New Arrivals
Author-Leah Starsky

Growing Pain
by Leah Starsky

Disclaimers: These characters don't belong to me, not intended to infringe on any copyrights, not for profit, just a little sharing among friends.

Warnings: May not necessarily be considered a happy ending to some.

Personal Disclamer: The following story does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the author (um, in fact, quite the contrary), merely presents one possible interpretation. :-) Feel free to LoC, not to LoC, feedback privately, debate publicly, ignore, flame, delete unread, etc.

After all was said and done, Jim could honestly say he hadn't seen it coming. Everything falling apart so fast, and just when he'd become convinced things were finally going to be all right, left him in a state of shock. Funny, he should have known better than to let his guard down. He fought that very thing for so long, but then standing in the midst of the rubble that was Blair Sandburg's life, knowing it had been sacrificed for him, he'd begun to believe again. So naturally, the minute his guard was down life threw him another curve...

The diner was small and dimly lit, the smell of grease and cigarette smoke nearly making him gag. He quickly dialed his sense of smell down, wondering what Blair was doing there. Usually his tastes ran to healthy-type foods or the exotic, not the kind of cholesterol-laden cuisine served in a place like this. In an unsavory part of Cascade, as well. All he knew was that the kid had called and asked for a ride, saying his car was acting up again and he had no money to spare for the bus.

"Hey, Joe, B, I need a bacon cheeseburger and a side of fries, heavy on the onion," a dirty blond-haired waitress called out.

"Your double cheese is up, Angie," a familiar voice returned. "And you want onion on those fries, huh?" the voice joked.


Sure enough, one of the two men behind the counter separating the kitchen from the rest of the diner was very familiar. Blair Sandburg was flipping several beef patties on a spitting grill, his hair tied back and a dirty white apron around his waist.

While Jim was busy being speechless, Blair spotted him. "Oh, hey Jim, man, thanks for the ride. I'll be out in a minute."

Jim had a feeling he must be missing something... and something big. Confusion and questions bubbled around in his mind, but it would have to wait until he had a chance to talk to his partner. He watched as the other worker took over for Blair, and he said his good-byes. Shortly he joined Jim out front.

"Ready to go, Jim." Blair stood beside him, loosening his hair from its tie. "Damn, that grease is murder on the hair. Crap even gets in the air. No need for any hot oil treatments," he quipped with a grin.

Jim said nothing, waiting until they were in the truck headed for the loft before he spoke. "Okay, Sandburg, out with it. What are you doing working in a cheesy diner?"

Blair's voice, overly cheery up to this point, turned more subdued, maybe even a little ashamed. "I gotta have some income here, man. Once I was... once I left school all my student loans became payable. I've got a lot of debts." He sounded ashamed at the admission.

Jim could have kicked himself for not keeping a closer notice of Blair's financial situation. "You should have said something, Chief, I could --"

Blair cut him off. "It's my problem, and I have to handle it myself."

After all the years with Sandburg, Jim was beginning to learn when to back off. He was obviously not going to react well to any perceived hand-outs -- even if Jim didn't see it like that at all. "Okay," he conceded for the moment. "But why didn't you find something better? The pay must be shit. And that neighborhood can be dangerous," he added, not liking the thought of Blair doing regular night shifts there.

"Beggars can't exactly be choosers here, man," Blair began patiently, no trace of regret or anger in his voice. "I'm not exactly qualified for much else, can't work in the field I studied for, and any job where they want someone trustworthy... well, I'm pretty famous here in Cascade right now, and not in a good way. Anyone who's been watching the news is not gonna be hot to hire me."

A twinge of sympathetic pain hit Jim at the words, the knowledge that such a decent, honest man had to live with the label of a fraud. Thankfully it was only temporary, Jim was sure it would all blow over quickly and Blair would be his old self again as soon as his life got back to normal. And really, he had already been spending more time at the station than at college anyway. Not really a big deal.

He phrased his next words very carefully. "I'd... I'd like to float you a loan to help you get by -- just till you're officially on the force and start getting a paycheck. I'll even charge you interest if you want," he added with a chuckle. A chuckle that died a premature death at Blair's next words.

"Yeah, well I... We need to talk about that, Jim. When we get home."

The rest of the ride was spent in a very pregnant silence.

As soon as they entered the loft, Jim helped himself to a beer. He felt a bit like he was at a car wreck -- /isn't that what my life is?!/. He didn't want to deal with it, but couldn't stop himself from sticking around for the gruesome details anyway. Might as well face it, get it over with.

Blair got his own beer and came to stand near Jim in the kitchen. "I'm not sure that I'm going to be joining the police force, Jim," he said quietly, not looking at him.

Well, it's not like it wasn't what he was expecting to hear from the ominous words in the truck. Still, actually hearing it gave it more weight, and all his carefully nourished hopes fell in one crushing blow. He brushed roughly past Blair, striding into the living room. "What? Why?? I thought..."

"I'm sorry, Jim," Blair was trying to explain. "Please hear me out, this isn't easy for me to say. My psychiatrist helped me to face some things, things I didn't want to deal with. But now that I'm trying, I know it's for the best. It's about a self-destructive pattern I've been repeating in my life, a pattern I've got to break."

"What the hell are you talking about, Sandburg?!" He'd promised himself he wouldn't get so defensive and angry anymore. No big deal, he was used to breaking promised to himself. Besides, he had a feeling maybe he did know.

One of Blair's girlfriends, Jim didn't know which one, had suggested the ex-grad student seek some counseling. He'd never found out the details, but from hearing bits of phone conversations he'd gathered it had to do with Blair's relationship with his mother, something Jim couldn't help agreeing was a good idea. There was obviously something wrong with the way they interacted. She constantly interfered in his life, violated his privacy, all the while spouting off her new age garbage excuses. And Blair always forgave, excused her behavior. She'd waltz into his life after six months and try to take over, and fly out again on a whim and disappear for months. It was an unhealthy pattern, in Jim's opinion, and he'd been secretly pleased that Blair was ready to make some changes in the status quo. But now he wondered if this counseling had been a good idea after all. Could he have gotten it wrong? Was this person some 'alternate' type of therapist, trying to 'deprogram' Blair against the 'tyranny of the pigs'?

"This shrink of yours wouldn't happen to be a friend of Naomi's would it?" he asked suspiciously.

Blair ran both hands through his hair in a frustrated gesture. Something glinted in the light from the lamp. Jim then noticed that the earrings, the ones that had disappeared some time ago, were back -- with a new one added. "I asked you to let me tell you this in my own way."

Jim stepped back, making a 'go ahead' gesture with his hands. He's just told Jim he didn't want to be his partner, and damned if the kid wasn't giving him a look like he'd disappointed Blair.

"No, he's not a friend of Naomi's. In fact, we talked a lot about my relationship with my mother. It wasn't easy, but I had to admit that I... I let her get away with a lot of things I shouldn't..."

"No shit," Jim snorted, earning himself a glare.

"See, maybe this whole thing would never have happened if I'd broken the pattern long ago. Not allowed her to treat me like a little kid, made it clearer that she wasn't going to control my life anymore."

"Then why didn't you?" Jim asked, curious, hoping Blair would appreciate his interest.

Blair sighed and turned away. "I was afraid, I guess." He continued, although by this point Jim had a pretty good idea what he was going to say. The truth, and a long time coming. "That I'd disappoint her, lose her love. That maybe she'd... leave and not come back."

Jim could see how hard it had been for Blair to make the confession. He moved to where Blair was leaning against the beam and put his hand on his friend's shoulder. "It must have been tough as a kid, moving around all the time, having her leave you so often."

"I guess I just thought that if I gave her something to control, she'd stick around to control it. If she thought I needed her, she might stick around for a change. Not that it ever worked," he scoffed.

Jim was starting to feel a bit guilty. When this whole thing had blown up, he'd been so angry with Blair -- hadn't even acknowledged Naomi's part in causing it. "I'm sorry, Chief. Believe me, I know how it is to have parents that... well, who aren't very good parents. But we survive. Right?" He lightly shook the shoulder under his hand.

"Right. But that means growing up, and not letting myself repeat those patterns. I realized that I tend to act the same way with people who... mean a lot to me. I let them get away with power trips and treating me however they want, because of the old abandonment fears I never dealt with." He looked up at Jim, and there was something very serious in his eyes. "I can't do it anymore, Jim."

Jim abruptly retreated to the distance of the living room once again. He didn't like the sound of that. "Do what?"

Another disappointed sigh. "Haven't you been listening to me? No, don't answer that," Blair added in a voice low enough that it could only be heard by a sentinel. "Before I met you, I let my mother control my life. I was the person I thought she wanted in a son, I embraced all her new age beliefs. Then I met you. And slowly, I began to adapt myself to you and your life instead. Suddenly it was you I feared letting down and losing. I did everything I could to earn your respect. Gave up everything I had to make you believe in me, prove I wouldn't betray you. Right up until... almost... agreeing to become a cop. Me. The one who hated guns and violence. Okay, so that was Naomi talking. But this new me, the one who was ready to pick up a badge and really join your world -- that was the me who'd turned his efforts at acceptance from his mother to you. For all I know, maybe that's why I got into anthropology in the first place, checking out different societies so that maybe I'd find a real home in one of them. But I realize now, if I can't be myself, then I'll never find the place I belong."

"What's the bottom line here, Sandburg," Jim said in a rough voice. He knew it already of course, just needed to hear the final words. "You think I'm some kind of bully on a power trip? Is that really what you think of me, after all we've been through together?"

"No, we went through everything apart, not together, but that's beside the point!" Blair's brief anger vanished as soon as it had come. "Don't do that Jim," he begged, moving closer but not too close. "Please don't make me feel guiltier than I already do. I did everything for you, man."

/Everything except what I really wanted,/ Jim thought, but didn't voice the bitter words.

"I'm not running out on you. I'll still be your friend, if you want me to. If you need any help with your senses, you can call me, anytime. Night or day, I'll be there."

"Call you?" Jim latched onto the ominous wording, feeling a little more of his world fall apart.

"Yeah, I'm going to get my own place. Things'll be tight, what with my loan payments, but Angie, the waitress at Joe's, is looking for a roommate to help with expenses, and if I alternate shifts with her so I can watch her kids and save her childcare expense, I get a break on the rent."

The judgmental words flowed out through him before he could stop them. "Ah, so this is table leg stuff. As usual."

"Please don't purposely misunderstand, Jim. Angie and I are just friends. In fact, until I figure out who I am, I'm going to put those kind of relationships on hold. It wouldn't be fair to me or the woman."

"And you think all this sudden "find out who I am" crap isn't stuff you picked up from Naomi? That and the running away." Ah, direct hit. It felt good to wound back.

"I'm not running away. I already told you, I'll still be your friend if you want me to. I'm just going to get some breathing space -- both from Naomi and you, until I can figure out what I really want in my life without running my decisions by either of you for approval."

Jim sat down on the couch. This wasn't a conversation to have standing up. He could listen better if he didn't have to concentrate on keeping a rigid, unbending posture.

As if disturbed by the added distance between them, Blair moved into the living room, approaching the couch where Jim sat as still as stone. "I feel like I'm being pulled in two different directions here, you know? The two of you are like, total polar opposites. When you look at it like that, it's pretty obvious my choices are motivated by more than just my own true desires. Become a cop, or stay a neo-hippie? I mean, come on, man! How could I possibly want to be both and have it be real? The belief systems are completely different."

"I thought..." /you were growing up... getting past Naomi to the reality of life. Was I just projecting my own set of beliefs onto you?/ Almost against his will, Jim found himself glimpsing the truth behind Blair's words. "I guess I thought wrong," he finished. "So you have to decide what you really believe in?" he ventured.

Blair's smile was worth it. "Yes, that's it exactly!" He tentatively brought his hand down onto Jim's shoulder. "I don't want to hurt you Jim, so please don't take this so personally. It's not about you, or Naomi. It's about me. For once in my life, something has to be about /me./ Can you try to understand that?"

"Do I have a choice?" Jim replied dryly.

"Whether you believe me or not, I care about your feelings, Jim. And I hope that you care about mine. That you won't judge me selfish here, because I gotta tell you, that doesn't feel fair. I can't help it, I do care what you think of me. Wouldn't you rather be genuine friends with me, because we truly are, rather than just because I was so desperate for male approval that I followed you around like a puppy?"

"Male approval?" He had to ask, even though he wasn't sure he wanted to inspire another round of psychological mumbo-jumbo.

"That's another thing I had to admit," Blair said with a wry grin. "Kicking and fighting all the way. I kept insisting not having a father had no effect on me, that I didn't care at all."

"Wait a second, are you trying to tell me you see me as a father figure?" Mixed emotions met that revelation, although Jim didn't let it show. He had to admit, if only in the deepest parts of his mind, that he'd been trying to be to Blair's life what Bud had been to his, repay that debt. It was starting to look like he'd done a lousy job.

"Well, a big brother maybe," Blair winked at him. "I think Simon probably fits that role best, just don't tell him I said so, don't want to seriously freak him out. Once your eyes are open, it's pretty obvious, and I wonder how come I missed it all this time. Hanging around in a tough, macho male dominated 'society', trying to fit in and gain their respect and approval. I guess you're not the only one who's into denial here."

"So where does all this leave... us... exactly?"

Blair perched on the arm of the couch. "I need to spread my wings. Make my decisions based on who I am and what I want, not on pleasing someone else. Based on what's best for me, not fear that I'll lose someone's love if I don't conform. Can you understand that at all, Jim?" he studied the cop earnestly.

Could he understand it? Hadn't he himself fought his father's tyranny, left home to get away from it? Maybe even joined the army, not because he really wanted to but just to escape someone else's plans for him?

"I'm not sure any of us ever make decisions based solely on what we really want," Jim offered, "no matter how old we are."

"Doesn't make it right, though," Blair countered quietly. "Maybe it works out okay sometimes," he added. "But... no offense here man, because I really do love ya, but I let you accuse me of betraying you again and again, when all I was guilty of was making mistakes. Huge ones, I admit. But human mistakes. Instead of talking to you about it like two adults, trying to make you understand, I just did whatever it took to appease you -- because I was scared to death I'd lose your friendship over it. That's the bottom line, Jim. Not what I did -- why I did it. The right things, but for the wrong reasons. And that wasn't helping you, either. Instead of addressing your issues and helping you work through them, I was just pandering to your hang ups through my own. I was seriously falling down on my job as guide here. Until I can get a handle on my own issues, I won't be much good to either of us."

"So you're leaving." He couldn't help it, must be his 'hang ups' he thought sarcastically, but that was the only bottom line he could focus on. His life, falling apart. As usual. Blair had said he'd still be around, that it was up to him, but Jim knew how that story went. They promised to keep in touch, but were somehow always busy... until one day you turned around and the person was out of your life forever. No one ever stayed, that was rule #1. Why had he thought it would ever be different, even with Blair?

When Blair spoke again, his words seemed to echo Jim's thoughts eerily well. "It's not necessarily forever, that's up to you. And I'll say it a million times if that's what it takes to get through to you. I'll be here for you as long as you want me to. As long as I can be true to myself while I'm doing it. I can't live your life, and I can't live Naomi's. I've got to figure out what mine is, and live that. And in the end, you'll respect me more for that. I hope," he chuckled nervously. "That's the part that's hard for me," he admitted. "Gotta work on telling myself I'll get more respect for being myself than for doing what others want, till I actually believe it. The thing is, as much as I value our friendship -- and I do, more than anything -- I can't do that anymore. I'm taking a big risk here, because part of me figured you'd take all this personally, and shut me out of your life because I'm being selfish. That hurts. But I've got to be strong, because I know that if you do, then you weren't really my true friend to begin with. You were only friends with the image of me that I presented you, or the me you wanted me to be."

"So that's it? Nothing I can say then?" /Does that make me selfish, in your eyes?/ he wondered. /If I hate what's best for you because it's something that's going to hurt me?/ He imagined what Blair's answer to that might be, had he voiced it.

/No. Neither of us are selfish. Just human beings, trying to do the best we can./

Blair reached out again, laying his hand on Jim's arm. "I know it's hard. It's hard for me, too. But the chick's gotta leave the nest sometime, man," he joked to lighten the atmosphere.

Jim didn't want the fragile hope that was flickering inside, wanted to stomp it down under the despair of another friendship, ending up like all the others before it. The familiar, comfortable knowledge that this one was doomed like all the others...

Yet, for the first time in his life, he decided he wanted to try, to fight for it despite his own pessimistic outlook and repeated failures. This was either going to turn out to be The biggest mistake of his life... or the best thing he'd ever done.

"Okay," he found himself saying, almost stunned at himself. "I understand what you have to do. I only hope... I hope you'll come back when you find out what you need to. I'll be here."

"Even if I decide being a cop isn't for me?" Blair asked with a hint of insecurity showing. "I'm not saying I won't," he hastened to add, "I might. Maybe not. I just don't know yet."

"It'll... hurt if you aren't my partner," Jim admitted, and it wasn't easy. "That was my fondest dream. But even if you decide to shave your head and become a moony..."

Blair laughed, and it was the sweetest sound Jim had ever heard. "Hey, man, you know how I feel about the hair."

Jim found he could reach out, it wasn't even all that hard. He tugged on Blair's locks, letting them fall around his fingers. "Ah, but is that you, or Naomi talking?" he teased.

"Guess we'll find out, man."

"Yeah, I guess we will," Jim echoed, meaning much more than the fate of Blair's hair.

Blair was right, it wouldn't be easy. To give up what he had, and wait to see what he'd get in return. To accept Blair for what he was and not what Jim hoped or thought he should become. And, hopefully, the self-confident Blair who returned would welcome the friendship that meant so much to Jim.

Only time would tell.

The End