"Sure, whatever you want, Jim. I just can't believe you're here, man." Blair shook his head. "Dr. Stoddard should be back any minute now."
"Listen, why don't you just get back to whatever it was you were doing, and I'll relax for a bit. It's time I sat and watched you work for a change." Having reached a well-positioned boulder, Jim sat down.
"What, are you kidding? There's so much I want to--"
"Chief." Jim held up a hand to silence Blair's enthusiasm. "I'm tired. We have the whole week for adventures and show-and-tell." His partner nodded, but his level of excitement never waned. "I'm on the same flight as you going home, so we have plenty of time."
"Yeah, I know, you're right." Blair glanced around. "Are you sure you just want to hang out while I work on that house? 'Cause if you--"
"Sandburg, go back to work," Jim admonished. "I'm a big boy, I think I can handle hanging out by myself."
"Right." Nodding, Blair finally agreed. With just a laugh to cover his lingering excitement, he turned and walked back to his friends, who were already hard at work hammering framing boards into place.
Tonight, he'd tell Blair his reasons for having flown out here. When they were alone and he could get a straight answer out of the kid. Kathryn was leaving; the fact that there was an opening as Dr. Stoddard's assistant, he'd been prepared to hear. And he had said he was flying back with Jim in a week's time. Sort of. Well, he hadn't denied it. And surely, if Blair was really planning to stay here, he'd have confessed it by now.
Somewhat mollified by his partner's lack of revelation, and the jungle heat, Jim moved to the soft earth and sat in the shade of the large rock. From there, he could see Blair and the others working on the building, and most of the area around them. With help from several of the natives, the students and Blair had most of the flooring laid in an hour. Jim watched his partner work, doing a fair job of planting each nail and keeping up a steady pace. As the sun moved, he closed his eyes against the glare and let the sounds of the work lull him into a half sleep.
"That friend of yours...Is he attached?"
Jim heard Kathryn's voice easily as she worked next to Blair on the back of the building's foundation.
"No, not really."
Opening one eye, Jim caught Blair's quick glance in his direction. If he feigned sleep, his partner might assume he wasn't tuned in and let her continue. Carefully, he leaned back, giving the impression of slumber.
"He's quite handsome."
"Kathryn, you're engaged to be married in less than three weeks."
"I'm just stating the obvious, there's nothing wrong with that."
"Great, she's telling us how good-looking some other man is," Craig chimed in.
"And does that make you feel threatened, Craig?" Her laughter echoed back from the hills.
"Can we change the subject?" Blair seemed to know Jim was listening, or at least remained aware of the possibility.
"You're telling me that the two of you, two men of the 90's, can't admit when another man is good-looking?"
"I can't believe we're having this conversation."
"Oh, come on, Blair. You live with the guy. Haven't you seen him--"
"Kathryn, I think I hear your mother calling."
Jim nearly laughed out loud at his partner's discomfort, but his amusement was cut short by an approaching figure. Eyes still closed, he heart the footsteps behind and to the right. They were purposeful, like the natives who had been coming and going all around him during the afternoon. Only these were different. The feet were booted, the stride longer, from a taller man than those he'd seen. And the presence that stopped beside him smelled of Oolong tea.
"You must be Jim Ellison."
As he straightened up, the figure sat down beside him. Jim found himself seated beside a man in his fifties, greying hair framing a weathered face. He removed his sunglasses as he sat, revealing light brown eyes. The smell of tea permeated his khaki shorts and cotton fisherman's vest that bore notebooks, pens and several rolls of film where tackle and line would have been.
"Dr. Stoddard, I presume?"
"The one and only." He offered a hand that was accepted warmly. "And no, I'm not clairvoyant. One of the young girls who helps Kathryn brought me a message that we had a visitor."
"I hope you don't mind."
"Mind? Of course not! I'm flattered that you would come all this way. And it's Eli, please. I use Dr. Stoddard to keep the minions in line." He nodded toward the students, hard at work. "Blair's been itching to show you off to me for months now, but I've been unable to get away."
Figures. "Sandburg's been pretty pleased with himself since this whole thing started. Sometimes I feel like a lab rat around him."
Eli's laughter was genuine, and infectious. "I think I can understand how you must feel. From what he's told me, you have a lot to be proud of yourself. But I'm sure to you, it's no big deal, eh?"
"I suppose I've gotten used to a lot of things." Why did this conversation feel like some strange sort of dance?
"Still, you can't blame him for his excitement." Eli sat back, leaning on the rock. "There's nothing on this earth quite like it. Finding something you've worked so long and hard to prove exists, against all the odds and most of the evidence. To finally find it, real and in your hands." He sighed, shaking his head. "There's just nothing like it. I'm very proud of Blair, for sticking to his thesis all these years." He wiped sweat from his forehead then pulled up one sock. "Try as I might to get him to come out with me, he kept sticking to his own project. Of course, when I asked him to come out that first time, I had no idea what I was asking him to leave. He never mentioned you. Had I known then what I know now, I never would have asked him to come."
Jim sat listening, feeling very much like a kid sitting at his grandfather's knee. It was one of those rare moments when Grandpa was feeling talkative and reminiscing about the good old days, telling you a story that you knew somehow was going to be important someday.
"Though I must say, you deserve a great deal of credit, keeping him around like you do."
"He can be a handful, that's for sure." Why had he ever been jealous of such a man?
"His enthusiasm does him credit." Eli shook his head again and smiled. "Though it can be exhausting at times."
"Yes, it can." Jim glanced at the group and found Blair looking in their direction. He quickly stood and fussed with the work belt around his waist, trying to hurry off the platform.
"Ah, our young man has discovered us." Eli stood and brushed
the dirt from his rear. "Now, we must act properly thrilled and impressed so the
boy won't be disappointed. Then we can go to my tent for some adult conversation
and get to know each other."
Blair tossed the stick he'd been fussing with into the fire and glanced yet again toward the tent where Jim and Dr. Stoddard were talking. Laughter could be heard coming from the large tent. That must be a good thing. Eli usually spent his evenings documenting his day, not socializing. Not that there was ever anyone to socialize with, outside his small group of students. Upon his arrival, two weeks ago, he and Eli had spent a full evening catching up, and Blair had used that time to proudly explain his discovery, and friend, Jim Ellison. Ever since the conference in Toronto, and what happened there, Blair had been even more desperate to speak with his old mentor about his Sentinel discovery. While he had always hoped someday the two men would meet, Blair had never dreamed for a moment he would ever get Jim out this far. He knew Eli would be impressed, especially after he explained Jim's abilities. He could only hope Jim would be equally happy to meet Eli.
And now, he had them both right where he'd always hoped, and he was relegated to sitting out by the fire. But they were laughing now and again, and conversing. Even if he couldn't make out what they were saying, Blair could tell they were having a continuous conversation about something.
Probably me. Jim wouldn't be in there talking about what it's like being a Sentinel, when he never even did that at home. Eli was probably telling him all sorts of stories about Blair as a young student. Perfect. First Naomi, then Eli. He wasn't going to have any secrets left after this, let alone dignity. At least during dinner, they'd kept the conversation on Dr. Stoddard's studies and the progression of the new building. But then, Eli claimed Jim's attention for what he called some "adult discussion" and sent everyone, Blair included, on their way. What was he, a school boy?
"Hey, what's the matter? You've never been this quiet without a pen and paper in your hand before."
Blair looked up to find Kathryn sitting down beside him. "Just thinking."
"Feels like being sent out to watch TV, doesn't it?"
Kathryn nodded toward Dr. Stoddard's tent. "Them. It's like when you're a kid, and your favorite uncle visits. After dinner is when the good conversations happen, but they always send you out to watch TV while the adults talk."
"Yeah, I guess. Only I never got sent out when I was a kid." He picked up another twig he could peel the bark from. "My Mom was real open and sharing." Sometimes too sharing. He'd never live down some of the stories she'd told Jim that evening. "I'm just glad they're enjoying each other's company." Was this anything like the way Jim felt when Blair met Incacha? Pride, relief, and just a bit of nervousness? But, he and the shaman never asked Jim to leave the room.
"It's not often Eli gets the chance to sit back and enjoy himself with someone who has nothing to do with this project. After all, he's been living and breathing this stuff for a lifetime." She sighed and picked up a stick of her own to peel. "I'm sure we'll be like him someday. We'll sit up one morning and look around, and realize we've spent our entire lives staring at one thing, while a whole world spun around us."
"Is that a bad thing?" Blair tossed his bald twig into the flames. "You've dedicated your academic career to one field. I thought that was what you loved." He glanced again at the tent when he heard more laughter.
"No, it's not a bad thing."
That tent held both of Blair's worlds, meeting for the first time to size each other up. "You don't sound convinced. What's wrong?"
Kathryn tossed her stick in the fire and shrugged. "Second thoughts. Cold feet. I don't know. Marriage is such a departure for me. Ryan is an Accountant of all things." She stretched her legs out in the dirt and pulled the rubberband out of her hair. "My sisters tell me this is perfectly normal. To think like this when your wedding is approaching. So, I'm not going to let it worry me."
"Good. That's good." Blair stole another glance at the tent and watched the silhouettes of Jim and Eli as they appeared to study something on the table.
"It's funny how your life can change, isn't it? I never would have guessed you could turn down Eli's offer when he first got this grant."
"Yeah, well, neither did I." There were a lot of things about his life now he never would have guessed. Jim, the police work, the depth of friendship he had found. "But I did, and you came instead."
Kathryn's question was blunt and delivered with a seriousness Blair sensed went beyond the surface. He paused before replying, watching the flames jump and separate. "No. No regrets." Blair met her eyes even as he heard more laughter from the tent. "Does that surprise you?"
She shrugged. "No, not anymore. You've changed."
Like I haven't heard that before. "We all change. Our goals change, our directions." He found another twig and picked it up. "I never expected the life I have now. Not in a million years." Pulling a section of bark off, he tossed it into the flames. "I figured if I ever found what I was looking for, it would be a few quick months of intense study, then so long." He tossed another piece of bark. "But, it wasn't that easy."
"Studying one person isn't like a tribe, or culture, Blair." Kathryn glanced toward the tent where Eli and Jim still sat talking. "Or maybe it is, only on a smaller scale."
The Sentinel of the Great City. There wasn't anything small about that. "Yeah, smaller and more complex." He sighed and tossed the rest of the twig, then stood up and brushed bark bits from his pants. "Well, they're going to be up all night by the sound of it. I'm turning in."
"Good idea. I'll stay by the fire a bit longer, then put it out. Good night."
The silhouettes in the tent sat close together, both looking down at the table where Blair could make out a large book and several rolled up maps. Perhaps their discussion was more simple in nature than what a young Blair Sandburg had been like when he first started college? Yeah, they were talking about the region and natives. Or maybe Jim's time in Peru. Dr. Stoddard had once studied a tribe near the area of the Chopec. Sure, that was it. They could be up all night long talking about Peru, the tribes, jungles in general.
But if that's all they were talking about, why wasn't he in there? Blair paused when he reached his tent, turning back to watch the shadows play on the flaps of the other. No. This was good. Jim and Eli were getting to know each other. Just two men gaining an appreciation for each other's work, that's all. It's what Blair had hoped would happen, really. He wanted Jim to know Dr. Stoddard as the great and interesting man he was. And he wanted Eli to understand what it was about Jim that kept him in Cascade, and had him refusing the new offer of a grant to join this team.
Pushing the tent flap out of his way, Blair went inside. There were blankets and a pillow stuffed in a corner somewhere, he was pretty sure. Behind two death masks and a plant of questionable origin, he found where Eddie had left his bedding supplies. They even looked clean. Tossing them into place on the spare cot, Blair realized how tired he was. Jim must be doubly so, having just arrived. And that was something he needed to ask about, too. Jim Ellison was a lot of things, but impulsive wasn't one of them. Had he intended to fly out here all this time, and never mentioned it in the hopes of surprising him? Well, if that was his intent, it worked. Blair was just glad to have him here, and he'd enjoy the company on the long flight back.
With a yawn, he stripped down to his boxers and fell onto his cot, worn out from the hard work and unexpected visitor. So it didn't surprise him when he found himself unable to stir when he heard Jim come inside. Able to open one eye, he watched Jim moving quietly around the tent, settling the blankets and getting undressed.
"You two finished for the night?" Did that come out? It felt like a mumble, at least.
Jim pulled the blanket over his legs and laid back. "Yeah. He's quite an interesting man."
Blair nodded against his pillow, too tired to raise his head. "What did you talk about for so long?" His voice sounded less and less audible.
"Go to sleep, Sandburg." Jim shook his head and got comfortable. "We'll have all day to talk."
He would have argued, would have sat up and asked his friend to spill it all right then and there. He had every intention of removing his face from the pillow, pushing himself into a sitting position, and staying up all night if need be. And he thought he had, only the next thing he became aware of was the sun poking through the tent weave and slamming him in the eyes.
"Oh, man." Blair rolled over and pulled the light blanket over his face. Of all the times to come visit, he had to arrive right when the team was building a house. Convenient for them, hard work for him. Ah, but his excuse to get out of it was sleeping right over...
Blair turned to see his friend step back into the tent, carrying a basin of water and a towel. His hair was wet, what hair there was, and he wore only faded jeans and shoes. "Did you sleep?" Struggling to free his feet from the blanket, Blair sat up, pushing hair from his face.
"Yeah, I slept great. What about you?"
Had he slept? He must have, if he was waking up. "Give me a few minutes, and I'll let you know." He shuffled out of the tent to the sound of Jim's chuckling and took care of business, then took his turn in the makeshift shower the group shared beside the river the natives preferred to bathe in. When he got back to the tent, his friend had replaced the water and put a towel and razor out on the table.
"Better." He pulled on some jeans and a shirt, then set about preparing to shave. "So, Jim, what did you and Dr. Stoddard talk about?" He had to wait until his friend finished pulling a shirt down over his face.
Jim shrugged, settling the shirt in place. "We talked about what he's doing here with the tribes. About Peru and the people he'd met there."
"But what about your Sentinel abilities?" Blair gazed at Jim's reflection in the mirror as he finished shaving. "Did he ask about them?"
"A little." Jim folded the blankets on his borrowed cot. "He's impressed."
"I knew he would be." He washed off the last of the shaving cream and turned around. "I told him all about how you've been able to use your senses on the job."
Jim straightened up and shook his head. "Sandburg, he's impressed with you. Sure, he asked a few questions about what it's like, but mostly he was impressed with you."
"You, Chief." Jim laughed lightly, then walked over and patted Blair on the shoulder, trying to steer him out of the tent. "He's impressed with the way you found me, the way you figured out how to harness this thing, and how you've taught me how to use it at work."
Numbly, Blair let himself be led from the tent and in the direction of breakfast.
"And frankly, so am I."
"Good morning, you two. Jim, I hope you slept well?"
Blair glanced at Kathryn as she joined them entering the dining tent. Jim's statement dazed him enough to stop him dead in his mental tracks. Eli was supposed to be impressed with Jim. Blair had explained, in great and enthusiastic detail, all of what Jim could, and might be able to someday, do. He was sure Eli had been impressed when he was explaining it all. After all, Blair didn't create Jim's Sentinel abilities. But wait a minute, hadn't Jim just said...
"Blair, are you with us this morning?"
"What?" Startled, Blair looked up and realized he was sitting at the table, Dr. Stoddard looking at him expectantly. A quick glance at Jim rewarded him with a grin. "I guess not. What are we talking about?"
"Jim has volunteered to help us get this longhouse put together. I think that's very generous."
"I thought we could check out the sights today, Jim." Gawd, another day of hammering and hot tar?
"Come on, Chief. That building can be finished by nightfall if we put our backs into it." Jim slapped Blair on the back and grinned at the agreements he received around the table.
"Great." Just great. Oh well, he'd only been sneaking out of helping every other day. If Jim wanted to pour sweat into something he wasn't going to gain from, then Blair could help out one more day too. He didn't really mind, but he wasn't going to let anything get in the way of taking Jim to those caves before they left.
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