Wednesday, Late Evening
Jim Ellison drove around the tree-lined block for a third time. He told himself he was looking for a good parking spot, but his innate honesty forced him to acknowledge that he might also be putting off arriving at his destination just a little longer. After all, after not having seen Blair in over nine months, what was another five minutes?
Blair Sandburg. Former roommate. Former co-worker. Former friend. It had taken Blair’s mother Naomi’s prodding for Jim to admit it out loud, but he could not reconcile the ending of so much in such a tepid fashion as his and Blair’s relationship had ended. Although at the time the split had seemed fraught with pain and unspoken levels of meaning, it had in reality been extremely fast and relatively painless. One day Blair had been working at Jim’s desk at Cascade Police Department’s Major Crimes section, cracking jokes and generally being annoying in a characteristically endearing way. Barely 48 hours later, he was packing up his Corvair and heading out of town, dissertation complete but with no job in sight. Jim had known that part for certain, despite Blair’s assertion that he had a position lined up in Albuquerque. Jim had not known why Blair decided to leave, but chalked it up to itchy feet, to the need to go walkabout. Blair had made no promises to return, nor even to keep in touch, and Jim didn’t push it. He didn’t have the heart to force Blair to make promises he wouldn’t or couldn’t keep. A month after the departure, there had been a postcard with a Seattle postmark, then nothing. Still, the proximity had reassured Jim, and, without quite realizing it, he had waited patiently ever since to hear more.
Rousing himself from his musings, Jim parked his truck in front of a modest three-level housing co-op, and turned off the engine. Located in the eastern part of the city of Vancouver, in British Columbia, Canada, the structure reminded Jim a little of a campus dormitory. Trees were planted a precise four feet - two metres? - apart. The bushes were full, but of uniform height and diameter. All in all, it was a pleasant setting, but not the one Jim had been expecting when Naomi had told him where to find his erstwhile friend.
Jim recalled that intriguing conversation with Blair’s mother, just four days earlier. He had just finished testifying in a kidnapping case, and was leaving the courthouse when he heard a voice call his name. Turning, he barely had time to steady himself before Naomi pulled him into an enthusiastic hug.
“Jim! It’s about time. Do the wheels of injustice always grind this slowly? I tried to have someone page you, but they had the nerve to insist that the judge would be unhappy with them if they interrupted the session. They have no sense of what’s important in the real world, do they?”
Jim heard Naomi take a breath, and rushed to fill the brief silence. “Naomi, it’s great to see you. How did you know where to find me?”
“That lovely captain of yours. He told me I should leave a message for you at the stationhouse, but I couldn’t take the risk that you might not get it. This is too important.”
“What’s wrong? Is Blair all right?” Jim grimaced, silently berating himself for not being more concerned with Blair’s lack of contact.
“He’s basically fine, but he needs you. You have to go to him.”
“I don’t understand what you mean. He’s an adult. He got what he needed from working with me, and then he moved on. What do you mean he’s ‘basically’ fine?” He was torn between feeling flattered at the possibility that someone as self-sufficient as Blair could need anything from him, and the lingering anger and hurt that Blair’s hasty leave-taking had engendered.
“Oh, Jim.” Naomi’s voice had lost all traces of its earlier vacuousness. She came as close to pleading as Jim had ever heard from her. “If I told you that Blair was living in Vancouver and working at Simon Fraser University, and that he needs you, would you go see him, talk to him? I just don’t think I can say anything more without betraying his confidence. Just hear me out, please. There was a reason why he left so abruptly, why he felt he had to leave. I think he was wrong to leave, and I’m hoping you can help him to see that he belongs here in Cascade, with people who love him. With you.”
Jim froze, acutely aware of the red flush of embarrassment covering his cheeks. He struggled to come up with a rebuttal to the absolute certainty in Naomi’s tone, and failed utterly. “Does he know? About how I feel, I mean.”
“He doesn’t want to know, I think. He doesn’t even want to think about how he feels, let alone how you feel. But you can change that. Go to him.”
“This is very sudden, don’t you think? It’s been nine months. If he really cared, he wouldn’t have left. Why should I-”
“Did you ever tell him how you felt, Jim?”
“I told him I loved him, sure.” Jim’s resolve broke quickly under Naomi’s direct gaze. “Well, it was both him and Simon, and I was trying to get them to leave me alone in the woods for a week at the time. But the real point is, your son knows where to find me, and he doesn’t care to, Naomi. I’ve faced that, and you have to as well.” Jim turned to walk away, but stiffened at Naomi’s parting words.
“Blair loves and wants you, Jim. More than that, he needs you. Can you really walk away from that?”
So here he was on a street in east Vancouver, two days later. Upon learning the reason for it, or at least Jim’s abridged version, Simon had agreed to Jim’s request for leave with very little grumbling, saying only that he hoped Ellison came back in a better mood that he’d been in recently. It had taken a little time to hand off his case load, and to dig up Blair’s address in Vancouver, but now here he was.
Why did ringing that doorbell seem like such a challenge? Oh hell.
The echo of the bell reverberated for a moment and then was overcome by the sounds of footsteps. Without opening the door, Blair called out, “Who is it?”
Clearing his throat, Jim answered.
“It’s me, Chief. It’s Jim.”
At first, there was silence. Turning up his hearing, Jim caught the familiar thump and roll of Blair’s heart shift into overdrive, and then even out. The sound of locks being undone was followed by the door opening, and Jim got his first glimpse of Blair in nine long months. He gasped.
“You noticed the hair cut, I see.” Although slightly unsteady, Blair’s voice held the hint of a laugh. Jim just continued to stare.
It would have been impossible not to notice. Where once there had been a slightly-longer-than-shoulder-length curly mass of dark hair, there was now a short riot of curls. Where once a broad forehead had dominated, there were now bangs, or rather curls that fell forward. Ear lobes that had previously been covered were now visible. Jim could only stare.
“Jim?” Blair’s voice brought Jim back from wherever he’d been.
“Um, it’s certainly different, Chief. I never would have bet you’d cut your hair voluntarily. Did some hot woman decide that she wouldn’t date a guy with longer hair than hers?”
It wasn’t what he wanted to say, but somehow Jim didn’t want to picture Blair’s reaction if he had gone with his first impulse to demand the name of the stylist responsible and go exact some revenge. Not that Blair looked bad. No, he was absolutely beautiful with short hair, just as much if not more so than nine months ago. And Jim was angered by that. Blair had not suffered over their separation. If anything, thought Jim, looking into the living room over Blair’s shoulder, he seemed to have prospered.
Blair’s furniture was minimal, but definitely a step up from his warehouse days, and even somewhat better than Jim’s own. There was no television in evidence, but a state-of-the-art stereo system dominated one wall, with four mid-size speakers arranged around the room for maximal effect. A small home office took up one corner of the room. It all seemed so normal, so why were Jim’s senses screaming at him that it was all wrong?
Jim brought his attention back to Blair, who had moved to close the door behind Jim and was now making motioning gestures toward a coat rack standing inside the small foyer.
“Just decided it was time for a change, man. Hey, why don’t you hang up your coat, and I’ll get us a snack. Chips and beer okay? Make yourself comfortable, man. Mi casa es su casa.” Blair crossed the room and ducked into the alcove kitchen.
“Sure Chief, whatever you have is great,” Jim replied while making his way to the couch.
Jim sat down gingerly, wondering why his senses were telling him that something was just plain not right here. Well, aside from the hair. He perused the room again, picking up on things that he had missed when Blair was standing beside him.
The most obvious thing was the neatness and order evident everywhere, even on the desk and computer table. The bookshelf was full, of course, but everything was placed upright. No books were in danger of falling to the floor from being stacked double on the narrow shelves. There were no loose papers anywhere, and the desk chair was pushed neatly up against the table. The computer keyboard was aligned precisely with the edge of the desk. In short, it didn’t look like any other desk where Blair worked that Jim had ever seen.
Turning his attention to the rest of the room, Jim noticed another anomaly. Although Blair’s folk and native statuary was displayed throughout on various surfaces, there was no art on the walls, and no photographs. And, gradually, Jim realized one other thing, and cursed himself as inattentive for not having noticed it earlier.
He was sitting practically in the dark. There was only one light on in the whole apartment, near the front door. The light it cast was minimal, although easily enough for Jim’s heightened senses to utilize. It did not reach into the kitchen where Blair had been busily engaged for the last few minutes putting their snack together. In nearly complete darkness.
Without any memory as to how he got there, Jim found himself standing in the kitchen doorway. Blair had just finished emptying a bag of potato chips into a bowl, and was putting the bag in the trash. Jim watched silently as his friend’s fingertips brushed over the surface of the cupboard door until making contact with the knob. The hand then groped for the garbage can lid, knocking it askew and carefully replacing it after discarding the chip bag. Blair’s face remained impassive, his eyes staring straight ahead as if looking at the dishes stacked neatly in the sink. But Jim now knew they saw nothing. Blair was blind.
“Why didn’t you tell me, Sandburg?” Jim’s voice was abrupt, and raw with confusion and pain, but Blair didn’t jump. He turned toward Jim and smiled sadly, leaning against the counter.
“So what gave it away?”
“There’re no lights on. I can see, but you shouldn’t be able to. Um, I mean-”
“I know what you meant, Jim. Don’t worry about it.” Blair’s voice was even and patient.
“Don’t worry? Right. Okay. What the hell happened, Sandburg? Why didn’t you tell me? Was it something I did, something that happened on the job?” Jim racked his brains trying to remember if Blair had ever experienced an injury in their work together that might have caused blindness. He was hit with guilt all over again to consider all the possibilities. Grimly, he pushed that feeling away to focus on Blair.
“It doesn’t matter why, but no, it wasn’t anything about the job. It was just one of those things, man.” Blair stepped forward as if expecting Jim to move out of the way. Instead, Jim reached out and cupped his cheek. Blair sucked in air, but stayed in place, allowing the touch.
“Why did you leave, Blair?” It was the safest version of the most important question Jim had driven four hours to ask, one of many that had tormented him since Blair’s departure. me?>
“I just thought it was the right thing to do, Jim. I mean, your senses were under control, and your solve rate was great whether or not I was assisting on the case, not that I would have been able to keep assisting you anyway. I found out what was going to happen with my vision just after I finished the dissertation. And I decided that to make it easier on everyone, it would be better to make a clean break of things, rather than sit around and wait for the inevitable.” Blair turned back to collect the chips and beer from the counter.
Jim, not knowing whether he should offer to help, moved out of the doorway and watched as Blair easily crossed over to the sofa and sat down. Gesturing for Jim to take the chair, he set the bowl and one of the beer bottles on the table, and leaned back, carefully not tilting his own bottle upward until he had sealed his mouth around the rim.
Jim shook himself out of the mini-zone into which he had fallen while watching Blair, and concentrated on the last thing the other man had said. Something about the inevitable...
“I don’t understand any of this, Chief. Simon had already gotten approval for you to stay on part-time as a consultant to the department, at least until you lined up something full-time. And don’t bother to give me that bullshit about a post doc in Albuquerque. I didn’t buy it then, and I sure as hell don’t buy it now. So you didn’t have a job, you were facing blindness, and you left the city where all your friends lived to move to another damn country. For God’s sake, Blair!” Jim knew he should calm down, that yelling at Blair was not the right way to reconnect after so much time apart. But all he could focus on was the thought that Blair had not wanted to stay with him, even though he had been facing what had to be one of the worst ordeals anyone could.
“So exactly how long do you think Simon would have continued to keep on a blind police consultant, Jim? And even if Simon was somehow crazy enough to allow it, how long until you think the Chief of Police, the Commissioner, and their team of slavering lawyers would have forbidden me to be within fifty feet of the PD?”
Jim breathed deeply, and sat back in the chair. Forcing himself to stay silent for the moment, he took a swig of the beer and grabbed a handful of chips to distract himself.
Blair exhaled noisily and muttered, “Besides, you don’t need me anymore. Your senses are working great. And if they hadn’t been, I would have trained Connor or Brown or someone to work with you. I wouldn’t have left you with no support, man, you know that.”
“You’re my support, Blair. Whether you actually go to the crime scene with me, or just help me go over stuff afterwards, you’re the one who makes stuff work. I need you. In every way, not just at work,” he forced himself to say.
Blair reared back, then shook his head emphatically. “You needed the person I was then, not who I am now.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean, the person you are now? You lose your personality along with your eyesight?” Inside, Jim raged at himself for the hurtfulness of that comment, but he knew that his first impulse, polite deference, would never jolt Blair out of his self-imposed exile. Grimly, he pushed onward. “If you mean that you think I would only want you in my life if there was nothing wrong with you, I’m gonna get really pissed off. You think that little of me, Chief?”
“No! Jim, you know that I know you better than that. But, come on, man! Think about this for a minute.”
Blair stood as he spoke, maneuvering his way between the couch and coffee table to pace the floor between his front door and the kitchen. As he spoke, his hands made shapes in the air before him. Watching him, for just a moment Jim felt a keen desire that he could close his eyes and wish himself and Blair back to the loft, back to nine months ago. Shaking off the futile train of thought, he refocused on the pacing man before him.
“Jim, when I found out I was losing my eyesight, I had to stand back and take stock of a lot of things. There I was, living in your apartment, and making most of my income consulting to the department, but only because you and Simon recommended me. The last two vacations I took were because you thought I needed to get away, and you helped me out with the money to make it happen. I...I had become dependent on you, not just on your friendship, but on what you gave me. I was taking advantage of it, without even realizing it, sure, but it wasn’t fair to you.
“And then, I got the diagnosis about my eyes. Gradual loss of vision over the next three to six months, finally resulting in complete and irreversible blindness. And I knew what would happen if I told you. You would get very quiet, and you would try to take care of it, try to fix it. And I couldn’t let that happen. I couldn’t let you waste your time and money on me anymore. So I moved to Seattle to stay with Naomi for a while, and I put out the word that I had a friend who was looking for an affirmative action-sponsored university position, preferably in anthropology. And the SFU thing came through after about two months.”
As he spoke, Blair’s pacing escalated, until at the end of each length he was spinning into the next. On one turn, he spun particularly hard, and started to pace in the wrong direction, heading directly for the living room wall.
Just before Blair would have hit the wall, Jim caught him and spun him around. “Whoa there, Chief. Take it easy. You got turned the wrong way around there.”
“Do you see, Jim? Do you see what I mean? I can’t even keep myself from walking into walls.” Blair pounded his fist against Jim’s chest. “How can I expect to be anything to you but a burden? You don’t need me anymore, if you ever did. And that’s a damn good thing, because I can’t be there for you in the way I used to be.”
Naomi’s words dancing through Jim’s mind, and proximity and need both working their spell on his better judgment, before he quite knew it, he said, “I will always need you Blair,” and pressed his mouth to Blair’s. “Always.” He reached around to cup the newly exposed back of Blair’s neck in one hand, and used the other to draw Blair’s chin up to a better angle.
Blair stiffened, but didn’t move away. For just a moment, it seemed as if he would embrace Jim and return the kiss. But instead, Jim felt Blair’s hands pushing on his chest. Reluctantly, he broke the kiss. Blair pulled away, and nearly walked into the wall again. Jim opened his mouth to stop him, but the other man put out a hand, and feeling along the surface, walked over to the front door. Opening the door, he turned.
“Just get out. As far as I’m concerned, this visit never happened. Go back to Cascade, and get on with the business of living your life, and let me do the same, alright?”
Stunned, moving in slow motion, Jim took his coat from the rack, stepped through the open door and stood in front of Blair. “I’ll go. But tell me one thing, Chief.”
Wincing at the nickname, Blair nonetheless nodded.
“Are you happy here?” Jim trained all his senses on Blair, waiting for the answer to this most important question.
Seemingly taken aback at the question and confused by Jim’s reason for asking it, Blair frowned and was silent for several moments. Finally, he said, “I have a job. I have a place to live. I’m making some friends. It’s okay.”
Jim nodded, and then realized that Blair couldn’t see it. “Are you seeing anyone then?”
“That’s none of your business. Goodbye Jim.” Blair shut the door firmly.
Jim remained on the step for several minutes, listening to the movements from within. But Blair never spoke, and finally Jim went back to the truck.