Have Yourself a Merry Little Apocalypse
The night sky was unusually clear over Cascade. Jim Ellison leaned on the balcony railing and gazed up at the bright light way off high in the north-west. Nice timing, he thought to himself, not for the first time these past few weeks. That a bright comet should unexpectedly turn up just before Christmas was a festive coincidence not lost on him, nor on a very large number of Earth’s inhabitants, as the TV didn't stop reminding people. As well as the sheer spectacle, there were the religious who viewed it as immensely encouraging news of perhaps another saviour coming to help the battered world. On the other hand, there were plenty who were moved to build homemade placards and pronounce, not always with a complete grasp of grammar or spelling, messages about the End of the World, in rather shaky capital letters.
Jim just thought it was a real pretty sight. But it was still a little odd, he mused, that despite all the enormous telescopes and other scientific gizmos at the disposal of the world’s astronomers, comet MLM 11-3 should have snuck up on everyone, so to speak. There was a generally accepted theory, much repeated on TV and in other media, that it had been hiding behind Jupiter for a considerable period in its approach, though obviously this was not a view shared by the adventists and those predicting global destruction. To them it was simply ordained.
Jim focused his sight on the bright spot in the sky and tried to discern details. Nah, too far away, even for him. But it was definitely a little larger than it had been last night, and the night before that. Apparently tomorrow, the entirely apt Christmas Day, would be the point of the comet’s closest proximity to Earth. Then it would veer away, back out into the universe, on the return voyage to wherever it had come from in the first place.
“One more day, and then Boom,” said a deadpan voice behind him. Blair Sandburg edged carefully out through the balcony doors with two brimming mugs in his hands. Jim inhaled with pleasure.
“Ah, mulled wine. Boy, that smells good, Chief.”
He took a steaming mug with a warm smile at his friend, and sniffed deeply.
“Just the sort of thing for a night like this. You’re using different spices, though? Something smells new.”
“I found it at the Asian supermarket,” replied Blair, also inhaling the aroma. “Smells good, huh? I wonder what they've put in it....”
“Now, now, Chief, I absolutely refuse to take a test on Christmas Eve. Can’t I just enjoy this, please? It’s been a tough enough week.”
Blair punched him on the arm with mock ferocity.
“You are such a killjoy, Ellison!” Then his tone softened and he clinked his mug against Jim’s.
“It's not quite Christmas, but Season’s Greetings anyway, Jim.”
“You too, Chief,” returned Jim warmly, “and don't worry, that comet won't be upsetting our Christmas celebrations.”
“But you can see it coming closer, can't you?” Blair sounded genuinely worried, as indeed he had been ever since the comet had swung into view. He had a characteristically cynical opinion on the veracity of Government pronouncements.
“Yeah, I can, but that's what it’s supposed to do. Then it’ll start moving away during tomorrow.”
“I'll hold you to that, man. I have got one hell of a Christmas lunch planned for you and your dad, and I'll be pretty annoyed if you don't get to eat it, after all the trouble I’ve taken; mincing turkey meat, marinating oranges, stuffing yams...”
“Yams? We’ve got stuffed yams? You need a taster, Chief! We have to make sure you got the mix right.”
“Nice try, bud, but that area’s out of bounds until tomorrow. C'mon, let's go inside and drink this on the couch. It's too cold out here.”
He reached for the doorway, but Jim checked him with a gentle hand on his collar. Blair turned again with a quizzical look.
“Thanks, Chief, for this year. It’s been a great one, and I couldn’t be happier you're working with me officially now.”
Blair smiled warmly.
“Likewise, Jim. All my dreams come true.”
“Ah, now you’re being facetious!”
“Okay, well, nearly all of them, anyway.” Blair’s smile faded for a moment, then fired up again.
“Inside, man! Before my nuts freeze off for Christmas!”
Jim watched him go with a fond smile, but his emotions were tinged with a kind of nostalgic regret. After the traumas of the past year or so - Alex Barnes, the diss, Blair fighting his way through the academy to become a fully-fledged detective - there was a real satisfaction in how things had turned out. They were still together; still friends, still partners. What could be better?
And yet...and yet... It felt like the trajectory the two of them had been on had been diverted, somehow. Jim felt, rather than understood rationally, that there was something missing from their otherwise entirely satisfactory working friendship and domestic arrangements. A certain rightness, a certain completeness. But he struggled to put this missing element into words. It was hard enough just having those feelings, whatever they were. He’d never been good with feelings; not how to describe them, and certainly not how to express them.
Jim shrugged to himself and made his way back into the lounge, closing the windows behind him. Blair was already on the couch, and patted the space next to him.
“C'mon man, take the weight off. Two whole days without callout, for a change. That's something to celebrate, right?”
“You betcha, Chief,” sighed Jim as he sank into the cushions. Blair chinked their mugs together again and Jim felt a comfortable, warm lassitude seep over him. He closed his eyes. This was good – no, this was more than good; this was very close to perfect, in Jim Ellison’s book. Let's just take things as they are, shall we, Jimmy? No point in entertaining false hopes.
He awoke with a start. Surely only moments had passed since he had closed his eyes? But Blair was now sitting at the table, idly leafing through a newspaper, and Jim realised he no longer had his mug. What had disturbed him resolved itself into a familiar tread in the corridor outside.
“Simon,” he said. Blair looked up with a slight frown.
“Isn't he supposed to be at that charity thing?”
Jim shrugged and hauled himself off the couch. He opened the door just as Simon Banks was about to knock, and stepped back in some surprise. Simon was full Santa gear, red jacket and pants, shiny black boots, unrealistic hat, and everything edged in white fur. His face was for the most part hidden behind an overly-developed white moustache and beard combo, but what could be seen didn't look happy.
Jim stepped back in a wordless invitation to enter and Simon stomped into the Loft, glaring at his two friends.
“Aren't you supposed to be at that charity thing?” repeated Blair. Simon made an incomprehensible noise in reply, then pulled the beard down under his chin to speak more easily. It made him look like an unusually festive Amish.
“Yeah, I’m supposed to be there, but I got a call from the Chief. One hell of a call, let me tell you.”
“Simon,” ventured Jim, trying not to grin - the sight of his captain was tugging at his facial muscles, even though he could sense that Simon was truly upset about something - “you wanna take off your beard and hat and tell us about it?”
Simon swiped the hat off his head, and then paced into the centre of the lounge, facing out of the main window.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he said, gesturing with the hat.
“What?” asked Blair. “Cascade? Yeah, it's okay, as cities go.”
“It's beautiful!” barked Simon. “The city’s beautiful and the whole planet is beautiful and there are beautiful people in it. On it.”
Jim and Blair exchanged a slightly doubtful look. Had Simon been drinking? Had the departmental eggnog been seriously spiked again this year?
“You wanna know what the Chief told me?” demanded Simon, then immediately shook his head, answering his own question. “No, you don't wanna. I didn't want to hear it either. He wasn’t supposed to tell me but he got told by someone else who wasn't supposed to tell anyone either. So he told me, too, and now I’m telling you. Because there's no way in hell I'm keeping this to myself. Why should I be the only one who suffers? Huh?”
He glared at Jim and Blair, daring them to contradict him. Jim put a hand out, in an attempt to soothe. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Blair begin to sidle around the table to approach Simon from behind. It was like trying to corner a restive horse.
“What the heck is wrong, Simon?” he persisted.
Simon gave a huge sigh, and his shoulders slumped.
“Look, I'm sorry, you guys. I'm sorry to be the one who tells you, but I think you should know, not spend the next few hours in blissful ignorance.” He made another sweeping gesture with the hat and almost knocked Blair off his feet.
“That meteor, shooting star thing,” he began.
“Comet,” put in Blair quietly. “A comet is formed of dust and ice and comes from the outer reaches of space. A meteor is really only….”
Simon swung round with a look of fury and Blair recoiled nervously.
“Will you shut up with the lecture, Sandburg? Okay, the comet. This comet. The one up there now. It's not going to swerve away from Earth. It's gonna hit Earth slap-bang in the middle of North America at six o'clock tomorrow morning.”
Blair and Jim stared at him, eyes popping.
“What?” exclaimed Jim. “You’re kidding! They knew about it? They knew it was going to collide with Earth?”
“Of course they did,” said Simon bitterly. “The scientists all knew, but it was decided that no one would be told. The governments of the whole world agreed to keep it a secret. Hilarious, huh? That everyone could finally find something to agree about at the very last minute in the history of this planet? No one is gonna survive this, so why have everyone in mass panic for the last few hours of their lives? Everyone was supposed to go to their destruction happy and looking forward to their Christmas. Except that someone couldn’t keep their mouths shut. It’s a secret you’ve got to share, I suppose. So eventually someone told the Chief and he felt he had to pass it on down the line. So I'm telling you, because I'm damned if the whole thing is stopping with me!”
“Jeeesus,” breathed Blair, going to stand by the window. The comet was very clear and bright in the sky. Down below, people were gathering the last of their purchases for Christmas with the usual bad temper on the sidewalks and honking horns in the street. He turned back to Jim with a stricken look.
“All this. All gone. Us … gone,” he said, his voice faltering.
Jim moved quickly to stand by him. He gripped Blair's shoulder.
“Not gone yet, Chief,” he said, nonsensically. Blair gave him an incredulous look.
“I don't think you're going to get us out of this by jumping off a moving train or something, you know? This is it. The end. The end of everything.”
Jim just stared at him helplessly, until movement behind him made him look towards the room. He saw his boss replacing his hat and making for the door.
“Simon, are you still going to the orphanage?” he asked in surprise. That, he thought, would take extraordinary resolve; more than Jim had, certainly. Simon shook his head.
“Damn straight, I’m not. The orphans can shift for themselves tonight. I’m off to O’Malleys. I wanna sit in a room full of other cops and just drink until I forget the whole damn thing. With luck, I won’t even remember my own name by six tomorrow.”
“But, but…” broke in Blair, “…what about Daryl?”
“Nothing I can do. He's gone on some ski trip to Switzerland with his mother. Switzerland, I ask you! As if we don't have slopes of our own, right here in the North West.”
“It doesn’t rain as much there,” muttered Blair. Simon ignored him.
“Yeah, so that means I can’t get through to him. He's out on a mountain somewhere, having fun. Just like he should. I can't even say goodbye to him.....” His voice tailed away and his shoulders slumped.
“Simon,” broke in Jim, “stay here with us.” But Simon rallied. He turned to give them a patently forced smile; they could see the emotion behind it.
“No, no, I'm for O’Malleys. But maybe you've got time to at least speak to your loved ones. Maybe say some things you never got the chance to; never took the chance to. Know what I mean, huh?” He stepped towards them, his hand outstretched.
“Jim. Blair. It's been an honour to serve with you guys.”
Jim felt his throat tighten up. He took Simon’s hand and they exchanged a firm, prolonged handshake.
“Likewise, Simon,” he said, with some difficulty.
Simon turned to Blair, but Blair just walked up to him and wrapped his arms around the big man in a hard hug. After a moment, Simon disengaged himself, looking awkward; he sketched a salute and disappeared out of the door.
Jim and Blair stared wordlessly at the closed door for long moments, then Blair turned toward his friend, his eyes huge and sad.
“Oh, Jeeesus, Jim. One hell of a Christmas present.”
Jim found himself chuckling. There was a black humour in the situation.
“I really wish I hadn’t worked so hard to clear my inbox.”
Blair looked at him, appalled.
“Goddammit! Don’t joke about this!”
“Chief, what else is there to do, huh? It’s one big joke - the universe has played us like fools. We think we’re so powerful on our little world, with our big guns and our big planes and all our money. But we can’t stop one huge rock from space.”
“Dust and gas, actually.”
“Whatever it’s made of, it’ll be one hell of a bang.”
Blair bit his lip, and turned to press his head against the window.
“God, Jim, I don’t know what to do; I don’t know what to feel. All of Earth! All of life! Worms and caterpillars, and dogs and elephants and whales....”
“Don’t worry, they’ll start up somewhere else. They’re smarter than us humans.”
Blair huffed his response. Jim could tell his friend was close to tears and, frankly, he felt pretty emotional, too.
“Now here’s a news-flash from Mr Anthropology,” said Blair, his breath misting the window pane as he spoke. “Right now, I don’t care about the other humans. I only care about us. No more us.” He turned back to face Jim, grief writ large on his face.
Those were the words that did it for Jim Ellison. He moved forward swiftly and took his friend in a hard hug, and they clung to each other for long moments, sniffling, huffing, breathing in the essence of each other in the sudden realisation that these were the final hours. The last hours they would feel - could feel - human emotion. The last time they would be together.
Together. Ironic, huh? Now, he really wanted to talk about those hidden feelings with Blair. Now, when there was - what? - ten hours left of their lives to run. He pressed his face into Blair’s hair and took a breath.
“Jim, I need to say something to you,” came his friend’s muffled voice.
Another irony, thought Jim bleakly. They’d both got to the same place, but far too late. Blair pulled back, his face flushed and eyes red, and considered Jim gravely.
“I know you’ll want to see your dad, so don’t worry about me. You need to go and be with your dad for these hours.”
Jim was immediately struck with guilt. Of course Blair would want to talk to his mother, too! Of course he would! He was right, they had the chance to see their parents and say goodbye, or at least….
“But what about Naomi?”
“She’s down on the Sound in a rented cabin. She rang to tell me earlier this evening.”
“What? You never said!”
“I was going to, but then Simon arrived. I thought maybe we could invite her and her new boyfriend to Christmas lunch tomorrow, but I wasn’t sure if you’d be happy about it. Guess those yams are really going to waste now, aren’t they?”
Jim stared at him, trying not to look as stricken as he felt.
“So, you want to see her, right?”
“Well, you’ll want to see your dad. Don’t you?”
“Because,” continued Blair, straightening his shoulders and tossing back his hair, “there’s precious little time left. So I guess we’d better get going. I mean, we have to say goodbye at some point, don’t we? Better make it now, huh? Before it all gets too painful.”
Too painful? thought Jim. I don’t know I could take any more pain than I’m feeling right now.
Blair grabbed his jacket from a kitchen chair and shrugged it on, then walked back to Jim, standing before him with a sad, sad smile on his face. He held out a hand.
“Thank you, Jim Ellison, for being the best friend a man could wish for, and for giving me the best years of my life. I’ll be thinking of them to the last.” He swallowed hard, his eyes brimming.
Jim took his hand, but had to clear his throat several times before he could get any words out.
“Thank you, Blair Sandburg, for being the finest human being I have ever met, for … ah… giving me a life, and ... ah .. sharing that life, and .. ah .. making that life the happiest I’ve ever had.”
They gripped hands for a long moment, staring hard into each other’s eyes, Jim trying to memorise every detail of Blair’s face. Then the handshake suddenly became another hug, both of them hanging on in desperation, Jim squeezing his eyes shut and feeling the tears seep out at the edges. Eventually they pulled apart and Blair stepped away, gave him a mock salute, and walked out through the door without looking back.
Jim felt the room sway and he grabbed onto the window frame to steady himself. He was a hollow man now; nothing inside him but an aching emptiness. He shuddered and forced himself to move, grabbing his own jacket, and making for the door. But he felt he was walking now in a kind of dream-existence; nothing mattered, everything was dull and leaden. So the world was coming to an end in ten hours? Big deal. For Jim Ellison, it had already ended.
Now, this was weird, he thought, as he powered the truck through the city streets, heading to the suburbs. Knowing what he knew and seeing what everyone else was doing; people having arguments about parking places, people staggering with overflowing shopping bags, people queueing to go ice skating on the artificial ice in the park (too rainy this winter for real ice). It all looked normal, yet here and there he could see oddities. There was the Mayor, standing by the fountain at City Hall and throwing what looked like ten-dollar bills at bemused but grateful passers-by; here was Don Haas, the TV journalist, tap-dancing in the plaza by the train station, shouting to people that he’d “wanted to do this all my life! Never had a camera filming me!”
Jim shook his head, turned the truck away from the city-centre and the shining light in the sky, and headed for his family home. It took him no time at all, it seemed, in his state of not-caring. Parking the truck at the end of the drive he made his way to the pillared doorway and rang the bell.
The door swung open to reveal a Santa. He stepped back in surprise.
“Oh, it’s you, Jimmy. I thought it would be Frank Eberhart and Gerry. They’re due here any minute.”
“Ah, can I come in?”
William Ellison, looking like a Santa who’d already downed a couple of gins and was starting to relax after his sleigh duties, ushered Jim in with apparently some reluctance and shut the door, though he made no move to lead him out of the hallway.
“I didn’t think I was seeing you ‘til tomorrow, Jimmy. Lunch is still on, I suppose? Nothing’s wrong?”
“No, no! Absolutely not!” said Jim with a bright smile. “Just wanted to see you tonight, Pops.”
“You look a little pale, son.”
“Just the lighting, Dad. Look, I thought maybe I could spend Christmas Eve here, with you. Just for a change. Like the old days.”
William Ellison looked doubtful, almost certainly remembering just as well as his son what the old days had really been like.
“Well, it’s a nice thought. Very kind of you. But, you know… I have this little .. ah… ritual on Christmas Eve nowadays.”
“The Santa outfit?” asked Jim, trying to sound unconcerned. “I mean, you never wore that when we were kids.”
“Good God, no, of course not! No, it’s for Frank. Since his wife … well, you know… the three of us meet up each Christmas Eve and watch a movie. And Frank turned up the first year in a Santa suit – he was pretty mixed up about things just then - so Gerry and I thought we’d better join in. You know, to make it more fun.”
“More fun because his wife…”
“Yeah, nasty business. So ,you see, you’re very welcome to join us, but it may cramp your style a little.”
“What movie are you watching?” asked Jim, thinking the situation couldn’t get any weirder.
“ ‘The Sands of Iwo Jima’ . We always watch that one.”
Yep, it just got weirder. Three old guys in Santa outfits were going to watch ‘The Sands of Iwo Jima’, as a Christmas Eve movie.
“Because of Frank’s wife, you see,” continued his father.
“I didn’t know Nancy Eberhart had passed away.”
“No, she ran off. With a Japanese guy who runs a used car dealership. Doing this on the anniversary every year seems to help Frank in some way…”
He was interrupted by a knock at the door.
“Oh, excuse me, this must be them.”
On the doorstep stood two fairly raddled-looking Santas, one holding a DVD case and the other a bottle of Bourbon.
“Sorry we’re late,” said the slightly more smartly-dressed of the two. “We had to find Frank’s beard.”
“Come in, come in” beamed William, opening the door wider. “You remember my son, Jimmy? Jimmy is…”
“Just leaving, Dad,” said Jim, with a smile, and saw genuine relief on his father’s face. He reached out and put his arms around the older man, feeling a predictable small flinch at first but then, gratifyingly, his hug being warmly returned.
“Well, that was unexpected, Jimmy,” said William as they pulled apart.
“Says my father dressed as Santa,” grinned Jim. “I’ll see you tomorrow. And…Pops…?”
“Yes, son?” William’s voice was a little distracted now, as Frank was clearly somewhat the worse for wear.
“Thanks for … y’know … being my Dad.”
William frowned at his son. Given family history, it was an unusual thing for Jim to say, and they both knew it.
“Are you sure everything is all right?”
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Pops. I love you.”
William Ellison gave him a doubtful look, but managed a quick smile.
“You, too, son. Oh my! I have to go…”
He closed the door, and Jim was left standing on the pathway, with no one left to say goodbye to, and there were still nine hours to go.
As he got to the corridor, he could hear him, sense him, scent his presence in the Loft, and it was all he could do to stop himself running towards the door. He walked very swiftly, even so.
Blair, standing by the window and staring out, jumped as the door opened. He looked at Jim in open-mouthed surprise.
“What happened? I thought…”
“‘The Sands of Iwo Jima’ happened,” grinned Jim, more delighted than he had ever felt in his life at seeing the other man there. “I was upstaged by John Wayne.”
“Relax, Sandburg. It’s too ridiculous a story to waste time telling, and I’m fine with it. Just fine, let me tell you. I think we should open that champagne we bought for tomorrow.” He went into the kitchen, calling over his shoulder. “But what happened to you?”
Blair looked down at the floor.
“It seems… well, Naomi’s new boyfriend’s quite a bit younger than her.”
“That doesn’t surprise me in the slightest.”
“Yeah, but… Jim, he’s a six-foot-four twenty-five-year-old Rastafarian from Trinidad called Cedric. Man, I am so glad I never asked them over for lunch tomorrow. Not that there’ll be one now, of course. But seriously, Jim, you would have had to arrest them on the spot! The place was full of marijuana plants, and they’d been … um … sampling the goods, if you know what I mean.”
“Sounds like fun, Chief,” said Jim, returning to the lounge with the bottle and two glass flutes, which he placed on the table.
“Fun?” Blair sounded incredulous.
“End of the world, Sandburg. Time to kick back!”
The cork popped and the glorious wine flowed sparkling into the glasses, the foam rising just to the rim and no further. Jim topped them up and took one for himself.
“Here’s to you, Chief, and your wonderful mother.”
“Jim, they were…” - Blair was blushing now - “… Naomi said they were about to start an eight-hour tantric sex session, and she thought I might find myself at a loose end.”
Jim spluttered into his champagne at Naomi’s choice of words.
“Perfect timing,” he coughed out. “I guess they’ll find the Earth moving just about eight hours from now.”
Blair looked affronted
“What’s up with you, man?”
“Chief,” said Jim expansively, taking another deep draught of the champagne and immediately refilling his glass. “it’s kind of late, of course, but I’m finding out that I can chill with the best of them. Now, listen to me. Parents who are otherwise engaged notwithstanding, I am just where I want to be for the rest of my life.” He winked theatrically. “And I mean that quite literally.”
“You’re being unreal! Did your father give you gin? He did, didn’t he! And then he let you drive! You could have been killed!”
Jim grinned at the absurdity; Blair was worried about an RTA a few hours before the apocalypse. He slung a warm arm over his friend’s shoulder and gave him a quick, one-sided hug.
“No, he didn’t, but I sure intend to drink all this champagne if you don’t join me.”
Blair picked up his glass, knocked back the contents in two gulps, and held his hand out for more.
“Fill her up. I bought extra, just in case.”
“So you never did, huh?”
Jim was sitting on the floor, his back against the couch where Blair was now sprawled. The Loft should have been in darkness but the sky outside was now quite bright as the comet drew closer. Out in the streets, Jim could hear sounds that varied from celebration and wonder to deep unease and, increasingly, panic. He put it out of his head. The Sentinel of the Great City could do nothing about this. The door was bolted, and they were safe.
“Never did what?” he said, tipping his glass back again. Two empty bottles sat on the table. He lifted a third, already more than half-empty, and poured himself some more.
“Never did love her?”
“Caro? I thought I did. She’s a classy lady, you know?”
“Oh, I know. I can believe it.”
“We both thought we were in love, I guess, but it was just a kind of friendship. Not enough there to keep us together in the long-run, though.”
“Oh, I understand. And the others?”
“Sandburg, there haven’t been that many, you know? But for the record, I think I’ve been fond of all my exes, at some point. There’s always the sex thing, sure. That can be pretty overwhelming. But love… I just can’t remember being head over heels in love with them.”
“AlesBrns,” muttered Blair into a cushion. Jim frowned, and then rolled his eyes.
“Not love, Chief, Surely you worked that out, eventually? I don’t know what to call it, but it wasn’t love, I assure you. And hey, what about you! You fall in love five times a week!”
“Not love, either” replied Blair, a little clearer now his head was out of the cushion. “Lust, fun, frolics, youth – I don’t know what, exactly. I’ve kidded myself at times that it was the real thing, of course. It’s been nice to do that, just for a while. But eventually you get to realise that it’s not right, and nothing you can do will make it right. Oh, I expect I was head over heels with someone when I was a teen – that goes with the adolescent territory - but I don’t remember it now. It’s all kind of faded away.”
“Now look at us, huh?” said Jim, craning his head back so he could see Blair’s face. “Just like ‘The Odd Couple’.
Blair smiled, a full-wattage Sandburg smile. He lifted one hand and patted Jim on the top of his head.
“That suits me just fine, man, just fine.” Blair’s hand dropped away; it fell on Jim’s shoulder and Blair left it resting there. Jim could feel the heat of Blair’s blood through the cotton of his shirt. He let his head drop back a little more so that his face fell against Blair’s wrist. Impending Armageddon combined with more than a bottle of fermented fruit juice had a nice way of lowering one’s defences, he thought happily. And Blair had drunk just as much.
“Any more booze?” asked his friend, clearly not sated just yet.
Jim reluctantly moved to reach for the bottle, and left Blair’s hand behind. He topped up the glasses and watched as his friend knocked back the contents.
“Nice stuff,” said Blair, wiping the back of his hand over his mouth. He put the glass down a little unsteadily on the floor and struggled into a sitting position.
“Jim, I want to tell you something.”
Yeah, yeah, thought Jim, leaning back against the couch again in a champagne haze. Here it comes. Burton was a hoax, you’re not really a Sentinel, I work for the CIA…
“Ah… I don’t know how to say this, and it might upset you, but…”
“Burton was a hoax.”
Blair sat bolt upright.
“What? What? Where the hell did that come from? Why do you think that?”
Jim put out a hand and patted Blair’s knee.
“Easy, Chief! I’m sorry, I was just imagining all the crazy things you might confess in the last minutes we’re together. Blame the champagne.”
“Huh, yeah, well, maybe you can blame the champagne for this, as well.” He cleared his throat. “Look, Jim, I said I haven’t really loved anyone. That’s not true. I love you, man. I mean, really love you. Have for years.”
Blair was staring at the floor, head averted from Jim’s face. “Stupid, huh?” he went on. “Falling in love with my research subject? But I did. I have. I am. And I’ve always thought to myself, if you tell him, the world will end. Well, it’s gonna end anyway, so I thought I might as well tell you.”
He looked up suddenly, dark-blue eyes searching Jim’s face.
“You are the finest person I’ve ever met, and you’re gorgeous, and I love you to pieces.”
Jim gulped, staring wide-eyed at the man on the couch.
“So, yeah… there it is,” continued Blair, turning his head away again. “Sorry to be a party-pooper. I think I’d better get another bottle.”
He went to rise, but Jim caught his wrist and held him down. Blair frowned at him.
“You love me?”
Blair took a deep breath and let it out again slowly.
“Yeah,” he said eventually. “See, the world didn’t end. Oh, whoops, my mistake. I’m just a little early.”
Jim leaned forward and took Blair’s other hand, drawing him closer.
“Don’t joke, Blair. Not now, huh?”
Jim paused, then took a breath.
I’ve been thinking,” he said slowly, trying out those emotions that were only now forming themselves into words to be expressed, “and I had this feeling, like something wasn’t quite right with us. I mean, everything is really great, except there was this something else.”
“Yeah, something like, I was going to embarrass you.”
“No, no. It felt like there was something missing, and I couldn’t put a finger on what it was. But now I know. What was missing was me understanding what we have here. That this is the place I want to be, that you are the person I want to share it with, that I can’t imagine a life without you now, and would never want to. I know I miss you when you’re not there, and I smile the moment I see you, because you lift my heart. You always have. When you walked away tonight, I could hardly bear it.”
Most of this speech had been delivered at Blair’s hands, which Jim was absently chafing, but then he looked up into his friend’s face.
“I’m nothing without you, and I never want to be apart from you. And if that’s not love, if that’s not head over heels in love, then I don’t know what is.”
He turned his head away again, unable to watch Blair’s reaction. There was a long pause.
“Wow.” It came out in a released breath.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” replied Jim, suddenly relaxing, suddenly realising that everything was all right. Yeah, the world was going to end and everything, but that was immaterial. This - this was what really mattered. They smiled at each other, and kept holding hands. Outside, the noises in the street were getting more unsettling, and the light was getting brighter.
“Well,” said Blair, “you know how they say in songs ‘I love you till the stars fall from the sky’? This is literally the case, here.”
Jim pulled him into an embrace.
“We’re together, we’re on our own, no one can touch us. We’ll just stay like this until the end. I couldn’t be happier.”
“As apocalyptic situations go,” replied Blair, snuffling at Jim’s neck. “I agree, we’ve done it right. Say, let’s go upstairs?” He pulled back and gazed into Jim’s face. “Huh? Can you think of anything better than to be doing that, when the Earth explodes? You and me, we just become stardust drifting out into the universe. Our love will be stardust, eternal.” His eyes were shining.
Jim leaned forward and kissed his forehead.
“You’re my star,” he said.
The room was bright, but no matter. They had no attention to spare from each other. They had kissed by the couch and they had kissed on the stairs and now they kissed by the side of the bed; frantically, forcefully, and as they kissed they pulled at their own and each other’s clothes, shirts and pants dropping to the floor. Jim ran his hand through Blair’s hair and inhaled its scent, then sank to his knees and placed his head against Blair’s stomach, holding on tight.
“… always wanted…” he murmured, telling himself what he’d just realised. He started to kiss Blair’s skin, down over his hips and to his groin, edging the shorts down, kissing Blair’s hard flesh. Blair groaned.
“No, man, no! Come up here, onto the bed! We’ve got to do this right.” He hauled Jim up.
“I want to know,” said Jim, pushing them both of them flat on the bed, “what exactly was wrong with what I was doing just then?”
“Don’t tease, man! I just need to get close to as much of you as I can!”
“I’m teasing? Let me show you…”
“I can’t … believe … this is …Jim Ellison … here! Baby, you are one fabulous lover! Oh, Jeesus! Do that again!”
And Jim couldn’t believe the delight he held in his arms – the hard torso, strong neck, slim waist, muscular legs; he melted into Blair, mouth exploring his skin, hands restless on his hips and thighs, teeth nipping at his neck making Blair arch and cry out. He felt Blair’s arousal and pressed back so that Blair knew Jim’s own excitement, then bent his head and rubbed his face in Blair’s groin. Blair moaned.
Jim looked up then, to see the face of the man he adored flushed with desire, and reflecting that same adoration right back at him. He’s the most beautiful man – the most beautiful person - I’ve ever seen, thought Jim. And he is my love.
Blair smiled, his eyes alight with emotion, and pulled Jim’s head up again so they could kiss; and kiss they did, rolling on the bed in a tight embrace, shutting out the frantic world outside with their cries and laughter. Then Blair was astride him, and he lay back and watched with breathless fascination as Blair took them both in his hands. Closer, closer; Jim reached up and pulled Blair’s face towards him so he could whisper:
“You’re all I’ve ever wanted. You are everything.”
He rolled them, so he could press Blair down into the bed as hard as he was able, drowning the sounds of the world, drunk on the man in his arms. Hands were now free again to clutch and embrace while their hips aligned and irresistible friction overwhelmed them. They rocked together, lost in the moment. Blair kissed Jim deeply as they thrust against each other, then laid his mouth next to Jim’s ear.
“Stardust,” he whispered. “We are eternal.”
Crying out in his own orgasm, Jim felt Blair pulse and heard him howl. Their voices, their warmth, their love - all of it took them down into perfect completion as the shockwave hit and the world exploded in light above them.
Jim sat bolt upright; bolt upright in bed, in his bed, on his own, with the roof secure over him and the world still spinning its same ol’ twenty-four hour course. It was daylight - real, authentic daylight.
Yet more clattering came from below.
“Sorry, Jim, sorry!” came a muffled voice. “It’s just I can’t find... Man, have you seen what time it is?”
Jim looked at his alarm clock – ten-thirty. Was there something he needed to remember? Right now his head was filled with… oh boy! That’s what his head was filled with?
A testy voice drifted up from below.
“It’s Christmas Morning, Jim! Come on, get a grip! Your father is due here in two hours and this goose will take at least four! We’ve overslept! And why in God’s name did I buy goose…?”
The voice trailed away and there was more crashing from the kitchen area, and muffled cursing.
“So the world didn’t end?” murmured Jim to himself, and then called out: “So the world didn’t end?”
“Not that I’ve noticed. Though I’ve only been awake for five minutes, I grant you. Maybe we’re the only people left on this planet. I haven’t checked because We Have No Christmas Lunch! What the hell do you think happened, Jim? Come down here and give me a hand, will you?”
The exasperation and anxiety in Blair’s voice was in stunning contrast to what Jim remembered from his dream. He thought back for a moment, grabbing at the memories before they left him for ever, trying to lock as much of it away as he could, for his future imaginings. It had been wonderful, everything he wanted; he supposed that was why he dreamed it, his subconscious coming up with his Christmas list in glorious technicolour. He chuckled to himself; this was real life, right here. Dreams were fine, but so what if there was nothing else to be had? Real life was still pretty damn good.
He stood to go downstairs and realised his shorts were damp; so was the sheet. He felt himself blush, and grabbed his grey robe to hide the evidence before he hit the stairs. Wow, that dream really delivered. And curiously, he felt not a single qualm about it. That was something to ponder, maybe.
He peered over the balcony to see Blair surrounded by various dishes and casseroles in the kitchen, gamely slapping butter on an enormous fowl. Christmas lunch for three people; they would be swimming in goose-fat for weeks.
Then he looked a little harder and saw Blair’s frown, his drawn face, his tight lips. This was no ordinary slept-through-the-alarm panic; there was something more serious going on.
He tied the robe tighter and wandered down the stairs. Blair didn’t even look up, but merely waved his hand a various piles of vegetables.
“It would be really good if you could start peeling these, Jim. Maybe I can rustle up some dips and stuff to help pass the time….”
Jim took the butter out of Blair’s hands and grabbed his fingers – it was quite difficult to keep a grip.
“Chief, what’s wrong?”
“The meal is going to be spoilt, that’s what’s wrong,” snapped Blair, his head still averted. Jim shook him lightly.
“Hey, chill, okay? My father can cope with a two-hour delay. Just give him the gin bottle. It’ll probably be the most relaxed Christmas meal I’ve ever had with him.”
He let go of Blair’s hands and Blair immediately threw him a kitchen towel, a smile quirking at his lip. Jim wiped his own hands of butter and picked up a peeler, starting on the potatoes.
“Sorry, Jim. Sorry to be acting like such a flake.” Blair reached for the butter again, and started slapping at the goose, grinning wryly to himself as he worked away. “I didn’t sleep well, not at all. Man, I had this terrible, weird dream all night. Terrible, but wonderful at the same time. Of course…” - he cleared his throat - “…I can’t remember a thing about it, this morning. It must have been that new mulled wine mixture. Boy! I can’t even remember when we went to bed. I mean, when we went .. ah .. off to our rooms, you know?”
Jim put down the peeler and watched the butter being spread yet more distractedly.
“Think that’s enough yet, Chief?”
“What? Oh, yeah. Yeah.” Blair grabbed the goose in its tray and, staggering slightly, pushed it into the oven. “Right, I’ll do the greens.” Jim started on the potatoes again; Blair went to wash his hands, and then turned back to Jim with a tight smile, picking up a bunch of leafy vegetables.
“Glad to see you so relaxed though.”
Jim smiled back, still peeling.
“Yep. It might be kinda late in life, but maybe I’m finding out that I can chill with the best of them.”
Blair dropped the greens, staring at Jim, colour draining from his face. For his part, Jim was wondering why he had used those words, but they had seemed so familiar. With a sudden flash of intuition, he realised they were familiar to Blair as well. And given Blair’s uncharacteristic awkwardness around him, maybe there were some other things from last night that were familiar, too.
He watched closely as Blair picked up the vegetables again, his movements full of overstated industry. Blair cleared his throat a few times.
“Did you … ah …have bad dreams last night as well, Jim?” Blair managed eventually. Jim laid down the peeler, and took a deep breath. Now or never, he thought; if this was their Christmas magic, happening right there and then… well, for once, he wasn’t going to stand in its way.
“I had a great dream. Terrible but wonderful, you know?”
Blair looked up, his face studiedly neutral.
“Oh, yeah? But you can’t remember it, huh?”
“Actually,” replied Jim, “I can remember quite a lot. And to be honest, it’s one dream I don’t want to forget.”
He watched, quite calm, as Blair put down the vegetables and wandered over to the balcony window.
“It’s moving away, definitely,” he opined. As a change of subject it was both completely transparent and a total failure. “Even I can tell it’s moving away now, just like they said.”
“That’s right,” said Jim, walking over to stand by him, where they had stood looking out over the city so many times before. “And as I recall, things happened, but the world still didn’t come to an end.”
Blair looked apprehensively at him, his eyes betraying his internal battle between doubt and belief. Jim tried to smile his reassurance.
“Ever thought what you might do, Chief, if you knew the world was going to end?”
Blair kept staring at him; uncertain, on edge.
“Have you?” he countered.
“Yeah,” said Jim, moving a little closer and idly removing a potato shaving from his sleeve. “But it’s kind of a Show and Tell. Care for a demonstration?”
And Jim saw the exact moment the penny dropped; Blair’s sudden realisation that they both wanted the same thing.
“Yeah,” replied Jim, grinning now and moving closer still, “That’s what I thought.”
“Ah, there is this goose, Jim, if you haven’t remembered.”
“I remember. How about I call my dad and tell him we’ll let him know when his goose is cooked?”
Blair gave a little snort of laughter at this, but sobered in a heartbeat, and turned to the window again.
“Lovely world” he said. “Do you feel like…” - he lifted his face up to Jim, who could only gaze at him with more affection than he’d ever thought himself capable of feeling - “… like we’ve been given a reprieve? Like we’ve been let off with a warning that we – ah, I mean the world - has to get its act together? Another strike and we’re out?”
Jim cocked his head, musing.
“I’d like to see it a little more positively, maybe. We have a second chance, and we know what we’re playing for, now. Seems like a slam-dunk to me, Chief.”
“Sports metaphors, Jim? We’re using sports metaphors, at a time like this?”
“What could be better?” asked Jim, in all seriousness.
Blair’s smile was full of hope, and wonder.
“Beats me, man, beats me.”