To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition.
- Samuel Johnson (1709 - 1784)
"No more fucking tests!" Jim shouted, pulling the headphones off and flinging them onto the coffee table. He put his head in his hands and sighed deeply before rubbing his face and looking up at Blair. "I'm sorry, Chief. I'm so fucking sorry."
Blair stared at him. "But they've gone off-line before. You know this. Are you just gonna give up? Did you decide you didn't want them?"
"No, I didn't decide. I didn't do anything. Why don't you believe me? I told you; I had that miserable cold, I ached and my head hurt and I couldn't really think. When I was better, they were gone."
Blair looked at him, at Jim's face in profile, his lips tightened by some emotion, his eyes hooded and averted. Blair sighed.
"I'm sorry, Chief. I, it's just . . ." But Jim didn't finish his thought.
Blair closed his eyes and leaned his head against the back of the couch. The revelation was too much for him to absorb. They'd been doing tests for weeks, on the assumption that Jim's perceptions were temporarily off-line. That the cold had temporarily dimmed his senses to normal. But maybe they really were missing. Permanently missing.
But what would that make him? Whose guide would he be now? Shit, he'd given up his fucking life for those senses; how could they just not be there?
"I'm sorry," he heard Jim whisper again. Blair got off the couch and headed toward his room.
But locked in his little room didn't help anything. He felt caged. Crazed. Enraged. He opened the doors and stalked to the front door, snatching at his coat. Blair saw Jim watching him closely but said nothing, just left as quickly as he could slip his coat on and his keys into his jeans pocket.
Finally outside in the dripping morning, he paused to think. Where the hell was he going? He had a job to get to, a real job. Simon needed to know, anyway, about the changes. Of course, if Jim's senses were permanently gone, that meant Simon was free to pair Jim with anyone Simon wanted. There would be no need for Blair.
There is no need for me, he thought disconsolately, kicking a pebble off the sidewalk and into the street. He shoved his hands into his pockets and started walking toward the harbor. Maybe exercise would get the blood flowing to his brain. Or maybe he'd see an apartment for rent.
Jesus the fuck Christ, he thought, looking around at the glowing grey light of another wet Cascade day; what have I done. I've given away everything; I'm not anyone I ever thought I'd be, and for what? To be with Jim, because he needed me, because I owe him, because I want to. Because I love him.
Down Prospect, then down Seventh to Water Street, and then he stopped at the railings above the docks in the harbor. No one was out except a black cat daintily picking its way through the puddles, pausing to study Blair suspiciously. "Hey, kitty," he said softly, and the cat turned back to its task, jumping onto a coil of rope and wrapping its tail around itself primly.
The tide was out and Blair could smell the mud on the beaches. Water slapped at the hulls of the boats and plashed against the harbor wall. Oil gleamed on the surface of the water, iridescent in the early light. The air smelled fresh, with a undertone of diesel.
Blair wondered if he could call in sick today. Just stay away from the PD and from Jim. Maybe spend the morning in a coffee house, reading foreign newspapers, eavesdropping on the chess players. He'd used to play chess, had been rather good at it, when he was younger and had had more time. Before he'd discovered sentinels, the subject that had consumed his life.
He headed toward the one working payphone on the docks and called Simon for advice.
"Nothin'?" Simon asked Jim a few weeks later as they stood sipping coffee, observing the cleanup of a massive traffic accident caused by some particularly inept bankrobbers.
Jim shrugged. "Smells like gas," he offered almost apologetically.
Simon snorted. "That's the coffee." Jim smiled against the edge of the cup. He was watching Blair direct the booking of the three thieves, older gentlemen who should have known better. He'd be interested in their story, Jim knew; it was the sort of thing Blair would understand. Why would three retirees rob a bank -- poverty due to retirement? An unwillingness to work at McDonalds? Just something to do? Blair would know by the time they met again at the pickup, parked behind him and up the street.
"Narcotics has been askin' for him."
Jim turned to Simon. "No fucking way."
Simon refused to look back at Jim. "Way, Jim. He's damn good. He's young and looks younger. Those curls -- Jesus. A close shave, the right clothes, he could pass for high school. They want him."
"Not your decision."
Jim started to respond but the truth of the statement stopped him. It wasn't his decision. It was Simon's, and Blair's, and Narcotic's. Because Jim didn't need Blair anymore, did he. Without the senses, they were just partners. Just two men who worked together. Exceptionally well together, in Jim's opinion, but the need wasn't there.
And why don't I feel good about that? Jim wondered, unable to swallow his coffee past the lump in his throat. He tossed the container into a yellow trash bin on the corner and stalked over to Blair. His partner. The one doing such a good job that other detectives and other departments wanted his assistance, were willing to overlook his public refutation of his dissertation. Because who gave a fuck about some academic piece of paper when evidence of competence, no, of excellence, was in their faces every fucking day.
"Ready, boss?" Jim murmured. Blair didn't stop talking or take his eyes off the three men as he escorted them into two prowlers, but a slight crinkling at the corners of his eyes let Jim know he'd been heard. He stood, arms crossed, until Blair returned to him, smiling and shaking his head.
"Go figure," he said. "They're all old enough to be my great-grandfather."
"Back to the station?"
Blair nodded and headed off toward the pickup, those short curls Simon had commented on ruffling in the early afternoon breeze off the harbor. He'd lost weight, Jim noticed, eyeing his partner, or maybe just shed a few pounds of flannel in the early summer of Cascade. No, he'd lost weight. Chasing after crooks, working out with Jim, running with Rafe after work -- he was wiry, and muscular across the shoulders and forearms now. Not the same kid he'd been all those years ago, when Jim so easily had thrown him against the wall in his basement office.
Not the same kid at all.
Jim saw Simon watching them. He nodded shortly at his supervisor. Yeah, I'm thinking about it, the nod was meant to convey. They'd been friends a long time, longer than Jim had known Sandburg, and knew each other pretty well. Simon had planted the seed. Jim knew that Simon knew that Jim would take care of the rest.
"What do you want?"
"Goddammit, Sandburg. It doesn't matter what I want. What do *you* want?"
Blair studied him, his eyes moving over Jim's face as if reading something there. "I want to know what you want."
Jim turned away from him and wiped the counter in their kitchen. He swallowed hard, trying to calm down. Finally, he said, "I don't want to tell you. I don't want to influence you."
"Jim." After a pause, he turned back to his partner and roommate. "I want you to influence me. I need you to, okay? What. Do. You. Want?"
Ashamed, feeling a slight blush, Jim stammered, "I, uh, don't want you to go." A little more firmly, he said, "Don't you go, okay?"
Blair's smile was a treasure for Jim to hold against his heart. "Okay." He nodded several times, bobbing his entire body with pleasure. "Okay. I'll tell Simon."
Jim watched him walk into the living room and drop to the couch, rolling his head back. A few months ago, Jim wouldn't have had to ask him what he'd wanted; he'd've known from Blair's heart rate, respiration, perspiration, smell. Now they were reduced to this: simple honesty. The hardest thing in the world.
But, by god, Blair didn't want to go. Jim felt a smile on his cranky face. What a sap he was.
When the phone rang, he raised an eyebrow at Sandburg, lounging on the couch while Jim finished cleaning the kitchen. He and Blair had this *thing* about answering their phone at home, left over no doubt from the bad days of The Press Conference, as it was immortalized in Jim's mind. Jim preferred to let the machine get it first; Blair thought that was rude, but didn't particularly want to answer it himself. By the third ring, Blair had given up and stretched out to pick up the receiver and click *on*.
"Sandburg." Blair's large eyes got larger and he looked at Jim for support. "Professor Stoddard?" Jim tossed the dishtowel onto the counter and moved with covert ops speed and grace to Blair's side, leaning his head against Blair's, the receiver between them, so he could overhear the conversation.
Distantly, mechanically, he could hear a voice. "Hate to ask you, my boy. I know you have a new life, a new career, but your skills would be invaluable. I don't know who else to turn to, Blair. Could we at least meet, talk this over?"
Jim sat back and watched. Blair sighed deeply and rubbed his forehead. "I don't know, Professor Stoddard. I can't imagine how I could help you, with everything that's happened. Plus, as you say, I have a life now."
Jim shook his head: No. No. No. Blair nodded slightly, still listening to Stoddard. He started to speak a couple times but was clearly overruled. At last he said, "Okay, for coffee. Please don't get your hopes up, Professor. This isn't something I'm going to do." Jim pointed sharply at his own chest. "Oh, and my partner will be there, too. Okay. Yeah. In a few."
He tossed the phone away. "Hear enough?"
"He wants your help. That sanctimonious, hypocritical --"
"Yeah, yeah. Let it go, Jim. He doesn't know the truth and we're not gonna tell him, so what else can he think? He must be desperate if he's turning to me. Something about artifacts in Fiji."
"Chief, weren't you a cultural anthropologist? Why would he ask you for help with artifacts, anyway?" Blair eyed him with some admiration. "Hey, I sat through enough of your lectures to know there's a difference between cultural anthropology and archaeology. Artifacts are archaeology, right?" Blair nodded, a slight smile curling his lips. Jim lightly smacked the back of his head.
"Put your shoes on, man. We gotta see a man about an artifact."
Stoddard had asked to meet them in a coffee house not far from where they lived, in the direction of campus but not too near. Perhaps that was sensitivity on his part, perhaps convenience, but Jim appreciated the fact that it wasn't filled with Gen Xers and Yers and college students who might recognize Blair. Just a couple retirees playing chess, a pair of men obviously in love, and a middle-aged woman typing on a blue iBook. Stoddard was already there, in a booth at the back, away from the windows. Jim ordered for himself and Blair; he knew Blair's tastes in coffee and sweets by now, while Stoddard and Blair awkwardly shook each other's hands.
Jim watched them surreptitiously as he waited his turn at the counter, wondering yet again why Stoddard hadn't bothered to call Blair after The Press Conference. He was still bewildered and hurt on his friend's behalf that so few people at Rainier had realized Blair wasn't capable of so unethical an act. They all had known that he was the great obfuscator; how could they not realize what was going on? He would have liked to believe that Blair's friends and teachers knew and were silently conspiring to protect them, but, as a detective, he admitted there was little evidence to support this hope.
By the time he ferried to the table the two cups of coffee with a plate of madeleines balanced on top of one, they were deep in conversation. "I'm sorry I didn't call you, Blair. I just can't understand why you'd lie like that --"
"Detective Sandburg didn't lie," Jim interrupted gruffly, holding out the coffee cup with the cookies so Blair would remove the plate. "Shit happened. You should have had the courtesy to call and find out the truth."
"Jim," Blair put his hand on Jim's arm as he sat next to his partner.
To Jim's gratification, Stoddard did look ashamed. "Detective Sandburg," he repeated softly. "Wow."
Well, that made Jim almost smile. Hanging with twenty-somethings for most of his life, Stoddard still spoke like one.
"You're right, Detective Ellison. I wasn't a good scientist about this. I guess it was fear, and anger, and hurt. But Blair," and Stoddard peered into Blair's guileless eyes, "why did you say in the press conference that your dissertation was a lie?"
"Because that's what that publisher thought he had," Jim answered for him. Blair sighed and turned to him.
"Do I need to ask you to go home?" After a pause, Jim picked up a cookie and dunked it into his coffee, thence into his mouth.
"What happened on Fiji, Professor?"
"Please, Blair, call me Eli. We've known each other fifteen years; you're no longer my student." Blair nodded, but gestured with his cookie for Stoddard to continue. "You remember, I'm sure, that I've worked in Borneo for many summers, since the sixties. As a result, I've made a lot of friends who work in that part of the world, in the South Pacific and in Southeast Asia. I have a good friend at the University of Hawaii who runs a field school each summer in Fiji.
"They're doing amazing work out there, finding cultural artifacts from thousands of miles away. They're irreplaceable, priceless, significant contributions to our understanding of prehistoric trade relations among the South Sea Islands.
"Fiji has had a military coup; the president and his cabinet are being held hostage. There have been riots in the capital, Suva. The sugar cane workers are on strike and running through the streets of Suva with their machetes. Even though the dig is isolated and far from the capital, the conflict between the ethnic Fijians and the Indians brought in by the British to cut cane has escalated to the point that these archaeological sites are being damaged.
"My friend, David, and his wife Therese went out there with a few students to try to do some emergency archaeology. At the very least, to take some photographs and measurements, maybe hide some of the more valuable deposits in some way."
Jim interrupted. "Professor Stoddard, I was in the military for many years. I was never stationed in the South Pacific, but I was in a number of politically unstable areas of the world. So I can say with some authority that it's nuts to head out to an isolated place that's undergoing a coup. That's the kind of thing you get away from. How'd he get permission to go there?"
Stoddard made a face. "I don't think he actually did, Detective Ellison. He, his wife, some graduate students, and a couple colleagues who teach in the field school just took off. They know their way around --- they've worked there for twenty years."
"But they've disappeared. No contact in two weeks. David's my friend; students' lives are at risk; those artifacts must be saved. His brother-in-law Philippe called me a few days ago. I've done everything I can from Cascade. I need to get out there."
"No artifact is worth a human life," Jim said with certainty and turned to Blair. But Blair was staring at Stoddard with something like delight on his face. Jim's stomach twisted. Oh, shit.
"Will you help me, Blair? Come with me. We can bring supplies and food, see if they're okay, help get them out if they're not."
"No," Jim said quickly.
Blair took his eyes off Stoddard with evident difficulty. "Jim, people are in danger. People I probably know, or at least have read their papers and heard at conferences."
To Jim's surprise, Blair put his hand on Jim's chest. "We need to talk about this, Jim," he said mildly. The rebuke stung; Jim knew his tendency to make precipitous decisions had proved detrimental to Blair in the past. He longed for his senses as he never had before. To need Blair in such a way that Blair couldn't think of leaving him. To feel Blair's pulse where his hand lay on Jim's chest. He dropped his eyes. His chest felt empty and cold when Blair removed his hand.
"I'll need more information, Eli."
"Of course." He pulled out a sheaf of papers: maps and diagrams and State Department warnings about marshal law and curfews.
Jim stood helplessly in the doorway of Blair's small room and watched his friend pack. He'd said everything he could think of, every way he knew how. He was reduced to silence and sorrow.
Although Jim's senses no longer allowed him to hear the tiny hitches of breath and erratic heart rate, Blair's red face and swollen eyes told Jim how angry and upset their argument had made him. Jim had been as brutal as he knew how, trying to persuade him to stay. In spite of Jim's knowledge of Blair as the original immovable object, he'd pushed as hard as he could.
Now he had to do something else.
Blair's shoulders rose and his body tensed as Jim approached him. Jim put his hands on Blair's shoulders and gently rubbed the knotted muscles. "I have to go," Blair whispered.
"I know," Jim whispered back. "I know you do. I'm sorry. I had to try."
They stood together for nearly a minute before Jim slid his hands down Blair's shoulders and across his chest, pulling him into an embrace. Blair put his hands over Jim's and leaned back, trusting Jim to keep him steady.
"I will miss you, Blair." Blair pulled away a fraction, just enough to turn and slip his hands under Jim's arms and around his back. Jim lifted his head and then laid it down, his cheek against Blair's temple.
"Two weeks, Jim. That's all. I promise."
"Don't leave me again."
Blair shook his head slightly. "Not again. I promise."
Jim didn't cry. But he held on for a long time, to prepare for the two weeks away from Blair. Just two weeks.
But two weeks turned into three, and three into four. Jim's pale face frightened everyone; he retreated into the sullen rage of a decade earlier. Simon tried pairing him with Joel and finally took him off the street before anything happened. Sitting at his desk, staring into the computer monitor, Jim began to research Fiji. He'd learned enough from Blair about the internet and search engines to discover how terrifying the situation in Fiji really was. Curfew had been expanded to both of the two larger islands, from eight in the evening to eight in the morning. The State Department had issued another warning, urging U.S. residents to leave the island or at least to evacuate Suva. One president was being held hostage; another had been selected and then immediately instructed to resign. The ethnic divisions were profound, with Europeans making up only five per cent of the population. A white male like Blair would be instantly recognizable as the enemy.
Jim dreamed at night of old conflicts, of being sent in on impossible assignments to prepare for CIA-inspired coups or clean up after them. He knew what civil unrest looked like. He knew what a machete did to the human body. He knew what torture, starvation, deprivation, and illness looked like. He knew what Blair might be facing.
People seemed to float through Jim's life, appearing and disappearing like special effects in a theatre. Simon's face, Joel's big hand on his shoulder. Rhonda bringing him coffee and a danish. Rafe asking him to go running with him. Henri wondering if he wanted to have lunch. But never Blair's face.
Jim and Simon had both called the American Consulate, trying to get more information. Simon called Rainier. Jim overcame his reluctance and called an old acquaintance in the CIA. Together Jim and Simon met with a political scientist from Rainier who had a specialty in that part of the world.
The sum of their knowledge was little more than what Jim had gleaned from the web and talking to Stoddard and Blair before they'd left. It was a troubled region. Isolated. Seventeen hundred miles to New Zealand. Over three hundred islands; Jim wasn't even sure where Blair was supposed to be.
He decided he had to go out there. As foolish as he knew that decision was, he could make no other. He'd gone after Simon; he'd go after Blair. It was what he did. If he had to check every single island, he would. He would find Blair and bring him home.
So he had had his passport renewed and had already started packing when he got the phone call.
Stoddard's voice was thready and hoarse, and static obscured some of his words. Jim pressed the earpiece tightly against his ear and plugged the opposite one with a finger. "Stoddard? Where's Blair?"
"Fiji! I had to leave him . . ."
"Speak up, goddammit! Where the fuck is Blair?"
"He's still in Fiji, Detective. We had to go but he was still sick . . ."
"You left him sick in Fiji?" Jim honestly couldn't believe he'd heard the words correctly. "In Waya?"
"No, at Likuliku, I think. I don't know. I was sick, too. Ellison, listen to me . . ."
"Where the fuck *are* you?"
"Auckland. New Zealand. Listen, we had to leave him. I didn't have a choice. He was sick and the others were able to escape. It was that simple."
"It's never that simple," Jim said flatly.
"Detective Ellison." Stoddard fell silent for a few seconds. "Listen, to me. I need your help." He spoke slowly; Jim pressed the phone closer to his ear, trying to understand both the words and their meaning. "There were nine of us. Eight could leave. What would you have done?"
"I wouldn't have left Blair! He was the most expendable, that it? He lied on the fucking dissertation, what the hell, who needs him? That your thinking, doc? Just leave the little cheat behind?"
"Do you think I wanted to leave him? I know what I did. I was the one who --" tears filled his breaking voice -- "I was the one who had to make the decision. I said, we're going. I said, goodbye. I know what I did, Detective Ellison. Nothing you can say to me will ever hurt as much as that knowledge."
Jim stared at his kitchen. His senses confirmed that Stoddard was telling him the truth. Then he realized -- he could hear Stoddard through the static. He could hear elevator music playing in the background. He could hear Stoddard's heartbeat and breathing; he could probably hear his synapses firing. He knew that Stoddard was telling the truth. And he knew that he needed Blair.
"I'll be there tomorrow. Where are you staying."
Stoddard began to cry. Even over the crappy connection, Jim could tell he was still unwell. "I'm calling from a hospital in Auckland. I just was released. Haven't found a place to stay, but I'll call you tonight."
"I'll be gone by tonight. Check in with the American Embassy; I'll go there first." Jim realized there was something wrong with Stoddard's heart. Its beat was -- off. Irregular. He really was ill. "Maybe you should check back in to the hospital."
"No. No, I can't. We have to get Blair. He's sick, with dengue fever. I had to leave him, the others needed to get out."
"Shh, shh," Jim tried. "I'll be there as soon as I can. You get some rest, Professor. Don't drop dead till you can tell me where Blair is."
Stoddard sniffed sloppily and laughed, a little. "Yeah. Good idea. I'll find a hotel and then call the embassy. We'll meet up as soon as you get here."
"Thank you for calling," Jim finally said, a bit hesitantly. "For not waiting. For not coming back to Cascade."
"I had to," Stoddard said simply.
Simon drove Jim to the airport, listening grimly to his report of the conversation. "Shit," was his only comment, repeated with some frequency. "I'll take care of the loft, Jim. You just get Blair back."
"I made arrangements with my cell phone company for international calls. Theoretically, you just dial and you'll get me."
"Yeah, well." Simon wasn't a big believer in high technology, any more than Jim was. Now, low technology -- machetes had their place. So did knives, and a big one Jim had carried while in the Rangers was in his backpack. Illegal as shit to take onboard an airplane, but Jim thought his badge might get it past security. Maybe. He could try.
"Bring him home, Jim," Simon said, staring into Jim's pale eyes as they sat in his enormous car in front of Qantas. Jim nodded. What could he say? He would bring him home or die. Simon knew that. Impulsively, he hugged his supervisor and friend, feeling Simon's shock and then his return embrace. Then Jim was gone, pushing his way through the crowd of excited vacationers heading to the South Pacific of their dreams.
A trans-Pacific flight isn't easy on anyone, but it was particularly difficult for a man of Jim's size and build, and for someone in such a hurry to get there. He stalked the aisles, frightening children and concerning the stewards. He loitered by the tiny bathrooms, stretching his back and leg muscles. He stared out the portholes into the endless clouds and endless ocean, seeing the curve of the earth, as soft as a woman's breast. He counted birds sitting on the ocean thirty thousand feet below. He slept fitfully, read trashy magazines left by other passengers, watched two very poorly edited movies, and snapped at his seatmates.
By the time he staggered off the plane in Auckland, his head was throbbing, his lumbar was in knots, and his thigh muscles were trembling. He carried one of Blair's backpacks stuffed with a few clothes and lots of supplies. Dengue fever. Not much to do for it but rest, Tylenol, and plenty of water. He'd brought powdered Gatorade, a Costco-sized bottle of Tylenol, water purifying tablets, and organic chocolate bars. And as much American money hidden away as he could gather in one afternoon.
It was winter in New Zealand and Fiji, so he'd also brought sweatshirts for them both. Cascade PD sweatshirts. If anything had happened to Blair, he'd use them as their shrouds and then lie down next to his guide and die. He knew that. Simon knew that. And wherever Blair was, Blair knew it, too.
But if Blair lived. Well, Jim focused on that. Seeing Blair's surprise when Jim walked up to him in some exotic jungle and said: Detective Sandburg, I presume? He wanted that cliche more than he wanted life for himself. He wanted to see Blair roll his eyes, maybe punch Jim in the arm. He wanted to see Blair smile. He wanted Blair.
He jogged out to the taxi stand, remembering to climb into the front seat so as not to offend the Kiwi's sensibilities, and asked to be taken to the American Embassy. Simon had given him some NZ dollars before he'd left, but he'd have to change money here, for more NZ and Fijian dollars. He also had a list of Fijian words and phrases. English might be the official language of Fiji, but Jim had been enough isolated places in the world to know official anything didn't mean shit.
En Zed dollars, he told himself, smiling a little, hearing Blair's voice in his head. Jim knew he was imagining it, but he somehow felt closer to Blair here. As if some essence of Blair, some tendril of his existence had reached out from Fiji all the way to New Zealand to greet Jim.
Jim had told Stoddard he'd see him the day after they'd talked, but it was three days from the phone call. The date change, the long flight, and searching him out from the embassy's instructions took time, time Jim bitterly resented but out of long experience schooled himself to accept. He had to choose his battles, horde his strength. Fuel his anger.
So it was late at night before Jim found the elderly professor, who looked a decade older than he had in the coffee shop where they'd met nearly five weeks earlier. Much of his hair had fallen out; his face was peeling from a bad sunburn. He lay sweating in the air conditioned bedroom of a mid-priced hotel and told his story in a monotone.
"David died shortly after we got there," he said, and wept unashamedly. Jim felt his own eyes prickle with tears at Stoddard's loss of a lifelong friend. "Dengue Shock Syndrome, I think. His wife Therese was there. Not in bad shape. Held together, I guess, by sheer willpower. The two professors from Hawaii were there but they'd been beaten by the Fijian nationalists; they're Asian. They thought their ethnicity was why, but who knows.
"There were four students. Two girls." Stoddard had closed his eyes. "The two young men had also been beaten, but not as badly as their teachers. One escaped after we were captured, so only three left with me. No one knew where the fourth one was, if he was alive or not. Personally, I think he's dead."
Their transportation was gone. The university's canoes and outboards had been stolen. The village they relied on was empty; the inhabitants had fled, either into the jungle or to other islands.
"Blair was extraordinary. He was so strong. He took care of everyone, had them move out. We were on Viwa, about eight kilometers from Waya, and he somehow got everybody back to the village at Waya. A few villagers were still there, hiding in the jungle. They helped us a little. Blair got everyone on Imodium AD and drinking neem tea. The mosquitoes were appalling, though. Wearing DEET and Skin-So-Soft barely helped.
"We were trying to get to Nadi, on Viti Levu. Travel was nearly impossible, though; everyone was so ill and exhausted. Blair found Fijians who agreed to take us to the next island chain, and then there he found others to take us a bit further south. But the Fijians were so angry, and they didn't want to bring the Asians along.
"By the time we'd gotten to the Mamanuca Islands, I was sick with dengue. We stopped for a day, and then Blair fell ill. No one was strong enough to take his place.
"And then the rebels found us."
Stoddard was grey with fatigue by the time he reached this point of his story. Jim knelt next to the bed and gingerly felt his forehead; he was burning up. He found Tylenol in the bathroom, and wrung out a damp washcloth.
"Just rest," he advised the older man. "That's enough for now. We'll talk in the morning." Jim took a pillow from the bed and lay on the floor, fully clothed. Stoddard really couldn't die before he'd told Jim what he needed to know. And they both needed to rest.
Stoddard woke in a few hours, shivering from fever. Jim helped him into the shower, letting the water cool his tremors. More of his hair washed down the drain. Jim wished he remembered more about dengue; he was sure something more than that was wrong with Stoddard. His heartbeat worried Jim, as did his passivity and depression.
When Stoddard again lay on the bed, Jim helping him sip tea, he said, "I have to go back."
"Are you well enough?"
Stoddard looked at him. "I have no choice. I left him there, Detective Ellison."
Jim flushed a little, recognizing himself in the statement. "Call me Jim," he mumbled shyly.
"Blair talked about you a lot," Stoddard said. "I feel as though I know you. He knew you'd come."
"Oh, yes. Not a doubt in the world. When the others would get depressed or frightened, he'd tell them about you. How you went to Peru and saved your friend and his son. How you'd brought Blair back from death. He knew you'd come for him and save all of us. It was enormously cheering."
"Where are the others?"
"Some in Auckland, some in Hawaii. When the rebels captured us, we thought they'd hold us for a ransom. We kept waiting for that. But they never did. They kept us together, but pretty much ignored us. Then one day about half of them disappeared. Maybe to go to Suva; I heard there's bad fighting there in the streets. I don't know. But we saw a chance to steal a canoe and escape. We were so close to Nadi, Jim. You have to understand. Three days away by canoe."
"But you didn't take Blair."
Stoddard shook his head. "He was so weak. The dengue hurt him so badly. A terrible fever, severe headache, nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, and deep muscle and joint pains.
"Do you know they call dengue 'break-bone fever' because of the pain in the muscles and joints? It hurt him too much to be moved. Then the rash showed up.
"I couldn't take him but we had to leave, Jim. I swear to you before God, on my dear wife's grave, I swear to you, I wouldn't have left him if I'd had any choice." Stoddard stared into Jim's eyes, pleading silently for his belief and acceptance. Slowly Jim nodded his head.
"Take it easy, Eli," Jim said absently, lifting the mug of tea to his lips again. "If you're gonna show me where you left Blair, you need to rest. Drink your fluids, right? That's what the travel literature says."
Stoddard nodded and took the mug from Jim, determined, Jim presumed, to show his strength. He drained the tea and asked for more.
Blair hadn't even known that he longed to return to the jungle until Eli had made his offer in that coffee shop. When he learned he was invited -- he, Blair Sandburg, acknowledged and admitted liar -- to assist his mentor and idol on a mission of international significance, he thought he'd stepped into another world. A world he'd dreamed of living in for half his life. To be respected among his peers. To make contributions in his field. To do the work he'd trained for for so very long.
Jim's face threw ice water on his excitement, but did nothing to quell his desire to go. It would be, he knew with absolute certainty, his last opportunity. Any future trips to the jungle, whether in the South Pacific, Africa, or Central America, would be middle-class vacations, probably taken with Jim or on tours. Never again would he have this opportunity. Never.
Jim couldn't understand his desire. For Jim, going to the jungle was an ordeal, something to be survived in the face of adversity and tragedy. For Blair, it had always been an exhilarating adventure, often sexual in nature. He was an attractive man and in isolated, slightly dangerous locations, students turned to each other for comfort. Brief but intense liaisons were made and unmade and made again. His most profound and unforgettable sexual experiences had occurred in the fecundity of the jungle.
Not that there was anything sexual in nature in this proposed trip, but the damage had been done. For Blair, the jungle and danger and sex were inextricably bound, something he didn't think he'd ever be able to explain to Jim. Blair was in his thirties now, with a real job, a career, a partner, a savings account. He needed this trip in the way men of fifty need red sports cars.
Knowing this about himself should have tempered his desire to go, but lack of surprise doesn't preclude shock. Blair shocked himself with his desire to return to the jungle this one last time, on a mission of mercy. He would go, he would, and Jim's entreaties and pleas and fury didn't sway him.
Their final night in the loft had been a difficult one. Jim had apologized, ashamed, and then had refused to let Blair stand more than a foot away from him. They actually held hands over a dinner of leftovers. Jim reaching out for him like that touched Blair's heart in some painful, almost frightening way. He'd allowed himself to be held, allowed himself to revel in the physical nearness of his much-loved friend. When they had said good bye at the airport the next morning, they had embraced tightly, Blair leaning into Jim's shoulder while Eli politely studied the overhead monitors for their flight time.
Jim had kissed his forehead, right there in the airport, and then stalked away, rigid with what Blair knew was a desire to physically keep Blair from leaving. Blair watched him disappear in the crowd, swallowing hard to keep from crying. When he finally turned to Eli, Blair found him smiling crookedly at his former student.
"He's a good friend to you," was all Eli said, and then it was time to board for their long, long flight.
Blair had never been to Fiji and was stunned by its beauty -- the long white beaches, the nodding palms, the dense jungle on the sharp peaks. The people were dark skinned and reserved, with a politeness that drew a similar response from him. They'd landed in Nadi, because Suva was so dangerous. The situation had worsened quickly.
They hired a Fijian to ferry them to Waya, but found it deserted. Some villagers saw them arrive, though, and two old men stepped shyly forward from their hiding place in the jungle, volunteering information that David and Therese had indeed been there weeks before. They'd gone to Viwa, a coral island almost due west. The Fijian had agreed to take them there, but required a lot more money. Apparently he'd heard something.
Viwa had been deserted, too, to Blair's dismay. He stared at the site, amazed at the complexity of the culture that had lived there so long ago. He gently turned over an adz lying on the ground at his feet. Squatting, he stroked it reverently, trying to imagine the hand that made it, that used it, that left it here for so many centuries.
The smell of the ocean and beach and jungle was exotically delicious. He wished Jim were there, then remembered that his senses were gone. Well, he still wished Jim were there. It was so beautiful. He could snorkel here; maybe finally teach Blair to surf, since the water was so warm.
He looked up at Eli's approach, and stood, shaking the sand off his loose cargo pants. No shorts here, nor going shirtless; the mosquitoes were vicious and seemed to like his taste. "See anything?" Eli asked, and Blair shook his head, wiping his forehead. He wore one of Jim's baseball caps to keep the sun off his head and the mosquitoes out of his hair.
"Nothing. Do you think they're hiding in the jungle?" He pointed inland.
Eli shrugged. "We have to look."
Blair glanced behind them and stood a little closer to Eli. "You think we can trust that guy?"
"I promised him some money if he waited for us. He said he'd wait two days, unless something scared him away. It'll cost a fortune, but."
Yeah, but, Blair thought. What choice do they have. However David and Therese's group got here, that transportation was missing now. Maybe they were gone, too. "Might as well get started," Blair said, and went back to the canoe to get his backpack and help Eli strap his on.
So they went inland, crunching over the sand, past the line of coconut palms and into the denser undergrowth. It was uncomfortably quiet, only the surf and their feet breaking the silence. "Should we call their names?" Blair whispered, and again Eli shrugged. His face was creased with worry and dripping with sweat; it might be winter, but it was at least eighty degrees. For someone used to Cascade, it was a hot summer day.
In the end, David and Therese and the others found them where they sat over their campfire that night. Eli wept as he held them, Blair smiling shyly in the background. The students, four of them, and two other faculty, were as relieved as if Blair and Eli had been the US Marines, which set Blair's cop senses off. What had happened?
They left the next day, crammed into their rented double-hulled canoe. They'd spent the night hiding the most valuable artifacts. The group had been mapping intensely, even during the most difficult days, when rebels had sailed by shooting at palm trees and stealing their outboard. Back to Waya and to the villagers who'd known the group for almost twenty years.
But David was ill, as were two of the students. Clearly dengue fever; they all recognized its symptoms. Only five per cent of its sufferers died, but suffer they did. Blair had brought neem with him and forced everybody to drink it as tea, a bitter, nasty drink but heart-warming in a medicinal way. He bullied them into wearing long sleeves and pants in spite of the heat and humidity, and sprayed them mercilessly with DEET.
From Waya they headed south, hoping to make Nadi in a few days. By staying on the far west of the islands, they might be safe from the chaos of the rioting in the south and east.
They traveled mostly in silence. David was too sick to talk; he lay with his head in Therese's lap, holding Eli's hand, trying not to groan from the pain in his body. Blair watched sympathetically, but also to learn how the course of the disease would run. He could tell that the other two students were coming down with it. They were running fevers. They had so little fresh water, too.
He stared out to sea, off into the blurry distance, the edge of the earth, the end of the world. Somewhere out there was Cascade, was home, was Jim. Who needed him, Blair knew. It didn't matter that his senses were gone, apparently for good this time. What mattered was their relationship, their life together, both at work and at home. Blair had been gone twelve days; his return ticket was in two. He was ready to go home. He needed to go home. He wasn't feeling well, and was pretty sure he was succumbing to dengue fever himself. Then the swell of the water beneath the canoe lifted him up high enough to see four much larger boats speeding toward them.
He didn't think he'd make that flight.
Jim was surprised to learn he was no longer James Ellison. When they'd landed in Fiji, Eli had quietly handed him a battered passport in the name of James Dougherty, an anthropologist who'd loaned him his name but worked primarily in northern Norway. Jim wasn't sure why the deception, but he was happy to slip his own passport in the money belt hidden beneath his clothes. Eli also insisted he soak himself in Skin-So-Soft; apparently, Blair had mentioned Jim's allergies a number of times and Eli was afraid to try DEET on someone so sensitive. He did spray a little on his clothing and hat, though, and hoped for the best.
So Drs. Dougherty and Stoddard headed off for Waya, all very quietly and, they hoped, unnoticed by anyone who might care. Jim wore Blair's old backpack as a talisman, snugged against his left shoulder and hip, bouncing against his spine, comforting him in some no doubt absurd way. Again, Jim had the sense that Blair was with him. That he knew Jim was coming to take him home.
Each night, over a campfire, Eli boiled water furiously and then took out a waxy packet containing what looked like tea bags. "Yaqona," he explained the first night. He'd clapped his hands once and drunk the entire cup down, grimacing, then clapped his hands three times. "Matha," he'd gasped, and then, "Jesus," but within minutes it was clear he was feeling much better. Jim had chewed coca leaves in Peru, so he had a pretty good idea what was going on, but he said nothing. Eli needed all the help he could get.
Each day, from the pink plastic outboard, Jim watched the sea boil with life around him. Fishes he didn't recognize leapt from the water, some with bony protrusions from their noses, almost like beaks, others bulbous refugees from bad science fiction movies. To his astonishment, he could hear them, chittering beneath him, crunching on coral, squeaking at each other. Schools of sardine-like fishes flashed through the depths, while solitary lizard fish, angel fish, and clown fish hovered and hid. He stared down through the lucid water, entranced. Raising his eyes, land was always in sight, which worried him, because humans were too often in sight as well.
Sometimes the work of the rebels could be seen. Sugar cane fields burning. Smashed huts in isolated villages. A dead horse or mule, bloated and stinking to Jim's sensitive nose. And the continuing caution and tension of their boatman.
Blair lay on the crisp soil and stared into the light as it was splintered by the ragged fringe of the coconut palms far above him. He felt as if he'd been beaten, or broken on some medieval wheel; every muscle, every joint ached worse than from any flu he'd ever suffered. Lifting his head to drink water offered him by Therese or Eli was beyond him; they had to do it for him. Eli sat near him and apologized, but the words floated up into the light and shattered into tiny, meaningless fragments.
The rebels weren't cruel to them, but they weren't particularly kind. Medical services in Fiji were notoriously scarce and always inadequate; no one would help him. No one could. There wasn't a lot to do for dengue fever. Fluids and rest, and he couldn't do anything but rest. So he lay back and watched the sun arc above him, felt the earth spin beneath him. He longed for Jim with a physical pain comparable to the ache in his body. So much to say to Jim, and now words were beyond Blair. Beyond them both, really, all those thousands of miles away.
Time lost meaning, for which Blair was grateful. He didn't want to be counting off the days, thinking, today Jim is worried, tomorrow he'll be angry, the day after that frantic, and the day after that he'll come and get me.
Yet that last thought stayed with him throughout his illness. He knew Jim would come. He might come too late, but he would at the very least bury Blair. Coil him in cerement and bury him here in this awful place. And then, Blair knew, Jim would lie down next to his grave and wait to meet Blair again. They'd already met once after Blair's death. Blair had every expectation that they would meet again.
During the silent days and empty nights of his illness, he thought long about the disappearance of Jim's senses. He'd never understood why they'd gone; Jim hadn't been under any exceptional emotional pressures, the usual reason for their cessation. Rather the contrary, Blair thought; the two of them were working so well together. He'd embraced being a cop with his usual enthusiasm, once he'd mourned the terrible loss of his life as an educator and researcher, and Jim's guilt had seemed to wane as Blair's enthusiasm waxed.
But what mattered, he told himself, was that Jim still wanted him, still needed him. He still had a home and a place at Jim's side. In many ways, he remained Jim's guide, even in the absence of any evidence of sentinel abilities. The thought always made him smile, despite his pain and exhaustion.
One night, Therese brought from some hiding place a packet of powdered yaqona; kava, they called it in the States. She'd boiled a pot of water and steeped the packet in it. It looked muddy and tasted bitter, like peyote. She had urged Blair to drink a bowl of it down all at once. "Drink, drink," she'd whispered, gently cradling his head, and he'd obeyed. Within minutes the ache left his body and he felt his spirit float up into the sky.
Circling over their encampment, he saw that it wasn't very large. The nine of them, a dozen or so poorly armed rebels, four large canoes and two outboards. That was it. Higher he floated and saw Viti Levu and the airport they'd flown into. Higher and he saw the islands of Pago Pago, and then Hawaii. He sailed up and east, moving through the gelid air as easily as a seal through water, enjoying the fresh, crisp air on his face and in his lungs. At last he could see North America curving over the horizon, and then Puget Sound, and then the high-rises of Cascade, and then, then he saw the loft and his heart knew he was home again.
He circled down as lightly as a feather, slipping past the skylight to find Jim sleeping. His face was clear in sleep, relaxed, his patrician nose outlined by the dim light filtering in from the street. Blair could hear his even breaths and smell that slightly dark scent he identified only as "Jim sleeping." His bodiless hand stroked Jim's face, just touching his cheek and jaw, then running down his shoulder and arm to the long fingers resting on top of the light sheet he slept under.
"Jim," Blair tried to say, but he was voiceless as well as bodiless. Nonetheless, Jim stirred and flexed his hand as if seeking Blair's even in his sleep. "Jim."
Blair stayed as long as he could, until he too fell asleep. He woke up back in his miserable body on a beautiful beach in Fiji. He couldn't have felt worse if he really had flown home to Cascade and back.
"Jim," he mouthed when Therese pushed back his hair and lifted his head to drink more water. She smiled at him, weary and depressed. David had died in the night.
Eli was watching him, Jim knew. He also knew he wasn't being as careful about his senses as he should be, but he didn't much care. He needed to find Blair. Each evening, when they landed on some nameless raised coral island, he'd stand at the water's edge and breathe, trying to find some trace of Blair. He stared out over the water as they rode in the outboard, using the height of the waves to gain distance and perspective.
Eli wasn't doing very well. When Jim had pressed for an answer, he'd admitted that his heart had been damaged years ago, from rheumatic fever. There was a slight murmur, he said, although to Jim's ever-more acute ears it sounded more than slight. The disturbing syncopation kept Jim on edge as he watched the older man grow greyer and frailer each day.
They'd been sailing through the Yasawa group of islands for three days now, and Jim was pretty fucking tired of it. He wanted Blair. But Eli was no longer sure where the rebels had taken them. He cried one night, after they'd gone to bed; Jim had heard him and wondered what comfort he should offer. He finally decided to feign sleep, to preserve Eli's dignity, but as he'd rolled away, he felt guilty. Blair would have known what to do.
The next morning, Eli had pulled out their map and conferred with their boatman again. Charon, he called him, and Jim's classical education let him smile grimly at the name. "Vinaka, vinaka," Eli finally said. Thank you, thank you. Jim looked up at the words and gathered his meager belongings. Time to try again.
This time they returned south. Eli had decided they'd gone too far. Late that afternoon, Jim stood in the bow of the outboard, spreading his legs for balance, and let his senses go, as if surfing them across the undulating ocean; first sight, then hearing piggy-backed onto it, and lastly scent. For almost thirty minutes he braced himself there as they navigated through small, low coral risings, trying not to pitch overboard, settling into a kind of relaxation or meditation on Blair. And then he knew.
He squatted quickly and pointed. Charon studied him from the corner of his eye. Eli said a few words, including "yalo vinaka," which Jim knew meant "please," and the outboard headed in a different direction. Jim nodded.
It was evening by the time they beached the outboard, and the mosquitoes blurred Jim's vision. He and Eli sprayed each other's clothes with DEET and Jim rubbed Skin-So-Soft over his hands, face, and scalp. Then he sprayed his battered and sun-bleached baseball cap with DEET, pulled the backpack over his shoulder, and helped Eli up.
The light of the strange stars above him made the white sand glow as if stars were shining beneath it, too. He felt as though he were walking through light, following a thread of light that he knew with all his heart and all his abilities would lead him to Blair. To the light that was Blair. His breath caught in his chest with the familiar scent and his heart began to beat with the familiar rhythm. The light glowed around him and he moved through the light.
Blair stared at the stars above him. His vision was poor, so he could make out only a few individual stars; others pulsed with some inner power or meaning he couldn't guess at. He was absolutely alone. When Eli and Therese and the others had escaped, the rebels hadn't seemed to care. Certainly they hadn't retaliated against him, their lone hostage. A few days later, they, too, had gone, kindly leaving him several large plastic containers of water, packets of yaqona, and a box of Quaker Oats granola bars, something he found amusing even in his weakened state.
He couldn't eat the granola bars; he was too tired to tear the foil packets open. But he drank water as often as he could muster the strength to do so, and even steeped some yaqona in a cup each night. Boiling water was beyond him, but he didn't much care any more.
He never again flew to Cascade as he had the first time Therese had given him yaqona, but it did help the ache in his body and it seemed to lift his spirits. He spent the hours of each day and night in an uncomfortable daze, remembering incidents from his childhood and adolescence, reliving jesting arguments with Jim while they were in the many trucks he'd owned in the years they'd been partnered. He realized that many of his happiest hours during those years had been spent in what at the time seemed like excruciating boredom, sitting in the truck rapping about inconsequentials, rehearsing lectures, preparing for exams, or shyly sharing their pasts.
O. Henry wrote that you can't appreciate home till you've left it, Blair remembered, but he thought: No, that's backwards for me. I never appreciated home until I had one.
He remembered begging Jim to let him stay with him; just one week, he'd promised, two at the max. Remembered learning the house rules and observing with silent amusement their enforcement grow lax. Becoming accustomed to working with Jim, at the station and in the field, and enjoying the sense of accomplishment and, ultimately, belonging. The genial teasing of the other Major Crimes detectives, and their protectiveness toward him. Going home with Jim at night, watching tv together, camping, meeting each other's families. Just hanging out.
He remembered how lost he'd felt each time Jim had lost his senses in the past. How unnecessary. But this time, Jim had asked him not to go to Narcotics. To stay with him. To be his partner. Jim did need him, and not because of the senses. Blair knew then, lying there on the sand, staring into the warm night, that he did have a purpose in this life. He knew that larger voices had called him, and that he'd chosen, or perhaps had been chosen, to answer them, to answer *yes*. He felt a kind of peace settle over his aching bones and exhausted muscles, a peace as soft and comforting as the whisper of breeze stroking his sweat-stained face.
The stars above him seemed to shift and he felt a vibration in the earth beneath him. His heart lightened. Something was happening. Was this dying? It didn't hurt as much as drowning. Maybe this time there'd be light. Maybe the wolf would be there, waiting for him. He stared up, refusing to relinquish the stars' light.
Then he felt gentle arms around him. Tears ran out of his eyes with relief. The pain and fever and nausea would end, now. He'd be at peace. He turned his head slightly, wondering whom he'd see in this half life, between life and afterlife.
"I'm taking you home," Jim said softly. Blair smiled, his lips cracking, and he rested.
Dengue, Jim knew, caused a terrible rash, saddleback rash it was called. Headache, joint and muscle pains, vomiting, loss of appetite, and a severe fever. It usually lasted only seven days, although they were miserable days indeed. According to his calculation, Blair had been sick for nearly two weeks, but of course, the supportive regime hadn't exactly been adhered to. Looking down at his friend, thin and dirty and spotted with the rash, he felt more optimistic than he had for a month.
Eli lay down next to Jim, panting slightly. "You're a sentinel," he said, and Jim nodded. What did it matter, here and now. "Blair never lied. Or rather, he lied at the press conference." Jim smiled as he nodded that time. "Oh my god," Eli whispered to himself. "You're a sentinel. They exist. Blair was right. Blair was right."
Jim smiled down at his partner and friend, gently pushing the hair back from his sweaty face. "Blair is always right, Eli," he said. "That's the lesson I've learned over these years. Only a fool would distrust him."
Eli laughed shortly, still breathless. "I was a fool."
"So was I."
"This ship of fools; when will it sail?"
"Tomorrow. He's on the mend; I can tell. I can see where the rash has been and it's retreating. He needs water, but I can do that in the outboard. We'll rest tonight and leave tomorrow."
"You're a sentinel," Eli murmured again, smiling as he closed his eyes.
"Yeah," Jim agreed softly. "And he's my guide."
When Blair was sound asleep, Jim scooted down so he lay next to his friend and pulled Blair's head onto his chest. Through his shirt, he could feel the essence of Blair seeping into him, comforting him. Then he slept, too.
When Jim woke, he found Eli unmoving beside him. Carefully settling Blair back onto the ground, he squatted next to Eli's body, cooling even in the warmth of the morning sun. For a moment, Jim wanted to lie down, too, in exhaustion and despair. What was he supposed to do? How often must he go through this? Was this his karma? Blair would know.
But Blair was sleeping quietly, his face young and relaxed. Jim gently touched his hair and beard, crisp with sweat and salt, then rested his hand on Blair's chest, letting his heartbeat soothe his distress. He sighed. He'd done this before. He'd done this all too often before.
To his surprise, Blair woke. To his greater surprise, Jim was really there; it hadn't been a dream. "Hey," Jim said softly, and lifted his head to a cup of warm iodine-tasting water. "Drink it all. You're dehydrated. I want you to be peeing all the time."
"You'll have to help," Blair whispered.
"Not a prob," Jim said idly, urging him to swallow more down. When he'd drained the cup, Jim soothed salve on his lips before filling another cup and having him take Tylenol with this one. Blair dozed a bit after that, and woke again to find Jim watching him.
"You're really here," he said and listened with pleasure to Jim's laughter.
"Yeah. You are, like, so stuck with me, man," Jim imitated, and Blair feebly swatted at him before sipping the water Jim held out for him.
"What is that?"
"I flavored it with powdered Gatorade. Thought it might help with the taste, plus it'll re-balance your electrolytes. And it's time for more Tylenol. The big news is we're leaving."
Blair almost choked on the Tylenol in surprise. "We can go? We're not being held here?" Jim shook his head.
"I told you, Blair. I'm taking you home."
"I thought I was dreaming," Blair whispered, trying not to cry. Jim lay down next to him and put his arms around Blair, pulling Blair's head up to rest on Jim's big shoulder.
"Naw. You really are stuck with me. You're gonna have to go farther than Fiji to get rid of me."
Blair carefully lifted his hand and put it on Jim's chest, feeling with pleasure the stable beat of his heart. "Don' wanna," he was able to say before falling asleep again.
"How'd you get here?" he asked when he woke up next. Jim was packing up their belongings, ferrying them to the beach where, presumably, a canoe was waiting for them. Or hell, for all Blair knew, the Seventh Fleet was waiting.
"Eli called me from Auckland. I flew out. Here we are."
"Where's Eli now? Still in Auckland?"
Jim paused, looking at the unopened box of granola bars in his hand before slowly fitting them into Blair's old backpack. Then he sat cross-legged next to Blair and picked up one of his hands. "I'm sorry," he said. "He had a bad heart, Blair. Between his heart, the dengue fever, his exhaustion and worry, he just wore himself out."
"Two nights ago, when we first arrived. I buried him inland, under some kind of flowering tree on the highest point. I thought he'd like that."
Oh, god. Blair didn't know which was worse: Eli dying before Blair could thank him, or Jim having to bury yet another member of an expedition. Of his team. His tribe.
"He was a good man, Blair," Jim continued without pausing. "He thought highly of you and your work, and he understood why you did what you did. He was thrilled by it. He died happy, Blair. He was smiling. He'd saved you. Remember that. He saved you."
Blair didn't know how much more he could cry; hadn't Jim said he was dehydrated? Yet another tear ran from his eye. Jim gently wiped it away with his thumb. "I didn't know what he wanted. Do you want to see his grave before we go? Say a few words?" Blair silently shook his head. What could he say? Good bye. I'm sorry you doubted me. I'm glad you were smiling when death took you. Thank you for bringing Jim to me.
"Okay, then," Jim said more forcefully. "We're going home, Chief. You lie here till I get this stuff into the boat and then I'll take you down. Be right back."
Jim had to carry him to the outboard, to Blair's embarrassment. The boatman, Charon, Jim called him without a trace of self-consciousness, was waiting nervously and as soon as Blair was settled, he and Jim pushed off into the surf, bounding into the boat. Suddenly, Blair felt more alive than he had since he'd arrived at Viwa. He propped himself up so he could see over the sides and breathed the fresh sweet air with pleasure. Jim sat next to him, beaming, his Jags cap looking worse for the wear.
"Home, James," Blair said, and Jim slung an arm around his shoulders, squeezing him happily.
For three days more, Jim and Blair were ferried by Charon south to Nadi, stopping only in Lautoka for gas and water. Blair leaned against Jim's knees, one arm draped over his thighs, watching the birds, laughing at the occasional flying fish. Jim felt he was literally soaking up his friend's presence; as he had their last night in the loft, he couldn't stop touching him, petting him. The tenderness that welled up in Jim, the need to protect and care for Blair, embarrassed him, but he tried not to embarrass Blair. After all, they were *guys*, and guys didn't do tenderness.
But as Blair grew stronger, smiling up into Jim's face, Jim permitted himself to relax. Blair probably already knew how Jim felt and, if he did, he had certainly forgiven him. Blair always forgave him, no matter how little he deserved forgiveness. Blair's forgiveness had become Jim's lodestar in the wide South Pacific sky.
Shortly after they left Lautoka, Blair said, "They're back, aren't they."
Jim blushed and nodded. "Yeah. When Eli called from Auckland. Just," and he snapped his fingers.
Blair raised his eyebrows. "Just," and he snapped his, making Jim laugh. "Why?"
Jim shrugged. "You're the scientist." He smiled at Blair. "You're the shaman." He'd meant to make Blair laugh, but his eyes grew thoughtful and distant, and then he rested his chin on Jim's knee.
At last he said, "I never have figured out why you lost them this time. But I think you got them back because you needed to find me. I don't mean to sound egotistical, but the timing -- I think you needed to find me."
Jim glanced behind them, at their boatman, who was staring at some unknowable landmark for Nadi and, he hoped, ignoring them. "Yeah," he said sotto voce. "I think you're right. I think." He bit his lip, trying to think how to explain himself. "Do you think it was another test?"
Blair's eyes, too, flickered toward the boatman, and he also lowered his voice. "Did you have one of those dreams?" Jim shook his head. "Maybe this wasn't a test of you. Maybe this was a test of us."
Jim rested his hand on Blair's shoulder, gently rubbing it, while he thought over the suggestion. "I hate this," he finally said. "As though, I don't know, as though something else is in control." He looked directly at Blair. "I like to be in control."
"No! Why didn't you ever tell me?"
But Jim couldn't really tease about this, not when it had brought them so far. "No more tests, okay, Chief?"
Blair smiled at him, shifting to get more comfortable. "None that I can help."
"None at home?"
"None at home. At least," he added smiling wryly, "none for a while."
Jim sighed with a kind of wistful contentedness. To be home, with Blair well and happy, seemed a dream of impossible attainment, beyond anything he deserved or knew how to achieve. Yet here he was, Blair leaning comfortably against him, apparently on his way home.
Whatever purpose the universe may have had for testing him, testing them, he trusted that they had passed, and hoped that maybe, just maybe, this time they really could go home.
Blair shifted again, so Jim leaned down and rearranged the life jacket behind him, then offered him a bottle of water. "Drink, Sandburg," he growled, getting a smile in return. But for a change, Blair obeyed, swallowing down the tepid water, then pouring some over his head. Jim quickly swiped at Blair's forehead, keeping the water out of his eyes. Blair sighed. "You okay?" Jim asked, leaving his hand on Blair's head, tipping it back so he could see Blair's eyes.
Blair nodded. "Just tired. Happy, but tired." Me, too, Jim thought, but only nodded in return.
"Nadi!" Charon suddenly shouted behind them, and pointed. Jim could clearly see the small city across the gleaming water. He smiled down at Blair.
"Still that flight ahead of us."
"It'll be easier this time. We'll be going home."
Blair smiled, and leaned his head against Jim's knees.
What did Vlysses wish in the middest of his trauailing, but onely to see the smoake of his owne Chymnie.
- John Lyly (1554 - 1606)