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The first time Carolyn entered the loft she looked around and said wryly, ‘”Well it’s certainly airy, but you must spend a fortune on heat.”

“It’s not so bad,” Jim countered. “They put double glazing and plenty of insulation in when they refitted.”

She grinned and said, “They’d have had to.” Jim didn’t mention that in some cold snaps it was a little hard to keep the space warm – but Jim always ran a high metabolism and he owned plenty of sweaters. “Still,” Carolyn said, “I guess that we have options to keep me warm any time I visit.” She was beautiful as she threw out her sparks of humour and desire, and Jim was happy to kindle his own feelings with hers.

~*~

Blair never made any comment about the cost of heat barring a straightforward discussion about his share of utilities. He and Jim were both well aware that whatever the loft’s occasional deficiencies in the depths of winter, it never got so cold that Blair had to wear fingerless gloves inside, unlike his warehouse arrangement, and his little room at 852 could be perfectly well warmed up with a space heater if Blair was that chilly.

“And let’s face it,” Blair said with a laugh. “This is a way better neighbourhood than the old place. I might even be able to afford contents insurance.”

“Maybe now that Larry’s out of our hair,” Jim growled, to no apparent effect except a wide grin from Blair. “Anything’s possible.”

~*~

Getting Carolyn’s couch up the stairs was a strain on everyone’s tempers (as well as their backs), everyone being Jim, Carolyn, and Phil, Carolyn’s cousin that she’d roped into helping with the move.

“Christ, Jimmy, you couldn’t have picked an apartment that didn’t need Sherpas and an engineering degree to get anything into it?” The couch was just that little too big for the elevator, a discovery that had taken lengthy, dispiriting time to work out.

“The stairs are fine – they’re just not made for the King Kong of couches here.” It didn’t help that Jim thought said couch was ugly as well as awkward and yes, almost too damn big for the stairs at 852 Prospect.

Phil just breathed deeply and said, “What if we tried pivoting it this way?”

“No!” was the irritated, unanimous reply. On one thing that day, Carolyn and Jim were in agreement on. They got it upstairs eventually, and then four months later Carolyn finally admitted that it didn’t work with the rest of the furnishings, and she and Jim had to get it down the stairs again after they sold it, because the buyers very wisely made it a condition of the sale. Jim couldn’t quite hide his state of ‘I told you so’, and Carolyn couldn’t quite hide that she was pissed off by that and also by the nail that was bent back and bruised in a mishap with a door jamb on the way down.

~*~

Blair managed to somehow drop a corner of the flat-pack that contained a book case onto his foot. They didn’t have the sort of relationship that obligated Jim to cradle the sore foot in his hands and apply an icepack the way he had with Carolyn and her finger, but Jim did help with putting the book case together. “Look at it this way,” he told Blair, “the sooner this is done, the sooner your stuff is put away.” Not, admittedly, that Blair’s stuff ever seemed to get that put away.

~*~

“You’re looking at the real estate pages again,” Jim said, trying to sound casual about it.

Equally casually, his wife replied, “Nothing wrong with keeping an eye on the real estate trends. We might want to think about selling this place one day.”

Jim shrugged. “I like the loft, Carolyn.”

“I know you do.” There was amusement there, but Jim didn’t miss the irritation under it. “But like I said, there’s no harm in keeping an eye out. Springwood’s a nice area.”

“Handy to your mom and dad,” Jim said.

“Nothing wrong with that,” Carolyn retorted. “I do actually get along with my parents.”

Jim had retreated to the balcony windows by now. Carolyn sighed, and came up alongside him. Her arm reached around his waist and she squeezed in unspoken apology. “Peaceful harbour views aren’t everything, Jimmy. One day we might want a yard for children to play in.”

Something sank in Jim’s gut at the idea of children, specifically children with Carolyn; reflexive guilt lifted his arm to hold Carolyn’s shoulders and in lieu of an agreement that he couldn’t honestly make, he kissed the top of her head. She was his wife – she had a right to suggest these things, every right, and Jim had no business feeling this way when she brought the subject of children up. They weren’t that young. Maybe children had never been put directly on the table, but they’d never been taken off it either and if Jim hadn’t been open to the possibility he should have said so before they ever married.

There were a lot of ‘should haves’ in his mind lately.

~*~

“You were good with that little girl,” Blair said when they were home, and Naomi kissed and hugged on her way with Spring - who was most certainly not hugged and kissed on his way.

“I guess.”

“Do you ever think of being a dad?”

Jim stared into his coffee. “Maybe.”

“Did Carolyn not want kids?” Jim’s head shot up. “Hey, hey, just asking? In a non-judgemental, non-dissertational kind of way.” Blair put his hands up in a ‘don’t shoot’ gesture.

“She wanted them. And me realising that maybe I did in principle, but not with her, was where it seriously started falling apart.”

“Ah. Okay.”

“Yeah, ah. That about sums it up, Chief.” Jim stood. “Here, I’ll take that cup to the sink for you.”

He scooped up the cup, assuming that Blair had all his questions answered.

“So why did you marry her then?” Apparently not, and it should have been no surprise given this was Blair.

Jim shrugged, embarrassed. “I was getting my head sorted out after Peru, and she was beautiful and bright, and… suitable.”

“And there.”

“And there,” Jim agreed. “Which is a damn stupid reason to marry someone.”

“Noted for future reference,” Blair said with brazen solemnity. His face turned sly. “Although if anyone’s ‘there’ right now, you’re it, Jim.”

A weird heat flushed through Jim’s gut. He ignored it to rinse the cups. “Hey,” he said. “Past mistakes aside, I’m still a fucking catch, and don’t you forget it.”

“I’ll keep it in mind," Blair muttered and dived back into his notes and papers.

~*~

Carolyn’s parents had renovated their kitchen, and they’d invited friends and family around to, as Carolyn’s father put it, launch the good ship New Granite Counter Top. It was beautifully crafted, as was the joinery, but Dave and Nancy’s house was built to compact lines. The small space was overpowered and darkened by the heavy fittings, just like the living room was overpowered by draped red curtains more suited to a mansion, fussy wallpaper and 19th century horse and jockey prints on the wall. Jim had never been claustrophobic, but the senior Plummers’ furnishings could reliably leaving him feeling on the verge of it. Or maybe it was just the conversation, and Jim actually liked talking fishing in other circumstances.
.
His hints about leaving grew increasingly unsubtle and they made their escape and drove back to Prospect. The airy, plain spaces of his apartment never looked so attractive as they did after time spent in overstuffed suburbia. Carolyn’s eyes drifted towards the kitchen when they walked in. It wasn’t even that old, and neat and serviceable, but it didn’t have the massed sheen of the new kitchen they’d left behind.

“Don’t even think about it,” Jim growled. It was meant to come out joking, but he heard the edge in it, and so did his wife.

“All I was thinking was maybe changing the countertop. That green is getting dated,” she said with studied neutrality.

“There’s nothing wrong with the counter top. It works just fine for actually working in here, which is something I’d know since I do more actual cooking than you do.”

“I live here too, or hadn’t you noticed? For god’s sake, Jimmy, I’m just expressing an opinion, something that I think I’m perfectly entitled to do. To be honest, I’m starting to think you should have just married your damn kitchen. You certainly seem to be happier spending time with it than my family, or me, and I’m your wife.”

And it descended into further acrimony from there, and Carolyn slept in the little downstairs room that night – and an increasing number of nights after too.

~*~

“Oh it’s like an eyrie,” Naomi trilled when she investigated the upstairs space – uninvited of course, but that was Naomi. She leaned over the railings as if she might swoop from them like a bird herself, and Jim had half a vision of having to grab her. But she drew back, and smiled naughtily. “The feng shui in this space is much better than your downstairs, Jim. I’m going to bring up some snacks, and I have a surprise for you too.”

“Is that so, Naomi?” he said drily. Flirting with her was fun, he’d be lying if he said otherwise, but if Naomi’s surprise was anything more exciting than weird garnishes on weird snacks she was getting turned down. Teasing Blair was one thing – seriously screwing around with his mother was another. The ‘surprise’ turned out to be a genuinely pleasant one - a small photograph album of Blair as a child and very young man.

Jim settled comfortably on his bed, careful of both album and snacks. Tongue, he decided was not actually so bad; he’d eaten worse, admittedly not when he had a choice about it. Naomi was easy on the eye, and the uncertainty, indignation and eventual relief on Blair’s face when he found them in their completely un-compromising position was everything Jim could have wished for. Blair was getting too sure that he knew what made Jim tick.

Throw in a joke about eating oesophagus to make both Blair and Naomi laugh, get Blair sitting on one corner of the bed too, and it was a great evening. Later, they took everything downstairs, and Jim washed dishes and glasses, Blair alongside him with a dish towel. Blair was a little flushed with wine and laughter as he flapped the dish towel in mock threat at his mother’s suggestion that she should help clean up too. Jim might call himself a sentimental idiot, but he had a feeling that he’d like to get to know what Blair looked like when he was older, just the way Jim now knew what he’d looked like when he was a kid.

~*~

Work was pretty crazy when Carolyn finally decided she was moving out, which meant that it had to be mainly evenings and one weekend night to organise it. Jim pretty much sat up in the bedroom – the majority of which had been his furniture – and pretended to read, while trying to ignore the crackle and rustle of newsprint and tissue paper, the clink of glassware and china, lifting his head long enough to answer Carolyn’s occasional questions about towels and other linens. They hadn’t, he realised, really lived together long enough to have ‘their’ stuff to argue over. The demarcation of what was his and what was hers was tellingly clear.

“Do you want a hand getting any of that downstairs?” he asked over the railings. He was going to be civilised about this. Whatever civilised got you.

“You don’t mind?” She looked up at him from below, a little sad but self-possessed as Carolyn almost always was.

“No,” he said wearily. “I don’t mind.”

Civilised it seemed, got you an apartment that echoed.

~*~

Whatever weird primitive reversion possessed him when Alex came along also got Jim an apartment that echoed. When he got back from Sierra Verde, Blair blessedly beside him despite everything, the first thing they had to do was bring out the stacked and upended chair and couch from Blair’s small room. Many of the smaller items had been put away upstairs, stacked on the floor, some of them even placed on the bed; after all, what had that crazy man Jim barely recognised as himself wanted with sleep?

“You okay there?” he asked Blair, who was manoeuvring one of the chairs past the doors, now that they’d got the couch into the living area. One more chair to go and Blair could lay the futon out, have a place to sleep.

“Yeah, sure, I’m good,” Blair said shortly. Was he short of breath or short of patience? It was hard to say. Blair could unpack his things too, would maybe let Jim help him with that. Jim wanted to help with that, if he could, if Blair was willing to do that, and didn’t simply move out again later this week in a more orderly, more chosen sort of way.

There were going to be scratch marks on the floor boards, but no more than Jim had put there himself when he shoved everything away in the first place.

“So I guess the rugs and the coffee table are upstairs?” Blair said.

“I can do that later. I was thinking that it’s better to get your room set up so you can sleep. You must be pretty tired.”

Blair looked askance at Jim’s caretaking. “I think we’re both pretty tired.”

“True, but I’m not the one who nearly died earlier this week.” It came out sharper than Jim had intended.

“You’ve got me there.” Blair shrugged. He looked exhausted. There were shadows under his eyes as he gestured at the disorderly room and the boxes waiting just outside its door. “How set up are we talking here?” he asked.

“As set up as you want to be,” Jim said tightly.

“For how long, Jim? How long?” Blair was trying to be cool as he asked the question, but Jim could almost smell the anxiety coming off him.

“As long as you want. If I was ever stupid enough to try a stunt like that again, you kick my ass and you stay put. You get me?”

Blair looked taken aback – whether he was surprised by the words themselves or Jim’s fierceness in speaking them, Jim didn’t know. Then he nodded, and a weight lifted in Jim’s chest.

“Okay,” was all Blair said.

Okay wasn’t the best but if okay kept Blair put, then Jim would take it.