The Fine Art of Survival

Blair climbed into his car and slammed the door, hearing with satisfaction the solid 'thump'. Ok, so the thing drove like a boat but in a wreck it stood a better than even chance of staying in one piece and that was one reason he liked it so much. Another reason - though he'd never admit it out loud - was the colour. He put it in gear and pulled out of the parking spot; behind him a bright red sports car slipped into the almost vacated spot.

Laughing, Blair thought about how frustrated the driver must be; Blair had sat in the driver's seat for nearly five minutes, checking the contents of his backpack. He'd found the small paperback he'd been afraid he'd left in the Anth lecture hall -- half a campus away from where his car was parked, and undoubtly stolen by now had it been left laying there. But the book was safe, and could be easily snuck back onto Jim's bookshelf this evening.

He turned the car towards the apartment, and tried to stay clear of rush hour traffic by taking side streets and the occasional short-cut through residential areas. He wasn't getting home any faster this way, but he really didn't care. Didn't need to get back early, anyhow, he suddenly realised. Jim wouldn't be home until late, so dinner would be a solitary affair unless he wanted to eat after 10.00. If he was going to eat alone... might as well eat out at one of those places Jim swore he'd never revist.

A quick left turn got him headed towards Govinda's. Anticipating having supper there was already starting to relax him; Blair hadn't noticed he was tense, nor tired, but now he was feeling alert and excited. He loved the restaurant, run by a local group of Hare Krishnas. Jim had been with him once, and had managed to be polite during the entire evening. Afterwards he'd spent a half an hour laughing and making good-natured jokes about eating in somebody else's temple. When Blair had asked him directly, Jim had admited to not liking any of the food and had found the atmosphere uncomfortable. "Felt like a tourist," were his words.

But Blair loved it. And so he went, alone, whenever he could afford to do so. Tonight would ensure he couldn't eat out -- at his own expense -- for another month. But that was all right, because a little sweet talking and an endearing smile at the right time and Jim would take them out to eat. He hated to use the phrase 'wrapped around my little finger' but Blair knew, in some respects his lover was just that. And if that meant getting meals at nice restaurants, midnight movies, and the occasional trip to Seattle to go dancing, then so be it. He grinned. Next Monday there were no classes; maybe it was time for another trip?

He thought it over as he pulled into the lot at Govinda's. Jim had a few vacation days left to use, before the end of the fiscal year. They'd been talking about a trip south, as a friend of Jim's had offered the use of his beach house, just outside Klamath. But maybe cutting that trip short a day would be okay, so they could go hit the nightlife again this weekend. Blair locked his backpack in the trunk of his car, not needing it inside and not quite trusting the local citizenry. He debated heading inside or visiting the gardens first, finally deciding to visit the birds after he'd eaten.

Inside he casually left his shoes by the door to the temple room, and headed for the buffet line. He found some of his favourites, and a few dishes he'd never seen before. Taking a bit of each, he then exchanged pleasantries with the young woman at the cash register and headed in to eat. It hit him, like a blast of humid air; the calm was a palatable presence in the temple room. He found a table and sat, cross-legged, on one of the cushions facing the altar. The music was not too loud, not too quiet, and the smiling faces of the other patrons and residents made Blair very glad he'd come.

He ate slowly, not thinking about a lot of things. He enjoyed the peace, and the food, and smiled a grateful thanks to the image of Brahma. When he was ready to leave, he found his shoes near the middle of the pile and wandered outside. The sun was almost down, but he could still see the peacocks and other birds in their aviary. He sat down on a bench where he could look either at them, or over at the fish pond. He knew he ought to head home, soon. Jim would be getting back in about an hour, and would wonder where he was.

But the gardens were so peaceful. He didn't want to leave just yet. He hadn't visited in nearly two months, and it would be a waste to leave without enjoying the gardens. The birds would be asleep soon, and the fish as well -- then would be soon enough to head for home.

Except, didn't he have errands to run? Maybe he should stop by the bookstore. Although that would mean going *back* to campus, since none of the stores in this area carried the sorts of books he was looking for. Maybe he should stop by the grocery store, and pick up more coffee. The bag was almost empty, and would only last a few more days. But Jim was likely to buy it himself, as he drank most of it. Blair shook his head. The farmer's market would be closed by now, so there was no point in wondering if there was any need to go. But if he went by Trader Joe's, he could get....

Blair stopped himself. Why was he thinking of errands to run, when he had just spent the last of his cash? Laughing quietly to himself, he stood up and stretched his legs. He should just head home, and curl up with a book until Jim arrived. Then he'd coax the man into an early bed, hopefully followed by a seven hour cuddle and an early morning.

He retrieved his pack from the trunk and left the restaurant. The traffic was lighter now so he took the more direct route. Halfway there it occured to him that he had, once again, neglected to stop by Clair's office and find out how she was doing with her grant proposal. He'd offered to help, but knew she wouldn't be likely to ask for it if she needed it. She had to be offered, clearly and at just the right time, to accept. She might be home now, and normally Blair wouldn't think twice about stopping in and seeing how it was going. But lately she'd been talking about someone named Carl, in the same ways Blair tried not to talk about Jim. He suspected she would possibly be out, and likely occupied, if home.

Sighing, Blair decided to try to remember to stop by her office tomorrow. He really had nothing to do but head for home. He sat up straight, gripping the steering wheel tightly. His breath was coming fast, and his pulse was speeding up. "Oh, no, not this again!" Blair cursed himself, and found a place to pull over.

As he put the car in park, he found himself relaxing. "OK, Sandburg, what just happened?" He turned off the engine as an after-thought, not wanting someone walking up and asking if he needed help. His heartrate was already slowing back down near nirvana-induced relaxation; he shook his head slowly and waited. Nothing. He was fine. He reached for the ignition and it hit him full force.

He was shaking, and breathing hard and fast. He dropped his hands from the steering wheel, grabbing onto his shirt sleeves, hugging himself loosely. One foot started bouncing up and down, and he found himself leaning forward, as if to curl up. He heard words, that had he not been sitting outside in a convertible, he would have voiced. No, god please no don't I don't can't won't can't....

He bit the inside of his cheek, feeling sparks of pain but tasting no blood. No one had noticed him, no one was looking over wondering what that strange boy was doing. No one knew, no one could tell. Blair felt himself nearly ready to cry; he squeezed his eyes shut for a second, then the darkness was too bad and he opened them wide. Glancing widely around, he thought maybe he should call, maybe he should just drive, maybe he should get out and walk a little. Do something, anything, to make this feeling go away. But he couldn't move, his arms and legs wouldn't obey him and when he tried again all he got was a rocking, back and forth in the seat.

Shaking his head, he tried again. He'd done this before, he knew what it was. He just didn't know why. Trying to take a deep breath, he almost lost it again; shuddering almost turning to tears, screams, biting through the skin completely. "Please just let me have a second and I'll be okay," he whispered, surprised that he could hear his voice, speaking clearly without tremors. He thought about exploring why this had occured, out of the blue, and his mind shied furiously away. He had a paper to write, on the first digs at Machupiccu. He needed to borrow some photographs from Jerry, to try to reconstruct the landscape before and after the first documented digs, so he could justify his theory that there had been at least two digs, grave robbers most likely, instead of only one.

"No, come *on* Blair! Get with it," he scolded himself. The paper wasn't due for two more weeks, and it was more important now that he be able to drive -- else he couldn't to his computer to write the damn thing anyway. He saw a payphone down the street and thought briefly of calling someone. He still had his therapist's night phone number memorised, from a year ago. But he wanted to try and deal with this himself.

He took a deep breath, and found himself relaxing slightly. He took another, and leaned back against the seat. What had he been doing, thinking of, when it hit? Blair retraced his steps, both mental and physical and found nothing. He'd been doing nothing unusual, just driving home.

Home. His stomach turned over and it started again. Shaking harder, Blair gritted his teeth. This wasn't possible! A panic attack over something he'd been doing for months, it just wasn't... he suddenly realised it wasn't the first time. Now faced with a nearly full-blown attack, he could identify the mild ones he'd been having for the last few weeks. Small, barely noticable, and easily brushed aside as nothing much at all. He'd been ignoring the shakes -- or misattributing them -- and simply heading home.

This time he leaned forward, resting his head against the steering wheel. He wanted to bang his head against it, but knew it would do no good -- and he was likely to hit the horn and draw unwanted attention. Maybe the door frame, solid steel and wouldn't make a sound... except he was parked on a major street and passers-by would notice, and stop and ask if he were all right. There was no way he could do this.

Closing his eyes, he tried to take a slow, long breath. He'd stopped carrying paper bags in his backpack two years ago, when he'd finally stopped hyperventilating when he panicked. He hoped he wouldn't need one now; trying to remember the things he'd said to Jim over and over, Blair attempted to calm himself down. He began thinking his mantra, that he'd been given years ago by a yogi he'd met while traveling with his mom in Hawaii. At first it did nothing but distract him; the physical signs of his panic remained in force.

But after a few moments his breathing slowed dramatically, and his hands unclenched from their hold on his shirt. He leaned back, sitting up straight, and continued repeating the words silently. As his mind let go, his body let go and when he finally opened his eyes again he knew he could drive home.

Almost. He was no longer panicking but he still felt a sharp sense of fear and dread at the thought of going back to the apartment. "So ask yourself why, Blair." It suddenly occured to him that his fear might be related to something happening now. He'd been studying the role of the Guide and had discovered that the person chosen to guide a Sentinel was chosen in part for his or her ability to intuit certain situations. Almost like a sixth sense, where their Sentinel was concerned. Maybe Jim was in danger.

He couldn't ignore his reluctance to talk to anyone, now. Embarrassed as he was about having an attack, he needed to make sure Jim was all right. He was only a few blocks from home, now, and if Jim wasn't there he'd call the cell. His fingers wound tightly around the steering wheel as he made the decision. Starting the engine, he pulled back into traffic and headed for home.

He had to keep reminding himself to breathe deep -- without passing out from doing it too deeply, too fast. But he made it home without running his car off the road, or into anything, or even getting honked at. Slamming the car door shut, he ran towards the stairs, ignoring the feeling clawing at his throat, telling him to stop, freeze, turn around do anything but go up there.

The front door was unlocked, Blair shoved it open and stared. Jim was sitting on the couch, apparently fine. He stood quickly, though, and walked over. "Blair? Blair, what's wrong?"

Blair realised he was still hanging onto the doorknob and tried to let go. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine." Jim looked startled by the question. "Are *you* okay?"

"No, man, I'm not. Not okay at all..." He tried to step forward, and remembered his hand. Still hadn't let go. He pried his fingers loose, wondering if Jim had noticed, and took a step inside.

Jim was before him now, hands on his arms, looking him over for damage. "What happened?" His voice was calm, like the music at the restaurant. Blair felt him tugging him gently forward. He took another step in and stopped.

He couldn't say it. It wasn't any supernatural sense of danger for his friend, so there was something else, something he didn't want to think about, some reason why he didn't want to be here. He shook his head, feeling the attack beginning again.

Arms went around him, easing him inside. The door closed behind him, and the sound of it made him want to scream. But Jim was whispering in his ear, leading him gently to the couch, arms still strong around him. He wanted to go with it, let Jim take over and let it all go away.

He stopped in his tracks before Jim could sit him down. "No, not here."


"No," Blair heard the tremble in his voice, didn't try to stop it. "Please, not here. Outside, somewhere else not here I don't..."

"Shh, shh..." Jim held him tightly for a moment, one hand at his back, the other on his head. "OK. Tell me where you want to go." Before Blair could answer, Jim was pushing him towards the front door, picking up his jacket and keys.

Blair felt grateful, and relieved. He was breathing easier before they even made it out the door. As they headed away from the apartment, Blair tried to think of a place. It didn't matter, really, as long as it wasn't there. He lead Jim downstairs and outside, heading towards the water. Suddenly he could breathe easier and he felt the shaking die away.

"This is fine." He stopped when the shaking disappeared. He didn't look up at Jim.

After a minute of silence, Jim asked, "Can you tell me what happened, now?"

Blair hunched his shoulders, and stared at the ground. "I couldn't.. I just couldn't go home today. I had.. had a panic attack on my way there. I don't know why...." He looked up. Something told him he *did* know why. "I've been having little attacks the last couple of weeks and never realised. Then tonight, on my way home... I couldn't breathe, couldn't move...." He took a deep breath, fighting off a wave of panic even now, as he related what had happened. Jim squeezed his shoulder, and stepped closer. "I wondered if.. maybe you were in trouble and that's why I came home." He turned, and looked at Jim. "That's the *only* reason I made it home, Jim. I couldn't... I don't know why...."

Jim didn't say anything. Instead he placed his hand on Blair's face, cupping his cheek, stroking with two fingers. Blair moved into his arms, needing the support of someone who cared for him enough to not blame him for his weakness. Jim accepted him into another hug, and for several minutes simply stood still, holding him.

Finally Jim asked, "Why do you think it happened?"

He hadn't ever really explained his attacks to Jim; other than one blase remark about their being a normal way of life for him, hadn't seriously explained to his partner the number of times and reasons for which he'd had panic attacks. In spite of all that, Jim was doing and saying everything right -- no accusations, no irrelevant questions, no ignoring what he needed and said he wanted. Blair pulled himself closer into Jim's arms, resting his face against the cool fabirc of the windbreaker. He answered honestly. "I get scared, coming back here. I haven't thought about it yet, to find out why. But the thought of going back to the apartment makes me want to run as hard and fast as I can, the other way."

He hated to hear the other man's reaction -- it was Jim's home, and this was as much a refusal of him, as anything. Jim's quiet question removed that fear. "Are you afraid that someone might be waiting for you? Like Lash was?"

Blair shook his head. "I don't think so. I mean, if I was I'd have had these attacks months ago. It feels more like... the place. Not whoever's in it." Blair felt the relief as the realisation hit him. It wasn't any *body* so it wasn't, by extension, Jim. He didn't have to worry about rejecting the man he loved more than anything. Although... he followed that line of thought, not hearing if Jim said anything in response to what he'd said. What was it about the apartment that had him frightened?

Jim's hands were rubbing his back, when he found what felt like the right part of the problem. Blair leaned his head back, and looked up at Jim. His lover merely waited, concern and love on his face and nothing more. Blair found himself asking a question he didn't expect.

"Jim, are you going to throw me out?"

The look of shock answered him even before the insistent "No!" For a moment it seemed as if he might continue, angrily demanding; Jim shook himself and asked instead, "What gives you the idea that I might?"

Exhaling, Blair let himself relax, nearly limp, against Jim. Quietly he said, "Everytime I found a place I liked, we moved. Either because Naomi wanted something different, because she was bored or broke up with who she was with. Or whoever we were staying with got tired of us and kicked us out. Sometimes... sometimes it was me. A lot of Naomi's significant others didn't want to deal with a kid. I got used to having my mom be the only stable thing in my life -- and even that wasn't very stable. I mean, she always came back for me when she left me someplace. I could count on that, at least.

"But we never lived anyplace for more than a year. Usually a lot less. When we moved, it was usually to a new town, new state, or even a new country. I got used to starting over... and leaving my friends and sometimes family behind. Even when, whoever we were with said they wanted us around and liked us or loved us we always ended up leaving." Blair discovered that he was, at last, crying. He continued. "I've been living here for over a year and I love you. Everything I know tells me that I should be ready to lose you, now. And I don't want to...." He buried his face in Jim's jacket, scared of hearing it, even after Jim had said he wouldn't be asked to leave.

"And that's why you're scared to come home? You don't want to hear me tell you it's time to move on?"


Jim's face was tucked down, next to his. "Blair?" He managed a 'mmm?' in response. "You know I love you?"

"Yes," Blair could barely say it, though he believed it fervently.

"Do you think I want you to leave me?" Jim didn't sound accusing, or angry, or even very upset. Instead his tone said only that he wanted to assure and comfort.

"I don't think you do. But... something might happen...." He didn't want to think about what. He felt his body tensing again, as the panic threatened to creep upon him and pounce. He tightened his hold on Jim, as if the presence of his lover now might keep that horrible future at bay.

JIm spoke again, still calmly and lovingly. "Blair, no matter what happens I want to be with you. I'm not letting you go. If I have to follow you across the globe, I'll stay with you. I want you with me forever, Blair. And I'll do everything humanly possible to ensure that I can."

Somewhere during Jim's speech, Blair's legs had started giving way. Jim's embrace kept him upright, and now he felt dizzy -- either relief, or from the hyperventilating. He wasn't sure what he could do, now, even if he had a clue what he should do. In a small voice, he simply said, "OK."

Jim laughed, gently. "Are you going to be all right, sweetheart?"

"I think so. I..." Blair swallowed, and tried for another difficult piece of honesty. "I may have to hear all that again, a few more times. Before I really believe it. Before *all* of me believes it."

"I'll be delighted to tell you as often as you need. Every day and every night for the rest of my life."

"Oh." Blair felt himself melt. "Thank you."

"You're welcome. Are you ready to go back, now?"

Blair had the feeling that if he said no, Jim would willingly stay all night outside, or in a hotel room, or anywhere else Blair said he needed to be. That made it easy. "Yeah, I'm ready. Let's--" his voice caught. "Let's go home."

As they headed back to the apartment, Blair felt something deep inside him begin to smile.

Outside the door, Jim stopped and took him back into his arms. He tilted his head, and kissed Blair. Blair kissed him back, feeling drained and exhausted. He smiled when Jim broke off the kiss. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"I think so."

Jim gave him another kiss. "I love you."

"Love you, too."

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