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!”
“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.”