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Pandora's Box

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Blair was wide awake when they came home, and probably would've been even if he hadn't spent the previous hours tossing and turning in his narrow bed. The front door closed with a soft click, and the lock was slid home equally carefully. He supposed he should've been moved by their concern for his rest, but he couldn't bring himself to feel the emotions he was supposed to feel, and the ones he did feel were too shameful to acknowledge. He lay in the darkness, listening to their quiet laughter. Straining to hear the tell-tale sound of two sets of feet going up the staircase, his body tensing against the dreaded sound. Instead, someone moved around the kitchen, and he thought he could recognize the sound of a kettle being filled with water, set to boil.

He rested his forehead against a cool spot of pillow that hadn't been warmed by the heat of his body. He didn't want to eavesdrop, didn't want to know...but he couldn't help himself, he was driven to push his senses to the limit. For a moment, he fervently wished he had a Sentinel's skills. In the next, he was glad he didn't. He really didn't want to know certain things...much less hear them. Or...

He shifted restlessly. Why was he torturing himself this way? He could get up, under the guise of needing to use the john, put an end to the insanity...and whatever they had planned for the rest of the night. Surely they wouldn't...? Not knowing he was awake.

Or maybe they had already. Somewhere else.

"No..." He froze, clamping his hand over his mouth. He'd breathed the word, a minute amount of sound had left his mouth. It was enough.

Blair tried to hear over the sound of his heart beating, willing it to slow and quiet. He could make out faint murmurs of voices, but not what they were saying. Calming, he relaxed back on the bed. Jim hadn't heard. He was too busy focusing on her to notice.

Now there was a cheery thought.

Every fiber of his soul reached out to the man in the other room, aching to connect. It gnawed at him, battering his nerves and messing up his mind. He knew in the beginning that he'd have a hard time handling the possibility of the two of them together, that it would weird him out. He hadn't expected the intensity of it though, like ants crawling all over his body, making him shiver in something very akin to revulsion.

Hadn't expected the pain.

The jealousy.

The final surprising blow was who it was aimed at. Damned if he wasn't jealous of his own mother. Now there's something to be weirded out by.

Blair and Naomi Sandburg had always gotten along famously, more like friends than mother and son. There was nothing she wouldn't do for him, he'd always considered her a supportive and loving mother. In many ways they'd grown up together, and avoided many of the hang ups that typical parents and children have. Now he was making up for it with a vengeance.

He remembered something that had happened when he was nine. Sleeping over at his friend Timmy's house, he'd witnessed a tantrum by Timmy when he couldn't get his way. Tim had sat rocking on his bed, tears streaking down his cheeks, and said something that shocked Blair to his core. "I hate her!" He'd been stunned by the vehemence, by the anger in that tone, unable to comprehend such a thing. He'd never had those types of feelings about Naomi.

He could honestly say he wasn't too thrilled with her right now. Even if it wasn't her fault. She was just being...Naomi. It had never bothered him before. It shouldn't bother him. It was her life, he had no right to these feelings. None at all.

And knowing that just made it worse.

It wasn't like she was taking what was his, although he couldn't convince his miserable heart of that. That particular reality blurred behind the simple knowledge of them together. Talking, laughing. Excluding him, because this was an area he could never enter, not with Jim. The very idea was ludicrous.

But, the part of his soul that was throwing the pity party insisted, that didn't mean he should be forced to listen to them. Lying there in the darkness this way also reminded him of another incident. Another friend, awake when he shouldn't be, mortified by the sound of his parents making love in their bedroom. It had amused him at the time, just more proof of how different he was than most other kids. Now he was seeing things from a whole new perspective.

He heard what sounded like a low moan, and jumped a foot. All his resolve went flying out the window, and before he knew quite what he was doing he'd bolted from the bed, threw open the door, and was halfway into the living room. His stocking feet skidded to a stop on the hardwood floor.

Jim and Naomi had looked up inquiringly at Blair's abrupt arrival. They were sitting on the couch, a respectable distance apart, mugs of tea on the table in front of them. Blair blinked. It looked...harmless.

"Did we wake you, Chief?" Jim asked mildly.

"Did...you..." Blair glanced back at his door, then to them again. Thinking fast. "Nightmare. How'd I get here??" he made a show of looking towards his bedroom again, scratching his head in mock confusion. "Wow, that was weird. Hope I didn't, ah, startle you."

"Looks like it's yourself you startled," Naomi noted. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine Naomi." Once said, Blair couldn't decide whether his choice to call her by her first name now was a good one or bad.

"Well, don't just stand there. Since you're up, would you like some tea?" his mother asked.

Instead of heading for the kitchen as he probably should have, he ventured slowly closer. "I don't think so, I'm gonna...go back to bed."

"We were sorry you had to attend that faculty meeting and couldn't join us for dinner," Naomi continued. "The place Jim picked out had a fabulous vegetarian selection."

Blair mumbled something affirmative. When he got close enough, he saw to his chagrin that his mother had yet another of her seemingly endless photo albums out. "Ah man, not the pictures again. You must be getting tired of hearing about me by now," he complained to Jim.

Jim gave him a smile, and he felt his knees go weak. He boldly perched on the arm of the couch next to his friend.

"You're infinitely fascinating, Sandburg."

Blair gave Jim's arm a nudge, returning the familiar banter. "Funny." He felt the world slowly righting itself, the waking nightmare banished by this blessed normalcy.

"Especially buck naked on a bear-skin rug." The last was delivered calmly with a glance at an earlier page.

Horrified, Blair dove for the album that was between Jim and Naomi. It was a rather unfortunate move because he ended up practically in Jim's lap. Not a bad place to be, but somewhat inappropriate.

"Blair, he's teasing you," came Naomi's amused voice.

"Ain't that the truth," Blair muttered, righting himself with Jim's help.

And suddenly, without warning, he was mad. Here they were, sitting on the couch, talking about him and looking at childhood pictures, teasing him as if he was some little kid up past his bedtime, and they were the all-knowing adults. He snatched up the album, slamming it shut. "Y'know, some people like just a little privacy." He stood up, ignoring their startled gazes. "I may be young, but I'm not young enough to warrant the condescending attitude here." He took a step back.

"Blair...?" Naomi ventured, incomprehension at his sudden mood swing obvious in her voice.

He turned away.

"Whoa there, Chief," Jim interjected, "take it easy, no harm meant. Wasn't it you who insisted on all the gory details about my mother's C-section? Seems to me this is just a little turnabout here."

Blair took a deep breath, letting it out slowly, along with his overreaction. "Sorry. Guess I'm just still a little, uh, edgy. From the nightmare."

"Maybe it's time we all got some sleep," Naomi suggested.

Her words caused Blair's mind to whirl again. "I'm not ready to go back to sleep just yet, I think I'm gonna have some tea to relax. But you go ahead, mom, take my room so I won't disturb you."

"I thought we decided the couch would be just fine for me," she reminded.

No, she'd decided. And that was before Blair had realized the implications of her being in the living room. With Jim just a few feet up, and no walls. Definitely not something he planned on letting happen any time this century. "I don't know how long I'll be up yet. So go ahead, I'll crash on the couch when I'm ready."

"Are you sure?" Naomi asked, rising gracefully from the couch, while Blair turned away, not wanting to see Jim's eyes track her movements again.

"Positive. You two go to bed."

He knew Jim was looking at him oddly, probably Naomi was too. He ignored it and went into the kitchen to fix a mug of tea. As long as he was in control of the situation, everything was fine.

 

XXX

 

In the harsh light of day, Blair felt foolish for his behavior the night before. Shadows chased into a corner by the noon sun, he decided to make it up to his mother -- even if she didn't know the disservice he'd done her with his thoughts.

He treated her to lunch at a quaint little cafe that he'd discovered recently and knew Naomi would love. It was a comfortable meal, with good food, friendly service, and special company. As the hour wore on though, Blair found himself compelled to say something, if just to ease his conscience.

"Naomi..." Blair stopped, and tried again. "Mom..." he toyed with the stirrer from his coffee. "I wish you wouldn't, um, well... remember last time you were here we talked about you hitting on Jim?"

"I haven't hit on Jim," she answered, in an unusually serious tone. "In fact, every time we're together all we talk about is you. I guess it's the only thing we have in common."

"That's supposed to make me feel better?" Blair teased, but it did, and he hoped his smile didn't betray that fact too much.

"Yes." Again, a strange tone, for her. He dismissed it as nothing, too wrapped up in his own head.

"You shouldn't bore Jim like that," he told her, wondering at the man's patience, to put up with it. For his guide's sake? Or Naomi's?

"He doesn't seem bored to me. It's always Blair this, and Blair that..."

"My point exactly. Don't you think he gets tired--"

Naomi interrupted him. "I was talking about Jim. It was a bit presumptuous of you to assume I initiated all the conversations," she said with a smile.

Blair's mouth fell open. He knew he was impersonating a guppy, but couldn't seem to control it. "He talks about me...?"

"All the time."

"Oh."

Naomi leaned over, covering his hand with hers. "Blair, what's the matter? You know you can tell me anything. So why aren't you?"

"It's...complicated."

"That's what they'd have you think, but it's really only complicated if you make it that way. It's actually the simplest thing in the world."

Blair recognized the beginnings of that speech, had heard it plenty of times before. Knew what Naomi was talking about, but part of him was still unable to believe his ears. "Mom!"

"Mom, what?" she retorted.

Blair couldn't face her penetrating gaze. He rested his head in his folded arms on the table. He felt her hand in his hair, stroking comfortingly. He digested the news for awhile.

"Here I thought you were...going to take... and all the while you were playing matchmaker?!" He added everything up with an embarrassing flush, wondering at Jim also being too obtuse to recognize the obvious. Naomi plying him with endless photo albums and childhood stories, feeding him Blair's favorite foods, even trying to make the loft more full of positive energy. He gave a short laugh. "I don't believe you!"

"I know when my son is in love," she said quietly.

"Then you knew before me."

"I'm a mom," she answered brightly, with a little shrug.

Blair looked up at her, smiling his first truly genuine one in awhile. "The best!" he told her, leaning in to give her a hug.

 

XXX

 

After lunch was finished, they decided to take a walk in the park across the street. It was a beautiful spring day, a day meant for being outside with nature. The perfect place for contemplation.

Blair had thought he was hiding it well, but mothers always seemed to know, especially this one. Naomi was the one who'd been there to observe him during his first serious crush, at eleven when he'd been captivated with Theresa from his class. And when he was fourteen, and he was trying to figure out the intricacies of navigating his emerging feelings for other boys.

"I'm sorry,” Blair said eventually.

"For what?"

"All the horrible things I was thinking about you," he admitted. Might as well get everything off his chest, clear the air completely.

Naomi took her son's hand. "He really means that much to you."

"Yes," he whispered. He didn't know when, or how, or why, but it had happened. Snuck up on him, and then hit him over the head with a 2x4.

"You should talk to him."

Blair knew that was coming, had the answer almost out of his mouth before she finished her sentence. "I can't."

And Naomi knew that was how he'd respond, it was written on her face. "If you don't, you'll probably be sorry some day."

"As opposed to being sorry now?"

"I think you're underestimating Jim."

"Our friendship means too much to me to risk on a crazy chance like that. I can't lose him." The admission was a painful one, and difficult for the man who'd never let himself get that close to another human being outside his mother.

"He already knows something's bothering you. Eventually he'll figure it out anyway."

"Try to imagine this from Jim's perspective. If he doesn't feel the same way--" he held up a hand to forestall the protest that was gathering, "-- which he probably doesn't -- it isn't fair to him to dump this on him. He never asked for this complication." For that matter, Jim hadn't asked for any of it, it had been thrust upon him first by a quirk of genetics, next by a pushy grad student who didn't know when to give up. And now it was too late to give up. "He could feel betrayed, like I let him down."

"By loving him?!" she scoffed.

"Naomi, not everyone is as liberal as you are in their life views."

"What about breaking it to him slowly then? Tell him you're bisexual."

"Sure, that'll come up in everyday conversation," Blair quipped. "If it hasn't in almost two years, I doubt I'll get a good opening any time soon."

"You could start dating a guy, make him jealous," she said with a twinkle in her eye.

"That's...not the way you deal with Jim Ellison," he said, shaking his head with certainty.

"Then how do you?" she asked as if she didn't know the answer.

"Honestly. Up-front. Decent. Like him." Blair sighed heavily.

"Then you have your answer."

Blair wished he didn't feel like he was going round and round in a lab rat's wheel. He knew Naomi was right, intellectually, but his gut was telling him something else. His reactions lately proved he wasn't doing a very good job of hiding things. And Jim had developed an uncanny ability to know when something was bugging him. He noticed. And that was the problem, he cared. Blair felt like he was abusing that caring.

Naomi took his hand again and gave it a squeeze. "You love him. That's not your fault either. And it's not such a horrible thing, to be loved. Especially by a wonderful human being like you." Motherly pride shown through in her words and voice.

"Ma, you just..." Blair sighed again, in frustration. "You just don't understand."

"Don't I?" she countered, her eyes darkening in a rare showing of toughness. "You're afraid he'll throw you out for being a queer. Well, first of all that doesn't give Jim the credit he deserves. Second, as for me not knowing what you're feeling, well maybe I don't exactly. But I know what it's like to be kicked out of your parents' home for being an unwed mother. I've faced the hatred of a country that thought we were hippie weirdos and were sub-human just for daring to be different. I watched friends take beatings from authority just because they didn't believe in people killing each other in war and weren't afraid to stand up for their beliefs."

"The tyranny of the pigs?" Blair asked quietly, grinning a little to take some of the gravity out with his joke.

"I like Jim," Naomi said firmly. "He cares about you a lot, looks out for you. That rates him highly in my book. And it's not 1968 anymore. All I'm saying is that in my experience, you can't pretend to be someone you're not. You have to be true to yourself, because there are always going to be people who try to force you into being what they think is right."

"I know," Blair finally conceded, knowing none of her valid arguments -- or his own -- were going to melt the block of ice in his stomach. "I just...need some time here."

"Just don't take too much of it. Regrets are a bitter thing to live with. I don't have any, and I can tell you what a terrific feeling that is."

Blair could relate. He wished he felt terrific.

 

XXX

 

Blair unlocked the door to the loft and dashed in ahead of his mother, his uncharacteristic rudeness made necessity by the ringing phone that they'd heard all the way up the stairs. He ran over to the table and snatched it up.

"Ellison residence."

"I'm looking for a Mr. Blair Sandburg," an official-sounding voice said.

"That's me."

"Mr. Sandburg, this is Mercy General Hospital calling. There's been an accident involving a Detective James Ellison, your name was in his wallet as his emergency contact."

Ice ran down Blair's spine at the words. "What kind of accident? How bad?" He could sense Naomi stepping closer.

"I'm sorry, sir, I can't give out that kind of information over the phone. If you could come down--"

"I'll be right there."

 

XXX

 

Blair shook his head at the Styrofoam cup of tea Naomi offered him, staring down the hallway and willing a doctor to materialize. He'd been sitting there for twenty minutes already, and knew little more than he had when he'd gotten the phone call. Jim had been hit by a car. No details yet, had to wait for the doctor to finish with him.

Naomi put a comforting hand on his arm. “I'm sure he'll be fine.”

Blair wished he could be as confident, but the anxiety gnawing his insides wouldn't let him. Was it just this afternoon they were talking about regrets? The irony wasn't lost on him. What if he had lost Jim tonight, without ever having had the chance to tell him how he felt? And for what? Fear of rejection, of losing the friendship that meant so much to him. That wasn't like him, though. Blair Sandburg embraced life, wasn't afraid to be himself and explore everything the world had to offer. It was how he'd been raised. Why wasn't he being true to himself now, when it mattered most?

Well, that was the crux of it, really, since he really wasn't sure who he was these days. The pacifist, new-hippie, anthropologist was a far cry from the cop's partner he found himself becoming. Maybe though, it was time to take a stand, and put his cards on the table. If Jim had been killed tonight, he'd always wonder what might have been... if he'd had the courage to speak.

He could only hope that they could still be friends if it turned out the feelings weren't mutual. That it wouldn't change the way Jim treated him.

Finally, a nurse came up to them. “Mr. Sandburg, if you could come with me...”

Blair jumped up, turning to glance at Naomi.

“Go. I'll be here,” she promised.

It wasn't quite what Blair had expected. The nurse led him to a curtained off bed in the emergency department. Jim was sitting up and looking aggravated.

“Tell them, will ya Chief,” he complained the minute he saw his partner. “I have someone at home to watch me, I'll be fine, and I don't need to stay here.”

Blair let go a relieved breath, tension draining away as he saw that Jim didn't seem to be seriously injured. He looked at the doctor inquiringly.

“Yes, well, your...” the doctor paused as if not quite sure what designation to use. “Mr. Ellison--”

“Detective Ellison,” Jim corrected.

“Detective Ellison was hit by a car. He's got several bruises, a sprained wrist, and a concussion from where his head hit the pavement. Due to the head injury, I recommend keeping him overnight for observation.”

Blair looked from one to the other, wavering. The doctor clearly assumed he had a say in the decision, possibly because he was listed as Jim's next of kin (and when had that happened?). His partner was giving him a stare, waiting for him to take his side, the doctor was waiting for him to talk some sense into the patient.

“I can keep an eye on him,” Blair finally said.

“Told ya. I'm going home,” Jim stated firmly.

“Fine,” the doctor answered, conceding defeat. “I'll have the nurse bring the discharge papers and instructions. Good night.”

“Thank you, Doc,” Blair told the retreating man. He didn't bother mentioning that they had no need of instructions. Concussions were unfortunately something they had all too much practice at dealing with.

“Great, that means another half hour of waiting,” Jim complained.

“How's the headache?” Blair asked, coming to stand next to the bed.

“How'd you know I have a headache?”

“You're even grouchier than usual.” Blair grinned at his friend's scowl. “Plus, you know, concussion, headache... they usually go together. So what happened? Did you—” he looked around, lowering his voice. “Zone out?”

“No, I didn't zone out. I just... I was distracted,” Jim revealed.

“Distracted?” Blair echoed skeptically. It was fascinating how quickly Jim went from being annoyed to uncomfortable. He was leaving something out.

“Distracted,” Jim repeated stubbornly.

“How many times do we have to go through this? I can't help you if you won't talk to me.” Situations like this reminded him of how Jim needed him. Needed his guide to help with the senses. He could hear Incacha's words in his head. Every Sentinel needs a Guide. Would it be fair to Jim to jeopardize that by pushing for more? Their relationship was already intimate. Wasn't it enough?

“Naomi's in the waiting room,” Blair said when it didn't seem Jim was inclined to answer. “I should go let her know you're okay. We were worried about you, man. We didn't know...”

“Listen, Blair...”

He was immediately at attention. The soft tone, the use of his first name was a sign that whatever was coming would be important. He moved closer to the bed, ready to hear whatever Jim needed to say.

“I have a feeling this is going to be the only privacy we get for awhile, so...”

“Do you need Naomi out of your space right now? Because if you do, she'll understand, and I can--”

“Blair, will you just listen.”

That was twice in a row Jim had used his given name. Now Blair was really getting worried, but he nodded and kept his silence.

“I saw the car coming,” Jim began. “It happened in a split second, but it was like time slowed down, too. My life didn't exactly flash before my eyes, but I had a moment of absolute clarity. I saw where my life could have gone, if I'd done things differently. What I might have missed out on...”

“I don't understand.”

“I went to the restaurant looking for you,” Jim admitted in a rough voice. “You'd already left, but I saw the two of you in the park.”

Blair's heart stopped. He knew where this was going. Don't say it, don't say it, he pleaded silently. I'm not ready for this. “Oh.” He stood there stupidly, debating what to say, to do. Might be what a firing squad felt like. He considered angrily confronting Jim for eavesdropping, but that would be only selfish misdirection. No one understood what living with a Sentinel meant more than Blair. He'd long ago accepted the giving up of privacy as a consequence. It had always made him feel strangely secure. Until now.

Then he latched onto what Jim had said about the accident.

“That's why you were distracted,” Blair realized in dismay. He started pacing the small cubicle, his mind already filling in unpleasant consequences. “I'm so sorry, Jim. I knew it was going to ruin things. This is all my fault.”

“Chief,” Jim tried interrupting.

“You could have been killed,” he continued, mentally kicking himself. It was worse than he'd imagined. “And it would have been my fault. Can we just pretend you didn't hear anything?

“Sandburg – Blair.”

He finally stopped his tirade and forced himself to wait for whatever Jim had to say.

“This is probably a bad idea.”

“Yeah, I figured that.” Blair looked down. Wondered how many different emotions a person could feel in one day. “Listen,” he gathered the tattered pieces of his pride around him. “The most important thing to me, is being your Guide. Helping you with your senses. I promise you, that will always be my priority.” Then his brain caught up with his mouth. “Wait a minute. What did you mean by, this is probably a bad idea?”

“For a supposedly smart doctoral student, you're not very good at paying attention,” Jim told him with what sounded suspiciously like amusement in his voice.

“Huh?” Blair wondered if he was finally hallucinating, because Jim couldn't possibly mean what it sounded like...

“When the car hit me, I knew I didn't want to die with that regret. What I'm trying to say is, I'm willing to take a chance, if you are.”

“A... chance?” Blair asked, still afraid to commit to the hope.

“You know,” Jim continued, flustered now himself. “On us.”

Us. Blair felt a grin slowly spreading. They gazed at each other, a thousand conversations taking place with their unguarded eyes. In that moment, he wanted to kiss Jim more than he'd ever wanted to kiss anyone. It wasn't the time or place though, unfortunately.

“I finally get it,” Blair told his partner, and was rewarded with one the generous smiles Jim seemed to save especially for him.

“We still have some things to discuss,” Jim warned him.

Blair nodded in agreement. Things weren't settled by a long shot, but they had time, now. “Does your offer to put Naomi up in a hotel still stand?” he asked. They needed time together. Alone.

“Oh, hell yeah.”

Clarity was a beautiful thing. It was going to be weird, and awkward, and complicated... but it was going to be amazing.

 

The end

8/23/19

Note: In Aesopic fable recorded by Babrius, the gods send a jar containing blessings to humans. It was a foolish man who opened the jar out of curiosity and let them escape. Once the lid was replaced, only hope remained, "promising that she will bestow on each of us the good things that have gone away." – Wikipedia