So Next Year's Will Be Better

The wind was cold. Whipping through the desert, as if it had somewhere to be and could not be called upon to dally. Jim didn't mind, the sharp air gave him some relief from the previous week's heat. No matter how many months he'd once spent living in a tropical jungle he'd lived too many years in the north to be comfortable now. Even with his ability to tune down his sense of touch, there was the residual sensation of heat. Just the knowledge that it was hot, was enough sometimes. It was like the desert's way of weeding out the unwelcome, the unworthy, and the cold-blooded. And the prefer-the-snow Sentinels.

He'd told Blair that, whenever he found an excuse to tease the other man about his choice of residences. Blair would just grin at him every time, and agree with him. "Fair's fair, man," Jim remembered him saying. "Three years with you in the cold, now you gotta do time with me in the sun. Feels great, though, doesn't it?"

Blair would give him a sly smile, often stretching his arms as if to capture the sun's heat on his skin. Jim would watch, always struck by how thin those arms had become, especially when -- too often -- Blair didn't stretch simply because he lacked the energy to raise his arms. But regardless of his energy level, Blair loved the feel of the sun's heat. Jim would sit with him by the window or outside in that hot autumn sun, keeping absent track of the winds for the scent of approaching rain.

Now, early October, the wind had turned cold after the sun fell. For the first time since he'd arrived in the beginning of summer, Jim felt comfortable -- as if he belonged, as if he'd finally shaped himself to fit into this alien world he'd accepted. It wasn't the cold, although it reminded him of his preferred climate and he wondered if someone had given him this tiny offering, a small gesture of acknowledgment, to ease his suffering. It was more like weariness, as if he'd simply stopped fighting being out of place and out of sorts. Resident by default, native by forfeit.

Blair had assured him that the winter nights would be very cold and he could look upon it as his reward for surviving the summer. Jim closed his eyes at that memory -- Blair lying back in a loungechair, arms and legs like sticks going every which way, the laboured sound of lungs fighting to breathe -- all quite normal, all simply things to accept and no reason to be alarmed. Neither said anything about survival, nor the pitiful embrace of cold air as reward. Things already too often said, and Jim desperately wanted to never say them again. So Blair had listened to Jim complain about driving in 120 degree heat and how even through the sunshield the steering wheel had become unbearable until the Sentinel could dial down his sense of touch.

Blair had been unsympathetic -- reminding Jim he hadn't had to go anywhere until nightfall. But that day he'd been unable to stay there, in Blair's home. Jim had moved down and with his promise to become caretaker Blair had been able to leave the hospital where the nurses refused to wheel him outdoors into the sun every time he asked. Jim had spent the first week carrying his friend outdoors at every request, until the doctor had warned him about sunburns. They'd compromised with moving the chair to the dining room window, rearranging the room until it served as the living room, the dining table put away.

That day Blair had been sitting in his chair, reading something Craig had brought from the university library. Jim had been trying to clean the place, trying not to spend his entire time simply staring at Blair as he wanted -- it drove Blair nuts, and it made Jim face the ache inside. So when Blair had mentioned wanting to see a movie that night, Jim had leapt at the chance to get out for awhile. Casa Video was not too far, and reading the titles on every box would give Jim some respite from his thoughts.

Now he didn't even remember what they'd watched. They'd curled up on the couch together, Jim wrapping his arms around a body that felt too frail to even move, much less pound the cushions with hysterical laughter as yet another classic movie was parodied along the way. He remembered comparing the scent of his friend's skin as it had been once -- healthy, clean, strong -- to what it was now, with its tell-tale aroma of medications and nutritional supplements even under the overlying scent of marijuana.

He remembered how shocked Blair had been when he'd agreed without argument to not say a word when an old acquaintance dropped off a bag each week. Blair had been prepared to hide it, to lie or blackmail his way into Jim's acceptance. But Jim knew better. Smoking the stuff gave Blair an appetite, something he hadn't had while in the hospital, and eating gave him the energy to get out of bed in the mornings and accompany Jim to the store and even laugh at the stupid jokes Jim passed along from late nights in front of the Comedy Channel. A minor felony was worth seeing Blair living, instead of dying.

The smell of sage was strong on the desert tonight. It reminded him of Blair -- he had burned sage daily, in part to cleanse his home and in part because the scent was similar enough to the marijuana that visitors would not be tempted to ask about it. Simon had just nodded, giving Jim a knowing look, and explained quietly to Darryl, as they left the next day.

Jim wanted to be home. He wanted to be surrounded by cold salt air, forest green mountains and a partner who bounced like the end of the world was never coming. He wanted to go back to the day he'd told Blair he was leaving, and take the young man in his arms and love him. He wanted to find out if his policeman's career would survive the 'scandal' or if his co-workers would even care. He wanted to find out what it would be like to grow old alongside his lover, find out if they adopted kids or got a dog or broke up a year later or....

He wanted to live a normal life and he wanted Blair to live it with him. He wanted....

He dropped his head, and let the wind sail over him. It was comforting, and he knew he would miss it terribly. But he could not stay, even with the cooler winter making things more bearable. Perhaps the wind knew it, and had come early to whisper its goodbye. He raised his head, taking one last impression of the desert night to wrap around him when he found himself needing to remember. Then he turned and walked inside. His bags were just inside the door.

"Jim, are you ready?"

"Yeah... just saying goodbye to it all."

"You sure you don't wanna stay?"

Jim smiled. "No... I'm not sure." He took a deep breath. "But I can't. I can't... the memories are just too strong here. I have to--"

"I know. You realise the memories will just follow you, don't you? They're a part of you, and running away from this place won't make you lose them." The words were soft, full of understanding.

"I know that. I'm not trying to lose them, I just need... some space. Some time away from it all, before I can deal with what happened. I need to get out of here. I need to be someplace where I can pretend, for awhile, that everything's back to normal." Somewhere along the line, of having late night heart-to-hearts with his dying beloved, he'd learned that saying the truth, saying how he felt, putting all those frightening revealing things into words could be easy because the price of saying them was much too hard. Something he had to thank this entire experience for... someday when he was distanced enough to feel grateful. For now he just found himself opening up, without even his usual reticence. He noticed what he was doing, and smiled at himself.

Blair grinned. "Jim, life was *never* normal. But that's okay... as long as we can come back in the summer."

Jim stopped as he grabbed one of his bags. "Summer? Chief, you're crazy. Maybe in January...."

"You mean it?" Blair danced around the collection of bags at Jim's feet. "How about December, that's when the rains come again and there's this waterfall you wouldn't believe--"

Jim cut him off with a kiss. "You get me another week of vacation time and we'll come back down."

"It's a deal!"

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