as Blair studied him now. He seemed somehow a hundred years older; fragile and breakable. 

Moved to contrition, abruptly reminded of the low to which Jim had so recently sunk, Blair softly said, “Hey.” When Jim looked up, he went on, “I’m sorry, man. I didn’t come here to hurt you. I know you’ve been through a tough time too.” He tried to smile, the expression so unpracticed these days that he wasn’t sure he’d managed it. “You know, I always assumed when I saw you again that I’d just punch you out, but instead, I feel….” He faltered. What did he feel? Blair didn’t think there was a single word that could encompass the churning mass of emotion that was boiling within him. 

“You can do it, if you want,” Jim said flatly. “Punch me, I mean. I wouldn’t stop you.” Blair knew instinctively that he meant every word. Jim wouldn’t defend himself from blows, just as he had failed to defend himself from words every time that Blair had called to abuse him long-distance. 

For the first time, Blair considered the puzzle that presented. Right from the start, right from the first moment Blair had made contact with Jim after leaving town, Jim had acted this way. Contrite, meek, constantly professing his love for Blair despite the devastating hurt he’d dealt him. Never fighting back, taking it all on the chin, not once telling Blair to go to hell. Blair had never, until now, taken time to consider the reasons why Jim had acted that way, immersed in his own pain and anger as he’d been. Damn it, it had felt good to vent his fury on Jim, good to see him take it without complaint. Blair wasn’t proud of that, it had made him into someone he really didn’t like at all, but he couldn’t escape having done it, or deny that he’d reveled in it. 

Blair considered Jim’s strange acquiescence, and one thing was clear. Jim somehow believed this was his due, didn’t he? That he deserved Blair’s wrath. That he’d done something unforgivably wrong. That he deserved punishment. For a long time Blair had thought that, too. A big part of him still did. 

“Jim,” he said, after a moment. “I need to ask you something, but before I do, I want you to know that I don’t want to upset you, all right?” When Jim nodded, his face resigned, Blair asked, “You got together with my mom after we broke up, I know that. I know you never cheated on me with her while we were together. But when you and she… when you hooked up, why did you keep it a secret?” 

“Because I knew you’d disapprove of me having a relationship with your mom,” Jim said. “You’d made it clear before that as far as I was concerned, she was off-limits. Naomi agreed; she said you’d said the same thing to her. We wanted to wait until the time was right before telling you.” 

Blair shook his head at that, a little incredulous at their mutual cluelessness. “Man, the time you picked was totally not right. It was about as not right as it could ever get.” Blair took a breath, trying not to get distracted by the remembered pain of that terrible time. He needed to know, goddamn it. He needed answers. “Were you aware, when you started seeing my mom, that I still loved you?” 

Jim shook his head. “You dumped me, Chief. I thought that aspect of our relationship was over.” 

“Okay, so you believed I wasn’t in love with you anymore. I accept that. But why her, huh?” Blair ploughed on. “Of all the people in the world, why choose my mom?” 

Jim took a breath. He looked like a man on the edge of doom. “I think you know why, Chief.” 

But Blair wasn’t accepting that. “I think I’ve guessed why, but I want to hear you say it.” 

At last, a glimmer of the old Jim. Hurt, angry, resentful. “You want to make me suffer some more, you mean.” 

“Isn’t that what you want, too?” Blair demanded. “You’ve taken martyrdom to a whole new level, my friend. But actually no, I already told you I’m not doing this to hurt you. I just want the truth. And if you can’t even give me that, then you can get Simon back on the phone right now, because I am out of here.” 

The threat that he might leave, with no resolution or reconciliation or even a goddamn truce, seemed to have done the trick. “You want the truth. Okay, fine,” Jim conceded bitterly. “But you’re not gonna like it.” 

“Okay.” Blair was conciliatory, now. “But I’m guessing you don’t like it either. So that makes two of us, huh? At least, if you tell me, you don’t have to keep it to yourself anymore. And you owe me the truth, damn it. You owe me.” 

Jim nodded agreement at that. “The truth is, Blair,” he said, as though the words pained him, “that I still loved you after you and I broke up. I never, not for one moment, stopped loving you. But I had no right to ask anything more of you, not after what I did in Mexico, with Alex. I had to respect your wishes, and let you go your own way. I’d already hurt you enough.” 

“So when I pushed you away, it made you believe that I didn’t love you anymore.” 

“Yeah, you want it in ten foot letters, Chief? It was over. There was no turning back, no hope of a second chance, and it was all my fault. I fucked it up big time. I kissed Alex, and you showed me the door. And I didn’t blame you for that; not one bit.” 

Alex, and the way Jim had reacted to her in Sierra Verde, was a whole other can of worms, one that at this moment Blair would rather not touch with a bargepole. “You couldn’t tell at all, after we broke up?” he demanded. “I mean, your senses should have given you a clue, right? How could you not know that I still had feelings for you?” 

Jim sighed. “I knew you cared about me, but I thought it was just friendship. To tell you the truth, Blair, I was never sure it was ever anything else on your side.” 

Blair was incredulous. “All that time we were sleeping together, you thought we were just friends with benefits? You didn’t believe, even though I told you over and over, that you were everything to me?” 

Jim’s face was flaming red. “I thought the dissertation was everything to you.” 

“Whoa.” Man, that hurt. “What the hell, Jim. I just… why the hell couldn’t you trust me, huh? Why couldn’t you believe it when I said I loved you? Did you need it in fucking ten foot letters, too?” 

“Maybe I did,” Jim admitted. “I could have used my senses, sure. But I never dared. After I fell in love with you I think… I think I was scared to look at you too closely. You meant everything to me, and I didn’t want to see any evidence that it wasn’t mutual. After we broke up, well… I had even more reason not to look. ” 

“You are a total fuck-up, you know that?” Blair blurted out. “Man, I hope you’re dealing with your trust issues and your paranoia and your fucking overblown sense of guilt in therapy, man. Because it is way past time.” 

Jim actually smiled ruefully for a moment. “Well yeah, that’s the plan,” he admitted. “Because I’m through hurting the people I love, just because I have issues.” 

“You still haven’t answered my question, though,” Blair pointed out. “Why, of all people, did you choose my mom?” 

“Why the hell do you think?" Jim demanded bitterly. "Because she reminded me of you. I couldn't have you, so I went with the next best thing.” 

Blair closed his eyes. He’d known, of course. He’d worked it out, but it didn’t make it any easier to hear. His poor mom. Poor Naomi, a substitute for all that Jim couldn’t have. What a fucking mess. He breathed deeply, then opened his eyes to glare at Jim. “You told me,” he accused, “one time when I called you, that you loved her.” 

Jim gave a little shrug. “Naomi’s easy to love,” he said. He turned to look at Blair, his expression so, so sad, but at least he had the grace to look ashamed as well, and if he hadn't seen at least a hint of that, Blair would have definitely given in to his urge to punch him out.“But she’s not you.” 

“Oh, man.” Blair felt drained. “If you think, even for one second, that I’m going to rush back into your life and take up where my mom left off, then you’re delusional.” 

Jim looked shocked. “I’d never ask that of you,” he protested. “That’s not what this is about.” 

“Then what is it about, Jim?” Blair demanded. “What the hell do you want from me? Because man, I have no idea what to do with all of this. And I gotta tell you, I am tired.” He was fucking crying again, goddamn it. “Tired of hurting, tired of being angry, tired of being on the road, of being alone. I miss my mom, I even fucking miss Simon, and I miss you, you asshole. And this all came about because you are too fucking repressed to believe it when someone says they love you.” Jim’s arms were around him again, one hand stroking his back, the comfort both unwelcome and everything he wanted. “I ought to punch you out after all,” Blair rasped into Jim’s sweater, holding on tight. “Because you fucking deserve it.” 

“I know, I understand. I know I deserve it.” It sounded as though Jim was crying too. “I’m sorry.” 

They held onto each other for a long time, Blair getting the clear sense that Jim needed this as much as him. Eventually Blair pulled back to look at Jim, Reaching out he wiped a thumb across a drying tear-track in Jim’s face, then cupped his cheek. “Naomi knows about you and me,” he said. “She knows why I left. Did she tell you?” 

Jim shook his head, looking stricken. “I didn’t tell her, Chief,” he said. "I swear." 

“I know, it’s okay.” Blair dropped his hand to Jim’s shoulder, holding tight. “She’s a smart woman, my mom. She said she’s known for a while.” He paused. “She’s pissed at you,” he said. “But more than anything, she’s scared for you, and so am I. I need you to make me a promise, Jim. That no matter what, you’re not going to do anything stupid, all right? Simon’s going to be back soon, and I’m going to walk out of here with him. But I need to know you’re gonna be okay.” 

“I’ll be fine, Chief,” Jim insisted. “I’m not going to eat my gun, or anything like that. You have my word.” 

“Okay, then.” Blair nodded. 

“Will I…” Jim swallowed hard. “Can I see you again?” 

Blair considered his answer. Anyone looking at this messed-up situation from the outside would no doubt urge him to leave right now and never look back. Jim had forfeited any right to Blair’s friendship, and had long-since destroyed any chance of any deeper relationship between them. Blair’s focus from now on should be on rebuilding his own life, and salvaging his relationship with his mom. Anything else would be unhealthy in the extreme. 

But, “Yeah, okay,” was what he found himself answering, nevertheless. “Let’s meet up for dinner tomorrow after I finish my shift.”

 

Chapter Text

The aftermath of so much emotional bloodletting, after years of burying it deep, left Blair feeling strangely numb and disconnected. He got through work the next day on the construction site in a daze, his preoccupied silence apparently warning off anyone who might otherwise attempt to draw him into conversation. And all the time one name repeated itself over and over in his mind; the name of the man he’d arranged to meet up with after work, the same man who had plagued his thoughts and emotions for so many years.

At last his shift ended. He took the bus home, showered and changed, then headed out to take the bus downtown. He’d arranged to meet Jim at a favorite Chinese restaurant they’d both regularly frequented back in the day, and was not surprised to find Jim already there waiting, punctual as he’d ever been. Despite everything that had changed, some things hadn’t changed at all.

Jim was solicitous to a fault as they ate, his manner shyly congenial, eye contact kept to a decorous minimum. Topics of conversation were light, both of them steering, by apparently mutual consent, away from the elephant in the room. The Jags had finally gotten through to the playoffs after a couple of poor seasons. Henri Brown had gotten married and moved to Portland. The young guy who lived in the apartment underneath Jim’s had been growing weed, Jim’s senses easily detecting the aroma and the constant heat from a hot lamp the guy was using to propagate the plants, and Jim had dealt with it off the record, having a quiet word in his ear and thus averting an arrest. The world, it seemed, had carried on turning here in Cascade, oblivious that Blair’s world had tipped into a never-ending, spiraling descent into the heart of a dying star.

It didn’t escape Blair’s notice that Jim did most of the talking, and that all the banter was about stuff happening here in Cascade. It was a bit of a turnabout from the old days, but then again, neither of them were the same people they’d been five years ago. Blair had gotten out of the habit of any kind of conversation at all, and it appeared that living with Naomi had left its mark on Jim in the opposite direction.

Eventually, when the updates on life in Cascade wound down, Jim asked, “So, you’ve gotten a job here. Are you going to stay in town for a while?”

Blair had never intended this to be anything but a short trip; the fact that he had ended up finding work was more out of habit than necessity. “I don’t know,” he answered, after a pause. “I guess so. I don’t need to go back to England for a few weeks. I’ll see how it goes in the meantime.” The thought of leaving, of becoming an anonymous person in an anonymous place once more, made his gut hurt. “I guess I’ll stay for now.”

Jim nodded, his expression serious. “Good,” he said. “I’m glad, Chief.”

That was as close as they came to discussing difficult topics. The meal ended, Blair crying off Jim’s halfhearted attempt to talk him into staying out for awhile, maybe going to a bar, with excuses about an early start at work. But he didn’t argue when Jim asked if they could meet up again, just gave his assent. And he ignored the astonished inner voice that asked him what the hell he thought he was doing.

The next time they met up, Jim told Blair he was planning to go back to work. “Are you okay now, man?” Blair asked carefully. “I mean, you’re still seeing a counselor, right?”

“I’m fine,” Jim said firmly. “I’m not suicidal or anything like that, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Just as easily as that, they were on conversational quicksand. Hurt and shame suffused Blair. “You know, I should have said this before now. I need to tell you, Jim. I’m really sorry I called you the way I did, especially that last time. I was way out of line, man.”

“The way I see it, you had every right,” Jim said. “I don’t blame you for what you said to me. Not for any of it.”

“I was an asshole, though,” Blair insisted. “I was angry, and messed up. But that was no excuse for the things I said.”

“I was an asshole as well,” Jim countered. “I think we’re both pretty much agreed on that.”

The self-deprecation, clearly intended to mollify, just had the effect of pissing Blair off. “Man, you have got to quit it with the sackcloth and ashes. If you get the urge to keep telling me what a dick you are, just… talk about the weather or something else instead, okay? I don’t need to hear any more apologies from you.”

Jim shrugged. “If you promise to do the same.”

Blair took a deep breath, trying to damp down an urge to fall back into a familiar pattern, and let loose a scathing retort. Goddamn it, there was so much left unsaid between them, and so many things he feared that they’d never be able to get past. The problem was he didn’t want to talk about it, but he didn’t want to walk away with it still unresolved. Once more, he found himself at a stalemate with no idea what to do.

“Hey, Chief,” Jim said softly, after an endless pause. “I’ve been meaning to ask you. How about them Jags?”

Blair couldn’t help it, he laughed. It seemed he and Jim were on the same page after all, repressed pair of fuck-ups that they were, falling back so easily on non-sequiturs as a means of avoidance. “I’ve heard that things improved since Orvelle came back as Coach,” he answered, gratefully playing along. And as they went on to discuss the profound effect on the team of Wallace’s return, Blair’s urge to fight with Jim quickly died away.

So Blair decided to stay in Cascade, at least for now. He carried on working, kept on breathing. He met up with Jim a couple more times, went for a coffee with Simon, and spent quite a bit of time with Naomi, reconnecting and rediscovering the strong bond they’d shared all their lives. It was such a huge relief to be reconciled with Naomi. Blair hadn’t realized how profoundly the self-imposed split with his mom had contributed to the burden of pain he’d carried inside for so long. He’d blamed it all on Jim before, but now he had to admit that pushing away his mom had perhaps been the most painful thing of all, the thing that had set him truly adrift. Even during his darkest times he’d still been in touch with Jim (toxic though that contact had been), but Naomi, the one, true constant in his life up to that point, had been completely out of his reach.

Their reconciliation was inevitably brief, however, because once Naomi was assured that Jim was in no immediate danger and that Blair was coping okay she decided to head off back to Thailand. “I’ll stay in touch, sweetheart. And I’ll come visit you when you go back to England,” Naomi told him at their parting, holding him tight. “If you want me to, that is.”

“Oh, ma. Of course I want you to,” Blair said, squeezing her back. “I love you, Naomi.”

“I love you too, Blair. And I’m glad,” Naomi told him, “that you’re working it out with Jim. I truly am. I’m fine with you dating each other, Blair. Don’t think for a moment that you’re hurting me or that I disapprove.”

Shocked, Blair pulled back at that. “We’re not dating, Naomi.” He swallowed, embarrassed and concerned. “We’re just friends.”

Naomi looked a little wistful, but she smiled anyway. “Oh, honey. You and Jim have never been just friends.”

“Ma,” Blair protested, somewhat helplessly. “I’m not moving in on Jim. I wouldn’t do that to you.”

Naomi reached out and stroked a stray lock of hair away from Blair’s face. “Don’t you worry about me,” she said firmly. “I care about Jim, but I’m not in love with him. I do love you. All I want is for the two of you to be happy. Trust me, Blair. If you can find that together, then both of you have my blessing.”

Blair had no response to that, except to pull his mother into a hug. And after she left he began to question the certainty with which he’d made that pronouncement to Naomi. Goddamn it, it felt like he and Jim were dating; he had no other word to adequately describe it. As Blair’s stay in Cascade extended from one week into two, he found himself meeting up with Jim every few days for food, beer, to go to a game, to go to the movies. It never got physical beyond a hug at the end of the night, and they kept things light and easy, steering completely away from difficult topics, discovering a laid-back, uncomplicated enjoyment in each other’s company that had only ever been hinted at during their past together.

Jim and he had never dated back when they’d first known each other. It had already been too intense by the time they’d gotten together, the two of them hyper-entangled at work, at home, in their personal relationship and through keeping secrets that no one else could know. Their affair had been furtive and combative from the start, entirely unlike this easy friendship they seemed to be developing. They’d fallen into bed together the night Blair had failed to die in an elevator, and had alternately clung together and pushed each other away after that right up until Alex Barnes had arrived in Cascade and torn them asunder. Blair could now see that it had been a doomed love affair right from the start, built on adrenaline and desperation and too many lies.

But this thing they were doing now, this dating thing, felt different. Blair was aware that it was still there; all of the passion and the pain, boiling away under the surface. If he allowed his mind to drift, if he gave the desperate need and simmering hurt even the slightest chance to rear its head, he felt it start to take hold. But something about the gentle, easy-going time he was spending with Jim helped to damp it down and keep it in check, so that eventually its power began to feel diminished. It was as though the bitter, wounded part of him was slowly healing.

It was strange, because he’d always assumed the pain he carried could only ever be expunged by some great, dramatic trauma. That a cathartic blaze of glory would be necessary to excise the poison he carried within, or at the very least an extended period of time thrashing out his issues both verbally and (preferably) physically. He’d thought that being back around Jim again would be the painful catalyst that would set it free, but instead it was proving to be balm on a wound.

For Jim’s part, it appeared as if the healing went both ways. He seemed to be thriving on their rekindled friendship, his enjoyment in the time they spent together clear. He never behaved in any way that might be regarded as inappropriate, but was subtly affectionate all the same, putting a hand on Blair’s back to steer him gently through a doorway, or a hand on the shoulder in comradely solidarity as they laughed at a joke together. All-in-all, he seemed generally happier and more content than at any time in all the years Blair had known him, despite the conflicting wistfulness Blair sometimes glimpsed on Jim’s face when he didn’t know that Blair was watching.

Of course, Blair hadn’t forgotten what Jim had done; the hurt still stole his breath away at times whenever he thought of Jim and his mom together. But he at last understood that the pain he’d carried for so long was not his alone. The whole situation had been toxic not just for him, but for Jim and Naomi as well. It was long past time for Blair to stop wallowing in his own self-centered anguish, and recognize that they had all suffered, and all bore the scars.

Two weeks turned into three, and at last Blair had to admit something else: that his feelings for Jim, despite his determination for them to just be friends, were far from platonic. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, considering Jim’s profound effect on his life, but for some strange reason it was. During the times they were apart Blair found his heart speeding up a little at the anticipation of their next meeting, his breath catching at a sudden sense-memory of Jim’s hand on his arm, or Jim’s dazzling smile, rare and precious, directed at him with full force. Jim was his first thought when he rose in the morning and his last thought at night, and in his dreams they held each other and loved each other, before Blair was cast back onto the shores of the waking world alone.

It was possibly because of his preoccupied distraction, or maybe he was just tired and not paying enough attention. But at work one afternoon on the construction site Blair ended up fumbling to hold onto a couple of blocks which slipped through his fingers, and in his haste to try and catch them ended up smashing his fist against a wall. It wasn’t the first time he’d gotten injured on the job, and so after binding up his bruised knuckles he carried on working. But by the time he'd gotten home, and had changed and had headed off out to meet up with Jim that evening, his hand was throbbing and the Tylenol he’d taken wasn’t doing much to alleviate the pain.

Jim frowned when he saw the bandage. “What happened?”

“Ah, it’s nothing,” Blair insisted, as he slid into his seat across from Jim in the restaurant. “I was just clumsy at work. It’s no big deal, man.”

“Can I see?” Jim asked, taking Blair’s hand in his. Mesmerized, Blair watched as Jim ran a finger lightly over his palm, coming to rest over the base of Blair’s little finger, where he stopped. “Feels like a fracture,” he said. “Just here.”

“You can tell that? Even over the bandage?” Blair asked.

Jim nodded. “It’s a little bit displaced, Chief. You should go to the ER, get this checked out.”

“Wow.” The familiar thrill of Jim using his incredible senses, not experienced for so many years, suffused Blair. “That’s amazing.” At Jim's raised eyebrow, he added, “Well, obviously it’s not amazing that I broke my hand, but it’s amazing you can tell.” He paused, his hand still cradled in Jim’s. “We’ve never talked, since I came back. About your senses.”

Jim’s gently relinquished Blair’s hand. To Blair’s dismay, he looked uncomfortable. “There’s nothing to talk about,” he said.

Blair could tell that, for some reason, Jim was upset. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know… I didn’t mean to…”

Jim shook his head. “It’s fine,” he said. “It’s just…” he looked away, his eyes focused on the far distance or on a memory, and he sighed. “I kinda… I don’t want this,” he looked back at Blair, pointing between them, “whatever this is, to be built around my goddamn senses. Not this time around. I want us to be just us. Just a couple of guys. I don’t want it to be about what I can do.”

“Jim, it was never about that.” At Jim’s disbelieving look, Blair added, “Okay, maybe it was right at the start. But it soon became a lot more, you’ve got to know that.” Feeling unaccountably hurt, Blair added, “So are we going back down that road where you don’t trust me? Come on, Jim. After everything we’ve been through, how can you think that’s all I see in you?”

“So, what do you see in me?” Jim asked.

They were in dangerous territory, now. So many things left unsaid, suddenly thrust out into the light. Blair felt tears prickle behind his eyes. It felt like the world around them had stopped, the other diners, the servers milling around, mere extras in a two-man play.

There was only one answer he could give.

“You’re my life, Jim,” he said.

Jim nodded, swallowing hard, then reached out once more to take Blair’s injured hand between his own. “Come on,” he said, his voice gruff as though tears were not far behind for him too. “We can eat later. I’ll give you a lift to the emergency room.”

Chapter Text

Blair still felt a little out of it as Jim steered him into the loft later. He’d been mildly sedated while his broken metacarpal was manipulated back into place and his hand immobilised in a cast, and felt oddly as though he’d lost time. “Tell me again why we’re here?” he pleaded.

He could feel Jim’s arm around him as he was urged toward the couch and eased down to sit on it. “Because you shouldn’t be alone for a few hours, not until the drugs wear off. The doctor told you that, remember?”

“Oh, right.” He remembered, kind of.

“You want to lie down?” Jim asked.

Blair turned to look at him, blinking stupidly. “Huh?”

Jim smiled. “Never mind, Chief. Just take it easy for a while, okay? I’ll fix us some food. You should eat before you take your pain meds.”

“Oh, okay.” Blair closed his eyes, leaning back against the cushions. He was feeling no pain at this moment, that was for sure. “I’ll just sit here for a while,” he said.

Blair drifted for a time after that, untroubled and relaxed. The muted sound of someone moving around, cupboard doors opening, a faucet running, lulled him into a waking doze. Jim, his mind supplied. He’s taking care of everything. Everything is okay. His thoughts wandered after that, meandering through peaceful semi-dreams.

He came back to himself a while later, lying on the couch, his casted hand, which was resting on a heap of cushions next to him, throbbing. At some point he’d been covered with a blanket, and to his surprise it had gotten dark. Jim was in a chair nearby, reading by the low light of a lamp, but he looked up as Blair stirred. “Hey,” Jim said.

“Um.” Blair’s mouth felt dry and furred inside, as though he’d been breathing through it. “What time is it?” he asked.

“Almost midnight,” Jim said. “You went out like a light. I didn’t want to wake you.”

Blair ran his good hand over his hair. “Oh, man. Sorry for crashing out on you like that. Tonight was a wash, huh.” He pushed off the blanket and sat up, yawning. “I should go home.”

Jim nodded. “I’ll take you,” he said. “But hey, how about you have something to eat before you go? Dinner’s ready, it just needs heating up in the microwave. Then you can take your meds and go straight to sleep when you get in.”

Blair nodded. “Okay. I’ll just use the bathroom first, man.”

Blair took some time to wash up – awkward, with one hand immobilised – and by the time he emerged, Jim had put out reheated bowls of pasta and sauce, which he’d apparently made while Blair had been asleep. Blair’s pain meds were on the table as well, so he took a couple before diving into the food. He found he was ravenous.

“How’s the hand?” Jim asked as they ate.

Blair held up his cast to look at it. His right hand was bent back at a sharp angle at the wrist, as though he was putting up his hand to do a high-five, and his little finger, peeping out the top of the cast, was strapped up to the one next to it. He vaguely remembered the doctor explaining that the stretch of this position would keep the bones of his hand in the right position as the fracture healed. “It’s a bit sore,” he said. “But not too bad.” He shook his head in frustration. “I guess I’ll have to give up my job, though.”

Jim nodded, looking sympathetic. “Yeah, you can’t exactly work construction with a broken hand. You going to look for something else to do?”

“I don’t know. I... I’m not all that used to sitting still, you know? I need to be doing something, keeping busy, if I’m gonna stay around. It sucks that it’s my right hand. That makes me pretty much useless for anything.” He sighed, frustrated. “I guess I’m just going to have to take an enforced vacation.”

“Are you going to be able to afford your rent?” Jim asked. “Because... you could always stay here. If you wanted. You know,” he smiled, “just for a week.”

“Me and my pal Larry, huh?” Blair quipped. “Yeah, well you know where that got us the last time, man.” He shook his head. “Thanks, Jim, I appreciate it, but I’ll pass. I’m not destitute. I’ve got enough money to tide me over until I head back to school.”

“Okay,” Jim agreed. But Blair could tell that his melancholy, which had been so evident earlier in the evening, was back.

“Hey,” Blair said softly. “I thought you were joking. You weren’t being serious about me staying here, were you?”

Jim shrugged. “I wouldn’t have offered if I wasn’t serious.” He stood up, and started to gather up their empty plates. “It’s okay, Chief. I understand you need your own space. It’s no big deal.”

The slight awkwardness which had grown between them persisted as they cleared away the dishes and headed out to Jim’s truck. Jim drove in silence, and Blair didn’t really know what to say to make it better. He longed alternately for a return to congenial avoidance, or for matters to come to a head. One thing was for sure, now he’d unequivocally verbalised Jim’s prime importance in his life, there was no taking it back. From here on out, things could never be the same.

Jim parked up outside Blair’s apartment building and cut the engine, and both of them sat there in silence. Jim seemed to be as reluctant for Blair to get out of the truck as Blair was himself.

“Are you okay?” Blair asked eventually.

In the semi-darkness of the cab, half-lit by the light from a streetlamp, he saw Jim nod. But Jim didn’t turn to look at Blair, his expression closed off and distant.

“Well, then.” Blair knew he should do something. He should say goodnight, open the door, get out, go up to bed. But he didn’t move, and the silence extended.

“You’re my life too, you know,” Jim said eventually. “Just in case you were wondering.”

There were so many things Blair wanted to say, to ask, to demand, in response to that. If I’m your life, why did you hurt me so much? Why did you kiss Alex, why did you marry my mom? Why, Jim?

But instead, all Blair said was, “I know.”

They were living on a cliff-top besieged by the encroaching ocean, it seemed. The crashing waves of every fierce storm eroded the rocks away just a little bit more, bringing them closer and closer to the edge, and one of these days the ground underfoot would slide away into the sea and take them both with it.

But not tonight.

Blair turned to look at Jim. “I’d better get inside, man. But let’s do this again, huh?” He laughed, a little weakly. “Well, let’s not do the whole E.R. thing, we’ll give that part a miss. But let’s meet up for dinner. Are you free tomorrow night?”

Jim nodded. “Yeah. I can pick you up here, if you like. Say, around seven?”

Blair nodded. “Works for me,” he said.

Jim’s hand rose, and brushed across Blair’s cheek; a loving, tender gesture. “Goodnight, Chief,” he said softly. “Sleep well.”

Blair nodded, acknowledging everything. “Goodnight, Jim.” He caught Jim’s hand in his before it was withdrawn and impulsively kissed Jim’s palm, holding tight for a moment before letting it go. Then decisively he opened the door and got out of the truck.

Chapter Text

“You want me to cut that up for you, Chief?” The amusement in Jim’s voice was unmistakeable.

Blair rolled his eyes. “You’re enjoying this far too much. But I gotta admit defeat here.” Blair pushed his plate across toward Jim. “Go for it. But if you offer to spoon-feed me afterward, just remember that this cast is potentially a lethal weapon.”

Jim just grinned as he methodically sliced up Blair’s steak into bite-sized chunks. Then Jim met his eyes, the smirk morphing into a tender smile and causing Blair’s insides to turn into mush. “Does it hurt much?”

“Only when I laugh,” Blair quipped, looking away to hide his reaction. Man, everything felt so intense between them tonight. He held up his right hand and regarded the purple cast ruefully. “It aches if I bump it against anything, which of course I’ve done, like, a million times today. But apart from that it’s fine. It’s just a pain in the ass to suddenly have to do everything one-handed. Even unzipping to take a piss is a major operation.”

“I could help you with that, if you like,” Jim said outrageously. “The unzipping part, I mean.” When Blair looked at him in astonishment, he at least had the grace to blush.

 “You know,” Blair said, after a pause, his emotions suddenly verging on the brutal, “if you go anywhere near my dick, that’d technically be incest. You being my stepdad, and all.”

Jim wasn’t smiling anymore. He slid Blair’s plate back toward him. “I’m sorry,” he said, his expression frozen in the way Blair knew so well, the way he looked whenever he was consumed by guilt or fear but concealing it behind a stoic mask. “I shouldn’t have said that. It was inappropriate. I was way out of line.”

But Blair was already regretting his venomous burst of temper. “No, no I’m the one who’s out of line, Jim, I’m sorry. I don’t...” He stopped, swallowing, deeply ashamed. “I don’t want to be the kind of person who talks to you like that. Not anymore. I just...” he felt overwhelmed, suddenly. Lost, alone, like the past few years had suddenly rushed back in to evict the tentative peace that had taken root the last little while. “I guess I still have some unresolved issues, man,” he confessed helplessly. “You know, about all of this.” He looked away, on the verge of tears suddenly, and ruthlessly suppressed the instinct to bolt.

Jim’s hand enfolded his own. “It’s okay,” Jim murmured, his voice so perfectly kind that it really didn’t help with Blair’s attempt to get his emotions in check. “I have a few issues myself. It’s not just you.” His next words did the trick, though. “But hey, I promise not to go anywhere near your dick, not uninvited, anyway. Your dick is off limits, end of discussion. My dick as well. No dicks here.”

“Oh man.” Blair shook his head helplessly, laughing weakly despite himself. “You are a dick Jim. Jesus!” And just as easily as that equilibrium was restored, difficult subjects avoided, and Blair could breathe again.

After their meal, they left the restaurant and walked together toward Jim’s truck, Jim having offered to give Blair a lift home. But when they got inside they sat in silence for a while, as if by mutual accord, and Jim showed no inclination to start the engine. Blair felt tense with anticipation, once more on the verge of a precipice.

“So,” Jim ventured, after the expectant silence had stretched interminably. “You want to come back for coffee?”

Blair laughed helplessly. “Is that the best line you could come up with?”

“Actually, I mean it literally,” Jim protested. “I’ve already promised not to touch... well, anything I’m not invited to touch.” Blair felt his hand enfolded once more; apparently his hand was not, in Jim’s estimation, off-limits. “I just think,” Jim paused, as though carefully considering his words. “That there are a few things you and I should probably talk about. You know, to clear the air. We’ve been putting it off for long enough.”

“Jim Ellison wants to talk. Never thought I’d see the day,” Blair quipped, but his words held no malice, just wry humor. He sighed; this all felt so huge, so momentous, that it scared him. “It’s been great, these past few weeks, being here with you. Kind of... easygoing. I guess I’m a little nervous about bringing up the things we’re avoiding. I don’t want this,” he squeezed Jim’s hand back, “to change.”

“I think it has changed,” Jim said softly. “I think we need to face it. Deal with it.” His thumb stroked over Blair’s knuckles. “It’s not going to go away,” he said.

“I know.” Blair sighed, resigned. Eventually, he made a decision. “I guess I could use some coffee,” he said.

“Okay then.” Jim let go of Blair and started up the engine, and pulled out of the lot. But as soon as they got on the road he reached across again, and held onto Blair’s hand the rest of the way.

***

Coffee poured, they sat side by side on the couch. A little apprehensive about whatever Jim so obviously wished to discuss, Blair decided to head him off at the pass and talk about what was on his mind first. “You’ve never gotten pissed at me since I came back. Not once,” he said. “I behaved like a total asshole, all those times I called to abuse you. But you’ve never once called me on it, and you’ve been nothing but kind and patient with me since I got here. I still don’t understand why, Jim.”

Jim shrugged. “I’m not mad at you. And even if I was, right now I figure kindness is what you need the most.”

Blair laughed, at that. “I’m not fragile.”

But Jim didn’t smile. “I think you are,” he said seriously. “I think you’ve been hurt more than anyone should ever be hurt, and I know I’m the one who did that to you. Every time you called, I could hear your pain. I look at you now, and I see how much pain you’re still in. And more than anything, more than anything in the world, I want to make it better. But what scares me the most is that I’m not up to the job. I know that I’m part of the problem, Chief. In fact I am the problem. I want to fix it, but I don’t know how, and I don’t even know if it’s possible because I’m the one who did this to you.”

Jim’s ocean of guilt was clearly still surging away under the surface. “Hey, I’ve got my own share of culpability,” Blair insisted. “I’ve spent the last five years wallowing, instead of getting over it. My inability to move on is part of the problem too. It’s not all your fault.”

“So how can I help you?” Jim pleaded. “I hate to say it, but I could do with a little guidance here, Blair. I don’t want to screw this up, or make things worse.”

Blair’s stomach clenched in anxiety. “I don’t know what to tell you.”

“Try. What is it that you need the most?”

“It’s difficult. I don’t know what to say.”

“Try.”

Blair laughed. “Man, you’re pushy.” He tried to come up with something that made sense. ““I... I guess when it comes down to it, I’m just really tired of all the bitterness between us. I don’t want to feel this way anymore.”

“Tell me how you feel.”

“I don’t have the words. I just don’t. It’s...” Blair sighed helplessly. “It’s like everything is too much, too intense. I can’t pin it down. My life has been on hold all this time, and I’m treading water, going nowhere. I feel like I’m drowning, sometimes. And hey, I know what that’s really like, you know?”

Jim winced at that, but kept on pushing. “Break it down into parts. One emotion at a time. It’ll be more manageable that way.”

Blair huffed a laugh. “Man, I can tell you’ve been in therapy. Is that what your shrink tells you to do?”

Jim shrugged. “It’s working for me. Maybe it’ll work for you too.” He smiled. “One emotion. Try it.”

Blair tried to sift through his inner turmoil to come up with one word that made sense. In the end, it was a no-brainer. “I’m terrified.”

“Come here.” The words were soft; not a command, just an offer of safe harbour. Blair could no more resist it than he could swim against the tide. “There you go,” Jim murmured, holding him tight. “I’ve got you. You’re safe.” His mouth was close to Blair’s ear, and he whispered, “Trust me.”

It was everything Blair wanted; everything Blair was so afraid he couldn’t have. Trust was at the core of it all. The source of Jim’s issues with him back in the day, the whole deal with Alex, then Jim marrying his mom and everything that came after. And trust was at the core of it now, the true source of Blair’s terror. Could they ever move past all the hurt? Could he ever truly trust Jim, and could Jim trust him?

Blair gently disengaged himself from Jim’s embrace, not wanting him to think it was a rejection, but needing the space so he could gather his thoughts. Jim let him go, his hands opening readily but reluctantly, respecting Blair’s boundaries far more considerately than he’d ever done back in the past. This new, chastened, oh-so-careful Jim, who treated Blair like he was some delicate, wounded creature. Fragile, he’d insisted, but Blair wasn’t fragile. He was brittle, maybe, the prickly, self-protective shell he’d developed, forged in the fires of grief and betrayal, admittedly having fragmented a little as Jim’s doggedly cautious compassion chipped away at it bit by bit.

He was far from broken, though, no matter what Jim thought. He’d learned the true meaning of resilience, over the past five long, lonely years.

Time, then, to get to the core of it all; the one thing Blair needed, more than anything in the world, for them to finally bring out into the open. Jim hadn’t wanted to discuss it at the time, and both of them had spent years dancing around it; the elephant in the living room, the spectre that haunted them both, even now. It was the moment that it had all changed, when the wheels had been set in motion for all of the destruction that came after.

“When you went after Alex,” Blair said, unable to miss Jim’s flinch but ploughing on regardless, “I told you how pissed I was, right? But I never told you how much it hurt.”

Jim’s face twisted in shame. “I know,” he said. “You don’t need to tell me.”

“Yeah, I do. I really do,” Blair insisted. “She tried to kill me, Jim. But you were obsessed by her, and you kissed her, right there in front of me. I can’t describe to you how that made me feel.”

“I’m sorry,” Jim said.

“I don’t need you to apologise,” Blair countered. “I just need to understand. I need to know why.”

“I’ve asked myself that question a million times,” Jim said. “I look back at that time, and it’s like... like I’m remembering something that happened to someone else. Like it wasn’t me.” Jim shook his head. “That’s ridiculous, I know. It sounds like an excuse, like I’m trying to say I wasn’t responsible.”

“So explain it to me,” Blair insisted. “What was going through your head?”

Jim’s misery was clear. “I never told you what it was like, seeing you in that fountain. It was... it was the worst thing that’d ever happened. I went a little crazy, I think. I don’t even remember doing it, but I think I pulled you out of the water. I remember seeing that you weren’t breathing. I did CPR for, I have no idea how long, it felt like hours, then the medics took over, but they gave up so I started again and someone, Simon I think, pulled me away from you, told me it was over. But I wouldn’t give up. I couldn’t believe you were gone. I refused to believe it. I knelt back down, put my hands on your face. You were so cold, so still. Then I felt it, a connection, and there was that vision, the one we shared, and you came back, Chief. You came back.”

Jim faltered, his voice thick with tears. “I wanted to kill her. I swear to you, Blair, I’ve never hated anyone as much in my entire life, I wanted Alex dead for what she did to you. That was the biggest reason I went after her, and the reason I left you behind. I didn’t want you within a million miles of her. But as soon as I got off the plane in Sierra Verde and I started seeing her visions it all got twisted around in my head and... I don’t even know what happened. It scared the hell out of me, knowing I could feel like that; that I could lust after someone who hurt you the way she did. It makes me sick to remember it. I’ve tried, all these years, not to remember it. I can’t forgive myself for what I did, Blair. I can’t ever forgive myself. I never have.”

“Oh man.”

“So the short answer is, I don’t know why I did it. I’ve never known why. I have no defence, Chief. No excuses. And I understand why you couldn’t stand to look at me after that. I can hardly stand to look at myself, even now. Especially now.”

“So, you weren’t in love with her?”

“God, no!” Jim’s rebuttal was clearly heartfelt. “Jesus, Blair. No. Never.” Jim covered his face with his hands, and breathed deep, before emerging, pale and upset. “The strongest thing I ever felt for her, apart from rage, was pity. There but for the grace of god, you understand? Seeing her afterward, imagining what she was going through, it was my worst nightmare come to life, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. But love? Nothing was further from my mind. Even when I couldn’t keep my hands off her, it was so far from love it was in a different universe.”

Blair nodded. “Thank you,” he said sincerely. “I mean it, Jim. I needed to hear you say that. I’ve needed it for a long time.”

“Then I’m sorry I didn’t say it before,” Jim said, his voice breaking a little.

It was Blair’s turn to do the comforting. “Hey, it’s okay,” Blair said, taking Jim’s hand in his own. “I just... I just needed to be sure. But I expected you to say that. It's okay, man.” Blair cupped Jim’s hand in both of his own and turned to look at him. Jim looked lost and upset, the reminder of one of his biggest personal failures hitting him hard. Blair decided it was time to offer up the deductions he'd made. “I had a lot of time to think about it afterwards, after I broke it off with you. And... you know, I developed some theories, once I got some distance. The only other time I saw you react that way was with that other woman, the jewel thief, what was she called? When we figured out you reacted to pheromones?”

“Laura,” Jim supplied. He looked thoughtful. “Are you saying it was something similar between me and Alex? Because it’s like I was totally crazy in Sierra Verde. Not just the lust thing, but also that time I warned her, and helped her get away. I just... I never understood why I did that. I still don’t.”

“I’m saying... yeah, with the benefit of hindsight, I think it was probably something like that. It was tied up with the fact that you were both sentinels, something instinctual, not something you chose. I was too wrapped up in my own issues to think about it clearly back then, but as time went on, I started to think there was something going on, some scent thing most likely, or something, I don’t know, something connected to the whole spiritual deal, your shared visions, that caused you to react that way.”

“It doesn’t change the fact that I did it. That I hurt you.” Jim’s fingers enfolded Blair’s, their joined hands a lifeline.

“I think you need to forgive yourself, and let it go, Jim. Let go of the guilt,” Blair told him softly. “And it’s not just you, man. I need to stop being angry, and I need to accept my own share of responsibility, because I did a shitty job of helping you with the sentinel stuff back then. I was too wrapped up in my own issues to see what was going on with you and give you the help you needed. Most of all, I need to forgive you. And I do, Jim. I forgive you for all of it, even the parts that weren’t really your fault.”

Jim crumpled in on himself at that, and this time Blair was there to catch him. “Hey,” Blair said softly, holding Jim tight. “It’s okay, Jim. It’s all gonna be okay.” He pulled Jim close. “Trust me,” he whispered.

Chapter Text

Blair stayed late, feeling inexpressibly close to Jim. They talked some more, sitting close together and even holding hands and making out a little, the emotional catharsis they’d both gone through having freed them to show open affection to each other in the aftermath. It was a turning point, an epiphany. Life could get better for both of them, and it would.

After such an intense conversation, and with both of them clearly feeling so much raw emotion, it would have been incredibly easy for Blair to give in and take Jim up on his explicit invitation for Blair to spend the night (with the clear proviso that if he was more comfortable sleeping in his old room, that was fine by Jim). But for a variety of reasons – a need to distance himself from the intensity, a reluctance to rush into something he might not be entirely ready for, and the physical reminders of his mother’s life with Jim all over the loft – Blair reluctantly took his leave, and took a cab home.

Waking at dawn alone in his dingy rented apartment, his broken hand throbbing and with no job to go to and no direction in his life that wasn’t focused on Jim, Blair wondered what the hell he was supposed to do now. How could they make this work? It had seemed so easy, last night. So natural. This morning it seemed like a minefield.

With a day of enforced leisure ahead, Blair took the bus downtown and meandered aimlessly. He wandered in and out of some of the bookstores he used to frequent, then paused for coffee in one of this old regular haunts, finding the familiar blended with the unfamiliar in each location thanks to the changes that five years distance had wrought.

Eventually his steps took him close to Rainier, and as though compelled Blair followed the path of memory, walking through the campus on autopilot and ending up at Hargrove Hall and its fountain, the innocuous beauty of the shimmering water making Blair shiver with remembered horror. He daringly sat down on the low wall surrounding the fountain, and surveyed the view.

The campus was quiet this time of year, the usual throng of undergrads mostly absent during the summer break, those few who were sitting or strolling around in the bright sunshine mainly graduate students, as well as conference delegates and international visitors here for various summer symposiums. No Faculty or familiar faces, though, which was both a relief and a disappointment. And that lack of familiarity in yet another once-familiar place underlined to Blair exactly what he’d been perceiving all morning: that life in Cascade had moved on in Blair’s absence. And finding himself back here at the scene of the death of his dreams, as well as the almost literal death he'd suffered in this very spot, Blair had another epiphany: that despite constantly running away for the past five years, he was the one lagging behind, the one who had not moved on at all.

His entire life, ever since he’d met Jim, had been focused on Jim. It was as though Blair had no identity beyond that; no way of existing without Jim in his life. Even when he’d tried to run away, to make a clean break of it, he’d been unable to cut that tie. And as for Jim? The reason he’d married Blair’s mom was because he’d thought he couldn’t have Blair. It was like they were fated to be together, incapable of living without each other. Romeo and Juliet, David and Jonathan, yin and yang.

Maybe, just maybe, sentinel and sentinel’s partner. 

Blair’s cell phone rang, and he jumped, fumbling to get it out of his pocket one-handed. “Hello?”

“Hi.” It was Jim. “Are you okay? You sound a little spooked.”

“No, no I’m fine, man.” Blair smiled. “How are you doing?”

“I’m good.” Jim paused. “But I’m calling to let you know, I’ve been drafted into a big case, something really important and... well, I’ve got to go undercover, so I’ll be out of contact for a while. I’ll try to wrap it up as fast as I can, but it could take a few days, maybe even as long as a week or more . I’m sorry, Chief.”

It was both a disappointment and a weird kind of relief; just hearing Jim’s voice had made Blair’s heart pound with longing, but Blair was beginning to think that a little space might be a good thing for both of them, just to get this whole thing in perspective. “No problem, that’s fine, man. But hey, you could call me sometimes, maybe? Just to say hi, and let me know you’re okay?”

“I can’t, Blair. I’m sorry.” Jim sounded miserable. “It’s deep cover, so I’ll only have one point of contact. Not only that, I can’t take the risk of anyone overhearing or tracing my calls. I won’t risk you like that.”

That made sense, Jim didn’t need to be worried about Blair being used as any kind of leverage. “I guess you don’t want me, along, huh? You know, as your backup,” Blair said. He was only half joking.

“No. No way.” Jim’s voice held a firmness that betrayed, to Blair’s practiced ears, his very real concern. “Don’t even think about it, Sandburg. I don’t want you anywhere near this thing. I mean it.”

“Come on man,” Blair wheedled, grinning; there was something terribly nostalgic about this whole thing. “I could hang out in my car, pretend to be a teacher or something, like I did those other times. It’ll be just like the old days.”

But Jim was clearly not amused. “Blair, I’m really serious about this. You’ve got to promise me that you’ll stay away. Promise me. I can’t do my job if I have to worry about you.”

“Okay, okay!” Blair conceded. “I promise, Jim. I was just kidding.”

Jim sighed, the sound betraying his reluctance. “You’ll be okay on your own for a while?”

“Of course, I will. Go, do your job, don’t worry about me. Go get ‘em!”

“Okay.” Jim sounded a little nervous. “Hey, and don’t worry about me getting hurt, or anything like that, okay? I know what I’m doing.”

“I’m not worried,” Blair said. “Well, no more than I usually worry about you, Ellison. Just remember you’re not superman, okay? Be careful. But you’re good at this stuff, man. You’ll be fine.”

“That’s good to hear. That you’re okay with this,” Jim said. Then added hesitantly, “Your mom... she always had a problem when I did stuff like this. She just… she worried a lot.”

“Jim, I’m not my mom.”

“I know, Blair. I know. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t…”

“Look, it’s okay. She’s my mom, you know? We can’t just pretend she doesn’t exist, or what happened didn’t happen. We’re both gonna talk about her. It’s all right.”

“You sound upset.”

“I’m not upset.” Blair sighed. “I’ve just… had a strange morning, you know? I'm processing some stuff.” He sighed, looking around. “I’m at Rainier,” he said. “Guess where I’m sitting?”

Jim clearly did more than guess, him being a sentinel and all and able to hear the sound of the cascading water. “Jesus, Blair,” he said. “Why there?”

“I guess I’m trying to lay a few more old ghosts to rest,” Blair admitted.

“Has it helped?”

“Not really. Maybe. Perhaps.” Blair grinned wryly. “I’m not sure yet, I need some time to think about it.”

“Well, I guess time is not a problem. Not for the next couple of days, at least.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Blair agreed. “Can you tell me about the case?”

“Blair, you’re not a cop,” Jim said, and Blair heard the wry humor in his voice.  “But no, I can’t, I’m sorry. I would if I could, you know that.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m not part of your jackbooted brotherhood. I’ve heard it all a million times, man.”

“So,” Jim said, sounding reluctant. “I gotta go. But hey, if you need anything while I’m out of touch, give Simon a call.”

“I will,” Blair agreed. “You just take care of yourself, okay? Come back safe.”

“You too.” There was a long pause, then Jim murmured, “I love you.”

Blair didn’t even have to consider his response. “I love you, too.”

***

For someone who had become accustomed to keeping busy, of always having somewhere he needed to be and something to do (at least when he wasn’t in transit between one-horse towns or sleeping the sleep of the just after a day’s back-breaking labor), Blair found the next few days increasingly difficult to navigate.

The deep sense of being in limbo, which had grown during his time in Cascade, persisted. It was made more acute, in fact, due to Blair having so little to occupy his time, thus giving his thoughts and anxieties free rein. He had no job, no studies to immerse himself in beyond a little reading related to his thesis proposal, no end-of-the-day date with Jim to look forward to, and no potential future that wasn’t defined by his relationship with Jim.

The worst part was that, even though they’d finally started to work things out, Jim was suddenly completely inaccessible at what felt like a critical time in the rebuilding of their relationship. Blair couldn’t even call him on the phone, which was something he’d been able to do many times over the past five years, even when they were separated by an ocean, as well as by the vast chasm of their differences.

The enforced isolation and leisure time made Blair feel even more alone and adrift than usual. And by the time that Jim’s radio silence stretched out to a week, then to ten days, he became increasingly restless, his gut churning with a mixture of anxiety, longing and a desperate desire to be doing something, anything, to sort out where his life was headed. This was not helped by receiving a series of emails from the admissions office back at the university in England, prompting him to ensure his visa was in place and requesting him to complete an online registration form in preparation for his return.  It seemed the direction he was being urged in was the one he most desperately did not want to pursue, because all he really wanted was to talk to Jim some more and try to determine what (if any) future they could build together. Yet practicality dictated that he go through the motions and prepare to return to England, because truly, if he couldn’t talk to Jim, he had no idea what else to do.

Finally, at the end of nearly two weeks with no word from Jim and the time rapidly approaching that he would need to commit himself to leaving Cascade to go back to England, Blair called Simon. “I know you can’t tell me where Jim is,” he began. 

“No Sandburg, I can’t,” Simon confirmed.

“But you’d let me know if there was a problem, right?” Blair persisted. “I mean, he’s okay, isn’t he?”

“He named you as his emergency contact, so yes, I’d let you know,” Simon said. “And yes, he’s okay.”

The sense of relief Blair felt took him by surprise with its intensity. He was not only relieved that Jim was okay, but also pleased that he had effectively listed Blair as his next of kin. But at the same time his bitter, inner-self, the same part of his psyche that had inspired all those goddamned stupid phone calls, sneered is it because you’re his partner, or his stepson? Stomping down on that malignant inner voice firmly, Blair went on, “He’s been undercover a long time, Simon. He’s getting support, right? I mean, he has backup, that kind of thing?”

“Sandburg, are you really trying to tell me how to do my job? Because I remember that being one of your less endearing qualities.”

“Um, no,” Blair answered hesitantly, but he couldn’t help being amused at Simon’s familiar prickliness. “Of course not, Simon. I know you’re really good at what you do.”

“Damn straight,” Simon snapped. “And in answer to your question, yes, of course Jim has everything he needs, including backup. So for Christ sake, do not get any ideas into your head about tracking him down and getting involved. You hear me?”

“Whoa, man! I’m not suggesting anything like that. I mean sure, I thought about it, how could I not? But I won’t. I promised Jim.” 

“Good,” Simon said. Then, in a softer tone, he asked, “How are you doing? Jim told me you’d worked out your differences.”

“We’re still working on it really, I guess,” Blair said. “But... yeah. We’re pretty much over the worst. There’s still stuff we need to talk about, to work through. But I care about Jim, Simon. I just want him to be okay.” He almost said I love him, but figured that would be just too T.M.I for words. He didn’t want to make Simon reach for the sick bucket.

But it seemed that Simon had picked up the unspoken sentiment, anyway. “You know he feels the same way about you, Sandburg. So you’d better make sure you stay okay as well until he’s back, you hear me? Otherwise I’ll come over there and kick your butt.”

The gruff expression of caring made Blair grin. Simon hated this touchy-feely stuff, so even saying that much probably cost him dearly. “I will,” Blair said. He sighed, feeling the weight of the imminent decisions he had to make. “It’s just... do you know how long it’s going to be? Because... I need to think about leaving soon and I’d hate to have to go without seeing him.” The very real possibility he might have to do exactly that, now that he’d given it voice, made Blair’s stomach hurt.

“I don’t know,” Simon said. “He’ll be under for as long as it takes to get the job done, you know that.”

“Yeah, I know,” Blair said. 

“Blair, try not to worry. Jim knows what he’s doing.”

Now Simon was definitely not trying to hide his concern, which gave Blair a warm feeling that he’d become totally unaccustomed to. Feeling a little choked – man, even the slightest kindness made him react out of all proportion these days – Blair said “I will.” He swallowed, trying not to sound like a total wuss. “Thanks, Simon.”

“Good.” The gruffness was back, which helped immensely. “You take care, Sandburg,” Simon ordered. “I’ll call you the minute I hear anything. And if you need me, you know where I am.” He paused, then added, “Anytime.”

Simon was a good friend, Blair understood. He wished he’d gotten the message sooner, stupid self-absorbed fuck that he’d been the past few years. “I will, Simon. Thanks,” Blair said.

The call concluded, but at last Blair felt a little less alone.

Chapter Text

Confirmation that Blair had passed his Masters degree arrived the morning after he had spoken to Simon. It came along with a bunch of information about attending a graduation ceremony in a couple of week’s time. If he decided to go, there would be no point in him coming back afterward, he may as well stay over there and find accommodation in readiness for starting his PhD a couple of weeks later.

It was time, Blair reluctantly understood, to make some firm decisions. Chase up his visa application, book flights, find somewhere to live.

It was time to leave Cascade. Time to leave Jim.

But the thought of going back to England, of going through the motions of pursuing a different life in a different place once more, made Blair feel sick with anxiety. The thought of doing so before having the chance to say goodbye to Jim in person made it even more untenable.

Jim. He filled Blair’s thoughts from morning until night, each day every day. Blair realized that really, he always had, even when they had been thousands of miles apart from each other. Working construction and keeping on the move had been a way of trying to exorcise those intrusive thoughts, a means of distraction. It had only worked for so long as Blair’s mind had been fully occupied, but the nights… man, the nights. They had been long and lonely, filled with a sense of acute longing mixed in with rage and hurt so agonizing that it made Blair hunch over in pain just to remember it.

If Blair left, he was going back to that same emptiness. It would be tempered, sure, by the knowledge that Jim’s love was not a lie; that Naomi’s love would be with him always. The great rift was healing, slowly but surely, despite the residual pain that he knew he would always carry within.

So what should he do? Looking down at the forms he needed to fill out, Blair hesitated, just for a moment. It was the sensible solution, he knew. A new start, a potential new career, the only positive thing he had carved out for himself out of the backbreaking self-denial he had practiced ever since he’d left Cascade. It had been part of his healing, in its own way.

But it wasn’t enough. It would never be enough.

Nodding, accepting the inevitable, Blair picked up the form and crumpled it into a ball in his good hand, then tossed it across the room into the trash can.

Even left-handed, it was a slam dunk.

***

Jim called the very next day. “Hi,” he said, and Blair’s fingers gripped the phone hard at the sound of that longed-for voice. “I’m back.”

“Jim. It’s so good to hear from you, man.” Blair’s heart was pounding a mile a minute. “I… was worried about you.”

“I’m fine,” Jim said, but even over the phone line, Blair could tell he wasn’t, not entirely. “I… ran into a bit of trouble toward the end, but we got them, Chief. It was a rough case, a pedophile ring. We caught the bastards, all of them. They won’t be hurting any more kids, that’s for sure.”

“Oh man, that’s rough.” The thought of what Jim had been dealing with, what he might have seen, turned Blair’s stomach. “Are you okay? What do you mean, you ran into trouble?”

“I was made,” Jim said. “One of the gang, someone I’d come into contact with before, recognized me as a cop, and all hell broke loose. I got beaten up a little before my backup came in, nothing major. Cuts, bruises, and my left arm is in a cast.” He huffed a laugh. “We’re pretty much a matching pair now, Chief. Between you and me, we’ve got one good pair of hands.”

“But you’re okay, right? I mean… with the rest of it, as well. A case like that, especially being undercover so long, there’s got to be some fallout. Emotionally, I mean.”

“I’m okay.” Blair recognized Jim’s matter-of-fact tone, so familiar from the cases they’d worked together. “I’m trained for this kind of thing, you know that Chief.” Then, the smallest chink in Jim’s armor. “But yeah… it was rough. Let’s just say I may have some trouble sleeping soundly for a while.”

“Oh, man.” Blair felt awful for Jim. “You’ll get some help, right?”

“Yeah,” Jim agreed. "I’ve got to see the Department shrink tomorrow. I’ll take it from there. But I’ll be fine, Blair. Don’t worry.” His tone became tinged with satisfaction. “We got them, and that’s all that matters. Three of the bastards died in the shootout, another nine are in jail, and with the evidence I got against them they’ll go away for life. It was a good bust, and I’m glad I was part of it.”

Blair didn’t want to ask if Jim was the person who shot the three dead men. “I… look, I understand if this is a bad time, but I’d really like to see you, Jim. Are you at the loft?”

“Yeah,” Jim said. “And… it’s not a bad time. To tell you the truth, I’d really like to see you too.”

“Okay, I’ll be over in about half an hour,” Blair said.

The call concluded. Blair grabbed his coat, and headed out.

***

When Blair arrived at the loft, he was horrified by the sight of Jim’s bruised and battered face when he opened the door. “Man, you said you were okay!” he protested. “Why didn’t you call me from the hospital? Why didn’t Simon?”

“I didn’t want to worry you,” Jim said. He moved across the room and sat down gingerly on the couch, cradling his plaster-encased arm as he did so, and Blair came over to sit beside him. Wincing, Jim admitted, “Okay, so I’m a little stiff and sore. But it’s nothing serious, it’ll all heal. I look worse than I feel.”

“Yeah, right, tough guy.” Blair shook his head. “Have you dialed the pain down? Because you should, but not too far, man. You hurt for a reason. It’s your body’s way telling you to take it easy.”

“Yeah, Doc. I know the routine.” Jim was looking at him fondly. “I’ve got it all under control, don’t worry.”

Blair reached out and took Jim’s hand. “I’m glad you’re okay,” he said. He didn’t even try to keep the tender emotion out of his voice. “I… missed you.”

“I missed you too,” Jim said. Then his tone softened. “Hey, are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Blair said, nodding, but he didn’t smile. This was the crux, the moment it would all change. At least he hoped so. “There’s.... look, maybe I should save this for later, but I’ve made some decisions. Big ones. And I really need to talk to you about them.”

“Okay.” Suddenly, Jim sounded equally serious. “What about, Chief?” he prompted.

Where to start? With the facts, Blair supposed. “I got a letter yesterday, from my university in England. I, uh, I passed my Masters degree. I did pretty well; I got a distinction, in fact.”

“That’s great, Blair!” Jim said. “Congratulations!”

Blair didn’t meet his eyes. “That’s not all, Jim. I got a bunch of forms as well, stuff about my graduation, my new course, all that kind of thing. If I’m going back, I need to do it pretty much now, you know? So,” he looked up at Jim. “I made my decision.”

Jim’s impassive face spoke volumes to Blair’s practiced eyes. “What have you decided?”

Blair squeezed Jim’s fingers, and smiled at him, feeling as though he was on the edge of a sheer drop. “Okay, look. It’s like this, Jim.” He met Jim’s eyes steadily. “I can’t do this anymore.”

Jim looked devastated. “Blair,” he said helplessly. Then swallowing hard he nodded. “Okay. I understand.”

Blair shook his head. “No. I don’t think you do.”

Jim closed his eyes. “Blair, I only want the best for you. If you… if you want to leave Cascade, if you don’t want to see me anymore, to take this any further, I… I support your decision. All I ask is that… is that you don’t cut me out of your life entirely. I still want to be your friend. Don’t throw it all away.” He looked at Blair beseechingly, his eyes full of pain. “Please.”

Blair didn’t answer, feeling a little incredulous at Jim’s response. Then he blurted out, “I’m not breaking up with you, you asshole!”

“What?”

“Jim, just for once, look at me properly, okay?” He squeezed Jim’s hand, which was still held in in his own. “Use your goddamn senses on me. Look at me.”

Jim shook his head. He had tears in his eyes. “Blair…”

Blair sighed, softening his tone. “You’re not going to sense anything bad, I promise.” He stroked his thumb over Jim’s knuckles. “Just center yourself, and breathe, Jim, like I taught you back in the day. You can do it, man. It’s okay.”

Jim nodded, clearly troubled, but the fact that he followed Blair’s instruction, allowing Blair to guide him to do something he’d never dared to do before, that he clearly so dreadfully feared, made Blair love him all the more. “Okay,” Blair directed softly, after Jim had taken several deep breaths, his features smoothing out as he found his center. “Now focus on me. Feel my hand in yours, listen to my heartbeat. Breathe me in, Jim. I’m feeling some pretty strong emotions right now, so this should be easy. All the signs are there. What do you sense?”

Jim breathed deeply, his eyes closed. Then he opened his eyes and looked at Blair. His smile full of wonder. “Wow,” he breathed.

Blair grinned. “Yeah, wow,” he echoed. “And man, I don’t have your senses, but I hope I’m correct in my assumption that this goes both ways. Because like I said, I can’t do it anymore. I can’t do this living without you thing. It’s just not working for me. Not at all.”

“Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”

Blair rolled his eyes. “Senses off the scale, but we’re back to the ten foot letters, huh? Okay, let me spell it out for you so there is absolutely no doubt in your mind. It’s totally crazy, but you’re everything to me, Jim. The truth is, I couldn’t walk away from you even when you married my mom. Any sane person would have gotten the hell out and gotten on with their life after that, right? But what did I do? I put my entire life on hold for five years. I thought about you every minute of every day. I could have just settled down somewhere and made a new start for myself, you know? I could have gotten on with my career, dated, put down roots, the whole shebang. But I didn’t. I didn’t, Jim. I spent five years alone in limbo, running in circles with no direction in my mind but home, going absolutely nowhere, calling you up every time I needed to hear your voice because without it, I was afraid I’d just stop breathing. Why the hell do you think I did that, huh? Apart from being, like, your creepy stalker ex-boyfriend with an obsession the size of Montana?”

“So,” Jim said carefully, “You’re saying that you want to be in a relationship. With me.”

“Yeah, I want to be with you. And I want you to want me too. But I’ve gotta be straight with you, man. Before you commit to anything, you need to know that I’ve got a whole bunch of unresolved issues, and we’re both gonna need to work through them, and it’s not going to be easy. Not only that, I’m messed up in the head, anxious and self-absorbed, probably borderline depressed, and I have an anger problem which makes me say stupid hurtful shit at precisely the wrong times. I’m going to have to deal with all of that, maybe get some therapy of my own, you know? It means that sometimes, I’ll probably behave like an asshole, at least until I get straightened out. And I know you’ll be an asshole too, Jim, because I love you man, more than life, but we both know you’re no angel.”

“I never was,” Jim agreed.

“But even if we bitch and fight and give each other a hard time – and we will – I think we’re better together. We always were, Jim. We were just both too blind and stupid to see it before.” Blair grinned. “So, you’d better say yes, man. Because this is it, for me. You are my life, Jim. I’ve said it before, and I mean it, like, totally literally. I can’t carry on without you. And I’m not going to.” He paused, realizing how that came across. “Whoa, there I go with the creepy stalker shit again. I’m not trying to use emotional blackmail on you here, okay? No matter how that sounded. I’m not saying hey, be my boyfriend or I’ll kill myself; if I didn’t do that already, I never will. But I guess what I’m saying is, you’re not the only caveman in this relationship. You’d better say yes, man, because I have every intention of dragging you off to my cave.” He grinned. “In a consensual way, of course.”

Jim didn’t say anything for a few moments, seemingly processing Blair’s barrage of words. Then he raised his eyes to Blair. “You’re not my creepy stalker ex-boyfriend,” he said.

Blair frowned. “I’m not?”

“No.” Jim grinned. “You’re my creepy stalker life-partner.”

Blair let out the breath he’d been holding, and grinned too. “Yeah, that works for me.”

Jim reached out with his good hand, cupping it around Blair's neck and pulling him in close. “You know Chief, as proposals go, that was pretty touching.”

Blair snickered. “Let’s just say I’ve recently rediscovered that I have a way with words.”

“You have a way with a lot more than words,” Jim murmured provocatively.

“Ha, you smooth talker, Ellison.” Blair gently pulled back out of Jim’s embrace, but reached out to take hold of his hand again. He cast his eyes around the room. “So, if we’re going to do this thing, we’ve gotta find somewhere else where we can be together. That’s my first demand. I’m not going to sleep with you here at the loft. We need a new place, man. A new start. Somewhere that’s just ours.” Somewhere that was never yours and Naomi's, he meant. Blair loved his mom, and didn’t want to go forward feeling any bitterness toward her for what she and Jim had shared. Being here together, surrounded by constant reminders of their marriage, would not be healthy at all; not for any of them.

“Okay,” Jim said simply, clearly getting the message. “That’s fine by me.” Jim squeezed Blair’s fingers. “But hey, what do you mean, your first demand? How many more will there be?”

“Oh, I don’t know. How many years do you think we’ve got? Like, now we’ve stopped wasting time? I figure I could get in a few hundred demands a year, at least. We could be talking thousands here, maybe millions.”

“I’d forgotten what a pushy little shit you are, Sandburg.”

“Yeah, but you love me anyway, right?”

“Yeah, I love you.” Jim paused then said, “And here’s something you need to know. You’re not the only one who wants to make big changes in their life, Chief. I already told Simon, and it’s time to tell you.” When Blair looked at him quizzically, he went on, “It was pretty damned close this time. And we both know that’s not a new thing for me. It’s just… I have a lot to live for now. I don’t want the next time to be the last time. Not now. I want to enjoy the years I have left without worrying about leaving you behind.” He looked at Blair seriously. “I’m quitting my job. I guess I’m retiring early, really, Simon thinks he’ll be able to negotiate a good severance package; a lump sum in reward for my years of exemplary service. And with that, as well as the money I’ve saved and my pension, well, I won’t need to work anymore, except for maybe something part time, low pressure, if I feel like it. I don’t know how easy it’ll be, or even if same-sex partners can get spousal visas to live in England, but it means I’m free to follow you, Chief. If you want me to.”

“That’s great, man!” Blair said. He couldn’t deny that having Jim out of near-constant danger was immensely reassuring, no matter how much he respected Jim’s career. It was even harder to deny it, seeing his battered face after this latest escapade. “But hey, I’m not going back to England.”

“What?” Jim seemed surprised. “Why? What about your studies?”

Blair shrugged. “I got what I went for. The PhD was something extra to do, to keep me busy, but I don’t really need it, not right now. I might choose to go back it eventually, but I could do it somewhere else. To be honest, I’d prefer to do it part time, fit it around a job in the field.”

“Maybe you could do it here. Not necessarily at Rainier, I mean here in the U.S., or anywhere, really. We could go wherever you want to go, Blair. I know how much anthropology means to you.”

Blair laughed. “Anthropology? Oh man, I gave that up years ago.” At Jim’s puzzled expression, Blair clarified, “Oh hey, didn’t I tell you what I was studying? I just finished a Master of Science in Sustainability. All those years working on construction sites got me really interested in sustainable development, ecological design, renewable energy, all that good stuff. I figured I could put it to good use, maybe carve out a new career for myself by combining it with my anthropological knowledge and background in activism. I was planning to do my PhD on how local communities can be empowered by using sustainable principles to alleviate urban poverty…” At Jim’s wide grin, Blair demanded, “What?”

Jim was shaking his head and looking at him fondly. “You call that standing still? Sandburg, even when you think you’re stationary you move faster than any other human being I ever met.”

“Is that a good thing?” Blair asked.

“Oh, yeah,” Jim said, palming Blair’s face. “It’s a very good thing.” He gazed at Blair. “I love you,” he said. “And in case we’re still on the ten foot letters thing, my answer is yes. Just in case you missed it.” Then Jim leaned in close and kissed Blair deeply.

Blair was too busy to answer for a long time. “Yeah,” he said eventually, when they paused for breath, his voice husky. “I think I’ve got it now.”

 

Chapter Text

Blair emerged from the construction site he was currently working on, the weight of a hard hat in his hand. Apart from that familiar object and the familiar setting, however, things could hardly be more different than they had been six months ago. Blair was no longer employed as minimum wage labor, but instead was a project manager overseeing the building of an eco-housing project for a green cooperative.

Despite his reasonably smart office clothes the hard hat was still very much part of the deal, and not just for mandatory health and safety reasons. This was Blair’s first managerial job on a sustainable development project, but he’d already managed to forge good relationships with laborers on the site due to his willingness to lend a hand with heavy work, and his obvious knowledge about the manual side of construction. One thing Blair had learned was that construction workers respected experience that didn’t just come from a book. Thanks to the years he’d spent walking in their shoes Blair knew how to speak their language and understand their concerns, and very quickly he’d become accepted as one of their own.

It still felt so very new, so very precious, that sense of belonging. He’d been on the periphery so long, going through the motions of an empty life, that there were still times he could hardly believe he wasn’t living in some dream of a rosy future that could never be his.

The man waiting for him down the block, lounging against a wall, was another part of that rosy dream. As he walked over to join him Blair took a moment to admire Jim’s sleek lines and eye-turningly handsome features, his tummy doing its usual hop, skip and a jump at the sight of this man whom he loved so much. “Hey,” he greeted, as he neared. “How was your day?”

Jim straightened up and fell into step by his side, before unselfconsciously reaching out an arm to swoop Blair in close as they walked, Blair’s arm going around Jim’s waist in turn. “Pretty good,” Jim answered. “How about you?”

“It was great. I met with the cooperative team this morning to put together the first draft of the car-sharing scheme, and on the construction side of things we’re pretty much on schedule to get the loft insulation started in the main block.” Blair grinned. “Oh man, I love this project. The whole ethos is amazing, it just makes me wish that more people wanted to live like this, you know? If all housing was developed this way, with communal green principles underscoring the entire thing, we’d live in a totally different world.”

“Yeah, Chief,” Jim agreed. “I hear that.”

Loving the way his body fitted so well against Jim’s as they walked, Blair’s thoughts drifted away from work and he pondered for the millionth time how his obsessive desire for Jim, as well as Jim’s equally strong reciprocal feelings, might have some connection to the sentinel thing. It was a theory that had begun to preoccupy him of late, and the more he thought about it, the more right it seemed.

They’d shared a vision once; something unique, profound and powerful enough to bring Blair back from the dead. It wasn’t too far out there for Blair to speculate that the merging of their spirit animals had changed them in some way, and somehow bonded them together. Their breakup had always been acutely painful, but Blair had managed to weather it when he was still close by Jim’s side. The physical gulf that had grown after he’d left town, however, had been sheer torture, and Blair now theorized that perhaps Jim hadn’t suffered so acutely because he’d had Naomi by his side. Perhaps the fact that she was Blair’s mom, that she and Blair shared blood and DNA, made her uniquely suited as a balm to Jim’s wounds.

The moment she’d left, however, had seen Jim fall into despair. And Blair still shuddered with horror every time he thought about how close Jim had come to taking his own life.

But no matter what, Blair had no intention of positing any of his theories to Jim. Jim had made it abundantly clear that he wanted to be loved for himself, not because of his senses. He’d found being the subject of Blair’s academic scrutiny excruciating, only continuing with it because he’d thought at the time it was the only way to keep Blair by his side.

They were both so messed up, the foundations of their relationship rooted in secrets and desperation and no small amount of fear.

But Blair didn’t want any of those negative emotions to define them going forward. Their past haunted them both and would never be forgotten, but it could perhaps be determinedly put on one side to allow them to stride together into the future, secure in their commitment to each other, no matter whether their intense mutual need was borne of some sentinel-related destiny or just plain old love.

“You’re quiet,” Jim noted, as they got close to where he’d parked their truck. “Is everything okay?”

“Oh yeah. You know, just thinking.” Blair turned his head to look up into Jim’s eyes. “I got it all, you know?” Blair said. “I never thought…” he stopped, sighing, unable to put the enormity of the emotion he felt into words.

But Jim understood. “Yeah, I know, Chief,” he said, his smile so sweet and fond that it made Blair long to wrap himself around him and kiss him senseless right here in the center of the sidewalk. “Me too.”

The husky tone of Jim’s voice made Blair want to be somewhere private right now. “Let’s go home,” he said pointedly, and Jim nodded, his arm tightening around Blair just for a second before letting him go to fish the truck keys out of his pocket and unlock the doors.

Fifteen minutes later Jim parked the truck outside their home. They lived in a quiet, well-maintained apartment complex in a suburb of this small Pennsylvania town. They’d moved east because of Blair’s new job, but they would have left Cascade no matter what. With the notable exception of Simon, who’d continued to be a staunch friend, not everyone in Cascade had looked kindly on Jim transferring his affections from his wife to her son, and both of them had been on the sharp end of some pretty intense disapproval. Blair understood that their situation was a difficult one for people to grasp; knew how weird and dysfunctional it looked from the outside. At least here no one knew their history, and they were judged simply for who they were right now.

A postcard was waiting just inside on the table by the door, and as he picked it up Blair immediately identified his mother’s handwriting. As Jim closed the door behind them and shrugged off his jacket, Blair read the neat, cursive script, and smiled. Naomi was back in Big Sur, her favorite place in the world. She was happy and in good health, and she sent them both her love.

It was yet another wound healed; still slightly sore if pressed, but Blair nevertheless recognized how unique and precious Naomi was, with her sincere, loving acceptance of what he and Jim had found together. She’d never shown any bitterness, but instead had reassured both of them that their happiness was what mattered to her. “And don’t think for a minute I’m not happy for myself sweetie, because I am!” she’d told Blair during her recent visit. “I’m living the life I want to live, travelling free, and I’m happy too. Don’t for one moment worry about me, or think that I disapprove.” She’d hugged Blair tight, then. “I love you both, you know. You’re so right together, and you’ll always have my support and my blessing.” Blair could only bless the fact that his mom was so unique in her own way, unfettered by the societal norms that made them look, to the majority of their old friends and acquaintances, like a bunch of total weirdoes.

 Blair put the postcard back where he found it, placing his hard hat down next to it, and took off his own jacket then went to hang it up. When he turned around Jim had moved into the open-plan kitchen, and was getting a casserole dish out of the fridge. It looked like Jim had already prepared dinner in advance; he had plenty of leisure time, now that he’d retired. “You hungry?” Jim asked, when he saw Blair watching.

“Ravenous,” Blair answered, but something in the tone he used made Jim straighten up to look at him.

A slow, dawning smile spread across Jim’s face. “Yeah,” he said, the huskiness back in his voice. “Me too.” Jim put the dish he was holding back in the fridge. “We can eat later,” he said pointedly.

In bed a short while later, Blair ran a hand reverently over Jim’s incredible chest. “Beautiful, so beautiful,” he panted out, loving the play of muscles, silky, sweaty skin and heaving breaths under his hand. The same intense possessiveness that had dominated their years apart consumed him now, as it always did at times like this. Jim was so flawless, so perfect, the sum total of Blair’s desire. Most of all Jim was his, and Blair was lost in this perfect moment of taking and owning and giving pleasure.

“Don’t stop,” Jim grunted, opening his beautiful eyes and turning his desperate expression on Blair. “Please,” he begged, and Blair shivered at the incredible need that one syllable betrayed; a need most definitely equal to his own. Eager to oblige Blair pushed deeper inside, then deeper still. It felt incredible, so hot and tight, and not for the first time he wondered what this must feel like for Jim, when Blair’s own, thoroughly ordinary senses were so filled to the brim with the touch, sight, smell, sounds and taste of the man he loved beyond life.

They pressed and slid and pushed against each other after that in perfect concert, their bodies in absolute accord, reading each other’s responses so well that it was as though they were inside each other’s heads, both of them knowing instinctively exactly what the other one needed. At exactly the right moment Blair reached down to take Jim in a slippery grip, ensuring his partner’s pleasure in perfectly coordinated mutual rapture. They cried out together as they came, intense joy and overwhelming love washing through them both in an endless moment of perfection.

Jim held Blair tightly against him in the aftermath, knowing (as he always seemed to know) just how raw and overwhelmed Blair usually felt after the intensity of their love making. “I’ve got you,” Jim murmured. “I love you, Blair. Love you so much.” Blair felt Jim’s lips press against his temple in a kiss; the touch affectionate and soothing and calming, and gradually Blair’s heart stopped racing and skipping beats and he relaxed into Jim’s body, the two of them molded perfectly together in post-coital lethargy.

Fully at peace, loved and in love, Blair smiled.

He lived for these moments.