It was a brisk fall evening. The kind of night that demands full attention, with stars sparkling insistently through a clear night sky. Faint signs of a vivid orange sunset trailed down to the bay where the orb had vanished several minutes ago. Blair stood in the opened doorway, hesitant to interrupt Jim's quiet reverie. He was sitting in the chair nearest the doors, beer bottle propped on one knee as he gazed out over the city's lights.
"Hey, Jim, feel like some company?"
Jim glanced up, smiled and reached out to pat the seat beside him. "Yeah." He had to move his legs to let Blair by, then got comfortable again, leaning back into the chair.
Cascade was quieter than usual. Blair sensed that as soon as he sat down; the traffic below seemed miles away, and far lighter than a Thursday night should be. He glanced at Jim as he was settling into the seat and was silently offered the neglected beer. Taking it with a nod, he swallowed one mouthful and set the bottle on the small table between them. Jim's body language was unmistakable, but also somewhat reassuring. There was an almost sad smile on his face that reflected quietly in his eyes. But the smile Jim directed at Blair when he sat down was void of any irritation for having been interrupted. In fact, it seemed warm with welcome.
That message was clear, and Blair was glad he'd come out. He got comfortable in the large chair, leaning down so his head could rest on the back, giving him an angle he loved. The potted plants on the balcony's rim obliterated the building across the street, leaving Blair a view of plant fronds and sky. Jim often did the same, but for him, propping his feet on the table was necessary in order to get his taller frame down far enough to block out the view of concrete and brick.
Jim sighed and moved in his chair to achieve that very pose. Blair gave him another glance, feeling a warmth spread inside that momentarily dispelled the night chill. He wanted to find out what that sad smile meant, and why it was keeping his friend outside on a cool evening staring at the stars. But right now, his silent presence was needed more than any questions or voiced concerns. Knowing that he had done the right thing just by coming outside and sitting quietly with Jim gave Blair a strange sense of responsibility. Though what he'd expected, he wasn't at all sure.
He certainly hadn't expected the night to be so cold. The warm, settled feeling deep inside his gut was slowly becoming a chilly, settled feeling spreading through his extremities. Going inside for a sweatshirt wouldn't be all that difficult, but Blair found himself reluctant to break the mood. They'd been outside for nearly half an hour, and Jim hadn't said one word, but the feeling of need hadn't passed, and Blair wasn't about to abandon that even for the minute it would take to get something warm to wear. He knew he could sit there and freeze, as long as Jim might need him to.
But his shivering wasn't something he could hide. Jim glanced over just as he pulled his hands into his long sleeves.
"Here, Chief, put this on."
Blair looked up, watching Jim peel off his heavy sweater. Underneath, he had another shirt of a medium weight. "Are you gonna be warm enough?" Blair accepted the sweater gladly, only fleetingly thinking how easily they could both go inside.
"I'm fine." Jim settled his shirt back down and got comfortable again.
Hurriedly, Blair pulled on the large sweater, feeling it swallow him up as it came down over his head. It was the same feeling he got when he put on Jim's old Cascade PD sweatshirt. He loved that feeling. As his head popped out, he noticed Jim smiling at him, a smile that nearly turned into a chuckle and ended with a slow shake of his head.
The dark blue sweater was still warm from Jim's body heat and felt good against the night's chill. "Thanks, Jim." Blair got situated inside the garment, pulled both feet up and got into as best a lotus in the chair as he could, hugging his knees close to the sweater.
"I love nights like these." Jim spoke to the night sky, but his body had turned more toward Blair and his smile grew slightly. "The air is so clean and clear, it's like you can see forever. It's peaceful."
Blair nodded, not wanting to interrupt.
"When I was in the jungle, sometimes late at night, Incacha and I would gaze up at the stars for hours. They believed the stars held the souls of the dead." Jim paused, glancing around the sky. "The soul had two duties in life. The first, was to come to earth and live among nature. Then the second came after death, when the soul was sent to the stars where it could watch the rest of us living our first lives. After the soul learned and saw all that it could, it was allowed to move on and share what it had learned with all living things."
Jim nodded. "When their time in the second life is finished, they run with great joy into the heart of the universe."
"That's beautiful." Blair looked up at the millions of stars glittering back. He knew now what the sad smile was for, and once again his heart ached for Jim's loss. "I wish I'd had a chance to get to know him."
Jim turned and met Blair's eyes. For one instant, an odd look flashed there. It was a look of sadness, but also something close to pride.
"He knew you."
Blair was going for the beer but stopped mid-reach. "Jim, I hardly met him. I mean, we just had a few minutes together that one time, and I couldn't even speak the language."
Jim shrugged. "He knew all he needed to know about the person you are, Chief. He had a knack for sizing people up pretty quick."
Blair's mind flashed back to the couch, with Incacha's bloody hand gripping his arm. The overwhelming sense of responsibility that moment had carried had threatened to send him collapsing under the weight. Even now, the memory was enough to make Blair afraid again. Afraid not of failure, but of failing Jim. He picked up the beer and took a long swallow, washing down the remembered feeling. He'd always assumed it had been a matter of Incacha having trusted Jim's judgment.
"I know what you mean, though. It would have been nice to see you two together."
Blair nodded, setting the beer back down. He hugged himself farther into Jim's sweater, letting the sleeves fall over both hands. "You've been thinking about him lately, haven't you?"
Jim sighed and looked down, focusing somewhere deep inside. When he found what he was looking for, he turned to Blair. "In five days there's another full moon. They hold a ceremony during every full moon to honor the dead."
"So, this is when the spirits of the dead move on to their next life?"
Jim looked up, slightly puzzled. "You know about this?"
"No, I mean, not really." Blair backpedaled, fearing he'd just ruined what they were sharing by entering into Anthropologist mode. "I just--it made sense, that's all." He shut himself up in time to notice the look on Jim's face. The sad smile was still there, not the irritation he feared. "Is there a ceremony?"
Jim nodded, looking at the beer bottle between them but not touching it. "Yeah, there is." He fell into silence again and Blair waited. Somewhere in the distance a small dog barked, then a window was slammed shut, muting the animal's announcement.
"Have you ever seen it?"
Jim nodded and sat back again, visibly relaxing though Blair hadn't been aware of any tension before . "Incacha lost a son in the civil war. They had a ceremony three months after I arrived. It's pretty powerful."
"Yeah, I bet it is. I've seen a few with other tribes in other areas. Our own funerals are nothing compared to them." Blair adjusted the borrowed sweater a little, thinking about what was happening here. "Jim, I did make sure Incacha's body was respected."
"I know that, Chief." Jim glanced at him. "And I appreciate it." He sighed, stretching. "I think I'm ready to call it a night, how about you?"
"Yeah." Blair stood, grabbing the unfinished beer, and waited for Jim to get up so he could follow him inside. The change in temperature was mild, but enough to remind him how cold he'd been earlier. After tossing the bottle into the recycle bin, Blair pulled off Jim's sweater and handed it back. "Thanks, Jim. Are we going in tomorrow?"
Jim took the sweater and set it on the back of the couch, nodded. "We have to get those reports logged in, and get all that evidence back into lockup." He walked to the bathroom and left the door half open so Blair could hear him. "I'll talk to Simon tomorrow, about all this overtime. I wouldn't mind a day off myself." He came out of the bathroom and tossed the towel he'd been using to the counter, patting Blair on the back as he walked to his stairs. "Good night, Chief."
"Good night, Jim." Blair watched him head up the stairs, then walked to the bathroom and started his evening routine.
Jim had gone from quietly contemplative, to his regular happy self. But Blair couldn't help feeling like something was happening. He wasn't sure what, and he didn't feel too alarmed by it, but there was something. As he got undressed and into bed, Blair had to keep pulling his mind away from the cultural student mode it kept wanting to slip into. Thinking about the natives, what the Chopec ceremony might be like, if it was anything like the death rituals of the Ugundi people.
He was going to stay awake and think about it for a while, but the next thing Blair realized, Jim was taking a shower, and his own alarm was thirty seconds from going off. Rolling out of bed, he rubbed his face, pushing tangled hair back, and reviewed the day ahead. Just some paperwork at the Station, nothing at all exciting. But , they couldn't all be roller coasters.
Blair pushed himself off the bed and let his nose lead him to the fresh coffee dripping into the pot. He reached for a cup and heard Jim come out of the bathroom.
"Hey, Chief, how about the bakery for breakfast, huh? My treat." Jim stood in the hallway, wrapped in a towel and holding a can of shaving cream.
The bakery meant doughnuts. Which for Blair would translate to bagels and cream cheese, which he could really go for today. "Sounds good." Jim smiled, then returned to the bathroom. Blair took his coffee to his room, searching for clean clothes while he waited his turn in the bathroom. Tomorrow was laundry day, but he was already running low on underwear. He'd better get some things done tonight. At least he had a clean shirt left for today, and his jeans looked okay. He laid the clothes out on the bed, then took his turn in the bathroom.
After a quick but pleasant breakfast in the bakery down the block, they settled in together behind Jim's desk to enter reports and clean up a few loose ends so they could get caught up and take a much needed day off. Blair keyed in the reports while Jim made notes and marks and double checked everything. They finished the files before 3:00. After Blair handed back the last one, Jim gathered several up and stood, stretching until his back popped.
"Come on, Chief, we're outta here. If you take laundry duty, I'll do dinner and dishes."
"Oh, you are on, man!"
It was Italian, and it was fantastic. Blair had two loads of wash done in time for dinner, which passed in a pleasant mix of food, conversation, and game four of the baseball playoffs. Jim did the dishes while Blair went for the dried clothes. When he came back up, Jim was hanging up the phone with a shake of his head. A shudder visibly coursed down his body when he turned to watch Blair set the clothes on the table.
Jim walked to the small closet under the stairs and pulled out the iron, handing it to Blair. "Mrs. Needlemier. I've been hearing strange noises from her place lately, I thought she had rats or something."
"Yeah?" Blair plugged in the iron, and started to separate their clothes.
"She's got a new hobby." Jim shook his head, returning to the kitchen. "Chihuahuas."
"Chihuahuas?" Blair laughed, wondering if that was the dog he'd heard barking last night. It sounded more like a mouse with a sore throat.
"Yeah. Says she's going to breed the things." He pulled a bottle of water out of the refrigerator and made a snort of disgust, still shaking his head. "I hate Chihuahuas. Ugly little rats pretending to be dogs. And that bark, it's like fingernails on a chalk board or something." Jim was eyeing the bottle in his hand. "Did they change the label on this stuff?"
"Oh, yeah, they did. New company or something."
Jim took a drink and made a face. "Tastes like tap water. Are these my shorts?" He reached for a bundle Blair had stacked, but hesitated. The two on top were plaid, something Jim had only recently started buying.
Blair looked up from his iron and examined the stack quickly. "Yep, those are yours." He folded over the shirt and set it on the table. "Oh, and I think I lost another of your white socks."
Jim lifted the stack of underwear and was reaching for his shirts when he stopped and glared at Blair. "Sandburg, that's the fourth sock this month."
"I know, I know." Blair held up a hand in defense while the other gathered up the cord of the iron. "I can't figure out where they're going. I checked everywhere."
Jim let his gaze burn a moment longer, gathered all of his clean clothes and shook his head. "Great." He took his bundle to the stairs and walked up, still shaking his head.
Blair knew Jim thought it was a conspiracy on his part to slowly rid the loft of white socks, and one of these days it would work.
Blair looked up in time to see the light green plaid boxers seconds before they landed on his head.
"Those aren't mine."
He reached up and pulled the underwear from his face, nodding up to Jim. "Thanks, Jim." His partner's chuckles could be heard as he returned to his dresser. When he came back downstairs he walked out to the balcony.
Blair finished the laundry, then followed his partner outside, leaning beside him against the rail overlooking Cascade. "You know, Jim, you could have gone back with Incacha, and been there for this ceremony."
Jim turned to look at him for a moment, shaking his head. "I'm not one for funerals, Chief."
"Yeah, I know what you mean. From a cultural standpoint, they're very significant. That's just about the only way I can deal with them myself." Blair gazed out over the city lights, trying to imagine what was going on in the city around him. He often spent hours staring out over the night life of Cascade, contemplating the alter-ego of the city he'd come to call home. And sometimes, comparing it with the dual nature of his own life. A life he could never have imagined happening, and now could never imagine being without.
After a time, he felt Jim's eyes on him and turned.
"What do you fear, Chief?"
The question took Blair by surprise. "What? What kind of question is that?"
Jim shrugged. "Just a question someone asked me a little while ago. I was wondering how you would answer it." He took another drink from the water bottle he held and made a face. "I think we need a new brand. This really tastes like tap water."
Blair shook his head, trying to keep up with the sudden shift in topics. "Um, yeah. It probably is. Some guy in New York filling bottles out of his tap and slapping a label on them with a picture of a glacier and we pay money for it. Here, let me see it." He took the bottle and scanned for a list of contents. "You know, Jim, after that problem you had with the imported water, we need to keep a better eye on what you eat and drink."
"Great. I thought this Sentinel thing was supposed to be a big help, not a big hindrance, Chief." Jim turned and walked back inside.
"Jim, it is a big help. We just have to keep in mind how much more sensitive you are to everything, and adjust ourselves accordingly." Blair followed him inside, tossed the water bottle into the trash.
"Yeah? Well how come it's always me doing the adjusting?"
Blair turned, ready to jump on the defensive, but the smile on Jim's face assured him he wasn't angry. "Listen, it's been no walk in the park for me. I mean, at least Incacha had the luxury of finding you first."
"You both had that pleasure, Chief." Jim rubbed his forehead and sighed. "Man, my head is killing me all of a sudden."
"Are you okay? I knew I should have checked that water once I saw the new label."
"No, I'm fine. Just a headache." Jim shook his head and stepped toward the stairs. "I think I'm gonna turn in."
"Yeah, good night, Jim." Blair went back to the kitchen and pulled the water bottle out of the trash. He was going to have to pay more attention, especially after the adverse reaction Jim had to the imported water from Sicily last month.
He'd just turned to ask about the water's taste when it happened. Jim was only two steps up when he doubled over, clutching his stomach.
"Jim!" Blair rushed across the living room but was too late to prevent his friend from falling to the floor. "Jim!" He was unconscious, probably had been before he hit the floor. Blair immediately felt for Jim's pulse and found it racing. "Dammit!" What had he been thinking? He knew that water had changed manufacturers, and after the incident with the imported water, he had vowed to keep better track of this.
The ambulance took hours, he was convinced. Holding Jim's head in his lap, Blair had to shout for the paramedics to come in. His partner was sweating with fever already, and hadn't regained consciousness. This was no simple case of vertigo.
Somehow through the confusion of it all, Blair registered the fact that he was sitting in the waiting room of Cascade General. How he'd gotten there, and how long he'd been there, he had no clue. As if coming out of a nightmare, he glanced around, forcing his surroundings to make some sense. His hands still felt warm from Jim's fever, and he had a bruise on one arm where the paramedic had to pry him off his friend. The sudden flash of embarrassment that memory provoked quickly dissipated in light of the situation.
How long had it been? And what was happening in there? He knew they'd taken Jim into the exam room ahead of him, he was convinced he'd have know if they'd come back out. He had no sense of time.
But he did have a sense of urgency.
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