As it turned out, he enjoyed the day more than he expected. Jim was impressed with the building's structure, following the design of the natives with a few adjustments for personal space that Craig had added. With his help and organization, they developed a rhythm of placing boards, hammering them into place, and erecting walls quickly and smoothly. Blair relished the chance to concentrate on one thing at a time, following Jim's lead as he worked beside his friend. It was easier than trying to figure out why Eli had said what he had. What exactly that was, he didn't know. Maybe Jim just got the wrong impression? He was always trying to downplay his Sentinel senses. It could be that he was changing the subject so often in that tent last night, he wasn't sure what they were talking about.
No, that wasn't Jim. He could direct any conversation, from years of interrogations and questioning suspects. Knowing what someone was saying or not saying was part of what made Jim such a good detective. He knew the dance better than most.
And he knew his way around a hammer and nails. By late afternoon, they were finished, except for the grass-bundle roof that Kathryn and several of the native women were still binding together. To celebrate, and because they all realized they'd missed lunch, Jim, Blair and Craig followed some of the tribesmen into the jungle on a hunt for fresh fruit to go with the fish Dr. Stoddard had caught during his "little break" that lasted three hours.
Jim's jungle expertise, along with what Blair was sure must have been a Sentinel-trained eye, netted them more fruit than they could all carry and sent them back to the village as dinner-time heroes. And to Blair's relief, that evening's conversation consisted of their work with the natives and the things they'd learned. Each time he stole a glance, he found Jim paying interested attention to the tales, often nodding in approval, and occasionally glancing back at Blair with a tolerant smile.
This was going well. Far better than Blair expected for a quick trip to Borneo and a visit with an old friend. If Jim had just mentioned something about flying out, he could have been more prepared. But having him here, even if Eli was the only one who knew exactly what Jim was, did a lot for him. Things that were in a way still fragmented in his mind were falling into place nicely, now that Jim and Dr. Stoddard had met. Blair wasn't sure exactly why that was so important to him, but it had been for some time now.
Jim had literally become Blair's life's work. It went beyond studying a Sentinel, he knew that. Just like Jim's senses went beyond guarding a small tribe. He didn't need anyone's approval to make his new life any more valid, but it was nice to have it. Someday, he'd have to explain what he was really studying to Naomi. Maybe.
"I suspect Blair will be showing you around tomorrow?" Dr. Stoddard stuffed his notebook back into one of the many pockets of his vest and glanced at Blair.
"Yeah, as a matter of fact I was going to show Jim the caves."
"Where you lost your dignity?" Jim's ribbing was accompanied by laughter around the group.
Blair rolled his eyes and nodded. "Yeah, that would be the place."
Jim laughed, then turned to Dr. Stoddard. "Well, I think I'll turn in."
"That's a good idea. I'm heading up to the high country tomorrow with the group, so you and Blair will be on your own."
"I think we can handle ourselves." As long as I don't forget that slick spot going into the caves. After saying their goodnights, everyone split off to their respective tents for the evening. In another day or two the longhouse would be fit for occupation and Blair could leave with a sense of satisfaction at seeing the second stage of Dr. Stoddard's work coming into play.
Entering the tent, he yawned mightily.
"Nothing like a hard day's work to put you right to sleep, eh?" Jim pulled his shirt off and stretched, then inspected the few nicks and scrapes on his knuckles.
"You know, you didn't have to help. But everyone appreciated it." He yawned again and pulled off his own shirt, tossing it aside. "It's going to make it nicer for the group during the rainy season."
"I was glad to help, Chief. Are you keeping those cuts clean?"
Once he scrubbed the bat guano off when they happened. Blair nodded. "It's not exactly traditional, but it's close enough." He let his jeans slide off then folded them over the chair next to his cot. "Traditionally, a bachelor would build an apartment, then when he married he'd add on to it. When they have kids, they add more apartments to the end. And then, when each child marries, they add even more apartments until they have one long house with a huge family unit."
Jim nodded, sliding his legs under the light blanket covering his cot. "Then this one's not all that different. This group is an extended family, isn't it?"
"Yeah, I guess you're right." Blair turned off their lantern and gazed up at the tent roof. The weave was too tight for him to see the stars, but he was sure Jim could watch the night sky with ease. It felt like they were camping, as if they had traveled no farther than the Olympics or one of the Passes, instead of somewhere in the middle of Malaysia. "I'm glad you came, Jim."
"So am I, Chief." Jim's cot creaked as he rolled onto his side. "Good night."
It was a very good night. So good, Blair was awake and refreshed before Jim, and before the sun finished climbing into full view. Quietly, he slipped out of bed and grabbed a towel and some clothes from the chair. All was quiet outside, the group having left already for their visit to the village one valley over. They had the camp to themselves, but he had no intention of hanging around here when there was so much he wanted to show Jim while they had the time. After a quick shower, Blair dressed and went to the main tent to fix breakfast. Thoughts of his previous conversation with Kathryn kept him company while he cooked.
Studying one man had become far more complicated than studying a culture or tribe. In some ways it was easier, but for the most part it was a lot more work than he'd ever imagined. With a tribe you could generalize actions and motivations, but if you singled out one member of that tribe, got to know his or her individual personality, the actions of the tribe became that much more complex. When that individual was a Sentinel, the complex became that much more interesting. When that person was Jim Ellison, all bets were off.
"Perfect timing." Blair picked up the two plates he'd just filled with eggs, sausage and fresh papaya slices and set them on the table as Jim walked in. "I thought we'd have a nice breakfast, then I'd give you a tour of the area on the way to the caves."
Jim sat down, nodding his approval. "Sounds great. When did everyone clear out of here, anyway? I never heard a thing."
"They usually start out right before sunrise." Blair poured the coffee then sat down. "The village is a good four hour hike around the mountain and they'll want to spend the day there."
"Didn't you want to go with them?"
"I would have, but I've been there before." He stabbed a chunk of papaya. "Now that you're here, there's other things to do."
"Like the bats?"
His mouth full, Blair nodded.
"What's the big deal with these bats, anyway?" Jim picked up his cup and watched Blair over the rim.
"It's not the bats so much as their sonar, Jim. I'm just curious to see if you can pick it up. And with so many, the chances are pretty good."
"Always on the job, aren't you, Sandburg?" Jim finished his coffee and shook his head.
"Of course, Jim. These Sentinel senses aren't something you take off on the weekend and put away." Blair picked up his empty plate and reached over for Jim's. "Besides, you're always on the job. You should understand this more than anyone."
"I suppose. But I don't understand the significance of whether or not I can hear bats." Jim stood and brought his cup to the basin of soapy water Blair was using to wash the dishes in. "They're not likely to commit a crime in Cascade."
"Jim, that's not the point." Blair pulled his hands out of the warm soapy water in order to emphasize his position. "Your Sentinel senses are bigger than we know. There's still a lot we don't understand, and a lot more we need to explore. You've become comfortable with a few things and now you think that's all there is or ever will be about them." Jim was shaking his head and moving back to the table. "You know I'm right, Jim."
"Sandburg, there isn't much more to figure out. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't."
"Now that's what I mean right there, Jim." Blair dried his hands on a towel then tossed it on the counter. "You're becoming almost bored with them. I can't get you to try anything new or tell me when something strange is happening. I can't get you to exercise them or test how strong something might be. All I get from you is complaints about how they don't work."
"Sandburg, there hasn't been anything strange to tell you about." Jim shook his head and walked out of the tent, holding the flap for Blair to follow. "With your help, they do work, Chief. So what's the problem?"
Blair ducked under the flap and followed Jim outside. "The problem is you finding me out of a crowd of people by tuning in to my voice, then turning around and telling me you can't find someone wearing a very distinctive scent." They walked back to Blair's tent.
"There was too much going on at once. How was I supposed to get past it all?"
"But you did, Jim. You found me easily enough." The map to the caves sat on Blair's desk, along with the small binoculars he wanted to bring. "And you could have found her that way too, if you'd just practice more and let me work with your senses, get them developed further."
"They're developed just fine, Chief." Jim fastened his watch and nodded toward the tent flap. "I don't see any need to change what works."
Was he born with blinders on? "You know, it's that attitude that makes me wonder why you keep me around." Frustrated, Blair pushed past his friend and went back outside, stuffing the small map into his back pocket. The binoculars clipped easily to his belt as he walked away from the row of tents.
"Sandburg, you know full well why I keep you around." Jim was behind him, easily matching the shorter man's pace. "Besides, now that I know you're not skipping out on me, we have time to talk about some of these developments of yours."
At first, Blair didn't think he heard Jim correctly. He stopped, glancing at his friend. "What do you mean, now that you know I'm not skipping out?" What the hell was he talking about?
Jim sighed, glancing at the blue sky for a moment before replying. "It's nothing. Just a few rumors I heard."
Suddenly things began to fall into place with a heart twisting snap. Rumors, things Dr. Stoddard had asked Blair that he didn't feel warranted a mention to his partner. Reasons for Jim to suddenly purchase a ticket for Borneo at full price and fly half way around the world. Blair could feel the pain of emotion welling up inside, but he allowed anger to beat all the other ones. With a control that was new to him, Blair met Jim's eyes and dared him to explain. "Rumors of what, Jim?"
Jim ran a hand over his hair and shook his head. "It's nothing, Chief. Dr. Stoddard explained it all to me the other night."
"Dr. Stoddard explained? What did he explain?"
"I was at the University and ran into Professor Kinyon." Jim held out a hand, smiling to make light of the situation. "She said a few things that got me worried, and before I knew what I was doing I was on a plane down here."
"Because you thought what, Jim?" Blair's head was spinning. He couldn't believe what he was hearing, but he wasn't hearing Jim deny it either. "You flew down here because you thought I wasn't coming back, didn't you?"
"Sandburg, it was stupid. I know that. I just had one moment of irrationality and--"
"No, Jim. It isn't that easy." Blair shook his head and stepped back a few paces, running a hand through long hair. "Jim Ellison does not do something on this scale just because of one moment of irrational thinking." Jim opened his mouth to speak but Blair stopped him with a raised hand. "You really believed I'd do that, didn't you? That I could come down here to stay and not tell you? Just what kind of a jerk do you think I am?"
"I told you, it was stupid." Jim glanced around for a moment as if searching for the right words. "Call it what you like. Low blood sugar, spring fever, whatever. I put two and two together and for a minute it came out seven."
This was just perfect. Just exactly what he needed. "I can't believe this. After all we've been through together, you actually thought I could leave like that?" Blair's anger was reaching the boiling point, his new-found control quickly vanishing. "My God, Jim. I have devoted my career to you and this Sentinel study. I've watched your back, gone undercover with killers...I've been shot working with you! And this is what I get? You believe I'm capable of sneaking off like some rat leaving a ship?!"
"Don't, Jim! Just don't." Pulling away from his friend's outstretched hand, Blair spun around and started up the slope. He had to put some distance between them quickly. How could he think that? After all they'd been through...all they'd meant, how could Jim think for a minute he would up and leave and not say anything? Even that first time, when Eli got the grant, Blair had been open and honest about the possible change in his plans. How many times did he have to explain this? What was it Jim still didn't understand? He'd said he knew it was about friendship. He confessed to Jim that he was avoiding finishing his papers because he didn't want to end it all. And this is the thanks he gets? The man he admires so much thinks he's capable of walking away without so much as a goodbye.
Blair's frustration brought him to the top of the rise overlooking the valley. If he continued, he'd enter the jungle in the opposite direction of the caves he had intended to visit. Anger kept him from returning, but the pain of his discovery made him too emotionally sick to keep going. He could see Jim out the corner of his eye, standing where he'd left him, staring up the ridge. Damn him! This week was so perfect! Unable to go forward or back down to camp, Blair sat down on the grassy section of the ridge and pushed his hair out of his eyes, waiting for the inevitable approach that would either end or renew the argument. He didn't have long to wait, but it was enough time for him to gather his angry thoughts.
Jim walked up the slope slowly, pausing near the top while he gazed around the area. After a few seconds, he sat down silently beside Blair on the grass, picked up a stick, and began to slowly pick at the bark.
"You should have asked me, Jim." Blair couldn't look at his friend, so he looked out over the village below them. "If you really thought I could do something like that, you should have asked me."
"You're right, Chief."
Slightly surprised, Blair faced Jim.
"I wanted to talk to you about it the first night I came, but we kept being interrupted." Jim tossed a chunk of bark away and looked at Blair. "I never really believed you could skip out."
"But you came here to find out, didn't you?" Summoning back that control, Blair maintained eye contact and persisted. "You must have believed some of it in order to drop everything and fly out here."
Jim sighed deeply, glancing at the sky for a moment. "I wanted to come out here for a lot of reasons." He shrugged and looked back at Blair. "I guess when Professor Kinyon said what she did, she caught me at the right time. I fell victim to a foolish thought, Chief. You should be flattered."
"Flattered?" Oh, that was a good one! "Flattered that you think so little of me you thought I could take off for a three week visit and never intend to come home, or even tell you?"
Another piece of bark was tossed down the hill. "No. That I think so much of you I'd fly halfway around the world to ask a question I already knew the answer to."
That reply took the heat, and the very words, right out of Blair's intended retort.
"Sandburg, I've had it in the back of my head for weeks to come out here and watch you work for a change. To see what makes you tick, and meet this mentor you keep going on about. And yes, when Professor Kinyon asked me if I was upset that you were staying here, I panicked. I put in for emergency leave, bought a plane ticket, and before I could stop and think, here I was." Jim's gaze never faltered as he met Blair's eyes. "Yes, I know you better than that. But I also know you missed out on a great opportunity by staying with me instead of coming here. I know this is the type of work you've based your entire education on, right here. That isn't something you can easily dismiss."
Blair sighed, buying time by pushing his hair out of his face. Obviously he'd failed to make some things clear. Possibly he'd failed both of them. "The only thing I've devoted my entire career to is the Sentinel study. I didn't miss out on anything. If you remember, I made the choice not to come here the first time." Blair's voice was quiet and directed down, now that his control had vanished again. "I'm committed to this Sentinel business, Jim. More than you are, I think."
Jim had leaned slightly down, bringing his face closer to Blair's level while his friend was speaking. "Look, Chief, I've never lied about this. If I lost these Sentinel senses, I can't said I'd be upset." He paused and Blair looked up, meeting his eyes again. "But I can't seem to lose them." He took a breath, then continued. "So I can't afford to lose you."
"No, this is my turn." Jim's hand came up again, stopping Blair's reply. "I know what kind of sacrifice you made in staying with me, Chief. I understand what it means to change direction. It isn't easy, even when it's a choice you make freely. And I know that you have enough on this Sentinel thing to finish your work and leave." He took a breath, then continued. "I like to think I mean more to you than the rollercoaster."
"You do, Jim." Blair stood. His discomfort with situations like this always translated into a restlessness he couldn't control. But this time he was able to merely stand and raise both hands in an effort to both explain and protect himself. "I made a conscious choice to stay in Cascade, with you. This rollercoaster, it's..." Where were the interruptions when you needed them? "I'm only interested in the Jim Ellison rollercoaster. You don't think I hang around the station because Simon and I get along so well, do you?" His short laugh was meant to alleviate the tension that only he seemed to feel. It didn't help. At least Jim was still sitting on the grass, making it easier for Blair to look anywhere but in his eyes. "This Sentinel thing is more than senses, Jim. It's the whole package. Your personality, your life, the way you think and move. You didn't become a Sentinel. You are the Sentinel. The more I watch you, the more I learn about you, the clearer that is. The person that you are affects the Sentinel you are. I'm barely scratching the surface, here, man. But I know there's too much to learn from both of you for me to just up and quit or walk away from any of this. You're too important to just abandon." Jim stood and Blair realized what he'd been saying. He ran another hand through his hair to hide the flush of red he could feel coloring his cheeks. His voice dropped to a whisper. "I can't believe I'm saying this." Blair closed both eyes tightly, wondering what the chances could be that this was all a bad dream. God, his ego must be reaching meltdown!
"Neither can I." Jim's reply was quiet, but tinged with the humor creating a very tolerant smile on his face. "It's the most I've gotten out of you since we met."
Blair let out a short laugh and glanced at Jim. "What? Come on, Jim. Even I know I've talked non stop since the day we met."
Jim shrugged, pursing his lips for an instant. "Sure, you've talked a hell of a lot. You just never say much."
"Ah, that's great."
"Listen," Jim put a hand on Blair's shoulder, emphasizing his point with the other. "I'm sorry if I hurt you, Chief. I never meant that. If you tell me you don't regret any of your choices, then I believe you. And if this is your own unique way of telling me you're in this for more than the adrenaline rush, then I believe it."
"It is, Jim." Unique or not, it was the only way he could explain things, for now.
"Okay." He gave Blair's shoulder a squeeze, then let go. "Besides, in a few more years, I just might have enough on you to write a paper of my own."
"Oh, I dunno, man. That could take quite a few years."
Jim grinned, then before Blair could react, patted the side of his face good-naturedly. "Not with the stories Dr. Stoddard told me."
Blair rolled his eyes and sighed. It was what he'd figured, anyway. Between Eli and Naomi, he'd be lucky to have any secrets left.
"So, where are these bats?"
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