Blair was almost to the door when he heard the voices inside. He knew Simon was still there when he saw the Captain's car out front, but Mike and Jeff were gone already. It was only ten minutes after midnight, and Jim's poker game must have ended sooner than usual.
"Look, Jim, I'm just saying think about it." Blair could hear Simon's voice just inside the door as he reached for the knob. "It'd be nice to know my best Detective had a real partner."
"I mean a partner who could back you up and be there when you need him."
Blair froze, then pulled his hand away from the knob and stood in the hallway listening. He could hear Jim trying to interject something, and he most likely knew Blair was standing outside. Blair had planned to spend the entire night at Christine's, but after several months of not speaking to him, she still wasn't completely over his unfortunate choice of words the last time they were together. But now, standing in the hallway listening to Simon, he wasn't sure if he was glad to have come home just then, or not. Was the Captain finally telling Jim that Blair had to go?
"Simon, I have a partner."
"I don't know, Jim. I mean, Sandburg's not a bad kid, but you seem to have a handle on this sensory thing of yours. What do you still need him for?"
Blair's blood ran cold as he stood there, listening. He'd been asking himself the same thing ever since they came back from Peru. Would he finally hear the answer to a question he was afraid to ask? Suddenly the knob turned and Blair jumped, realizing Simon must have been ready to open the door even as he asked Jim the question. He recovered instantly and Simon looked up, seeing him in the hall.
"Hey, Captain." Blair smiled nonchalantly and tried his damndest to act as though he had just then stepped up to the door. He pushed past Simon and into the loft. "Game over already?"
"Just leaving, Sandburg," Simon replied. Blair took off his coat and tossed it onto the hanger next to the door, then turned and went into the kitchen, trying hard to look casual. "Just think about it, Jim. I'll see you later."
"Good night, Simon." Jim shut the door, then turned to Blair. "Hey, you're back early."
"Yeah, well, Christine's still a little sore about that whole business." Blair was standing in the kitchen, trying to ignore what he had heard in the hall. "But, she did agree to see me again next weekend."
"Well, that's a start," Jim replied. "You know, Sandburg, when I told you to be honest with her, I didn't mean tell her you thought she was leaking information to the press."
Blair rolled his eyes. "I did that before you told me to be honest. So I guess I can't blame that one on you." He shook his head and Jim chuckled. Hey, Jim, what was Simon talking about? "Need any help cleaning up?"
"Thanks, I've got it." Jim had been clearing the table and was now throwing away paper plates and empty bags of chips. "You want a beer or anything?"
"No, I'm gonna turn in." Blair pushed his hair away from his face and moved out of the kitchen. Jim was still watching him.
"Listen, Chief, I know you heard what Simon was saying back there..."
"Simon? No man, I didn't hear anything. I just got here when he opened the door." Blair had to move around a bit, digging the keys out of his pocket and returning them to the table beside the door. In order to lie to Jim with any hope of getting away with it, he couldn't face him.
"Cause we can talk about it." Jim finished, unmoved by his partner's denial.
Blair passed the kitchen on his way to the bathroom and shrugged. "Nothing to talk about. I'll see ya in the morning." He continued to the bathroom and shut the door. Of course Jim had known he was standing outside the door listening. But what did he want him to say? Is it over? Time to get a real partner, Jim? So tell me, Jim, is it true you don't need me anymore? Blair stood in front of the mirror for several minutes, staring past his own reflection. Ever since Peru, Jim seemed more in control of his senses. There were times when Blair felt he was needed, but he didn't always know if that was true, or if Jim was just including him anyway. And whatever had happened back in the jungle when they were there together, Blair still didn't know everything. What had Jim seen, or learned, that he didn't want to share with his Guide? Or did Jim even still consider Blair his Guide? He was more and more willing to call him Partner in public, but that was typically followed by an explanation as to just who Blair really was. But who was he? Lately that question was nagging at the back of his mind.
"Hey, Sandburg, this place only has one bathroom."
Blair shook himself out of his reverie, "Oh, yeah. Sorry." He quickly finished up, then came out of the bathroom and crossed the hall into his room, shutting the door before Jim came back from the living room. He knew Jim knew he was lying about not having heard Simon. Blair had trouble getting away with his usual embellishments when he was talking to the older man. He was never sure if it was Jim the Sentinel, or Jim the Detective, but somehow he was able to see right through most of what Blair said. He wasn't ready to ask Jim a question he couldn't even figure out himself, so he climbed out of his clothes and got into bed, hoping somehow his mind would quiet down long enough to fall asleep.
Two hours of tossing, turning, and fretting later, Blair gave up and got out of bed. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw the jungle, and a panther that he had never seen even when they were there. Jim was there, but he kept running off into the trees with the panther, leaving Blair behind to wait. When Blair could shake the image of the panther, it was replaced with Simon, introducing a new partner for Jim. He realized this was getting him nowhere when he saw the clock finally reach 2:15 a.m.. Blair quietly walked into the kitchen, debating whether or not he could make tea without waking Jim. He decided if he stood there, watching the pot, and kept it from actually boiling, he might be able to. As quietly as he could, Blair turned on the gas and set the pot on top, occasionally glancing up towards Jim's bedroom. He knew his Sentinel friend was a light sleeper, and would come fully awake at the slightest sound. But he also knew that if Jim found out he was up, and making tea, he'd come downstairs to see what was wrong. His partner was big on being honest when something was bothering you. Blair wasn't ready for it, not yet. He didn't even know what was bothering him. But Simon's concerns about Jim having a real partner were ringing in Blair's mind. So much so, that he missed catching the pot when it began to boil.
"Damn!" Blair whispered as he quickly picked up the pot, switching off the gas. He paused, listening, but couldn't hear anything coming from upstairs. Maybe Jim would just realize Blair was up and he'd roll over and go back to sleep. He waited a few more seconds, then poured water into the pot and added leaves. Several minutes passed, with no sign of Jim coming down, so Blair picked up the pot and a cup and walked to the table. He could have taken the tea into his room, but he sat at the table instead, looking out at the night sky and the city lights he could see from the window. After filling a cup with the hot amber liquid, Blair picked it up in both hands and just held it, letting the steam carry the tea's fragrance up to his nose, willing it to calm his thoughts so he could at least get some sleep, if not some peace. It was foolish to think Jim was just going to kick him out and call their partnership over. Jim Ellison was not that casual about friendship. Jim Ellison was not that casual about anything. If Blair had learned anything about his Sentinel friend, it was his commitment and loyalty. But Jim was also a Detective, and had a professional life that Blair really had no business being a part of, outside of his helping Jim with his senses. Was Simon getting ready to insist Jim stop bringing Blair along? Was there a time limit to his observer status in the eyes of the Department? Or was Jim ready to go back to working without a partner, as he had always preferred?
"Sandburg, what are you doing up?"
Blair looked up, startled, as Jim came down the stairs. "Oh, sorry Jim. Did I wake you? I couldn't sleep."
"I see that." Jim stopped at the table and looked at the teapot sitting there. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Blair lied, using his habitual hair-out-of-the-face maneuver to hide his discomposure. "Just couldn't sleep."
Jim rubbed his face and pulled a chair out, sitting down to face Blair. "Listen, Chief, I know you heard Simon while you were out in the hall."
Blair shook his head, trying to prevent him from bringing it up. "No, man, I told you..."
Jim held up a hand to silence him and continued. "Don't even pretend, okay? He does this every now and again. And each time he does, I tell him the same thing I did tonight."
Blair raised his eyebrows and looked around, not really wanting to have this conversation. "Yeah?"
"Yeah." Jim was watching him and waited until Blair looked him in the eyes again. "I told him I already have a partner."
Blair nodded. "That's great, Jim. Only I'm not a cop. That's what Simon was talking about, wasn't it? You having a partner you can rely on."
Jim sighed and shook his head, rubbing his face again. "Listen, Chief, you're my partner, all right? The only other partner I could stand was Jack. Before Jack I worked alone, and after Jack I worked alone. Simon just doesn't understand how much you help me, and he gets this bug about me teaming up with another Detective about once every three months. I tell him no, and it's over again for another three months." He paused and Blair looked up from his tea again. "Now, it's late, and I'd like to get some sleep. Are we okay here?"
Blair nodded. "Yeah, fine. I'm sorry I woke you, man."
"Don't worry about it." Jim stood and put the chair back, standing there for a moment. "Good night," he said, finally.
"Yeah, good night, Jim." Blair tried to interject lightheartedness into his voice to encourage Jim to go back upstairs. To add to the illusion, he stood and returned the teapot and cup to the kitchen, then walked back to his room as Jim was walking up to his own. He had no better luck falling asleep after the tea, and his visions of being left alone in the jungle were interspersed now with three trips to the bathroom.
Blair was convinced he had just fallen asleep when the alarm went off. He reluctantly rolled over and stared at the clock: 8:30. "Oh man!" The alarm was still set for yesterday's late-morning class. He tried to quickly throw off the blanket, but his legs were tangled from all the tossing and turning during the night, and he had to kick his feet free. By the time he stumbled out of the bed and reached for the door, he could hear Jim in the kitchen. "Oh, Jim, man, I'm sorry. I forgot to reset the alarm. Why didn't you wake me?"
Jim was standing in the kitchen, cracking eggs into a pan and humming to himself. "We're not going in today, Chief. Now go take a shower, breakfast in ten."
"Not going in? Why?" Blair couldn't help but stare at his partner as he was making breakfast.
"I've made other plans for us." He finished cracking the last egg and turned to Blair. "Hurry up, breakfast is timed."
Blair just shook his head sleepily and went into the bathroom. The last time Jim had made breakfast, and was in a mood like that...Blair reached for the door to lock it, then stopped himself. His partner was not going to freak out again. They'd solved that problem. Why on earth it had come up again, Blair didn't know. He turned on the shower and quickly got in, hoping there would be enough hot water. He always tried to hurry when he was the first one in, but it took him twice as long to wash and rinse his hair as it did Jim. And now, as he felt the water cooling off during his rinse, he couldn't help but wonder what Jim had planned for them that would keep him from going in to work. Blair's shower ended on a cold note, but he gritted his teeth instead of complaining. He never could understand why the average hot water tank couldn't provide at least two hot showers in the morning. What did Carolyn do when they were married, beat Jim to the shower every morning? Or maybe it was the cold showers that explained her attitude. No, that wasn't kind at all, considering. Blair shook his head and started to rub his hair dry. His inner confusion was beginning to turn into a foul mood.
"Breakfast is ready!" Jim called from the kitchen.
Blair hurried drying off, then crossed the hall to his room for clean clothes. He was at the table as Jim finished scooping eggs onto his plate. "So, Jim, what's the occasion?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, letting me sleep late, and breakfast." He reached for the pitcher of orange juice and poured some into both of their glasses. "And why aren't we going to the station today?"
Jim sat down, then pulled a photo from his shirt pocket. "First of all, neither of us slept much last night. Second, you've been stressed out about something all week that you won't talk about. Third, I thought it was time I took a couple of days off and took care of something I've been putting off for some time now."
Blair just looked at him, raising his eyebrows. He wasn't sure which subject to reply to first. The third one would require less from him, so he chose that one. "What have you been putting off?"
"This." Jim handed the photo over. "Carolyn's uncle had this place over on the coast. Sort of a vacation house."
Blair took the picture and looked at it. He saw a small house, nestled on a quiet street that paralleled a sandy beach stretching up and down the ocean. "Nice place." He handed the photo back to Jim. "Does he live there?"
Jim shook his head, "He used to, then moved farther inland and rented it out during tourist season." He retrieved the photo and looked at it again. "I always liked Ted. Carolyn's only relative that I could really stand for more than half a day."
Blair laughed. "What does he do for a living?"
"Did," Jim replied. "He died six months ago."
"Oh, sorry, man."
Jim shook his head. "He was eighty-seven. Carolyn's great-uncle, really. He didn't do much of anything." He set the picture down, then looked at Blair. "That property was an inheritance, then he built the house there himself. Lived like a hermit for years, dabbling in odd jobs now and again whenever he needed cash."
"Cool." Blair poured some coffee from the pot Jim had set on the table, then picked up his cup and held it. "So, what's this got to do with you not going in to work today?"
Jim smiled. "It's the reason." He scooped a forkful of eggs up and held them. "He left that house to Carolyn and me, and she doesn't want anything to do with it, so she left it to me to settle." He put the eggs in his mouth and shrugged, pointing at the photo. "The place hasn't been occupied in nearly a year, and it's pretty run down. I've been meaning to get out there and get it cleaned up, but I couldn't decide what to do with it."
"You're kidding? He left you this house, on the beach, and you've just let it sit there? Why didn't you mention this before?" Blair was once again surprised by what Jim could consider no big deal. "Someone dies, leaves you a house, and you just haven't gotten around to getting out there?"
Jim shrugged again. "My life's been a little hectic this past year, Chief. I just haven't had the time." He finished his eggs, then picked up the empty plate and glass and walked to the kitchen. "So, I decided it's time to get out there and see what's what." He put the dishes in the sink, then came out for Blair's. "Ted had to leave the place and rent it out just to pay the property taxes, which is something I might need to do, too." Blair handed Jim his plate, then picked up the rest of the dishes and carried them to the kitchen. "So, I called Simon and cashed in a couple of favors, and we're free till Monday."
"We're going out there?" Blair asked, turning on the water to fill the sink.
"The house needs work before anything can be done." Jim got a clean towel out of the drawer and leaned against the refrigerator, waiting for Blair to begin washing the plates. "So, we're heading to the hardware store, then out to the coast. A couple days of hard work, some fresh salt air, then I can figure out what to do with the place."
Blair nodded, handing him the first clean plate. "Hard work, huh?"
Jim was smiling, as he had been all morning. "Yep. Gotta check out the plumbing, the roof, make sure there's no dry rot or structural damage." He dried the plate and accepted the second one. "And the whole place needs painting."
Blair handed over a glass and stopped, looking at Jim. "Painting?" He couldn't help but remember the last time they had painted the loft, and what had become of most of the paint. Blair had been in a sulky mood that week too, and Jim had used the paint fight to try and bring him out of it. Oh man, was he...?
"Yep, painting." Jim took the last glass and slapped Blair on the back. "Come on, Chief, get some clothes together and let's get out there." He put the glass away and tossed the dish towel onto the counter. "I've got some food and tools already in the truck."
Blair let the drain out of the sink and stared at Jim. "Just what time did you get up, anyway?"
"Six. Now hurry up, time's wasting." Jim took the steps to his room two at a time, smiling the entire way.
Blair shook his head, and went to his own room to pack a few shirts, changes of underwear, and another pair of jeans. There were times when his partner could still surprise him, and this was one of those times. He knew his mood lately hadn't been too good, and he also knew Jim had to have noticed, as usual. Blair couldn't help but feel a little guilty as he carried his overnight bag out to the truck, following Jim. The older man was so evenly keeled, emotionally, and always seemed to find the logical way of looking at any situation. Blair, on the other hand, was more prone to react emotionally to anything and everything, and overreact more often than not. But there was Jim. Any time something was bothering him, Jim was there to fix it, or make Blair find a way to fix it. It wasn't fair, he knew, to rely on his partner to bring him out of these moods, but he was beginning to depend on it.
"That house is out in the middle of nowhere, so we'll hit the hardware store before we leave Cascade." Jim tossed his bag behind the driver's seat and climbed into the truck. "Ready, Chief?"
"Yeah." Blair replied, trying to force a lighter mood. Jim didn't deserve to have a weekend ruined by a sullen partner.
They drove to the nearest hardware store, where Jim loaded the truck up with nails, paint, painting supplies, and plenty of plastic. Within an hour, they were well on their way towards the coast. Jim was still humming happily to himself, listening to the radio and enjoying the scenery as they cut through the mountains that separated Cascade from the ocean. Halfway there, Blair realized how quiet he was being, and how hard Jim was trying to ignore it.
"Hey, Jim, do you ever wonder what your life would be like, right now, if you and Carolyn had stayed together?"
Jim laughed slightly and turned to look at Blair, eyebrows raised. "If Carolyn and I had stayed together?"
"Yeah." Blair nodded, hoping Jim would just take it as casual conversation.
"My life would be hell, right now, I can tell you that," Jim replied, smiling a little. "She and I were never meant to be together, I know that now."
"Yeah, but what if things had been different?"
Blair shrugged. "I don't know. What if you had never gone to Peru? Or if Jack hadn't died?" He saw Jim flinch slightly at the mention of his former partner and realized that wasn't the right subject to bring up. "Oh, man, I'm sorry. It's just that..."
"No, it's okay. Jack's dead and there's nothing that I or anyone else can do about that." Jim replied, glancing at Blair for a second before turning his attention back to the road. "Just what are you getting at, anyway?"
Blair shook his head. "I don't know. Just making conversation. You know, wondering about those little choices you make along the way that radically change your life."
"Just making conversation? That's a pretty heavy topic to just chat about." Jim glanced at him again. "Is that what's been bothering you all week?"
"What, me? No, man, not me. I was just wondering, that's all." Blair shook his head emphatically, maybe too emphatically. "No, my life's right on track, just like I planned." Shut up, you idiot. "I was just curious, if there were any decisions you've made in your past that you regret." He looked over at Jim again, trying to gauge his partner's reaction to the question.
Jim was quiet for a moment as they drove through a narrow, one-lane bridge. "We all have regrets, Chief. Things we've done that we can't change. Stuff you say, that you wish you could take back." He glanced at Blair again. "What about you?"
Blair shook his head, trying his best to sound convincing. "No, no regrets." God, it was obvious, wasn't it? Did Jim know he'd been having these thoughts all week? Every time Jim finished a case, Blair couldn't help but wonder if that was the last one he'd want a partner on. Jim had always worked alone, except for Jack, but now he had Blair tagging along as a permanent fixture in his day-to-day life. Was it coming to a point where Jim was getting tired of him? Was Simon finally talking Jim out of having this kid tag along everywhere? And what had happened in Peru that seemed to bring Jim into more full control of his Sentinel senses? This whole partnership was so confusing to Blair now. He'd never expected to be so fascinated by Detective James Ellison. So completely accepted and taken in by this man who was in such perfect control of himself and his surroundings. It was obvious to Blair that Jim no longer needed him around, and yet he hadn't even mentioned having Blair leave. Even when he wormed his way in to the older man's apartment, and conveniently never left, Jim accepted it and took it all in stride. Just what would it take to make Jim mad enough to kick him out? Was that what had been bothering him all week? Wondering just what Jim's limits were and where he fit into his friend's life?
Blair was so confused, he didn't even know what was nagging him. But, lately, he couldn't help wondering where he fit into his own life anymore. What was he doing? He was still teaching, still pursuing his doctorate, but his entire life had changed now, and he wasn't sure where it was leading anymore. Jim's work fascinated him, but only as far as Jim and his Sentinel partnership with Blair. He certainly wasn't ready to toss so many years of anthropology away and enroll in the Police Academy. But by the same token, he wasn't willing to give it all up, either. He wanted both. It was working now, juggling two worlds. But how long would that last? Was there a time coming when he would have to make a choice, or would that choice be made for him? Meeting Jim Ellison had changed Blair's life in so many ways. The friendship that had developed, the things he had learned about Jim the Sentinel, and Jim the friend, were all so new and different from anything he had ever understood before. And Jim was making him change along the way. Blair couldn't hide anything from him, no matter how hard he tried sometimes. A different world had presented itself when he met this man several months ago. A world that was at times frightening, and fascinating. When he turned down the offer to go to Borneo, Blair had taken that first step down a different road. He didn't regret it. Not really. He had made that choice on purpose, if somewhat hesitantly, and there was no going back. Unless he was pushed. He wasn't the same Blair Sandburg he'd been before, so how could he go back to what he was? The only way he was going to get any answers, would be to just come out and ask. But, he couldn't. If there was a problem with Jim, Blair could just ask, and nag Jim until he answered. But, when the problem was with him, Blair didn't want to open the door. He was afraid to let someone see inside. He was especially afraid to let Jim inside, for fear he wouldn't like what he saw.
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