It was amazing how far you could get on one thought. One moment of irrational, emotional thinking could carry a man for days while telling him how right it was, how perfectly sane his quest appeared. A single fear or unanswered question could numb logical thought and practicality, infect your feet as well as your head, then suddenly abandon you halfway to the journey's end. As quickly as it took over, it could leave without warning, drop you off to stand there looking like an ass and wondering how you were going to explain yourself.
Sure, it seemed like the thing to do at the time. Didn't it always? You find yourself swept up in the thought, a solution presents itself and convinces you no one will find it odd that you've just caught a flight halfway around the world, and off you go. One simple morning turned into a quest that had become one of the stupidest things he'd ever done. And it started out so innocently, too. He had three errands, then the day was his own. Pick up bread and milk, drop off two shirts at the dry cleaners, and stop by the University to check the mail. And it was all perfectly normal, right up until Professor Kinyon popped her head in the door.
The woman meant well, he knew that. But her innocent way of making a statement seemed at times almost a ruse. Like the old Columbo movies. Make them drop their guard presuming you're a fool, and suck them dry while they're bending over backwards to help you. But, what motive could she possibly have? No, that was ridiculous. Almost as ridiculous as the twelve year old sitting in the next row, eyeing him like he was a cheesecake on the dessert tray.
Jim ran a hand over his face, feeling the slight growth of beard budding out on his cheeks as he glanced out the window at the dark sky. The glass reflected back, showing him the face of a man who had just done a monumentally strange thing and had yet to come up with a good explanation for being two hours away from Malaysia. There was no need to tell Simon what he'd done. The Captain was in a conference all week and wasn't even there to know Jim had asked for leave suddenly. But Sandburg...
Hey, Chief, I was in the neighborhood and I thought....
Yeah, right. Nothing but the truth would even be believed for a minute. Only the truth, in this case, was a little harder to put into words.
Well, you see, Sandburg, I was at the University to check your mail like you asked, and Professor Kinyon dropped in. Yeah, I know, she means well. But she was going on and on about how Doctor Stoddard had asked you to come down, not for the three week visit you told me it was, but as his new assistant. She wanted to know if I'd need any help packing up your things and sending them down. So is it true? Were you planning on staying here, and not telling me? Is this your idea of getting off one rollercoaster and jumping on another? Yes, I flew all the way out here to...to...
Oh yeah, that'll sound good. Admit to the kid you flew halfway around the world because you believe he'd do something like this. With a heavy sigh, Jim pressed his head into the seat-back and closed his eyes. Maybe if he feigned sleep, the jail-bait in the next row would put her eyes back into their sockets? God, if Sandburg was here, her tongue would hit the floor. Of course, he'd be sound asleep himself, probably resting his head on Jim's shoulder, which in turn always pinned Jim into one position for the entire flight, giving him a kink in his neck that he'd have to make his partner massage out. But he wasn't here. He was in Borneo, where Jim was heading. Two weeks ago, he was seeing Sandburg off at the airport for a three week visit with his old mentor. Three weeks to visit an old friend, soak up some old-fashioned anthropology work, get all that exotic travel crap out of his system, and then come back home all refreshed and ready to get back to work.
In seven more days, he would have been at the airport picking Blair up, ready to spend three days listening to the kid talk non-stop about his trip. Or would he? These past few months had been pretty rough in Cascade. They both needed a break, and Blair had been very anxious to speak to Dr. Stoddard in person. Had the stress finally gotten to him? Could he have planned to join the research team, leaving Jim, and honestly felt this was the best way to do it?
No, that wasn't Blair. Jim would have sensed that kind of stress building in his partner and housemate. When you get to know someone that well, there's nothing they can keep from you. Not something that big. Not like...hiding evidence in a case against a hero of his. Or gathering information from a bookie known for breaking legs when he told his partner he was going home. Or going over Simon Banks's head and getting himself undercover in a prison Jim had expressly forbidden him to go near.
Okay, so maybe he didn't know Blair inside and out. Maybe that was why he felt flying to Borneo himself to find out the truth didn't seem all that strange. But if he was going to be honest with his partner, he'd have to be honest with himself. Sandburg held all the cards in their relationship, Jim knew that. Blair could walk any time and be none the worse for wear. But unless he could take these Sentinel senses with him, Jim would be hard pressed to survive alone.
No, this was stupid. Blair wouldn't just up and leave, then inform Jim from long distance that he wasn't coming back like he said he was. The kid had changed since they first met, even with the occasional fall back into his flaky ways, he'd grown. He understood the kind of friendship they had, and how important it was. Maybe Simon didn't see those changes, but Jim did. There was still an out. He could get off the plane, then board a returning flight and go home, never mentioning to Sandburg what he'd done.
But that--after a 15 hour flight--would be just as stupid. He was committed. Or possibly should be committed. Either way, they were circling for a landing, and he had even more travel arrangements to make before he'd meet up with the reason for him being there. Only this time, he had no blinding momentum to see him through.
"I've been around that kid too long." It was the only explanation for his having gone this far before stopping to think his actions through completely. Only Sandburg could make him this crazy.
Jim had no trouble finding a place to stay for the night; since Malaysia's tourist season wasn't for a few more months, there was plenty of room in the nicer hotels. From Blair's description of Dr. Stoddard's base camp, he knew this could be the last time he saw hot running water and a private toilet for a few days.
Exhaustion from his long flight, and the mental struggle to come to terms with what had driven him all the way out here, dropped Jim into an unusually dreamless sleep. There were no thoughts of Blair, no dreams of being half a world away from his home, nothing. It was the most unrestful sleep he'd had in a long time. Hours later, the morning sun brought smells of orchids from the rainforest on the edge of the city, sounds of children playing in the street below, and a renewed sense of purpose that helped blur Jim's feeling that he'd done the wrong thing.
And bugs. He wasn't alone in the shower, but once he determined all of his bath mates were non-poisonous, Jim ignored them and cleaned up. It didn't take long at all to find a ride up the river that would take him to the trail up the mountain to the base camp. Dr. Stoddard's group was well known in the area, and while Jim's boatman knew very little English, he was able to give good directions through the jungle and up the steep trails to his destination. It wasn't an easy trek, but Jim enjoyed the struggle. Wearing a tank top against the sun, and heavy cotton pants against the jungle plants, he set off to find his partner.
After four hours of hiking up the switchback trail, listening to birds and monkeys and fending off the insects attracted to his sweat, it occurred to Jim that Blair might not be there. He could have gone on another side excursion to one of the many tribal locations he was always talking about whenever Dr. Stoddard sent him one of his progress report postcards. But as he rounded another section of the trail, voices could be heard in the distance. Distinctly Western voices, with one that reached Jim's ears more clearly than the rest. As he drew closer, a strange, yet familiar feeling returned. It was one he had identified, reluctantly, but still had to overcome. Plain, and very simple, jealousy.
Blair's voice rang clear through the humid jungle air. Jim looked up to see his friend chasing after his own shout, rushing in a mad frenzy of hair and unexpected pleasure. Stopping on the ridge, he watched as Blair navigated rocks and loose dirt, oblivious of the fact that Jim was about to walk down to meet him anyway.
"Hey, Chief." Smiling in spite of himself, Jim reached out a hand and helped Blair over the lip of the ridge.
"What are you doing here?" Sweat ran from Blair's face and neck, mixing with the dampness of his tank top. His already olive skin, slightly tan from two weeks in the jungle heat, held scratches on his forehead, left cheek and chin. Another, deeper scrape was visible on his neck, running from the middle of his throat around behind his sweat-dampened hair. "Is anything wrong? Jim, what happened? Why are you here?"
"What's this?" Jim pushed wet hair away for a better look, suppressing a sudden, irrational anger at the thought of Blair having been injured while here.
"Oh, it's nothing." Waving off the hand, Blair shook his head and made an expression of disgust. "What are you doing here, Jim? You were supposed to pick me up next week in Cascade, man."
Jim shrugged, glancing down the hill at the camp below. "I thought what the hell. The city owed me some time off. Figured I'd come down here and see what all this constant excitement was about." Blair's eyes were sparkling behind his sunglasses, silly little square numbers that did more for looks than shading. "So, where's this Dr. Stoddard you keep talking about?"
"Oh, man, this is perfect!" Blair's expression immediately changed from perplexed surprise to enthusiastic anticipation. "I was hoping you two would meet some day, but I never thought...Oh, you're probably tired, huh? You can stay in my tent, we'll just have to clear out some room, but there's an extra cot in there that no one's using since Eddie went back home last month. Oh, and the caves, Jim! You have got to see these caves while you're here, they're fantastic! Man, how did you find this place? It's not exactly on the travel brochures."
Jim held up a hand to stop any further ramblings. "Sandburg, can we take a breather here, just for a minute?"
"Oh, right, right." Blair nodded, then glanced down the hill. "Yeah, let's get you down to the camp and I'll introduce you around."
Jim watched his partner's facial display with amusement. Blair could not only think in twelve directions at once without really settling on one thought, but he could emote a hundred separate feelings in the span of a heartbeat, never truly holding one long enough to know what it felt like.
"Dr. Stoddard's not in camp right now, but he'll be back in a few hours." Blair took Jim by the elbow and began to lead him down the hill. "How did you get past Simon and get time off?"
"Simon's at a seminar with the Mayor. The leave board had spaces available so I took a week." Jim had to quickly adjust his arm from being led to supporting Blair while his partner slipped and scrambled down the rocks beside him.
Their camp was set in a small valley, surrounded by the jungle on one side and large, rock-strewn hills on the other. In the center rested a nest of tents, large army surplus numbers that looked similar to the wooden long-houses of the natives lining the valley's opposite side. To the far left sat a house in the making, with several piles of rough hewn lumber piled up beside freshly seated pillars and a large, cast-iron pot of tar being kept bubbly warm over a fire pit. Surrounding several natives were three decidedly Caucasian individuals that Blair was leading him toward. One, a man about Blair's age and height, stood conversing with two natives and making notes in a small book he held. His left hand continuously stopped writing to shove large glasses back up his nose where they would stay a moment, then slide again on a cushion of sweat. Next to him was another man, a few years older and far more composed in the heat, with wraparound sunglasses and almost no visible reaction to the sweltering jungle air. He was deeply involved in a study of the foremost pillar, which had just been smeared with the hot tar. A few yards away, a woman nearer Jim's age was examining a diagram. Her brown hair had been pulled back from her face, but the rest was left to sway in the slight breeze coming off the rainforest behind them. Khaki shorts revealed well-tanned legs that climbed quite a distance before reaching the slender body they supported. To Jim's delight, Blair stepped up to her first.
"Kathryn, I'd like you to meet Jim Ellison. Jim, this is Kathryn Quinn, Dr. Stoddard's assistant."
Her smile was immediate, and her quick glance to Blair for confirmation answered the questioning look in her brown eyes. "Ellison? Is this the guy you've been talking about?"
Blair's nod came at the same time Kathryn's hand was extended.
"Good to meet you, Mr. Ellison."
"Jim." He smiled, slightly surprised to see such an attractive woman. Not that he had expected ogres, but for some reason he hadn't been expecting Kathryn Quinn. "Nice to meet you." He shook her hand and felt the friendly warmth in her gentle grip. "I trust you had the sense not to believe anything he said about me?"
Her laugh was infectiously light. "I've known Blair long enough to know what I can believe and what I should ignore."
Not a very reassuring answer, but he took it anyway and nodded. "Good."
"And this, is Mark Bennings." Blair turned to the younger man taking notes. "Mark, Jim Ellison. He stopped by for a visit."
The glasses slipped down again and had to be pushed up before his hand extended to shake Jim's. "Ellison? How do you do?"
"Good to meet you." Jim returned his smile, then realized he was being scrutinized from head to toe.
"Hmm, you look like you could handle a hammer and boards pretty well."
"Mark, Jim's not here to work," Blair interjected, raising a hand between the two. "He's here to see what we're doing and take in the sights." With a hand on Jim's arm, he turned toward the older man. "And this is Craig Colborne. He's in charge of putting up this longhouse for the group to move into."
"Mr. Ellison, good to meet you."
"It's Jim, please." The hand he shook was worn by work and dirty from dried tar, but his grip was solid and the smile very warm and friendly. "Looks like you've got quite a job here."
Craig nodded, removing his sunglasses to wipe a small amount of sweat from the bridge of his nose. "Indeed. The natives invited us to build a longhouse, since Dr. Stoddard got the grant extended another year. That will get us out of those tents when the rains come."
"If the rains come." Kathryn stepped into the conversation.
"That's another matter entirely." Mark nodded.
"Yeah. Listen, Jim, let me get you settled in the tent and I'll show you around the place."
Nodding to the others, Jim let Blair take his arm and turn him back toward the tents. "So, Chief, this Kathryn...did she take your place when you didn't come down the first time?"
"Hmm? Oh, yeah, she did."
Their tent was at the end of the row. Swinging in the jungle breeze, its door-flap gave hints of a familiar clutter inside.
"She's been here since the beginning. But don't get any ideas, Jim." Blair reached out and held the flap open. "She leaves in ten days for the states and her fiancÚ so they can get married."
"Leaving?" Jim ducked under the tent opening and stepped into Blair's room. Or at least a travel version of it. "Is she coming back?" The only real difference between this tent and the room he had renovated at the loft was the layout.
"No, actually. She's staying in Cascade, I think." Blair hurried to remove piles of notebooks and maps from a cot, then cleared a spot from one of two desks and found a chair under a pile of wooden carvings. "Man, I can't believe you're here."
"Yeah, me neither." He set his backpack on the cot and glanced around. "Listen, Chief, the reason--"
"Hey, Blair, do you two want lunch?" Kathryn stuck her head through the tent flap and smiled at them both.
"I could eat. Jim?"
He wasn't going to get anywhere until they could be alone for a few minutes, and his arrival had been unexpected enough to disrupt things, so Jim relented. "Yeah, sounds good."
"Come on over to the main tent, we're just setting up."
The main tent was large and open, with rolled up sides that allowed a cross breeze and mosquito netting that kept the occupants protected. They sat at a long table set with five places, Jim and Blair on one side of the table and the other three facing them. Whether the fifth place was set for him, or was the absent Dr. Stoddard's usual spot, he wasn't sure. Each of them seemed to have their own regular seat, as they spread out with notebooks and papers during the meal. Either Blair usually sat with the good doctor himself, or no one liked sharing that side of the table. That wasn't very likely, since during the meal it became obvious everyone was friendly. And little variations of Sandburg himself.
Mark, sitting at the far left end of the table, still couldn't keep his glasses on his nose. Pushing them up every minute or so seemed to be an ingrained habit his hand automatically performed on a regular basis. He was quiet through lunch, nodding now and again to something that was said as he continued his note taking with eyebrows knit in concentration.
Craig, for all his composure, practically burst with enthusiasm over the building he was putting together outside. Jim was regaled with cultural facts and the significance of their being able to live in the same style as the natives they observed.
"Some of the tribes actually used to sacrifice their firstborn child and place the body under the leading pillar, for good luck and prosperity." He sighed and shook his head almost sadly. "They don't do that anymore, of course. Now they kill a goat, if they have one, or bury something of great personal significance."
Jim raised both eyebrows and glanced at Blair. "So, what did you put under this house?"
His partner shrugged, lifting a glass of water. "Everyone in the group put something in the hole. Dr. Stoddard put a picture of his daughter. Mark gave up his sunglasses. Craig set a St. Christopher's medal down there."
"Well, it wasn't much of a sacrifice, now that he's no longer a saint." Craig laughed, shrugging his shoulders. "But my mother gave it to me years ago."
"And Kathryn sacrificed her only bottle of shampoo. Now she's using the native concoction the rest of us use."
"Hence the rubberband, as you can see." Kathryn smiled, pointing to the back of her head.
"What about you?" Jim cocked his head toward Blair, wondering if the casual question would answer several other pressing issues right then and there.
"Blair sacrificed his dignity." Kathryn, and everyone else at the table, broke into laughter as Blair rolled his eyes and nodded.
"I was exploring the caves the day they were setting the pillar, and I kinda took a spill."
Jim glanced at the other members of the team and saw the confirming nods and smiles.
"We had to stop what we were doing, namely planting the first pillar for the house, and go pull him out of the caves."
Blair made a face, then pointed to his scratched neck. "So, they figured I made the ultimate sacrifice and lost my dignity."
"You lost that a long time ago, Chief." Jim teased.
"Listen, there isn't a person here who hasn't fallen down that same slope and landed hard." Craig stood and picked up his notebook and plate. "I nearly broke my neck down there once. Blair got lucky, really."
"Nah, Jim, not really." Blair gathered their plates and stuffed them into the large bucket of soapy water sitting in a corner of the tent. "You've got to see these caves, man, they're really fantastic."
Jim stood and stretched while everyone else tossed their dishes into the bucket and gathered their papers. "You're not trying to get me killed are you, Sandburg?"
"They're exaggerating." Blair shot a nasty look at the backs of the others as they left the tent. "The Gomatong caves are a major source of income for some of the tribes. They're home to these Swiftlet birds, whose nests are harvested and sold to China for bird's nest soup."
"I thought that was made from oriental noodles." Jim followed his partner out of the tent.
"Sure, for us it is. But in China they make it the way they always did. It's a delicacy."
They were walking toward the new structure, where Jim watched Kathryn clip a tool belt around her slim waist while Craig and Marc stuffed nails into their pockets.
"These caves are huge underground tributaries that house about 2 million bats." Blair leaned closer, his voice lowering conspiratorially. "I've been dying to get you around bats, man."
"What?" Caves, bats...maybe he should have taken a flight to Hawaii?
"The sonar, Jim." Blair gestured impatiently, stopping to pull Jim away from the others as if they were back in Cascade, hiding something from prying eyes in the bullpen. "I know we talked about it before, sorta, but I've been curious to know just how you might pick up on that much sonar."
Was his Sentinel secret just that even here? Still secret? Maybe that was a good sign. "What I'd really like to do right now is just rest a bit. Okay, Chief?" He glanced at the sun, judging it to be around one o'clock. "It's been a long trip."
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