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VI.

Cattails spot his papers; they've grown in between words and along the margins, and filled empty space with green and damp and the sound of summer hiding by the waters edge. The sun is bright and vacant, a glow that's gold and undefined around him, and when he stands, the papers tumble from his lap to land as an uneven pile of green in the long grass.

There's life teaming beneath his feet, buzzing and silent and rich with pollen and dust, and Blair isn't overly surprised when the last of his notes unfurl into leaves, and a stand takes root. There's wind that is cool and gentle, and the unmistakable sound of water; scent clings sediment-thick and fresh to the air, filling it with life and currents and the steady, gradual erosion of rock and stone.

[Well,] he thinks. [It's certainly not blue. And it's not the jungle. And I don't think I'm asleep, but unless I've developed a tendency to teleport – not that that wouldn't be useful, all things and the Corvair's shop bills considered – I'm definitely not awake.] He shifts in the grass, and looks for a horizon.

There is a haze of green stretching out around him, pale and bright and tangled with gold-burnt grasses and bitter, tough-stemmed wildflowers. Above him, the sky spins morning-clear and summer-deep.; it's northbound and goes on forever, and Blair can't seem to find where it touches the ground. The land sways when the wind gusts, blowing moisture-heavy against Blair's face, and there's a flicker of white as light, feathered seeds drift away.

He takes a step forward through the cattails that used to be a comparison on creation stories and are already brushing brown buds against his forearms, and wonders if it's a dichotomy, or a balance. There are cattails as far as he can see (his have woven into the throng like baskets from the leaves) and he bisects their line, pushing through sedges and long green stalks until he comes to water.

It's a creek, almost a marsh, and it looks shallow with a rocky bottom and brown-tinged water that reflects the sky and catches shades of blue along the centre. The bank is sloped, and gentle with grasses; Blair folds his legs beneath himself, and sinks to the ground.

There's some sort of mustard plant growing wild around him, strong and wiry with flat, round leaves and a scent like vetch; he pulls his fingers through them as he waits. The leaves are waxy, bubbled and self-contained, and he runs a nail over the surface and along the side of one. His finger comes away tinged with green and bitter smelling, and he brushes his hand through the creek.

The water is cold, startling in the face of the sun that is bright and exposed and hasn't moved, and he pulls his hand back, drops running down between his fingers and splashing back into the clear, shallow bend. There's movement; the cattails rustle and seeds drift into the air as a blackbird with a splash of red across its front takes to flight. Blair stands, head lifting to follow the bird as it veers and dips, and water falls to the ground.

"Hello?" he calls, and the sky splits open.

 
 

III.

Blair's hair was straight until he hit puberty. Jim noticed this in the pictures in Naomi's photo album, a realization hidden in the wide smile she gave the camera in a faded, browned photograph where the dust around her ankles fades into the shadows cast by the 1970s willow and bend of her body and Blair's arm where it reaches back to clutch at her knee; his head is tilted down and bent away, and he can't be more than three. Behind them, a sign says: "Welcome to Yowmer Falls. Population 6 249".

When he was five, Blair's hair was chin length, and in 1981, he had an accidental mullet. Jim liked tracking the progression of the thin, dark blond baby curls to the straight, brown, slightly too long and half-tangled mess of childhood, and into the frizzy, courser fuzz of adolescence. Blair started growing his hair out in late 1993.

Even when Naomi was gone, whomever Blair was staying with would take pictures, but there's an extended dry period from May, 1983 through to January. In the first picture after the break, dated February 2, Blair has the painted-on leftovers of a tan, an earring, and a smooth piece of antler in his pocket. At the time, Jim was pretending to be Russian, learning about art, and jumping out of airplanes.

 
 

I.

The first car she ever had ever owned had been an old, Volkswagen microbus. It had cost $79 dollars and had come with half a tank of gas, ragged brown seat covers, and two countries worth of dust. They'd picked it up outside of Birmingham and sold it when they reached Tijuana, with two added signatures in bright blue nail polish on the back bumper, a scrape along the passenger door, and a third boarder crossing. It didn't take turns very well, but the engine never overheated and the windows rolled down.

She remembers singing "Tangled Up in Blue" and "Cry Baby" and "Scarborough Fair"; Blair's hair had tangled daily in the dust of the Midwest and she'd had a sunburn down her left arm that had pulled her skin tight and pink from Mississippi to California.

The radio seldom worked in sunlight but picked up flat, gritty stations late at night, and the chime of voices distant and far away was comforting like the heat of the day rising up from the long stretch of highway as figments in the darkening sky. The fields that were constant, rippling seas of ripening gold in the day were deep and unknown at night, and when the signals were lost, the static sounded like the wind in the grass.

Somehow, she doesn't remember Montana, and it's always winter in North Dakota; Utah is dry against her fingers, red and dusty, but Nevada is vivid with cool desert nights and the heat of the fire and the soft curves of Melissa lying between her legs. Stars sometime still taste like smoke when she's lying down, and waking in the morning to unwind long, brown hair from her own while rain struck the windows and the sky hung dark and pale grey is a memory that clings to wind blowing off the water.

They stayed with Melissa and her group for five weeks; she collected a book of wildflowers, and Blair learned to read sheet music, and at night they met around the fire to toss sand into the flames and tell stories about things they had forgotten.

Naomi talked about a beach on the east coast where the weather had changed as she raised a shell to her ear and the waves had risen higher than Blair who had been digging in the sandbar at her feet; Blair talked about waterfalls and a sleeping giant and flowers that burst apart when touched; Melissa talked about her mother's lilac garden and wanting to name a child 'Rose' because of the sunset. Someone said: "the truth about stories is that we all are" and they looked away and at the sky and into the flames because now they had heard each others' and they couldn't say they never had.

When they left, she drove all night, and went south instead of north. She promised Blair that they would see the redwoods next time, and the steering wheel was smooth and welcome beneath her palms.

 
 

IV.

The night after Sandburg's first day at the Academy, Jim had taken him out to dinner. They'd gone to Live Bait, a sushi restaurant on Twelfth, an area which had been industrial when Jim was growing up, and he'd heard more than one late-night, detailed story over leaky ballpoint pens and stale coffee in Vice; but now it was filled with girls with blue hair in long skirts and hand-knitted scarves with matching gloves that had the fingers cut out, and boys who layered t-shirts from tours and bands their parents might have been old enough to see live.

Live Bait was stuck between a café that offered free-trade coffee and worn, hand-painted booths and tables on the lower level and piercings upstairs, and a bookstore that was playing something with vocals but no words, and Blair assured him that they kept a shelf open for immediate locals and chapbooks.

Music came through the walls, and coffee flavour coated everything from the floor to the waitress' hair, but Blair waved his hashi in circles as he talked about instructors and cadets and the air conditioner in the gym, so Jim folded his legs beneath the table and nodded at the right places, and at Blair's urging tried uni. It had tasted worse than it smelt, and the colour had been his first warning, but Blair had only laughed at his expression and handed him a glass of water and made sure to tell the story at Ceilidh's the night of his graduation.

They'd gone for a walk after leaving the restaurant, and headed for the harbour while dodging shadows under flickering streetlights. The night was slow in coming and summer had the sky dark and translucent, and Jim told himself that it was fine, and Blair always seemed to have more balls than brains, and even if he went looking for trouble at least he didn't shy away and that was probably why he hadn't cut his losses after the first day at the station.

He told Blair that it would rain over night but be clear in the morning and they could go to the track first thing, and Blair had rolled his eyes until Jim added that he needed some light exercise for his leg, and it would be just the right speed. Blair's laughter and voice had bounced against the electricity charging in the air and his fist had hit Jim's arm in time for Jim to pull him around a puddle, and twilight finally gave way to night and the wind began to thicken with rain.

 
 

V.

The auditorium echoes and the lights flicker and hum a steady c sharp above the rise and fall of family, friends and scholars. The air is soft with anticipation and harsh with fluorescent bulbs but the plush seats are sturdy without being rough, and they smell of cleaner but don't burn through his suit; Jim's creaks as he sits down, and the floor sticks to his shoes as he shifts and pushes his knees forward and against the backs of the empty seats in front of them. He thinks about mentioning the lack of leg room to Blair, but decides to save it for a few hours when Blair might need a reason to be indignant, and slides his eyes over the crowd, which seems to consist mostly of middle-aged couples and impatient children.

It's raining outside, and Jim brushes a hand over his head, shaking away the water clinging to his fingers, and shrugs out of his jacket. Blair waves a hand at the usher who's been keeping his braces tilted in their direction since Blair waived away his help and pushed forward through the crowd and into the rows with Jim in tow, and gasps soft enough that only Jim hears. "Oh man, can you believe it?"

Jim glances back from the usher to Blair's eyes, which have turned from the undergrad to peer across the hall and down to the faculty seats. Blair taps his ticket against his palm, the thick, grey paper bent and curved and split at the edges, and when Jim opens his mouth he can taste the steady impact of paper against skin and the cloves and yellow tinge of Blair's heart beating just a little too fast, but he still smells like coffee and the orange he'd had for lunch, so Jim just shifts a little more and bumps their legs and says: "What, Sandburg?"

"Dr. Knezevic, man. Um, see the man, three rows up, sorta to the left, talking to the woman with the orange purse? He's ah, he's been shaving his head since, like, the 1970s or something. There's been hundreds of theories, too; I think they even ran articles on it in the student newspaper. But he never said why; it was like, this big thing. Lots of intrigue, wild guesses, from students and faculty. I heard Dr. Minnsfled even tried to bribe a student to search his office once."

"Man has a full head of hair, Sandburg."

"Yah, yah. I guess . . . maybe someone guessed right? Maybe, who knows, he just. Got bored."

Jim frowns and takes a breath, but Blair says: "Hey, you know? I don't think I really want to know," and he takes his jacket off and Jim can see the bulge of his shield and his weapon and doesn't say anything.

The band starts playing and Jim rolls his eyes at "Pomp and Circumstance" and Blair mutters about a friend's band once playing "You Can't Always Get What You Want" instead, and elbows Jim just in case his eyes aren't also glued to the students as they mill onto the floor.

There's so many of them and a tide of excitement and perfume and the rustle of long black gowns rises and swells, and Jim's sight scopes for a minute, flickering over shaky grins and proud shoulders and a sea of awkward caps. They're holding each other up and the sound in the auditorium ripples and ripens and starts anew; Jim remembers that he never went to his own convocation, but left for training the day before, and Blair said he'd been away for both of his.

"Physics, right?" he asks as soon as he sees Alec, and Blair turns back to him and nods and doesn't elbow Jim again.

"Yeah, and an Anthro minor."

The boy has gained height over the years, and cut his hair, and he's talking with a redheaded girl, grin wide at the corners of his mouth and bright in his eyes. He looks up, and spots them quickly; Blair waves and Jim nods, and the air is as soft and deep as water when Blair breathes out and settles into his seat.

 
 

II.

He remembers the jungle in pieces, flashes of heavy warmth and long, blurred rains. Colours are overexposed, and confusing in the way that they pool on his tongue and whisper along the length of his fingers. The first time someone asked him about it, a woman with sharp lines and earthquake fissures around her mouth and a standard-issue nameplate on her desk, he choked on the smell of helicopter fuel and could feel words without sound curling on his tongue.

It was easy to forget colour when everything was grey and flat and cold, and his skin faded slowly back to pale as he answered the same questions every day and began to form cages out of the words hiding in his mouth. Some things were harder to forget, like names and ranks and you can't bury someone with only one arm and the aching, empty place where reasons should have been, but he'd always been patient and could even forget he was waiting.

When he could walk out of the complex without saluting, the sky seemed wider than it had for weeks, and the layers in the blue threatened with voices he shouldn't hear and a burning against his skin, but the world was bigger than he remembered, and easily contained. [Nothing but trouble], he thought, and spread it thick like snow over himself and everything, and nodded and walked away.

 
 

VII.

Jim opens the front door while Blair is still shaking the dream from his mind and the thunder from his ears. He frowns, because Blair is sitting on the couch with a box of papers spread about him; he's wearing old grey sweatpants that must have once been Jim's because the cuffs look like they've been hacked off with a dull pair of scissors, and his socks don't match.

"Hey, Chief," he says, and thunder sounds again outside. Jim hangs his jacket up, hooks his holster next to Blair's, and tosses his keys in the basket. "What's going on?"

"Hey, Jim." Blair blinks, and glances at his watch, and shrugs. "Nothing, really."

Jim raises an eyebrow, and trades a mostly empty spot on the coffee table for a pile of papers on the couch and a place to sit. "I haven't seen the loft look this much like a disaster zone since you moved in, Sandburg."

"Oh, yeah. Sorry." Blair pushes at his glasses, and eyes the papers. "I'll clean it up, man, totally. I hadn't realised it had gotten so out of control."

If there's one thing Jim's learned, it's that, given enough time Sandburg will usually fill the silence, so he finds a coffee cup amongst the rubble, and peers inside. The mug is still warm, and by the time he's taken a drink, Blair's saying: "Earth is floating out in space on the back of a giant turtle. What's below the turtle?"

Jim blinks. "What?"

"It's a story, man, and I've heard it at least a hundred times. Different versions, different tellers, but that's just storytelling. It's always the same story, even if you don't realise it at the time. But all the times I've heard about the turtle and Earth, man, no one's ever asked. What's keeping that turtle up?"

Thunder rumbles against the ground, deep but light, and it buzzes against Jim's teeth and down his legs. The air tastes like daisies and August, and Blair's glasses are slipping down his nose. "Another turtle."

Blair opens his mouth – and stops. He frowns, and waits; then smiles, and says: "But what's below that turtle, Jim?"

It isn't a game, but Jim enjoys it and the soft, huffing undercurrent of Blair's breathing and almost-laughter. "Another turtle, Sandburg. I don't know how far it goes, but it's turtles all the way down."

"Yeah," Blair says, and laughs for real. "Yeah, it is, isn't it?" He leans forward and his hands are cold on Jim's neck and against his back, but his mouth is warm, and he tastes just like water.