It was late and cold in Cascade when the plane landed. Tired from the long journey and the equally long series of events, the four of them walked in silence through the long hallways of the airport. Each had a small carry-on bag with them, and save for that and the dirt of Sierra Verde they carried nothing else with them.
"You and Megan drive here in your car, Chief?" Jim quietly asked Blair as they walked.
Blair, too tired to even look up at the Sentinel, just nodded.
"I'll drive Simon home, if you'll drop off Megan," Jim offered.
It was pretty much what Blair had already intended, so he simply shrugged and nodded. He'd driven Megan to the airport; Jim had driven Simon. It made sense they'd drive them home.
The four of them exited through the front doors, and stood for a moment in the darkness, gazing out at the expansive parking lot. A chill wind buffeted them, and Megan stamped her feet as she muttered some vague Australian expletive about the cold.
"I'm in the north parking lot," Jim announced, nodding his chin toward the nearest lot.
"I'm in the south," Blair replied.
"I'm cold!" Megan groused. "Come on, Sandy! Let's get going."
And that, it seemed, was that.
Simon began muttering something about Darryl, indicating his own desire to get home and Jim just shrugged and headed north, Simon falling into step beside. Megan headed in the opposite direction, and Blair. . . .Blair just stood for a long moment and watched the Sentinel walk away.
When he breathed he could still feel the fountain water filling his lungs. When he closed his eyes he could still see Jim kissing the woman who had killed him. Such was life. And death apparently. But then it just figured that he wouldn't even be able to get that right either.
Megan made a sound of impatience and Blair hurried to catch up with her. "You alright, Sandy?" she asked as he fell into step beside her.
The wind blew hard against him, creeping past his jacket and frosting his skin. His lungs, ill abused and poorly healed, hitched momentarily and he coughed. But he nodded nonetheless and flashed Megan a brief smile. One more quick glance over his shoulder confirmed that Jim was lost from sight, swallowed up by the darkness. His heart spasmed briefly and he quickly turned his face to the shadows lest Megan question him further.
The Volvo started on the first turn of his key---seemed the universe didn't hate him completely. And the short drive to Megan's apartment was uneventful. Ever the gentleman, he carried her bag to her door so that she could root through the contents of her overstuffed purse for her house keys.
"Thanks, Sandy," she sighed gratefully when the door was at last opened and the lights switched on, casting them both in a warm golden glow. She took the bag from Blair's hands. "And Sandy," she said, her face turning serious. "Tell Jim that he doesn't have to worry. The whole Sentinel thing. . . I won't say a word."
"You can tell him yourself," Blair said without thinking. "I'm sure you'll see him before I do. It will set his mind at ease."
Megan stared hard at him, frowning, and Blair paused, wondering what it was he'd said to cause such a reaction. "Why will I see him first? Aren't you heading home right now?"
Blair fought back the flinch her words caused, surprised that this needed explanation. "You were there when he kicked me out, Megan," he reminded her quietly, his voice subdued. "I don't live with Jim anymore." The words were harder to say that he expected. But he got them out regardless. And the harsh tightening in his chest might be nothing more than scarring on his lungs.
"But, Sandy," Megan protested. "I'm sure he didn't mean for it to be permanent. . . .just until this whole Sentinel thing with Barnes had passed."
But of course she hadn't seen Jim with Alex. She hadn't heard Jim greet him after his miraculous resurrection---hadn't heard Jim explain he wasn't ready to journey any further with Blair.
But Blair was too tired to explain. Too tired to talk. Dying did that to a man---took so much out of him. And he had nothing left to put back. "Maybe," he just shrugged noncommittally. "Nite, Megan."
She caught his arm before he could leave. "You got a place, Sandy?"
He could hear the concern in her voice. She cared. It meant a lot. "Yeah, I got a place," he assured her. A dark terrible place with its own fountain, and a broken room where a killer had come for him. But a place nonetheless.
"You could stay here," she offered, indicating that she didn't entirely believe him.
"Thanks," he smiled. "But I've got a place. Nite, Megan."
She let him go. He climbed back into his car and drove off alone.
Jim dropped off Simon and headed gratefully back to the loft. He felt weary, all the way down to the bone. Too much had happened, too much he had no desire to think of. More than anything he wanted to put this whole incident behind him. Far behind him, preferably in a place where he'd never again have to speak or think of any of it. Though somehow he rather doubted Blair would allow that---Blair wanted to talk about everything. Always had. But maybe if he were lucky, he could forestall that conversation a while longer.
The moment he entered the loft he realized that completely ignoring the situation was not an option. The sheer emptiness of the place was reminder enough. With a heavy sigh, he dropped his bag by the door and then headed down to the storage room in the basement to begin returning his belongings to their rightful location.
What a pain, he thought. But the very emptiness that had so soothed him during the chaos of the past week, now chilled him. The loft echoed with a hollow, empty feeling, and he doubted seriously he'd get much sleep until something at least filled up all that open space.
Like all things in his life there was a certain degree of obsessiveness that gripped him as he carried stuff back upstairs. He felt the sudden need to put everything back exactly the way it had been before. He'd damaged the couches moving them the first time, and had sent both of them out to be reupholstered, and their absence was now causing him difficulty with everything else. He all but measured the floorboards to figure out exactly where they should be, so that he could line up the coffee and end tables accordingly. The CDs had to alphabetized twice before he was certain they were in their former position. Even still, something wasn't right about them---some of them were missing, or packed away in one of the remaining boxes that held Blair's things. He hadn't gone about packing very logically, he determined. He needed Blair to remind him where things belonged.
He glanced at his watch, surprised to see that several hours had passed. The loft was looking better---though still far from repaired. But oddly enough Blair still was not home.
The wind had picked up outside, and Jim could hear it whistling as it rushed past the old building. Blair should have been home hours ago. Megan lived only a few miles away.
Concerned, he grabbed the phone and dialed Connor's number.
"Hello?" Megan answered. He'd half expected Blair on the other end of the line, thinking that perhaps the young man had stayed for dinner or a drink.
"It's Jim," he said simply. "Is Sandburg there?"
"No," she answered, and he heard something odd in her voice---a hardness to the tone he couldn't quite place. "He dropped me off and headed right back out."
Jim frowned. That had been hours ago. He worried suddenly about a car crash, but surely he would have been called by now. "Did he say where he was going?"
"He said he's got a place," Megan replied. "I'm sure he headed straight there. He was awfully tired."
A place? Blair had a place? "What place?" Jim demanded. "Why didn't he head home?"
"What home?" Megan shot back. "Last I saw you kicked him out of his home." And at her words something hard and horrible gripped Jim's heart. Suddenly, despite the furniture Jim had moved back in, the loft felt utterly desolate, completely empty.
"Megan, where did he go?" He heard the hoarseness in his own voice, but could do nothing to prevent it.
There was a long pause on the other end of the line. Then Megan sighed heavily. "I don't know, Jim," she admitted. "I should have asked. He just said he had a place. Probably a hotel or something. Where ever he was staying when you first asked him to leave. Try his cell phone."
"I will," Jim agreed and bid her good night. He dialed again immediately, but of course Blair's phone was turned off, and all he got was some recording about the cellular customer being out of range.
What place? he asked himself, and he fought the rise of panic in his heart. Blair didn't have the money for a hotel. It had to be a friend's house, he decided, one of the many girlfriends he kept around himself. Only there hadn't been that many girls of late, something he'd kept careful note of in the back of his head, one of those many thoughts he'd determined never to take out and examine too closely. But if not a girlfriend's place, then where? Where would he have gone without a home?
'You'll know where to find me.' Distantly he heard Blair's voice speaking to him---hadn't that been what he'd said in the bullpen right after those terrible things Jim uttered. Only hours before Alex Barnes had killed him. And Jim had known then where to find him----so too apparently had Alex.
But, no, surely he wouldn't have gone back there. Not after what had happened. Jim couldn't see it, couldn't imagine it, couldn't bear the thought of Blair walking through that cold dark campus with his lungs still weak from drowning. He couldn't imagine Blair walking past that fountain in the dark of the night, couldn't stand the thought of Blair entering the ruins of his office, remembering the last time he'd been there. A place. Surely not that place. . . not that terrible place all alone.
But just as impossible as it was to imagine, he knew also that it was true.
Cursing both himself and his Guide alike, Jim grabbed his keys and his jacket and raced outside toward the truck.
Late as it was, the campus was deserted when he got there. Deserted all save the lone Volvo in the parking lot near the Anthro building. Jim felt his heart spasm at the sight of that car; beyond it he could see the fountain. Heart in his throat, he braved the chill wind and hurried past that fountain toward the front doors of the Anthro building. The doors were locked against the night, and he was forced to search through his key ring for the key Blair had given him so long ago. And then he was inside, heading through the empty halls toward Blair's office.
Hearing extended, he caught the sound of Blair's heartbeat. Steady, but slow, and Jim's breath caught in his throat. He felt a moment of panic, the pain of indecision weighing heavily upon his shoulders. This situation was alien to him---he didn't know how to proceed. Didn't know how to move forward. What was required here? What did he need to do, to say? How could he fix this? Truthfully, he wasn't even certain what it was he wanted---what it was he was doing here. He only knew he couldn't stand the thought of Blair being here alone, while the loft was left so empty.
Bring him home then, he decided. That was the answer of course. Blair had to come home.
But why was he not already there---didn't he know he was supposed to be? Jim had thought he'd taken care of this----hadn't Blair heard the joke he'd made in the hospital about paying rent? Blair understood Jim-speak....that was supposed to be enough. Blair was supposed to understand---that was the way it worked. The way it always worked.
And yet Blair was here. Alone. And Jim was lost.
He reached the office, noting briefly that Blair had pulled down the police tape and left it lying on the floor outside the door. A small desk lamp illuminated the inside and Jim could see the mess through the window on the door. Blair had fought Alex when she'd come for him---so many things had been knocked over, sending the normally chaotic order into a true chaotic mess. But even as he gazed inside he could see that some small effort had been made to straighten things up. His heart hurt, and he could almost imagine Blair entering the place earlier and going about the task of putting this part of his life back together.
He used his keys again to open the door. He recognized the sound of Blair's heartbeat---knew that the young man was asleep. He could hear also the strain in the lungs, damaged as they were from drowning----from dying. The strain was worse now that it had been the day after the drowning---all that time traipsing around the damp woods of Sierra Verde hadn't been good for him---and Jim had never said anything. He'd listened, he'd worried, but he hadn't said anything. For one moment his eyes burned, and he blinked quickly to fight back the wave of emotion that swept over him.
Blair was asleep on the small ragged couch hidden back behind stacks of books. Still fully dressed, his jacket pulled tightly around his shoulders, he was shivering against the chill in the room. His face looked so pale, his features tight as some dark image disturbed his dreams.
Jim moved silently toward the young man. He still didn't know what to say, didn't know what to do. But that didn't stop him from crouching down beside the couch and gently touching Blair's hair. One brief caress, one soft murmured call of his Guide's name, and Blair awoke---startled, frightened, disoriented at finding himself in that place.
"It's alright, Chief," Jim assured him quickly. "It's me. It's alright."
He calmed quickly, but was momentarily wracked by a violent fit of coughing as his abused lungs tried to compensate for the increase of oxygen demanded by the adrenaline burst of fear. Jim patted his back, trying to sooth him, to ease the pain somehow with his touch.
Finally Blair stilled and was able to breath easier. Tiredly, his blue eyes blood shot and weary looking, he slowly sat up. "Jim, man, what's wrong?"
"Nothing," Jim assured him quickly. "What are you doing here, Chief?" It seemed the easiest place to start.
"Sleeping," Blair replied. "Or at least trying to. You nearly gave me a heart attack, man. Not all that big on being startled by Sentinels in my office, you know."
That hurt---deeply---and Jim fought to keep the pain from his face. He didn't truly think that Blair meant that the way it sounded---but still it hurt. "Got the wrong, Sentinel, there Chief," Jim replied, hoping his voice sounded as normal has he intended. "I wouldn't hurt you."
Blair, in the process of rubbing the sleep from his eyes, paused and looked up, pinning Jim with his gaze. For a moment he just stared, as if searching for something, or debating what to say. Then finally he just smiled faintly and stood up---moving across the room toward the small coffee-maker. Jim felt a fist close over his heart when he realized that Blair had not answered.
He stared at his Guide, watched in silence as he fiddled with the coffee machine. What to say? Only a few sentences into the conversation and already he'd lost hold of its thread.
"Wouldn't it be more comfortable sleeping at home?" Jim breathed a sigh of relief when those words emerged from his mouth. Hadn't thought of them really---just went on instinct. But they were good words----they said everything. Jim-speak, plain and clear. He'd covered the home-thing, the Blair-at-home-thing, and the more immediate concept of sleeping there. . . tonight. All Blair needed to do now was smile and nod, possibly make some crack about Jim carrying his bag, and they could get out there. They could go home. And everything would be back where it belonged.
"You kicked me out."
Oh, shit. Jim felt as if Blair had just punched him in the stomach. So he wasn't going to play the game. Wasn't going to translate the Jim-speak. They were going to have to talk---they were going to have to have a conversation. Hash things out---somehow Jim was going to have to figure out the magical phrase that would make everything alright.
"Not permanently," Jim reasoned.
He knew Blair had heard the teasing note in his voice---knew because his Guide turned and smiled at him. But far from reassuring him, that smile filled Jim with panic. That smile didn't reach Blair's eyes----and that more than anything terrified Jim. Those eyes---those beautiful blue eyes---were filled with sorrow, and in that instant Jim could see all those countless doors to their possible futures together shutting one right after another.
He stood, took a hesitant step towards his Guide. "Blair!" He knew the terror was apparent in his voice, knew his panic and loss of control was clear to be seen. It made Blair pause---right there in the very act of shutting all those doors, Blair paused. A reprieve, a brief one, and Jim knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was it. This was the moment. And words were everything here in this moment---and he so desperately didn't know what to say. So desperately need guidance.
"You kissed her."
The words were Blair's. A statement, an accusation, but they put Jim back on the right path. He understood then that this was what it was ultimately all about.
"I had no choice," he stated.
Blair did not move, did not speak. He waited, and Jim understood that it wasn't yet enough.
"I had no choice," he tried again, taking another step closer to Blair. "I didn't really want to. . . I mean I was compelled---like a drug. . . like a dream. . . something I couldn't control." He wasn't saying this right. But somehow, Blair was still listening. Still waiting.
He took another step toward Blair. "I hated Alex. Hated what she'd done, what she was, how she'd taken what we are and turned it into something evil. I hated what she'd done to you. . . ." And at that his voice cracked and he had to take several breaths before he could continue. Still Blair waited, in silence---and silence was so unnatural for his Guide.
"But there was something else there too," Jim tried to explain. "A compulsion, like a dream when you do things you'd never do in real life but you have no power to stop doing it. Do you understand that? I didn't want her, but I was compelled to want her."
That, it seemed, was not the right thing to say, because Jim saw something painful pass across Blair's face, and the young man looked away, turning his face back to the shadows, back to the doors that were so swiftly closing.
"No!" Jim cried, taking the last step to Blair's side and catching hold of his chin, forcing him to turn back toward him. "Listen to me, please. I'm not saying this right. I kissed her, but I didn't want to. I didn't *choose* to. I kissed her because I couldn't help it. Not because I chose it! Do you understand? I didn't make the decision---I wasn't given the choice."
A reaction this time--Blair frowned. And deep down Jim thought he saw the briefest flicker of understanding in Blair's eyes. "Do you understand?" he begged.
"If you'd had the choice, it wouldn't have happened?" Blair asked quietly.
"Right," Jim agreed. "I kissed her, only because I didn't have a choice. What she was. . . what she'd let herself become. . . ." But Jim broke off as he saw something flicker in Blair's eyes, some brief flare of despair as Jim stumbled with his words again. He realized, almost too late that this wasn't about Alex---not really. Because if Jim stood there discussing the merits of choosing or not choosing Alex, the question begged to be asked---choose her over what?
"Wait! Wait, please," he said again, touching Blair's face to stop him once again from turning away. His heart was racing, pounding in his chest---and he really had no idea at all where this was going. Neither he suspected did Blair. But Blair was far too compassionate to let him suffer for long.
"It's alright, Jim," the young man sighed, and tried again to smile---an expression that still refused to reach his eyes. "I understand. If things had been different. . .if she had been different. . . "
"No," Jim shook his head vehemently. "That's not it. . .that's not what matters. It's the choice that matters. Things aren't different. She isn't different, I'm not different, you're not different. It's the choice that counts." And even as he spoke, he realized that perhaps after all words weren't everything. That perhaps there was something here in the end that action alone could prove.
"I kissed her, but I didn't choose to," Jim stated. "But I'm not compelled now. I'm not forced. I'm free to choose. So please understand what I mean by this." And tilting Blair's chin up towards him, he sealed his mouth over his Guide's.
It was a light kiss, hardly more than a gentle brush of lips against lips, tender in a manner he wasn't used to. But it left him flushed, and stunned and shocked at his own actions----nothing in the vocabulary that made up his personality could explain it. And yet there it was, and it threw open one of those doors to the future that Jim had never truly let himself look at.
He drew back and stared into wide, shocked eyes. Blair looked as stunned as he felt. Jim released him, let his hand drop from his guide's chin. He took a step back, and for a long moment the two of them just stood there staring at each other.
"That was your choice?" Blair said at last, his voice hardly more than a whisper.
"And before. . . with Alex. . . .that wasn't your choice?"
Jim breathed a sigh of relief, his body sagging as he felt a great weight lift from his shoulders. "Right," he agreed.
"And I can't judge you for something you didn't choose," Blair finished. Jim nodded. He got it. Somehow, someway Jim had explained, even if had had to turn their entire world upside down to do so.
"Okay, okay," Blair nodded, and some of the animation seemed to return to him as he began suddenly to pace restless around the cluttered office. "And the loft?" he pressed.
"Not my choice," Jim explained. "What I did was out of my control. I would never have chosen to kick you out."
Blair paused briefly in his pacing to stare at him once again. Then finally he nodded. "Okay, I get it. I understand." And he started pacing once more.
Jim frowned, watching his restlessness. It took him a long moment to realize that the ball was once again in his court. He still had one more choice to make----and somehow, for some reason, Blair wasn't going to let him coast on this one. Blair wasn't going to infer it from the conversation, wasn't going to let Jim take the choice for granted.
"Come home," Jim stated quietly, but clearly.
Blair stopped, turned, his blue eyes still some how resistant. But the resistance wasn't what it had been, the distance wasn't as great. "Please, Blair," Jim whispered, and that was all it took.
The resistance crumbled, the distance was breached. He saw the smile touch first Blair's lips, and then his eyes. "You're such an asshole, Ellison!" Blair grinned at him.
Jim laughed, and the tension broke at last. Finally, finally, things began falling back into place. Back where they belonged. "I know," he agreed as he snatched up Blair's bag from where it lay beside the cluttered desk. "Let's go home, Chief."
Blair nodded, and the two of them headed toward the door.
They walked in companionable silence for a brief moment through the darkened hallway of the old Anthro building. Blair's words when they came weren't unexpected---Jim knew he wouldn't just let the incident drop---but nonetheless they still caught Jim off guard.
"You know, that kiss wasn't entirely necessary. A hug would have illustrated your point just as well."
Jim stopped in his tracks, and that door loomed open before him. For a moment he nearly zoned on the possibility.
Blair continued on a few steps before he paused and turned around. "Jim?"
"Wait," Jim stated, one hand held up as if in entreaty. He felt hot, his skin flushed as he stared at Blair. He saw again that smile----on the lips and in the eyes. Lips that he had kissed. He was terrified suddenly, both of going forward and going back. But going back wasn't an option---behind them there was only darkness and death. Alone and empty.
And ultimately the choice had already been made.
He took a step forward, and then another. He caught Blair's face between his hands, saw his Guide's eyes widen in surprise, bewildered, confused, just as uncertain as he was. . . .and there deeper still, perhaps just the slightest bit hopeful. It was enough, and Jim leaned toward him.
He felt Blair's warm breath rush past his sensitive skin, caught his Guide's scent rising from heated skin. And the brush of lips, satin skin against his own. A taste, like spice. The soft gasp of realization, like gentle music.
He drew back again, briefly, to see the stunned look in deep blue eyes. And then he moved in again---this time throwing caution to the wind. One hand slid into Blair's hair, tangling in his curls, the other caught Blair around the waist, pulling him tight into his body. And he left his hesitation behind, parting Blair's lips with his own, and deepening the kiss to something unmistakable. If there had been any doubt at all that this might not work, it was swept away in the storm of need that burned suddenly through him.
"Now," Jim gasped against his mouth. "Now it is necessary."
"Thank God," Blair whispered, his words so sweet against Jim's lips.
"Let's go home, love."
And Jim could not really be certain who it was who had spoken that last.
He realized then that this wasn't about going home to live---it was about
going home to live together. But then, as he'd discovered, after the choice
had been made, nothing more really mattered.