Originally appeared in Chinook 6, published by Blackfly Press. Part one - Abandoned - was previously net-posted before being expanded to include Part two - Reclaimed.
Many thanks to Annie as always for her stellar beta and encouragement, and to Night Owl and the rest of Blackfly Press for publishing this story.
For DawnC, who read the first story and wanted to read more about John.
Part One: Abandoned
Blair leaned against the balcony door and stared out at the drenching rain swamping Cascade. He blew on his cup of tea, taking in the soothing scent of the herbs, wishing they would do their job of relaxing him. Despite the cheery fire blazing behind him and the warmth of his old robe, he felt chilled to the bone.
The dream had disturbed his sleep once more. The fear of being left alone, abandoned, had assaulted his rest on a monotonously regular basis since Alex Barnes had trampled through their lives, almost destroying what had become a deep and abiding friendship.
Dream. It was an optimistic term for what fractured his sleep and had him gasping for breath with a sob lodged in his throat. It was dredged up from the dark recesses of his memory where it had lain forgotten all these years, buried beneath so many other experiences, both good and bad.
So long ago . Blair took a sip of his tea. The memory rose unbidden .
In his mind's eye, he could see John seated on the couch, his big frame hunched over. Blair's mother, Naomi, stood in front of the window, her back to him, staring out at the farmyard. Neither knew Blair had crept out, having been wakened by their voices raised in anger. "You don't understand," Naomi said. "I can't live here anymore. I feel stifled." "Naomi-"
Naomi shook her head but did not turn around. "No, don't try and placate me. I told you I'd try it for three months, and I did. This life your life is just not me." She turned then, and Blair took a quick step back into the hallway, squeezing his teddy to his chest. He couldn't see them now, but he could hear every heartbreaking word. "I want to experience life, see the world, make a difference."
"You have made a difference," John replied. "To me, to my life to Blair's. Think about him for a minute, Naomi. He's happy here. He loves the farm, the animals. He loves me."
"You're not his father; he's only known you for three months. He'll adapt. He can come visit."
"Then leave him here with me." Blair felt a surge of hope rise at John's words. John was right. He loved it here, loved John. He didn't want to leave. "You want to explore the world, fine. Go, do your thing, but don't drag Blair with you. He's six years old, Naomi; he needs a stable life." "He needs me," Naomi said firmly. "He's so smart for his age. This will be good for him. He'll learn so much." "Naomi, please ."
Was John crying? It sounded like he was. Blair longed to move from his hiding place and run into John's arms. Big, strong John, the only man Blair had truly loved. He'd wondered how it felt to have a daddy, and then John had come along and Blair knew. It felt right.
"He's my son. I can't abandon him. I promise he can come and stay with you over summer vacation." Blair hugged his teddy tighter. He blinked as a fat tear overflowed from one eye and ran down his cheek. He felt a sob working its way up his throat. Turning, he ran back to his room on tiptoes and climbed into bed, muffling his cries of misery under his blankets.
"But why do we have to go, Naomi?" Blair asked as he sat on his bed and watched his mother pack his small suitcase. "I want to live on the farm with John and help him with the horses and cows, and feed Molly the duck every night." Naomi sighed and straightened, reaching out to comb her fingers through Blair's shoulder-length curls. "I told you already, John and I just aren't happy any more. He doesn't want us here." Blair shook his head stubbornly. "That's not true. John loves me. He said-" He stopped abruptly. If his mother knew he'd been out of bed and listening, he'd be in a lot of trouble. He dropped his gaze and studied his shoes. He hadn't tied the laces properly, and the left one dangled loose. "John said I could call him daddy if I want."
Naomi fastened Blair's lace, then held out her hand, waiting until Blair placed his own in hers before picking up the suitcase. "He didn't mean it, Blair. He doesn't want us anymore. But you know what?" She smiled brightly as she led him to the door. "We're going on a big adventure to see the world. We're going to have so much fun, sweetie. You'll see."
Blair looked over his shoulder at the empty living room. He hadn't even gotten to say goodbye. Naomi had waited until John had gone to the neighbouring town on farm business before packing their things. Suddenly, he pulled his hand from her grasp and ran back toward his room, hearing his mother's exasperated "Blair" behind him. Flinging open the door, he swooped on his beloved teddy and scooped him up, cradling him against his chest before trotting back to his mother's side.
As Naomi's old sedan roared up the dirt road, leaving the farmhouse behind, Blair closed his eyes, fixing a picture of John in his mind. "Bye, John," he whispered. "I love you, and I know you love me."
His cheeks were wet. Brusquely, Blair swiped at the dampness and admonished himself once more to get over it, to live for now. It was easier said than done.
Soft murmuring came from the bedroom upstairs, and Blair turned away from the windows to check on his partner. From here, he could just see the bed and Jim shifting in his sleep as though caught up in another of the dreams that tormented his own sleep.
Blair felt a familiar tug of pain in his chest, the depth and seemingly incurable specter of it far worse than being torn from the loving arms of the man who had loved him like a son . Of knowing that Naomi had lied when she'd said John did not love them anymore. Worse even than the sheer agony of drowning. Of knowing he would not see Jim once more before he died, not be able to ask Jim for forgiveness for wanting too much and losing track of their friendship, and knowing the guilt Jim would bear for his death.
The discovery of the vision they'd shared had brought new meaning to their friendship, and Blair had believed, when he'd left the hospital to travel to Mexico, that nothing could ever break it. If a man's love for his fellow man was enough to bring him back from the dead, no mortal test could ever have him doubt it.
But on the beach . Blair closed his eyes as though by doing so, he could shutter out the sight, but knew it would do no good. Jim and Alex entwined together, oblivious to Blair. The shock of Alex turning Jim's gun on him was minor, compared to Jim's allowing the woman who had murdered Blair to escape.
Then, in the grotto, when Alex's rampaging senses had overwhelmed her, Blair had watched silently, his hands bound behind him as Jim had comforted her, Blair's innate empathy warring with righteous justification that she should suffer for the damage she'd wrought.
On their return to Cascade, they'd slowly begun to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, gradually feeling the familiar warmth of their relationship thaw the chill that had made them walk like strangers around each other in the weeks before. Blair welcomed it, but knew their journey through this storm was not complete. Each night the dream would wake him, and he'd get up and try to fight the demons of his past and present, knowing his grief at Jim's abandonment of him at that most dire of times would have to be conquered first before they could finally move on.
Sighing, Blair turned back to the window and rested his forehead against the window, the coldness of the glass soothing his heated skin. "Listen to your heart, Blair," John had told him many years ago, as they'd sat together on the back porch, watching another perfect sunset. It had little import to the six-year-old back then, but the words had always stayed with him, like a blessing, a benediction. Good words from a man who had always loved him, even from afar. "When you think things are as bad as they could ever get and you don't know where to turn, trust your heart."
Jimmy Ellison cradled his little brother protectively against his side, shushing his sobs softly as he stared down at the oft-repeated tableau below him. His parents were fighting again, their voices raised as they struggled to out-shout each other, oblivious to the fear and panic the sounds of hate struck into the hearts of their young sons.
There was something different about the scene tonight. At their mother's feet stood two large suitcases; and through the open doorway, even in the darkness, Jimmy could see a taxi hovering in the driveway, its exhaust huffing plumes of blue smoke into the chill night air.
"You're nothing but a whore!" William spat out in disgust, and Grace struck him hard in the face, the sound as loud as the crack of a whip in the sudden silence of the room.
"Mom, Dad, please!" Jimmy cried out, raising his own hand as if the action would somehow halt the violence. "Please don't," he whispered brokenly when the angry adults turned their faces up to look at him.
"Jimmy, take Stevie and go back to bed." His father sounded defeated; his cheek was bright red where the blow had landed.
"No!" Jimmy raised his chin, defiant, and turned his glacier-blue gaze on his mother, but she stared back at him with an equal measure of defiance, her blue eyes so like his. He broke down then. "I'll do better," he sobbed, uncaring of the tears that suddenly overflowed and ran down his cheeks. "I'll look after Stevie all the time, and I won't won't make up those stories anymore about people talking in my head. I promise ."
His mother turned away, her voice, when she spoke, sounding strained and somewhat lost. Bending, she reached down and picked up her suitcases. "This has nothing to do with you and Stevie, Jimmy. It's between your father and me. You wouldn't understand. I'll call you everyday, and you and Stevie can come stay with me as soon as I'm settled-" The taxi horn blasted through the air, and Jimmy winced as it echoed against his sensitive eardrums. "I I have to go."
"No, wait!" Frantic, Jimmy turned to his little brother, not wanting the four-year-old to see his mother walk from their lives. Leaning down, he grasped Stevie's chin and turned the tear-stained face up to look at him. "Stevie, go climb in my bed, okay? In a minute, I'll come read you a bedtime story."
Stevie sniffled and wiped his hand across his nose. "The one 'bout the monster in the closet?" he asked hopefully, a smile beginning to show through the tears.
"Any one you want," Jimmy promised solemnly. Turning his brother, he sent him on his way to the bedroom with a gentle push. Turning back, he watched in despair as his mother strode purposefully toward the front door, but as she stepped through the doorway, she turned back to look at her son .
Only now it was Blair standing there, his expression bleak, his dark blue eyes shining with unshed tears. "No," Jim whispered. "Blair, don't go."
Staring out into the darkness, Blair heard the whispered entreaty as though he was the one gifted with sentinel senses. Turning, he climbed up the stairs, walked over and stood by the bedside for a moment, watching Jim shift in restless slumber, his eyes moving rapidly beneath the closed lids, a single tear snaking from the corner of one eye to trail a glistening path down Jim's cheek.
Settling on the side of the bed, Blair raised a hand and brushed the wetness away from Jim's face with his thumb. At the touch, Jim's eyes opened, and he looked blearily at his partner.
"Blair?" he whispered again. "Did I wake you?"
Blair shook his head. "I wasn't asleep."
"I'm okay, just a bad dream," Jim assured him. "Go to bed. You need to rest."
"So do you."
In reply, Jim merely shifted over and patted the bed. Blair smiled and did as he was bid, bunching the pillow beneath his head and turning onto his side to watch as Jim succumbed once more to sleep. Blair allowed himself to relax, welcoming this haven from the storm their lives had become. His breathing became one with Jim's, rising and falling in a steady cadence, soothing and calming his own fears. "Shh," he whispered. "Go to sleep. We're gonna be okay."
Part Two: Reclaimed
One Year Later (post-TSbyBS) .
Winter had passed, and spring brought with it unaccustomed warmth for this part of the Pacific North West. Summer was promising to be spectacular. No amount of heat in the air, though, could chase the chill that seemed to have settled deep within Blair's soul. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't shake the what-ifs and what-nows that circled endlessly in his head, leaving him feeling exhausted and drained.
He'd done the right thing in declaring his thesis a fraud. He didn't hold himself up to be particularly honourable about it. In fact, he was angry and frustrated by the events that had led to him having to stand up in front of the press, in front of his peers, and announce that he was a liar and cheat. Once again, Naomi, in her misguided attempt to control his life, had screwed it up for him, though he certainly knew he had to own up to a large share of the blame.
He had no idea what to do now. He was immensely grateful for Simon's offer of a detective's badge, enormously relieved that now he could be Jim's official partner, instead of waiting for the powers that be to notice just how long his thirty-day observer's pass had been active and pull the rug from under him. Despite the fact that he'd loved the exhilaration and adrenaline rush of 'playing cop', it was hard to let go of the dreams he'd had, almost from the time he'd learned to read; to be a teacher and show others what a gift knowledge was.
He'd seen the relief in Jim's eyes when he'd taken the badge and knew it went a long way to shoring up their friendship, an unspoken message of forgiveness from both, and he wanted this all to be over. Wished in fact that it had never begun, but he was pragmatic enough to know that he needed to deal with the fall-out, mourn for his once promising career and move on, into this new phase of his life.
So, his initial eagerness and gratitude had been replaced with a kind of weary acceptance, and the atmosphere at home reflected his somber mood. He needed out for a while, needed to be somewhere he could clear his head, deal with everything and start anew.
Jim was no less exhausted by all that had occurred, and he was still dealing with his slow-healing, painful bullet wound. Blair felt sure that at least part of the reason for Jim's unaccustomed slow return to fitness was the stress and uncertainty that still hovered over them both.
They needed to get away. Once the seed of the idea had taken hold, Blair couldn't get packed quickly enough. By the time Jim returned from the gym, Blair was ready and had decided that even if Jim refused his suggestion, he was going anyway.
When Jim limped in the door, Blair's eagerness receded somewhat, and he was glad he'd left his bags in his room. He needed to explain things to Jim first, not have him jumping to conclusions the moment he saw Blair's suitcase. His determination returned anew when Jim waved him a hello and headed for the kitchen and pulled a beer from the fridge. Even from the living room, Blair could see the tiredness on Jim's face, with deep lines creasing his forehead, and his limp seeming a little worse again. Blair knew Jim had been pushing his PT, keen to get back to work as quickly as possible. He knew Jim hoped, as he did, that once he was through the Academy course and back at Jim's side, things would return to normal, and they could get on with their lives.
He waited until Jim came out to the living room and settled himself into the armchair opposite with a sigh.
"How was PT?" Blair asked.
Jim shrugged. "Okay. Damn physio is a slave driver."
Blair knew that wasn't entirely true. In fact, he'd had a conversation with Kathy Standish, who'd voiced her concern that Jim was pushing himself too hard, but he let it go for now.
"How about you?" Jim asked.
"Good," Blair replied. "Got everything squared away finally at Rainier." He glanced away from the frown Jim gave him. "I've been thinking about things." He leaned forward and rested his clasped hands on his knees. "I've got three weeks before my course starts at the Academy, and you're gonna be laid up for another two weeks-"
"Not if I can help it," Jim broke in.
Blair rolled his eyes and continued. "Anyway Iwanttogoawayforafewdays." He got the words out in a rush and waited for the explosion.
Instead, Jim simply raised an eyebrow and replied, "You want to say that again-in English?"
"I said I want to go away for a few days."
Blair sat back. He'd been so intent on having Mount Ellison blow up in his face, he'd lost track of his answer. "Oregon."
Twenty questions. Okay, I can do that. "I know someone there I haven't seen in a very long time. With all that's happened, I need to get away from all the reminders, all the stress."
"How long will you be gone?"
"Actually, I was hoping you'd come with me."
There was the smallest relaxation in the tense set of Jim's shoulders. "Why?"
Blair gave Jim his most earnest look. No puppy dog eyes for this conversation. What he was about to say would touch raw nerves, but it needed to be said. "Look, we've both been running on fumes the past week. The press conference is over, that's all in the past, but I'm still getting calls from the press, from people at Rainier, and I know you are, too.
"Jim, I made my choice and, at the end of the day, it wasn't that hard a choice to make. A disappointing one, yes, but not difficult. I knew where I wanted to be. I won't say I'm not nervous about going to the Academy, about becoming a cop for real-"
"I told you-" Jim cut in, but Blair held up a hand, silencing his protest.
"Wanting it and actually doing it are two different things. I need to know this is right for me, for us. I need to know I won't let you down." The unspoken 'again' hung unsaid in the air, but Blair pushed on. "I think you need to do the same thing. You need to work through all of what's happened, decide whether having me as your partner is enough to ease the guilt."
He waited for another protest, but Jim simply stared at him for a long moment, then nodded. "Okay." He quirked an eyebrow, a small smile upturning his lips. "But Oregon?"
"Trust me, you'll love it." There was the tiniest flinch from Jim at the word 'trust', but Blair ignored it. He took a deep breath. "So, you'll come with me?"
Jim appeared to mull it over for a moment, then nodded. "How about we leave in the morning?"
"I thought we could go this afternoon," Blair said. Now that he knew Jim was coming with him, he couldn't wait to get there.
Jim held up a hand, silencing him. "I need to let Simon know and organize a few things." He studied Blair, his face serious. "Okay?"
Blair nodded, feeling some of his tension falling away. "Okay."
Blair was up, uncharacteristically, at the crack of dawn the following morning, eager to get on the road, but Jim nonchalantly waved away his exhortation to hurry. He insisted they eat breakfast and took his time drinking his coffee, then stood and headed for the door. "Back in an hour at the most," he said. "Something I need to do before we leave."
Blair stood, flat-footed and open-mouthed. He waited, restless, champing at the bit, half of him ready to just head on out on his own and to hell with it, but something something indefinable told him to stay.
Jim was back just inside an hour, grabbing up his bag, until Blair took it off him and thrust his cane into his hand instead. He ushered Blair down the stairs in front of him, ducked under his arm at the lobby door and led his stupefied partner to a bottle-green rented SUV.
"Umm, Jim ?"
Jim shrugged. "I know it's only a three-and-a-half/four-hour trip, but I need to stretch out a little."
Blair nodded and was surprised again when Jim tossed him the car keys. "I'm driving?" he asked, sure he sounded slow-witted.
Jim nodded. "The leg's a little stiff after PT yesterday." He shook a finger at Blair before climbing into the passenger seat. "I will not, however, be dozing off, so watch your speed and leave the radio dial where it is."
Blair agreed with alacrity and got in behind the wheel. He started the engine, wondering if this gesture was another small olive branch, then stopped himself before he went down that path. Who really has trust issues here? he chided himself. The way I'm going, I'll have the whole damn olive tree soon.
The trip went smoothly, the two men chatting about inconsequential things: easy banter and conversation that Blair had missed so much in recent weeks. Blair found himself reminiscing of days gone by as they headed over the border into Oregon and long-forgotten scenery became vaguely familiar and welcome.
Jim stirred in his seat, where he hadn't been asleep, and turned to Blair. "So, who are we going to visit?"
Jim sat forward at that and stared at Blair. Blair cut him a quick, amused, sideways glance. "Well, not my dad by blood, but ."
"But?" Jim prompted.
Blair reached forward and turned off the radio. "His name is John Carpenter. Naomi and I lived with him for a while when I was five or six. Great guy. He owned a farm here. God, I loved living there so much."
"Why'd you leave?"
Blair shrugged, the old hurt rising to choke him, but he pushed it away determinedly. "You know Naomi. Always somewhere else to be. She let me go back a couple of summers for the holidays. After that, we just moved around a lot. By the time I was old enough to go on my own, I figured since I had my own life, I should let him have his. I mean, he wasn't really my dad. It wasn't fair that he'd be there, waiting and wondering if I was going to come strolling through the door. For all I knew, he might have a family of his own."
Jim reached out and grasped Blair's hand where it sat on the steering wheel, squeezing gently, and Blair felt the heat of tears sting his eyes. He blinked them back, wondering whom he was crying for. The child Blair or the adult, or both?
"I'm sorry," Jim said.
Blair smiled at him. "Don't be. I just hope ."
"I'm sure he's gonna be pleased to see you," Jim finished for him.
Blair simply nodded, his throat too tight for words, and turned the radio back up. ~o0o~
An hour and a half from their destination, Jim insisted they stop at a roadside diner for lunch. Blair, antsy from sitting still so long and being so close to the farm, protested. "I'm not hungry. Besides, we can eat when we get there."
"This John, he knows we're coming?" Jim asked.
"Well, no, I thought I'd surprise him."
"Then we don't want to embarrass him by turning up when he might have empty cupboards," Jim responded, not unreasonably.
Blair deflated at the logic. "Okay," he agreed, pulling into the parking lot, "but make it quick. A sandwich or something."
Finally! Blair turned into the gravelled driveway and sat up straighter, eager to take in the farmhouse he remembered with such affection. An unfamiliar dog raced up, barking at the wheels, and Blair thought with a pang of sorrow that his treasured pet duck, Molly, was no doubt long gone now. The yards abutting the drive looked unkempt and overgrown, with only a couple of cows grazing, and in the far corner of one, a horse eyed them with undisguised curiosity.
The nerves that had settled on the trip set up a patter in his gut, and he cast a quick glance at Jim, who continued to gaze out the passenger window. "Looks a lot smaller than I remember," Blair said quietly.
Jim turned then to look at him. "Well, I know I'm forever talking about you being vertically challenged, Short Stuff but you have grown some in the past 20 years." The smile on his face negated any sting in his words.
Blair smiled back, but it felt strained on his face. "Thank you for that," he said. He stopped the car in front of the farmhouse that looked more care-worn than he remembered. "It's just John was so proud of this place. I can't believe he would have let it go like this." He was stricken suddenly with an awful thought. "Maybe he sold it. I mean, he's got to be getting on in years." Exasperated, he slapped his forehead. "I should have called! I should have checked to see if he still lived here!" He gave Jim a stricken look. "What if he's not here any more?"
Jim reached out and squeezed his shoulder. "Settle down, Chief. Tell you what, how about you get out and go ask the gentleman standing on the porch who lives here?"
Blair swung his gaze slowly forward, and a grin of relief curved his mouth. Opening the door, he climbed out of the car and headed slowly up the steps to the verandah. The man standing in front of him looked older, a little grizzled and weather-worn, but Blair recognized him right away. "John?" he said, his voice barely squeaking out. "John Carpenter? I'm-"
"Blair ." The name was said in a whisper no louder than his own words, and then his arms were grasped, and he was pulled into an embrace, warm and familiar. It was like coming home. Tears stung Blair's eyes as he wrapped his arms tightly around John's waist and hung on, soaking up the comfort.
Footsteps sounded behind him, and he lifted his head, swiped at his wet cheeks and smiled at John. "This is my friend-"
"You must be Jim." John held out a hand and shook Jim's proffered one warmly, though his other hand never let go of Blair.
Blair looked at him, puzzled. "How did you-"
John shook his head, his grin widening. "Might live in the backwoods, son, but I still read the newspaper."
Finally, he pushed back a little and cupped Blair's face in his hands. "You haven't changed a bit," he said, emotion choking his voice. He stepped back and opened the screen door. "Come on inside."
Blair watched as John pottered around in the kitchen, brewing coffee and pulling home-baked cookies from a pottery container and setting them on a plate. John still had a shock of thick hair, though it was white now and he sported a trimmed beard. His face was lined and brown, but despite the changes, Blair could still see the John he remembered and loved.
"So," John said, finally sinking into a chair on the opposite side of the table, "I was wondering when you might find the time to visit." He gave Blair a stern look, but Blair didn't miss the twinkle in his eyes. "I know you've been busy with your studies, and all but still ."
Blair dropped his gaze to his coffee cup, suddenly ashamed. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I guess with everything happening after I started at Rainier, it just got away from me. And I thought maybe you might have a family and ." His words dried up, and he took a sip of his coffee.
John reached out and placed a hand on Blair's. "No one could ever hold a candle to your mother or you."
"I know what you mean," Jim put in. "Naomi's one of a kind." He chuckled and nudged Blair, and Blair smiled at him, relieved at having the tense atmosphere lightened.
John took a cookie and dunked it in his coffee, then chewed it slowly before speaking again. "I heard things have been a little rocky for you lately. What are you going to do now that that fancy university's kicked you out?"
Blair glanced quickly at Jim, who straightened in his chair, his jaw muscle suddenly twitching. "I've been offered a detective's badge," he replied, his voice quavering slightly. "I'm going to be Jim's partner. I start at the Police Academy in a few weeks."
John nodded, then turned to Jim, fixing him with an uncompromising stare. "So you really are this 'sentinel' Blair was telling me he was so desperate to find, last time he was here."
Jim nodded. "Yeah." He stared back at John, his gaze equally forthright. "I don't know what you heard about it, but if there was a way to change what happened, I would."
John turned his attention back to Blair. "You think you're gonna be happy being a cop?"
Blair shrugged. "I've been Jim's unofficial partner for four years now. There's still some aspects of the job I have issues with, but if it means being able to stay on and keep helping Jim with his senses, then yes, I can deal with it."
John studied him for a moment, then nodded. "That's all that matters then." He pushed away from the table and stood as though dismissing the conversation. "How long you staying?"
"If you can put us up, a week," Jim replied, "if not-"
"I'd appreciate the company," John cut in. He walked around to stand beside Blair and ruffled his hair. "Give me a chance to knock some sense into this one's head." He smiled. "Always was one for getting into scrapes."
"No fair talking about me like I'm not here," Blair groused good-naturedly.
"We could give you a hand around the farm. Jim has to take it easy with his leg, but-"
"The leg's fine, Sandburg," Jim interrupted, but spoiled the objection by grimacing in pain when he stood.
"Thing is," John said, picking up the coffee cups and taking them to the sink, "I've been thinking of selling the place. It's getting too much for me to keep up, but a bit of sprucing might drive the price up some."
"Couldn't you get some help from town?" Blair asked. "There's got to be people looking for work."
"Not many kids these days want to work on a farm," John said, "and those that do have their own family farms to take care of. Besides, I couldn't afford to pay much."
Blair felt a pang of sadness at the thought of John leaving his beloved home but could see the sense in the older man's words. "Let's get our gear unpacked, and you can show us what needs to be done before dinner. I don't suppose you have the makings for that beef stew you used to make?" he asked hopefully, his mouth already watering at the remembered taste.
"Went shopping just yesterday," John said, smiling. He wrapped an arm around Blair's shoulders. "It's good to have you home, son."
"It's good to be here-Dad."
Jim awoke to the tantalizing aroma of bacon, and his stomach rumbled, despite the filling, delicious meal they'd eaten the night before. Must be the country air, he decided. Muted voices came from the kitchen, and he turned to his side, surprised to see the twin bed on the opposite side of the room was already empty.
They'd taken a stroll around some of the farm the afternoon before and Jim could see how difficult it must have become for a man of John's years, with no help, to maintain it. He could see though, the pride John took in his property and hoped he and Blair would be able to at least get the place up to scratch enough that he'd get a good price for it.
He'd listened to Blair chattering non-stop about old memories as they'd walked, laughing delightedly when a duck had waddled up, and John had told them it was Molly's great-granddaughter, relieved to hear the familiar, much missed cheerfulness in Blair's voice. He'd smiled warmly at the obvious easy camaraderie the two men shared, despite their years apart, and couldn't help feeling a pang of disappointment for the still uneasy relationship he shared with his father.
After dinner, with Blair visibly drooping in the kitchen chair, they'd bid John goodnight and retired to their room. Once there, Blair had perked up a little, wandering around and exclaiming his pleasure when he found an old cigar box on top of the dresser. Opening it, he brought it over to where Jim lay, already in bed and half asleep, his leg aching slightly from the long drive in the car and the walk around the farm. Climbing onto the end of the bed, Blair sat cross-legged, pulling out little mementos of his childhood. A small, perfectly round pebble, smoothed to perfection in a nearby riverbed, a duck's feather-the infamous Molly's, Jim supposed-a collection of stamps from around the world, baseball cards, all the typical boy's treasures. Finally, Blair had wound down, his words punctuated by numerous jaw-splitting yawns, and Jim had persuaded him to turn off the light and go to bed.
As he drifted off to sleep, Jim couldn't help thinking that they weren't so different, he and Blair. Both had been cast off from people they loved at a young, vulnerable age and had struggled to regain that equilibrium in their lives. Jim, at least, had had Steven to care for and comfort, though as they grew up, their father's habit of pitting them against each other in constant competition for his favor had left them with a barely disguised dislike of each other that had only begun to heal over the past year.
Finally, his hunger could no longer be ignored, and Jim rose, wrapping his bathrobe around him to ward off the morning chill, and headed out into the kitchen. "Save some of that bacon for me, Sandburg," he warned.
Blair turned in his chair and smiled at him, waving an egg-laden fork at him. "'Bout time you got up. I put yours in the oven to keep warm."
"Morning," John said, standing up to pour coffee into a mug, then holding it out to Jim. "Trust you slept well."
"Definitely," Jim said. He blew on the steaming liquid and took a cautious sip, then sighed with pleasure. "So, what do you two have planned for today?"
"Fishing," Blair said.
"Chores first," John chided.
Blair held up his hands in mock surrender. "I noticed a couple of fences need some repair," he said, "and the verandah needs repainting, plus-"
"Slow down, Chief," Jim said as he accepted a piled plate of eggs and bacon from John, "we've got a week."
"But if we want to go fishing this afternoon ." Blair stood and took his empty plate to the sink. "I'm gonna head to the shower." He looked at John. "You said there's some fencing wire in the barn?"
John nodded. "Near the back somewhere. Barn's a bit of a mess," he said, looking a little embarrassed. "Haven't been in there for a while."
"We'll add it to the list," Blair said. He wagged a finger at Jim. "Don't be long. Fishing, remember?"
"If you'd stop talking and get a move on " Jim said.
Both men watched him go, chuckling, then turned back to their breakfast.
It had been a long, tiring day. Still, Blair was pleased they'd managed to get so much work done around the farm already. The place wasn't as rundown as it had first appeared. It was more a case of simple repairs that were beyond one man's ability to do. They'd patched fences, mowed pastures and made a start of fixing the wooden deck of the verandah. The following day, they were going into town to pick up paint. Blair had suggested they take John with them and eat at one of the small restaurants, an offer John accepted with alacrity.
By late afternoon, the lure of a nearby fishing stream could be ignored no longer. They'd put down tools, packed sandwiches and cold lemonade, and grabbed the fishing rods from the cellar.
They'd been here for about an hour, and Blair could feel himself beginning to wilt with exhaustion. The glare from the sun on the water was giving him a pounding headache, and after eating one half of a sandwich, a sudden surge of nausea had him refusing any more. He'd waved away Jim and John's concern and insisted they get on with fishing, but he was beginning to regret it now as his headache seemed to increase tenfold and his sight blurred.
"Yes! Hey, Sandburg!"
Jim's triumphant shout hurt his ears but brought him back to the present. He looked over and squinted at Jim, his sight wavering, dancing black spots partially obliterating his view.
"You might as well put that sardine you caught back in the stream," Jim crowed, grinning and holding up a large fish. "And you get to clean and cook it, seeing you lost the bet."
Just the mere thought of fish innards had Blair almost heaving his meager lunch. "Sure, okay," he croaked, nodding his head and then wishing he hadn't as the pounding surged. He staggered suddenly when his knees gave way and would have fallen face-first into the water had it not been for John's swift reaction.
The older man caught him under one arm and hoisted him back upright. "Blair? You all right, son?"
"Yeah, just feeling a bit off." Blair raised his free hand and swiped at the sweat that coated his face. God, it was hot!
"Blair?" Jim was on his other side now, studying him worriedly. "You sick?"
"A little, yeah."
Jim's hand touched his brow. "You've got a fever. Let's get you back to the farm."
It sounded like the best idea Jim had ever had. Blair allowed the two men to help him onto the riverbank. He stood, watching blearily, wavering slightly on his feet, while John and Jim packed up their gear. Jim straightened and scrutinized him carefully. "You all right to walk? I can get the car-"
"I'm fine. It's not that far," Blair assured him. "Probably just something I ate."
"You casting aspersions on my cooking, son?" John asked jokingly, but Blair could hear the note of concern in his voice. He tried to smile, but it was a weak offering.
"Never. Probably a stomach bug. One of those 24-hour things."
"I hope so." Jim took his arm and, together, they headed along the path that led to the farmhouse.
They barely made it in the front door before nausea surged with a vengeance, and Blair bolted for the bathroom.
It seemed like hours before the vomiting abated, and then he sank down to sit on the floor, resting his head against the cool tiles behind him. Jim entered and wet a face cloth under the faucet, then gently wiped Blair's face. That done, he held a glass of water to Blair's mouth, encouraging him to take a few sips. "You done?" he asked when Blair handed the tumbler back.
"Yeah, doubt there's anything left to come up." Blair winced. His throat felt raw from the burning, acidic bile. He managed to struggle to his feet and staggered out and into the bedroom, giving John what he hoped was a reassuring smile on the way. "I'll be fine. By tomorrow, I'll be out painting the porch."
"Just holler if you need anything," John said. "I'll go brew you a cup of tea. Might help settle your stomach."
Blair allowed Jim to help him undress, his sheer exhaustion and weakness leaving no room for embarrassment. Stripped down to tee-shirt and boxers, he sighed and gratefully snuggled under the comforter.
"Warm enough?" Jim asked.
"I'm good." Blair gave up the struggle to keep his eyes open and curled up, wrapping his arms around his tender stomach, drifting off to sleep almost immediately.
Blair felt as if he'd only had a moment's respite from the pain before he woke again. His head felt heavy, weighted and thick, and every movement brought agony. Even lying motionless, there was a constant pounding that kept time with his heart, and he wondered, if he could just concentrate on that, on the even rhythm, he could drift away from the pain. He couldn't focus though; the steady battering inside his head, radiating outward to his eyes and cheeks, stole his ability to think of anything but the pain. His jaws ached with tension as he clenched them in defence of the sensory assault.
His eyes were squeezed shut, and he fought consciously to relax the lids but knew if he did, the light would seep in to torture sensitive eyeballs and burn his retinas. He could feel the sting of tears held back by his swollen lids, clumping his lashes together.
The deliberate, muted noises from the rest of the house, even the low murmur of voices, battered at his eardrums, frittering away his patience, and his hands stole up of their own volition to cover his ears and muffle the harsh, resounding clatter. The well-meaning attempt at quiet activity in the other room only served to irritate his already brittle nerves, and he had to bite off the angry admonishment that stole unbidden to his lips.
A tendril of odor had his nose twitching with unconscious interest, then he groaned as his stomach churned ominously at the stimulus. He had already ejected the sandwich he'd eaten for lunch, but just the smell of the soup had him retching painfully. Something cold slipped under his chin, causing him to flinch, and he moaned as pain spiked through his skull at the sudden movement.
"Don't fight it. Just go with it."
He obeyed the soft instructions and relaxed his cramping stomach muscles, emptying what little remained in his stomach into the bowl. Warm dampness replaced the chill of the emesis bowl, and his face was bathed gently, then firm fingers moved to his still spasming abdomen, massaging gently, stroking soothing circles of comfort until he lay limp and exhausted.
A facecloth swiped across his sweaty chest and back, leaving delicious coolness in its wake, then the covers were drawn up over his shoulders, and he sank into the warmth of the bed. Gentle fingertips stroked across his brow, the calluses on the tips scraping across his skin like sandpaper, causing him to twist away from the healing touch.
"Shh," the voice whispered again. "Just go with it. Let me help you."
Slowly, the touch became velvet, the rhythmic stroke hypnotic, edging him toward sleep. A breath, deep and cleansing puffed from his lips as he flirted with oblivion. He felt as though he was floating gently, wrapped in cotton wool, all his senses in stasis, feeling nothing, yet everything. He drifted away.
John looked up from his perusal of the newspaper when Jim entered the room. "How's he doing?" he asked.
Jim shrugged. "Not good. If it's a virus, it's a hell of one. I'm thinking maybe he needs to see a doctor."
"There's a doctor in town, but they don't do house calls this far out. Think he could tolerate a car trip?"
Jim sank down into the armchair opposite John, gratefully accepting the glass of cold lemonade the man held out. "Thanks. Right now, it's probably the last thing he needs, bouncing around on these roads. Let's wait and see how he's doing in a couple of hours."
"You care a lot about him," John said. "I'm glad. With the childhood he had, he didn't get to make a lot of friends. He's a good kid."
"There have been times lately when I could have been a better friend," Jim said.
"The stuff with his dissertation?"
"That's part of it."
"Why'd you let him lie?" John asked, leaning forward and pinning Jim with a steady look. "If it's all true, why let him throw away his career like that?"
Jim returned John's look with a forthright one of his own. "At the time I didn't even know he'd planned it. I was involved with a case, didn't know about it till I saw him on TV."
"You could have made a statement of your own."
"Yeah, I could have, but ." Jim scrubbed his hands over his face, unsure how to word his explanation. "He was so certain that it was the only thing to do. I felt recanting it would have been a disrespect to him. It would make him look like he was lying twice over. He gave me back my life. I owe him everything for that."
"Is that why he's gonna be a cop, be your partner?"
Jim glared at John. "I know it might look like that to some people. I hope like hell it doesn't look like that to Blair. As far as I'm concerned, he's going to be a great cop. I wouldn't want anyone else backing me up."
John studied Jim a moment longer, then nodded and drained his glass. "That's all I needed to know. Blair's an honorable young man. If he thought it was the right thing to do, then it was."
Blair had no idea how long he'd lain in bed, drifting in a netherworld of neither sleep nor full wakefulness. His head pounded unmercifully, his stomach still cramped intermittently, and his joints ached with a bone-deep intensity.
He could hear voices from the living room, disjointed sentences, comprehension made impossible by a strange, loud buzzing in his ears.
He told himself it was the discomfort of the bed, the sheets damp and smelling of sweat, not the sudden unreasoning need to be with Jim that had him tottering toward the bedroom door. He winced as a shaft of sunlight from the window hit him straight in the face, sending a sharp blast of agony through his skull.
Jim was sitting with his back to him, talking to an earnest-looking John. He knew it was only a few short paces to Jim's side, but it seemed like miles stretched between them across the expanse of wooden floor.
He shook his head, trying to eliminate the frustrating buzzing in his ears, opened his mouth to speak to find nothing emerged, not even a croak. He felt woozy on his feet, could feel his legs trembling, Jim's voice fading away to almost nothing. He took a shambling step forward, and the floor rose up to meet him.
Spider bite. Jim was still cursing himself for having missed it. He'd been too relaxed, too contented at finally having all the crap with the dissertation behind them, too relieved at thinking things were back to good between them.
As they'd carried a half-conscious Blair to the SVU to race him into town, the sleeve of Blair's tee-shirt had ridden up, and Jim had spotted the angry, large bite. "Hobo spider," John had declared. He'd told Jim they were lucky, that Hobo spiders, while causing debilitating sickness, were not fatal. Jim wasn't sure whether to believe him. Blair looked as close to death as he'd ever seen him, as bad as he'd looked after ingesting the Golden, as bad he'd looked lying on the grass by the fountain.
Doctor Whitby had seemed to agree with Jim. After a brief examination, he'd decided to alert Portland Hospital, and Blair had been choppered there by Lifeflight.
Jim and John had raced there by road, John hanging on grimly to the dashboard as Jim had just barely kept to the speed limit, in order to get back to Blair's side. In some ways, the delay was a good thing. By the time they'd arrived at Portland Hospital, Blair had already been examined and treatment started.
The bite itself had been nasty enough. The Hobo spider was not generally aggressive but had been caught up in Blair's shirt and had been trying to escape. While the wound itself was painful and might require further treatment down the track, the more immediate concern was Blair's allergic reaction to the venom.
So now Jim sat, finally back at Blair's side, listening to the infernal ticking of the clock on the wall behind him and the hissing of the oxygen being fed to Blair via a mask, holding Blair's hand and willing him to get through this. "Don't you dare check out on me now, Chief," he said, only peripherally aware of John's presence on the other side of the bed, his own grip on Blair's hand equally as firm, as though both were afraid he might slip away, John's own face as anguished as Jim's. "I finally got the only partner I'd ever want, and John's finally got his son back. Don't quit on us now."
Twenty-four hours later, the fever broke, and the doctor pronounced the crisis over. "He'll be weak for a few days yet," he said, "I want to keep him here until the end of the week, make sure the venom's out of his system."
Jim grinned at the doctor. "Good luck," he said. "Once Sandburg's feeling better, you'll have to tie him to the bed."
"He'll do it if I tell him to," John added, his tone sure.
Jim nodded. "For you, I think he would." He shook hands with the doctor. "Okay if we go and sit with him?"
"Of course. He should be waking up soon."
Blair wasn't sure he wanted to wake up, remembering how awful he'd felt earlier, but his mind seemed determined to push him toward consciousness; and so, carefully, he opened gritty, heavy eyelids and took a slow, careful breath. Surprisingly, he could feel no pain. In fact, he felt as though he were wrapped in cotton wool. His head felt a little thick, but remarkably pain-free. He felt warm, but not uncomfortably so. Careful not to move his head, in case it awakened the agony from before, he shifted his gaze to the right and found John smiling back at him.
"About time you woke up, young fella," John said in a voice barely above a whisper.
"You got bit by a spider. Nasty little thing called a Hobo. Turns out you had an allergic reaction to him."
"Spider?" Blair frowned. "I don't remember ."
"According to the doctor, the bite's not usually painful at first; and by the time it was, you were feeling pretty sick."
Blair felt, for the first time, the bulky bandage encircling his upper arm. He lifted his other hand and gingerly pressed it against the bandage, gasping when white-hot pain seared down his arm into his fingers. "Ouch!" Okay, so he wasn't totally numb. "Where's Jim?"
John nodded his head, indicating the other side of the bed. "He's asleep. Can't blame him. I don't think he's closed his eyes since we got here."
"Portland General. You were pretty sick for a while."
Blair turned his head and studied Jim. His partner looked exhausted, even in sleep. He turned back to John. "Sorry for causing so much trouble."
"Not your fault," John said firmly, grasping Blair's hand. "Can't help being bit. Anyway, doc's says you'll be out of here by the end of the week."
Blair felt disappointment rise. "By then, we'll have to go straight back to Cascade." He felt bitter tears he couldn't seem to stop burn his eyes.
"No, we don't," Jim said.
"Jim! I thought you were asleep," Blair said, turning his attention on his partner.
"Just resting my eyes," Jim replied, sounding a little defensive. "How're you feeling?"
"Pretty good actually, except for the arm."
"The doctor said the inflammation is settling. With any luck, in a month or two, you'll barely be able to see it."
"That's good to know," Blair said. "Don't want to scare away any prospective dates." Blair smiled when Jim rolled his eyes. "What were you saying before about not having to go back yet?"
"Well, while you were still coming out of the Sandburg Zone," Jim reached up and gently tapped Blair's head, "I phoned Simon, let him know you were doing okay. Looks like you're gonna have to skip an intake at the Academy to let your arm heal-"
"No!" Blair struggled to sit up, but was gently pushed back onto his pillows by Jim. "Jim, I'll be fine!"
"When you're healed," Jim insisted.
Blair stared out the window, disappointment welling up once more. "I've let you down again."
"No!" Jim reached out and gently cupped Blair's cheek, turning him back to face him. "You've never let me down, you hear me?"
"No buts," Jim insisted. "You get back on your feet, do some deskwork at the PD for a couple of weeks, ride along with me on a temporary observer's pass, and then go do the firearms' course. I still have a week's sick leave. Simon suggested it might be best for you to recuperate here."
Jim nodded. "Really."
Blair felt his tension easing, and with it, his energy seemed to deplete itself. He yawned. "Sorry, I'm a little tired."
"Probably all the drugs the doctor's got you on," John said. "There's something else I want to tell you," he added, "but it can wait till you wake up."
"No, I'm fine," Blair said, though his eyes were losing the battle to stay open.
"I've decided to stay on at the farm," John said. "Now that I've got you and Jim here for another week, Jim seems to think we can get the place in pretty good shape by the time you leave."
"What about after that?" Blair asked.
"I asked around in town," John said. "A couple of my neighbors are willing to share their labor with me for a reasonable rate. Besides, got to have somewhere for you to come when you need to get away from the city for a while."
Blair smiled at John. He reached out and clasped the older man's hand. "I know you were disappointed in me, about my dissertation-"
"Hush." John pressed a finger to Blair's lips. He gave Jim a quick glance, and Jim smiled back. "I was disappointed for you. It was your life."
Again, tears stung Blair's eyes at the echo of Jim's words in the hospital a few weeks earlier. "Not long before you and Naomi left, I told you something. Hell, you were only six then; you probably didn't understand a word of what I was talking about, and I doubt you remember it anyway. I told you to listen to your heart. When you think things are as bad as they could ever get and you don't know where to turn, trust your heart." He smiled. "That's what you've done, and I'm proud of you for that."
Blair felt his face flush with embarrassment at John's words but the warmth that suffused him at the cherished memory of that long ago night was like a balm to his soul. "I remember," he said, aware of the quaver in his voice. "I've never forgotten it."
"So, do we have a deal, Chief?" Jim asked. "You stay till the end of the week and not give the doctors and nurses any grief? By the time you're ready to come back to the farm, John and I can have some of the big jobs done, give us all a chance to head back down to that stream and see if I can catch us another fish dinner."
Blair nodded, sucking up his disappointment at having to remain in the hospital while Jim got to go back to the farm and spend time with John. "Same deal as before?" he asked, feeling his mood lighten as a pretty nurse entered the room and checked his IV, giving him an interested smile. "Whoever catches the smallest fish has to clean and cook for everyone?"
"You got it, Chief."
"You're on." Blair grinned. He lowered his voice a little. "And when you're cleaning my fish, you'd better dial down your sense of smell, man, because you are not using that as an excuse to get out of our bet."
Jim reached out and gave him a noogie that Blair, being hooked up to monitors and tubing, couldn't dodge. "Bring it on, Sandburg," he laughed. "Bring it on."