After three years living in the Peruvian jungle it was easy, Blair had found, to get lost in the fantasy. To squint at the sunlight shining through the leaves of the jungle canopy and convince himself that the rainforests of La Montaña were actually, in some sense, home.
On the outside, blue eyes notwithstanding, Blair was every inch a Chopec Shaman. In the beginning he had reveled in the assimilation of indigenous culture, as well as his subsequent adoption of a role of high authority in the tribe. It was, in a way, the ultimate fieldwork experience for an anthropologist like him; participant observation to the nth degree. Heavy on the participant part, though, and far, far less on the observation front.
And man, that had never been clearer than today.
“Look, Chief,” Jim was saying. “This is not some game we’re playing here! This is the hand we were dealt, and we have got to do it right!”
Sighing the sigh of the long-suffering, Blair looked pointedly at his partner. His lover. His sentinel. “You think I don’t know that, Jim?”
Jim was pissed. Even without the anger, frustration and sheer sense of helplessness that flowed through their emotional link, Blair could see it clearly in Jim’s clenched jaw and bunched fists, just as he could see the fear. Fear for him. And Blair had no choice but to understand the root of that fear. “Look,” he tried, attempting to banish it by explaining himself better, hating to see the man he loved beyond life showing his greatest vulnerability. “What Llallawa did, it was just stupid, not criminal. This… penalty, it’s… given his psychological issues, it’s out of proportion, okay? Don’t tell me there are no shades of grey in this.”
“Blair.” Jim’s voice was quiet suddenly, his whole bearing gravid with meaning. “Stop it. Stop projecting yourself onto him. This is not the same as what happened to you, and you know it.”
The present shimmered out of existence, transformed for a millionth of a second into a bitter memory of pain, fear, humiliation and hopelessness: a memory that was transformed in Blair’s next breath to utter fury. “Fuck you, man!” Blair yelled. And without a second thought he turned and fled, needing more than anything to get away from Jim’s goddamn all-knowing assessment of him before he gave in to an urge to let his anger have its head.
Especially because, when all was said and done, Jim was absolutely right.
Despite his rage, which morphed almost immediately into a blend of embarrassment and shame, Blair didn’t go far. To do so would be to hurt Jim still further, since his sentinel had never completely gotten over his conviction that bad shit happened to Blair when they were apart. And in his heart, no matter how fucked up Blair felt over this situation, he knew that Jim hated this whole deal as much as him.
The difference, of course, was that Jim had the guts to witness it, and he didn’t.
Blair consequently stayed close to the village, trying to put out of his mind what was going to happen. As an attempt at meditation - his habitual refuge from stress and fear - he catalogued in his mind the plants which grew there, attributing to them the Quechua names and uses he’d learned painstakingly under Incacha’s tuition.
Incacha, he absolutely knew, would be disgusted with him right now.
Firmly dismissing the additional rush of shame at that thought, Blair gave up on meditation and instead lost himself in a conscious search for quinua, with its importance as a curative for fever, and the plentiful chonta, a staple of the Chopec diet. And not far away was uña huasca, also called ‘cat’s claw’ or ‘sentinel leaf’, the most precious medicinal plant of all in this region, with its myriad of vital uses. Deciding to make at least some practical use of his time out he took out his knife and began to harvest handfuls of the latter to replenish his own stock, which was running low.
Then he paused - mid cut - when it began, his self-appointed task forgotten, the sounds he had hoped to avoid hearing drifting over clearly from the direction of the village.
Dropping his knife Blair crouched into a ball, hands over his ears in a desperate attempt to block out the screams, not certain if they were Llalawa’s or the ones in his head.
It was late when Blair crept back into the hut he shared with Jim. The Sentinel had, of course, heard him coming and was on his feet facing the door when Blair came in, his face expressionless. Blair doubted that Jim had been unaware of his location and physical state for even the briefest of intervals during his absence.
There was no defense for what Blair had done, he knew. He had absolutely shirked his duty as Shaman in neglecting to witness tribal justice and deal with its aftermath.
Llallawa had stolen from his neighbor; not for the first time. Jim, in his capacity as the tribe’s Sentinel, had judged him guilty, easily reading the lie in Llallawa’s body. The penalty decreed by the tribal elders for the repeated offense – since the previous traditional methods of censure had not deterred him - had been a public whipping.
The sentence had been carried out hours earlier, while Blair had skulked in the jungle. And now, as Blair stood pondering his own cowardice in the doorway of their hut, it was Jim who broke the tense silence between them. “Llallawa’s okay, Chief. He’s pretty sore, but he bore it well.”
The words caused a hard ball of rage and revulsion to coil in Blair’s gut: he knew all about bearing such things well. Moving past Jim without looking at him, he began to gather his medical supplies. “Is he in his hut?” he asked tersely.
Blair felt Jim move up close behind him. “Yeah, but leave him be, huh? He’s fine. I tended him afterwards.” Because you weren’t here, Blair heard clearly, whether Jim intended it or not.
Disregarding Jim’s plea, Blair just carried on gathering what he needed. Behind him he heard Jim sigh and move away. And when Blair exited a short while later, he didn’t even glance the Sentinel’s way.
But even though he’d erected a solid wall impeding any linkage through their Bond, he could sense Jim’s inner turmoil as well as he could feel his own.
It was late when Blair crawled into bed beside Jim, the grasses that stuffed their thin mattress rustling as he lay back onto it.
Knowing that his partner was awake Blair whispered into the darkness, “You really think that what they did to Llallawa is going to cure him? He has an impulse control disorder, Jim. He’s not a criminal.”
“Not my call, Chief.” Jim’s voice was patient, despite everything. “This is the tribe’s way, you know that.”
“Yeah.” Blair should know. He was the damned Shaman, however unworthy he was of that title. “But it sucks, man.”
They lay in silence for a couple of minutes, the link they shared through their Bond strengthening with physical proximity and their returning ease with each other. After a moment, Jim asked, “Is he okay?”
Blair shrugged, the movement making the mattress crinkle under his shoulders, the bitterness he felt creeping into his answer. “He’s no worse off than I ever was. And,” he added, allowing this one thing, “I didn’t need to touch him. You did a good job.”
Jim didn’t answer out loud but, to Blair’s intense shame, a rush of profound love and sorrow emanated from Jim, directed at him.
God, Blair berated himself silently. He was so fucking inadequate. No way was this easy for Jim, considering what he’d seen Blair get put through, and Blair had left him to deal with it alone. Leaning up on one elbow, Blair moved closer, his shame close to the surface. “I’m sorry,” he said.
A hand – tender, caressing, endlessly healing – touched his cheek. “For what?” Jim whispered.
Blair caught the hand, and kissed it. “Being a flake,” he said. “Not doing my job. I should have been here, with you.”
“I figure you’re allowed to be a flake once in a while. You have good reason.” Strong arms came out of the dark, pulling Blair close to the warm, silky bulk of Jim’s chest. “I love you,” Jim murmured, tangible emotion behind the words emphasizing their truth.
Blair relaxed into the embrace with a sigh, shamelessly soaking up the comfort. “I love you too, man. But you deserve better.”
Jim’s soft lips touched Blair’s forehead in a kiss and, once again, Blair marveled at how gentle Jim always was with him. That knowledge, that certainty, awed him afresh now, despite his self-doubt. “I already have the best,” Jim said softly, his lips moving against Blair’s skin. “You’re the strongest man I know.”
“Not always.” Blair wished it wasn’t so dark, so he could see Jim’s face, and the look of devotion he knew would be there, even if he didn’t feel he deserved it right now.
In answer, a wash of love - soothing, calming, affirming – drifted over and into him, the Bond they shared allowing Blair no room to doubt Jim’s admiration of him. And, relaxing into it gratefully, surrounded by his sentinel’s strong arms and secure in the knowledge that, no matter what, they had each other, Blair at last allowed himself to pass into the haven of sleep.