"Man, I can't believe your fancy smancy Chinese bailed us out of that one."
"Mandarin," Xander clarified as he slid into the passenger seat of the vehicle. His partner shrugged.
"Yeah, well, whatever you said, it worked. Now I just need a bucket of cold beers to erase the memory of being held at gunpoint for six hours."
"I'm too exhausted to even drink," Xander replied. The older operative threw a duffel bag in the backseat before taking his spot behind the wheel. Xander leaned his head against the window and waited for the vehicle to hum to life. There was a stretch of silence, then—
"Yeah, Blaine." Xander couldn't keep the exhaustion out of his voice. He hadn't intended to spend half his Saturday tied up in a dirty warehouse speaking Mandarin until he literally ran out of words to say, but here he was, sporting a shiner that rivaled the large knot forming on the back of Blaine's head. The silence persisted, and Xander cracked an eye open to glance at the driver. "Anytime you want to get us outta here…"
No point mentioning the three unconscious crime bosses restrained nearly four hundred feet away and the retrieval unit that would soon relocate them to some unknown, equally dirty corner of the world. His feeble statement seemed to snap Blaine from his thoughts.
"Oh, yeah. Just thinking about, you know." Blaine gestured to Xander with a wave of his hand. "Seemed like a close call today."
"Every mission with you is a close call. Consider it a compliment." He made to close his eyes again when he felt Blaine give him an obnoxious shove. "Hey!"
"I'm serious, man. How's the ol' noodle holding up? Good, bad, ugly?"
"Blaine, I just spent the last hour stopping an international weapons deal from hitting the American market. Ask me tomorrow," Xander groaned, resuming his slouch against the car door. Blaine scoffed.
"Dude, we've both been tied up next to a crate of explosives and old Mexican takeout since we started this horrible day. And that doesn't include the whole "tell us who you work for or we'll blow your brains out" kumbaya. C'mon, man, be honest with me. I can get med eval here in minutes." Xander hesitated. He knew Blaine was right, that he'd be a fool not to get checked out after hours of mental fatigue. But…
"Seriously, Blaine. I'm good. Just get me a bed and a week straight of PTO."
"Xander, keep in mind that as your superior I can veto any of your decisions anytime I want," Blaine huffed, earning a rebuke from his partner.
"You promised me you'd never do that."
"And you promised me that you wouldn't be a walking I-D-I-O-T but here we are. Trust goes both ways, man."
"Then trust me when I say that it's FINE," Xander snapped. The words came out harsher than he intended, but he didn't have the strength to amend them. Instead, he turned his head away from Blaine's patented glare.
The duo sat in fuming silence. Xander crossed his arms as Blaine started the engine. The staccato of helicopter blades above, signaling the arrival of their retrieval team, was a welcome distraction. Blaine turned onto the backwater road and Xander was all too eager to leave the post mission clean-up to the experts.
"So." Blaine began, after a minute or two of mute driving. "Who was calling you back there?"
"Back where? The warehouse?" Xander grumbled.
"Nah, man. Not the warehouse. That pancake place we went to this morning for breakfast. Your phone went off, like, three times." Xander shot up in his seat.
"My phone went off?"
"Yeah, you left it on the table when you went to the bathroom. What, you have some sort of lady friend, or—" Xander ignored him as he twisted in his seat and dug through the duffel bag in back until he located his cell phone. Since breakfast had been interrupted by the arrival of his boss to petition them for the high-profile bag-and-tag, he hadn't had time to give his phone a second glance before the mission. "What the hell, man?"
The blonde chose not to answer. He turned on the phone and noted the number of voicemails with a grimace. He listened to the first one then dropped the phone to his side; there was no need to listen to the others.
"Blaine, drop me off at the closest mall. I've gotta pick something up."
"What's wrong? Girlfriend needs you to buy her a purse or something? Dude, you've gotta learn how to say 'no' once in a while. Maybe if you say it in Chinese, she'll get the hint."
"Mandarin," Xander corrected automatically. "And no, it's nothing like that. Just drop me off and I'll take a taxi back to HQ when I'm done." At this, the car gave an abrupt lurch to one side as Blaine manhandled the wheel.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold on there, Sparky. You're not gonna go gallivanting off by yourself after that hellish mission we just went through!"
"Yeah, well, no offense, but I don't exactly want you tagging along. It's personal," Xander countered.
"And me watching your back and not getting chewed out by Boss Lady is kinda personal, too," Blaine said. "So, let's make this shopping trip quick."
"You're not coming with me, Blaine."
"YEAH. I think I am. Now, who's up for some Country Gold?" Blaine smirked and cranked the radio up despite Xander's protests.
The duo pulled into the parking lot of a sorry looking cluster of shops. Xander exited the vehicle and made a beeline for the closest retail store with a curious operative at his heels.
"All right, buddy. What's the plan? And if you mention going by the food court, forget it. This place probably has worse food than that Mexican takeout I had to stare at all morning."
"Just wait in the car for me. I'll only be inside a couple of minutes," Xander persisted, but he was met with the same unwavering attitude.
"No way, man. You'll probably run off or something, and then I'd have to explain to the big cheese how I lost our golden boy at Corncob Save-A-Lot."
"I thought you said that trust goes both ways," Xander said over his shoulder as he entered one of the department stores.
"I trust you enough to trust that you'll do something stupid the moment I turn my back," Blaine grumbled. Xander was too fed up to bother rolling his eyes.
"Then stand guard by the door. I really don't care." He heard his partner give a snort of disapproval.
"Fine. Maybe I will."
Xander tuned out Blaine's running commentary and sifted through the discounted bins lining the back wall. Thankfully, Blaine chose to remain steadfast by the only exit, which meant he could search through the miscellaneous stock in peace. While his hands worked, pushing unwanted items to the side, his thoughts wandered to the voicemail that had shattered his post mission afternoon.
It was getting worse.
Xander felt partly to blame. That same clawing guilt resurfaced, as it did every time he received one of those calls. Maybe if he'd left college sooner, he would've seen the signs for what they were. Maybe he shouldn't even have moved away for college at all. That was his first mistake. He'd been so self-absorbed in his education that he never noticed the obvious…Never said all the things that needed to be said before…
A hand clapped Xander on the shoulder and he jumped at the unexpected touch.
"Hey. You okay, Xander?" Blaine removed his hand and settled for leaning against one of the bargain bins. "You've been over here for, like, ten minutes." Xander frowned and looked at his watch.
"It's been three minutes, Blaine."
"Well it felt like ten. And this place smells. C'mon, man, make it quick. I'm ready to bounce." Xander dug through the contents again with purpose. It remained blessedly silent until—
"You don't look too good, man."
"I know. Black eyes aren't really my thing." The hand returned to Xander's shoulder, the grip harder this time.
"I appreciate the whole 'macho, tough guy' act, but I've been in this game long enough to know when something's wrong."
Xander withdrew an object from the bin and brushed the calloused hand away.
"See? Told you it would only take a couple of minutes." He allowed Blaine to swipe the folded item from his possession.
"We drove all this way for a wallet? And it's not even a good one!"
"It doesn't need to be expensive. It just needs to work," Xander explained, swiping the folded leather back. He approached the checkout and paid, trying to block out Blaine's continued tirade throughout the transaction. Xander pocketed the wallet and walked back over the crumbling tarmac to their vehicle. The pair clamored inside in silence. Xander pulled up the desired address on his phone and punched in the coordinates.
"Where are we headed?" Blaine asked, drumming his fingers along the steering wheel in beat to the music. He turned onto the street while Xander floundered for an answer.
"Family, huh? Well, just remember the cover story we penned for you back at HQ."
"Not like I'll need it," Xander mumbled under his breath. Sensing Blaine's unease, he decided to play along. "Yeah, yeah. I got it. Apparently I carve figurines out of coconut husks and sell them on Etsy."
"Damn right you do." Another moment of hesitation, then: "So, dude, what's going on? I mean, I'm all for road-tripping, but this is not the kind of evening I had in mind for myself. We've already passed three bars, all of which had a beer waiting for me with my name on it."
"It's my grandpa," Xander finally yielded. "I got a call that he wasn't doing well."
"Jeezus, Xander. Is he okay? Is he in the hospital?" Blaine asked. Xander could feel the vehicle accelerate as Blaine sped down the highway.
"No, he's okay, Blaine. He's just having one of those days, you know?"
"No, I don't know," Blaine confessed. "Unless it's a "crap-I-lost-my-wallet" kind of day."
At that moment, Blaine's phone came to life from on top of the dash. With a nod from Blaine, Xander accepted the incoming summons from their boss and set the audio to speakerphone.
"Howdy there, boss lady," Blaine answered before the woman had the chance to speak. "How's it hanging?"
"Just peachy, considering that two of my undercover operatives foiled a black market arms deal in the span of five hours then decided to take an unauthorized road trip into civilian territory."
"You see, I was REALLY in the mood for McDonald's—" Blaine began.
"Shut up, Blaine. I could really care less where you're going, but just so we're clear, I'm giving you an hour. After that, if your butts aren't back in my office ready for the debriefing and medical follow up, I'll have you taken there. Forcefully."
"Two hours," Xander piped up, to both his boss and Blaine's surprise. He could almost image the woman's smirk from over the line.
"One and a half."
"You got yourself a deal, missy," Blaine said with a wry grin. "See you in ninety."
After at least five country songs (and Blaine's horrible singing voice), a steady rain started to fall. Unlike Blaine, who cursed at the abrupt turn of weather, Xander rolled down his window and stuck a hand out to feel the droplets on his skin.
He'd always loved the rain. There was something about the smell of wet earth and the promise of muddy puddles that made all those childhood memories come rushing back. As a kid, he'd play for hours out in the woods wading through creek beds until his grandparents called him inside for dinner.
Xander let his gaze drop to the folded wallet in his lap and felt his elation dampen slightly. His thoughts were about to derail into another memory when Blaine's drawl cut through the dreamy calm.
"God, Xander, I gotta pee like a racehorse. Are we getting close to your grandpa's place cuz I'm really hurting over here, bud." Xander pinched the bridge of his nose.
"Blaine, we are literally two minutes away. Just hold it."
"Man, I don't know if I can make it. It's bad enough I've been holding it for twenty minutes, and now Mother Nature has to torture me with this rainstorm from hell," Blaine huffed. He glanced at Xander with a grimace. "How much farther?"
"One minute fifty seconds."
"That's it, I'm pulling over," Blaine said. He gave the wheel a sharp turn then cursed under his breath. "Cops. Aw, crap. They're camped out on the side of the road." Xander snickered, earning a glare from the driver.
"One minute thirty seconds."
"Xander, if I wasn't about to unleash Niagara Falls, I'd punch you so hard across the face right about now."
"You're the one who wanted a countdown," Xander retorted.
"Yeah, a HELPFUL countdown. Anything over a minute makes me gotta pee more!" Blaine scowled. The blonde threw his hands up in the air.
"What do you want me to do? Lie about the countdown? Fine. We have twenty five seconds to go."
"Well, that's not gonna work now since I CLEARLY know that I have over a minute left to drive!"
"Then you can work this one out yourself. Just look for the blue building. Can't miss it."
"FINE!" Blaine clenched the steering wheel harder then cast Xander a commiserating stare. "Hey, so, uh, how close are we now?"
Precisely forty five seconds later, the operative parked the vehicle like a bat out of hell and darted inside the pale yellow lobby. Xander followed, his steps slowing as he reached the counter. He exchanged pleasantries with the receptionist and signed in, just as Blaine strutted toward him from the men's room.
"Must've had a little guardian angel watching my back today."
"You say that only after the morning we had?" Before Blaine could reply, the blonde dismissed the question with a wave of his hand. "You know what? Don't answer that. Listen, I'm gonna be awhile, so you can hang out in the lobby or go to the diner across the street—"
"Nah, man. I figured I'd go with you. Gotta make sure that your Etsy projects are rock solid and all that jazz," Blaine said and gave an exaggerated wink to the woman behind the counter. "Hello, ma'am. Where do I sign in?"
Xander said nothing. He waited for Blaine to finish then walked down the hallway toward the familiar apartment door on the end. Ignoring Blaine's barrage of questions, he entered and adopted a smile when he saw the older man sitting in one of his favorite chairs.
"Hey grandpa," Xander said, and took a seat beside him.
Blaine kept to the kitchen and made a pot of coffee at Xander's insistence. From the living room, he could overhear some of Xander and Grandpa Xander's exchange.
"Here, grandpa. I got you something," Blaine heard the blonde say. "You called me this morning and said you'd lost your wallet."
"Yeah. But that's okay. Here's one you can use."
Not thirty seconds later, Blaine noticed their quiet conversation take a familiar turn.
"This isn't my wallet. Do you know where I put my wallet?"
"You lost your wallet, remember? I bought you a new one."
For twenty minutes, Blaine watched as Xander answered the same round of questions, mostly regarding the new wallet he'd purchased. It was only when Xander's patience started to wear thin that Blaine barged his way between them and offered the two men a cup of coffee.
"That's a nice wallet you got there. Mind if I take a look?" Blaine asked, and, after receiving the elderly man's polite consent, gently took the wallet from his hands. He returned to the kitchen shortly thereafter and placed it on the table, out of view from the duo sitting in the living room.
The repetitive loop of questions ceased, for a time, until Xander's grandpa started to wipe away a sudden onslaught of tears.
"Grandpa, why are you crying?"
"I don't know. I'm just…sad."
"Why are you sad? Are you in any pain? Did something happen?" Xander pressed, the coffee left untouched.
"No. I just started crying and can't stop," came the earnest answer. Blaine saw the exhausted dip of Xander's shoulders as the blonde tried to console his sobbing family member. Once the tears abated, Grandpa Xander stood and started to search the room.
"What are you looking for, grandpa?"
"My wallet. I can't find it."
"Grandpa, I've got it taken care of. Just take a seat and relax, okay?"
When it was time to depart, Xander embraced his grandpa and promised to visit another time. A fresh stream of tears rolled down his grandpa's face.
"It was just so wonderful to have you here. Are you coming back?"
"Of course I'm coming back. I don't know when, but I'll let you know."
"Do I have it written down on the calendar?" the man asked and shuffled to the fridge where a large calendar was pinned to the front by a magnet. He began to flip through the pages despite Xander's objections.
"No, grandpa. I haven't planned a date yet. It's not going to be on the calendar."
"When are you going to come back?"
"I don't know yet. Probably soon," Xander repeated. "Look, I've got to head out, but we'll catch up later, okay?"
Blaine and Xander returned to the truck in silence and resumed their usual spots. Blaine gunned the engine and left the blue building behind them. It was the sound of Xander's ringtone that snapped the blonde to attention.
"Hey grandpa," he answered, his voice hoarse. There was a moment of weighty silence before Xander added, "Keep it. It's yours. I bought it for you today since you said you'd lost your other one." He ended the call soon after, dropping the phone to his side. Blaine pretended not to notice and, instead, fiddled with the radio station.
"He has Alzheimer's," Xander spoke. He remained slouched against the window, staring at the pitter-patter of raindrops that pelted the glass.
"Your grandpa's a good guy, Xander," Blaine said. "So what if he forgot a couple things?"
"He's not gonna get any better."
"Kinda like my paycheck," came the cheeky reply. Xander gave a feeble laugh. "Look, man, I might just be the outside-looking-in guy, but it seems like it's gonna be a lot easier for you if you have a sense of humor about it. So, stop worrying."
"It's not that easy."
"Sure it is. And it beats stressing out about something you have no control over."
"So I guess buying my confused grandpa a new wallet wasn't my brightest idea, huh?" Xander said. He let his forehead press against the cool glass.
"I don't know about that. It made for a pretty damn good reason to see him, don't you think?" countered Blaine. "In our line of work, you learn to cherish those moments afterhours. Even if all you did was talk about some cheap wallet you found last minute at the store."
"In a weird way, that kind of made sense."
"What are you talking about? I always make sense."
Xander resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "Fifteen minutes thirty five seconds until we make it back to HQ. Better get a move on before boss sends out the cavalry. I'll even buy you that beer."
"Now THAT's more like it! Cold beer, here I come!"