Blair lay with the silent stillness of death on the grass, the crowd around him milling with confusion.
Jim startled awake, his heart pounding painfully hard in his chest. The loft was mostly dark and quiet with night, though the first faint streamers of dawn light were fading in through the windows, throwing a soft glow across the ceiling. For a moment he wondered what had awakened him from the awful nightmare, before relief washed away his curiosity and he became simply glad that something had.
A sharp knock on the front door started his heart pounding all over again and he sat up, glaring blearily at the bedside clock. 5:36. His eyes widened in sudden dismay. Damn it, he'd forgotten to set the alarm, and that would be Agent Walters at the door, ready to take him to her special, secret fishing hole, and a few other things he suspected she was interested in showing him. Not that he hadn't let her think he was interested in more than the salmon in return. A brief flash of guilt moved through him for having led her on, coupled with a hint of disgust at himself for taking a flirtation too far.
The third imperative summons from below got him moving. Grabbing his soft, gray robe off the hook on the shelves, he swung it around his shoulders, pushing his arms into the sleeves as he padded barefoot down the stairs and across the living room. Reaching the front door, he turned the deadbolt and opened it, blinking at the light streaming in from the hallway.
Cold blue eyes narrowed at him, a frown marring her features. "You're not ready," she said accusingly.
"Um, yeah," he admitted, tying the belt of his robe. He ran one hand over the spiky mess of his hair and shrugged. "Sorry. Forgot to set the alarm. Why don't you come in for a minute and I'll get dressed...." Something twinged at his consciousness, like a hovering darkness letting down an exploratory tendril. It made him shiver slightly, and he hunched his shoulders, as if a cold draft had ghosted along his spine. For no reason at all, he recalled a broken collection of images from the nightmare he had just escaped, and a queasiness joined the chill.
One hand on her hip, she looked moderately disgusted with him. "I told you to be ready at dawn."
Petulant with disappointment, her voice grated on his ears and he winced at the shrill undertone. Did I really think I was going to spend four days alone in a tent with her? "Guess I'm not." He shrugged again, much less apologetically, and deliberately scratched the side of his face, the bristly sound drawing attention to his unshaven, sloppy appearance. "I'm not really feeling up to it, after all." He tried to offer her a smile, hoping forlornly to lessen the awkwardness of his lapse, but the feeling in the pit of his stomach kept him from putting any genuine wattage into the effort.
He must have put a lot less into it than he'd consciously intended, he realized a second later as her expression went even more stonily unimpressed. For a moment Carolyn's features superimposed themselves over Elaine's, and he marveled at how the lines of disappointment and anger aimed at him were so perfectly similar in both women. The way their lips tightened and turned down at the corners was exactly the same.
"Look, if you really don't want to go, just say so." She reached out with one hand, fingering the lapel of his robe, then met his eyes with a hint of coyness. "But the fish and I will miss you if you don't come."
The darkness hovered a little closer while temptation mixed with uneasiness. Time paused around him, the universe invisibly spreading probability lines in every direction. When he opened his mouth, even he wasn't sure what he was going to say until he heard it come out. "Maybe next time, OK?"
Creation turned on an infinitesimal pivot, clicked over into a new track with a small sigh, and resumed moving forward.
Her eyes widened with disbelief, then narrowed again with complete contempt and she jerked her hand away from him. "You don't get second chances, Ellison." Blonde hair swinging around her neck, she turned and strode for the stairs without a backward look, not even taking a chance on having to wait awkwardly within his sight for the elevator doors to reopen. Her footsteps thudded rapidly down the stairwell, nearly obscuring her muttered curses.
Closing the door, Jim leaned his back against it for a moment. You are wrong there, lady. I think I just did. With a sigh, he moved toward the kitchen, pondering coffee and fate.
Blair's voice, still a little raspy with sleep, moved closer as he shuffled out of his room. "You need any help carrying stuff out?" He'd pulled a pair of sweatpants on over his boxers in deference to the company he expected to meet, but hadn't bothered to grab his robe on the way to cover the tank top he'd slept in.
Jim shook his head, measuring another spoonful into the coffee maker, then smiled over his shoulder at Blair. "Not right away, why don't you get dressed first? I'll get your gear packed while you shower."
Blinking at him, Blair processed the offer. "You want me to go along on your weekend with Elaine?" he asked uncertainly. "I know we're friends, man, but...."
His smile became a grin, crinkling the corners of his eyes with amusement. "Get a hold of yourself, Sandburg." Turning the coffee maker on, he opened the cabinet overhead and pulled out their favorite mugs. "She's not taking me after all, so you and I'll just go to that spot we found above Ross Lake last spring."
Blair opened the fridge, squinted into the lighted interior, and picked out the bottle of fruit juice. "You're supposed to catch them before you release them, Jim. Didn't they teach you that?" On his way through the kitchen, he picked a pair of mid-sized glasses off the counter and carried them along.
"Damn, I knew I was doing something wrong," Jim replied, the smile still in his voice. The lightness in his heart was telling him he had done exactly the right thing and he couldn't muster the least regret for the missed opportunity.
The legs of one of the chairs scraped across the hardwood floor as Blair dragged it back and sat down at the table. "What's up, Jim? I thought you wanted to go with her." He leered faintly, the full effect muted by ending in a hastily covered yawn. "I thought it was great you two had a common interest in... fishing."
Shrugging, Jim sat down too, reaching for the glass of juice Blair had poured for him. "I forgot to set the alarm and didn't get up on time, and when she showed up...." He paused uncomfortably, not able to describe the sense of impending doom that had followed him from the nightmare and influenced his decision. "It just didn't feel right," he finally said.
The sound of the coffeemaker gurgling and dripping was loud in the early morning quiet and the smell of brewing coffee spread slowly around them like a warm invitation. Jim sipped at the juice, separating the apple and pear bases out from the overlays of raspberry and strawberry. Overhead, the ceiling was catching more and more light as dawn progressed and the whole loft was starting to glow with a hazy luminescence he always loved. It made the high, open space around him seem both cozy and somehow simultaneously bigger than it was, as if he were at home in the outdoors. It made him feel free and happy, and he smiled again at Blair for no other reason than that Sandburg was also a part of his home, and that made him happy too.
"What?" Blair asked, unable to keep from grinning back at him even without knowing why. He set his tumbler down, the ringing click of glass on metal as it settled on the table giving a tiny punctuation to his question.
"Just thinking." He glanced over at the coffeemaker. It was almost done, so he reached out, scooped up both glasses, and carried them over to the sink. As he poured the coffee into the waiting mugs, he could feel Sandburg's gaze on his back, thoughtful and curious. "What?" he asked bemusedly as he returned to the table.
"Just thinking." Blair smiled up at him, accepting the full mug. His grin widened briefly at Jim's raised eyebrow, but his eyes were still serious and as Jim sat down again and looked at him patiently, he spoke quietly. "I'm glad you didn't go." When Jim only sipped at his coffee and waited, he added, "It didn't seem like something you would do." He met Jim's eyes intently. "You're not that much of a user, man."
Not sure what he thought of that observation, Jim closed his eyes, breathing in the fragrant steam off his coffee, and was ambushed by images from his dream flashing by in jagged bits of misery. The pieces of nightmare made him queasy with residual anguish, blossoming around the strangely certain knowledge that if he had gone on the trip with Elaine, his life would have followed the path of his dream. Bedding women he barely knew, and being betrayed by them every time. Irrational anger fueled by the isolation of ignoring Blair, and being ignored by him, until they barely knew each other any more and betrayal became as natural between them as it had been in all the rest of Jim's life. Never touching anyone, or being touched by them. Being alone again. Forever.
A warm hand descended on his forearm and he opened his eyes, grateful to find Blair leaning forward across the table, looking at him with concern. The slowly rising light in the loft was bringing faint auburn highlights to his long, disheveled hair and touching his skin with color. Staring at him as if hanging on to a lifeline, Jim forced the sight to banish the last remnant of his dream, deliberately overlaying life and reality on that awful vision of Blair on the ground with his skin so pale next to the darkness of his drenched hair.
Worry deepened the ocean blue of Blair's eyes in reaction to the expression he saw, and he tightened his grip on Jim's arm before saying, "I'm sorry, Jim, I know that sounds pretty judgmental."
"But you're right," Jim said hoarsely. He blinked hard, and took another swallow of coffee to clear his throat. The touch on his arm remained for another moment, reminding him he hadn't lost anything at all, before Blair leaned back and picked up his own coffee again. "I don't know what I was thinking," Jim confessed.
Blair leered again, more effectively this time. "I do."
Jim rolled his eyes, one side of his mouth lifting in a lopsided, involuntary smile.
Sobering, Blair cocked his head to the side, still regarding Jim with gentle solicitude. "But...?" he prompted.
For a moment, Jim struggled with the temptation to shrug and end the conversation. It was only a dream and he felt a bit silly about letting it hover over him so long. Leaving a prison, alone. Dealing with the agony of his senses spiking inexplicably, alone. Meeting his father, alone. Driving out to a quiet place to fish, alone. Standing in his empty home, alone.... In a rush, he asked, "Did you ever have one of those times when you did something by instinct, and you weren't really sure why, and even though it was a really small thing you could actually feel your life suddenly going a different direction because of it?"
Nodding, Blair broke into an affectionate smile. "Sure have, man." He stared down into his coffee for a moment. "You know that day you came to my office, and I pissed you off so bad? When you left before I told you about zoning, I knew you didn't want to hear anything more from me, and I figured it would be better if I let you cool off and tried again later." He looked up, meeting Jim's eyes, wonder and a little fear mixing in his expression. "I almost didn't follow you outside. I wasn't going to, I was standing at my office door thinking there was no way you were going to listen to me, and then..." he waved the coffee mug helplessly, "I ran after you. I didn't know why, I just did it." Settling the cup down, he took a deep breath, released it in a controlled sigh. "Sometimes it scares me, knowing how totally random that decision was."
A single shiver coursed down Jim's spine. So close. For both of us. He nodded numbly, knowing that fear himself, hoping desperately he would always be lucky enough to choose the right path.
Shaking away the brief melancholy, Blair chugged down the last of his coffee and asked expectantly, "So this was one of those?"
Jim finished his coffee and stood up, consigning the last dregs of his nightmare to the unformed hell it had come from. "I'm sure of it." Reaching for Blair's mug, he smiled at him, as purely open and happy as he had ever been in his life. "Come on, Chief, we've got some fishing to do."