What I Sent Last Year Wasn't Good Enough

Blair sifted half-heartedly through the mail. A conglomerate of envelopes, both big and small, and two small brown-paper wrapped boxes all sat together in a disorganised pile on the bed. Some of the addresses he could identify as friends, acquiantences. Two looked like bills or solicitations. One of the boxes was from Cecilia, sending the package that usually came every year from his mom. But she was in one of those far off places, where the postal services couldn't follow. For the last two years Naomi's sister had taken over the duties of observing a son's -- nephew's -- birthday.

The cards he set aside. None likely to have anything but pre-printed wishes in them, and he didn't really care about those right now. One was a letter, thin, but a letter all the same. He pulled that one closer, to read in a bit.

One envelope he tossed on the floor. An uncle who never could understand that his intentions were cruel, sending literature on how Blair could heal himself, become a better -- safely heterosexual -- person. Sometimes it bothered him, sometimes it infruriated him. Today it made him sad, that still his uncle couldn't accept. Couldn't understand.

The other large envelope he held in both hands, not ready to turn it over. There was only one person he hadn't received anything from, yet. One person whose birthday greetings meant more than anything else laying scattered on the thin yellow blanket. The man he'd loved for so long, and so deeply that even the last two years hadn't damaged it.

Two years ago they'd shook hands, muttered those things you say when you know you'll meet again, but not where, not when. Blair had finished his degree and was traveling for job interviews, Jim was returning to Washington to close up unfinished business of a mission served years before. That had lead to a consultancy position which Jim had accepted -- the letter Blair had received while in Michigan, discovering quickly that he didn't want to teach there.

The letter had been vague, but Blair hadn't expected differently. The Black Ops wasn't something that advertised its goings-on, and the fact that Blair'd received a letter spoke of how necessary it was that Jim tell him where he was. He knew what it meant, of course, and back then had let himself wish they'd done things differently. Wish they'd told each other how they felt, let each other admit to their feelings. Find a way to stay together instead of pursuing their careers and parting with congenial goodbyes.

Blair brushed his fingers over the package. Last year on his birthday he'd received a jacket -- thick and warm, made of soft dyed black wool. The package had been forwarded twice, sent originally to the department at Minnesota with which Blair had accepted a position so long ago. Very appropriate for the cold northern winter.

Not at all appropriate for the hot desert climate. Blair had moved - once to live with his Aunt, and then down here, to Phoenix where he had been since the previous spring. His Aunt had protested, wanting him to remain at home, but Blair had gone anyway, wanting to travel some more and visit the place his mother told him he'd been born. It didn't matter, really, but once here he'd found he liked it. So he'd stayed.

And now, another package. Another birthday. Would Jim have found out where he was? Or did the army have him traveling over the world, out of touch with everything he'd left behind? He didn't care. Whatever it was, he'd treasure it. He still wore the jacket, anyway, because sometimes even in Phoenix he got cold.

He turned it over and saw the return address. Cascade. It hit him much harder than he'd expected, and he ripped the paper roughly, only to find it confirmed. The package was from Simon. A book, and a card, wishing him well and offering a visit from himself and Darryl next month. Simon had kept in close touch since he'd left, even closer in the last year when he'd finally found out. There was nothing about Jim... nothing from Jim.

Blair turned on his side and laid down, not caring as envelopes and gifts were knocked to the floor. Burying his head in the pillow, he began to cry. The nurse had assured him this was all the mail that had arrived for him. All week long he'd been looking for Jim's package -- even a card, anything. But there was nothing. His head began to pound as he sobbed into his pillow. It wasn't supposed to be like this -- one missed birthday shouldn't mean this much. But last year there had at least been the signature 'love, Jim'. Something to hang onto, and tell himself -- true or not -- that it could have been different. He could have spent the last two years in a lover's arms, being treated with tender care and concern as he had the three years he'd lived with Jim as just a friend.

Soon he was exhausted, and couldn't cry anymore. Just as well -- if the nurses found him like this, they'd try to comfort him. It had been hard enough convincing them not to send one of those volunteers by, yesterday. Craig was his usual 'official friend' but was on vacation this week, and the Shanti organisers had wanted to send someone else to help him through a particularly trying day.

He'd convinced them not to, but only by agreeing to see someone tomorrow. He'd had his birthday alone, the way he liked it. And today, the day he'd set aside for looking through cards and packages (because some mail was always late, and he prefered opening everything at once), they'd left him alone. Tomorrow he'd have to talk about it. Today he could react to it.

Jim hadn't sent anything this year. Maybe... he suddenly felt fear. Maybe he hadn't been able to. Would the army know to tell him if anything happened? Did Jim have any next of kin who would know Blair needed to be told? He shook his head, surely Simon would tell him. Simon would have been told, and would have let him know. Unless that was why he was coming down...?

"NO! No, it isn't.. He wouldn't wait so long to tell me." Blair rolled onto his back, knocking the remaining cards onto the floor. He took a deep breath -- deep as he could -- and let it out. If Jim were dead, Simon would have come down immediately and told him.

So where was Jim's package? Lost in the mail? Delayed by forwarding? Not sent at all because there wasn't any reason to?

Blair thought about his last visit with Simon, several weeks ago. He'd been wearing the jacket Jim had sent, in part because the hospital was too cold, and in part because he'd been missing his friend. Simon had teased him about it, and for some reason Blair still didn't know, he'd told him. Told him how he missed Jim, how much he wanted to see him... and how much he loved him. He remembered staring out the window, rubbing the sleeves of the jacket against his arms, feeling the warmth it was so hard sometimes to find. He'd been sick again, only a couple weeks before Simon's visit, and was recovering much too slowly. Perhaps that was why -- faced once again with his prospects, he'd wanted someone to know. He didn't want to die without anyone knowing how he felt.

Well, Craig knew the whole sordid story, but Craig didn't know Jim, and wouldn't know who to tell the story to, once Blair had gone. He remembered Simon's face after he'd finished speaking. All the questions Simon had obviosuly wanted to ask, and didn't. After moments of silence, he'd reached out and squeezed Blair's arm gently and said "I didn't know. I'm sorry." And then they'd spoken of other things and Blair had felt worlds better.

He wished Simon were here, now. Someone he could talk to, who'd known him back then. Who knew who he was, inside, when he'd had the energy to be himself. Someone who would laugh at old remembrances because he knew the truth, and not believe the embellishments. Someone who could remind him of what it had been like, once upon a time.

Maybe if he closed his eyes, he could sleep. And maybe if he slept, it would be tomorrow and he could forget.

Where was Jim? What was he doing?

"Happy birthday, Chief."

If he'd been able, he'd have sat straight up in shock. As it was, he opened his eyes wide and stared. "Jim?!?"

A fond smile greeted him, blue eyes that hadn't changed a bit, stared down. "I guess a wool coat wasn't the best gift for someone living in Arizona, huh?"

Blair tried to sit up; Jim reached over and helped him. "Jim is it really you?" He grabbed onto arms that held him, wondering if dreams could feel this real.

"Yeah, it's really me." Blair watched in amasment as Jim -- or an apparition of him -- sat down on the bed, facing him. He shook his head. "I'm sorry, Blair. I didn't know."

Blair shrugged. "Don't be. Not your fault, and I've gotten used to it." Two years of living with it had made him easy with it. Most days.

But Jim surprised him. "Not that. I mean, I'm sorry for that, too, but mostly I'm sorry for leaving. For not coming back. I should have been here with you." He reached up and carressed Blair's face.

"How'd you find out, then?"

"Simon told me. Told me everything, when I stopped in Cascade on business. I didn't know... I wish you'd told me."

Blair shrugged. "I didn't find out until after you'd gone. The doctors--"

Again Jim stopped him, this time with a finger on his mouth. Blair thought that it had been years since anyone had touched him so closely. "That you loved me. I would have stayed, if I'd known."

"Oh." Blair stared, not knowing exactly what he could say. "Will you? Now, I mean?" His voice was small, as he realised he didn't know how long this visit might last.

"I'll stay." Jim moved forward, and gathered Blair in his arms. "For as long..." Blair heard his voice catch. "For as long," Jim whispered in his ear.

Blair put his arms around Jim, wishing he had the strength to hold on as tightly as he needed, and closed his eyes as he rested his head on Jim's shoulder. He felt lips brush his shoulder, and he smiled.


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