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Summary A trip to Italy reassembles the shards of a shattered partnership.

Author's Note: Written for [livejournal.com profile] sentinelsecrets.

Rating: Totally non-explicit.

By Fluterbev

March 2005


Blair was a little disappointed to learn that Dante's Tomb was closed to the public today - it had been the first place that he'd wanted to visit since they'd arrived in Ravenna earlier. Actually seeing the physical evidence of Dante's mortality made the poet more accessible somehow, more real. Blair smiled ruefully as he gave the domed mausoleum with its locked doors a last, longing look. He could only hope that Dante's soul had bypassed the inferno, and ended up in paradise.

Jim was already moving away across the plaza, heading for the Basilica Di San Francesco and, watching his friend's tall, imposing figure as he strode away across the square, Blair was struck by how well Jim seemed to fit into this place. His patrician profile, his chiseled, flawless features; like a marble bust of a Roman emperor or god. His impeccable dress-sense and neatness, manifested in knife-edge pressed slacks and shoes with a shine, in this city where every other person on the street looked like a fashion model. That's not to say Jim didn't stand out from the crowd -- he did, just not in the way that Blair stood out, with his faded jeans and sneakers.

Following in Jim's wake, Blair took a deep breath of the warm, fragrant air, and marveled once again at the fact they were here, together, in Italy. Even more marvelous was the fact that this trip had been Jim's idea, Jim's gift to him. "I've got some money saved, Chief," he'd said. "I'm tagging a vacation onto my sick-leave, and going to Europe… I'd like it if you'd come along with me."

Blair had dissembled. He couldn't afford it, and wouldn't take Jim's money. He had too much to sort out. The future, now that he'd been booted out of Rainier and presented with an alternative career he wasn't sure he was ready for, was too uncertain.

But Jim had confounded him with his emphatic pleas, and had finally confessed that this was something he desperately wanted to do not just for himself, but for Blair, to give him something back, however pitiful, in return for his sacrifice. And browbeaten, amazed and moved beyond words, Blair had at last given in. It wasn't as if he had the energy left to fight, anyway - especially when what he was resisting was something that, deep in his heart, he actually desired.

So Jim bought their tickets, and they'd set off. Their itinerary was, maddeningly, a secret - Jim insisting that he wanted to surprise Blair for once in his life. "You know me too damned well, Chief," he'd said. "Just this once, I want to do something you don't expect."

And surprise him, Jim had, in spades. When they'd changed planes in London and boarded a flight to Bologna, clearly heading to Italy, Blair had expected that their final destination might be Rome or Florence or Venice, the main tourist hot spots within reasonable reach of that particular airport. But no, here they were instead, in Ravenna - the small but amazingly impressive mosaic capital of Europe. "I thought you'd get more out of it," Jim told him. "All this ancient Roman stuff … the real thing, not the over-the-top tourist version."

Touched beyond words at Jim's insight, Blair had to admit that yes, he expected to enjoy every minute of it. He had never been all that well versed in European archaeology or architecture, his primary area of expertise in the antiquities field being the Americas. But he'd taken a course once in ancient history, which had focused on ancient Greece and Rome, and he'd read a lot, so this stuff wasn't exactly a total mystery to him. But to actually see it, with his own eyes? Man, that was something else.

Blair walked a little faster, scurrying to catch up with Jim's long legged stride. As Blair followed into the basilica, he thumbed his guide book open at the appropriate page. "Oh man," he said, his voice reverent in the hushed interior of the magnificent church. "Jim? You know how old this place is?"

"Fifth century," Jim shot back over his shoulder. "Built by Bishop Neone, and dedicated to the Apostles Peter and Paul."

Blair looked at him in amazement. "Where'd you learn all that? Have you been here before?"

Jim grinned, and gestured towards a plaque on the wall way over the other side of the building, the lettering on it made miniscule by distance. "I got it from that sign over there, Pliny," he said smugly.

Blair squinted at the sign myopically. There were definite advantages to going on vacation, he conceded, with a sentinel who could read tourist information notices from a hundred yards and, mysteriously, decipher Italian at a glance. But before he had time to further marvel that Jim knew who Pliny was, the other man was moving again, making off down the nave towards the high altar. "Hey, wait up!" Blair called out, his voice echoing through the high-ceilinged space as he hurried after.

Jim, when Blair reached him, had descended a narrow stone staircase, and was looking down through a gap between two pillars at a dark pool of water. Without turning, Jim asked, "Chief, you got any change? I need a hundred lira."

"Sure, man," Blair said, already reaching into his pocket. He pulled out a handful of coins, and rifled through them for the correct denomination. "There you go," he said, handing over the bounty.

Jim placed the coin in a slot in the wall, and the dark space beyond the pillars was illuminated suddenly, the light refracting crazily off shimmering gold deep within the water. And Blair peered down into the pool and blinked, trying to take in what he was seeing.

They were looking down into a subterranean crypt, which was flooded by several feet of water. Goldfish were swimming here and there, the light bouncing and flashing off their glittering scales. The intermittent flickers of darting gold mirrored the hundreds of gold and silver coins, which formed a gleaming, votive offering on the floor. And there, beneath the fish and bright circles of metal, were other colors. Muted, Mediterranean umber and ochre, vivid deep-blue, vibrant saffron and bottle green. A tesserated pavement of patterns and faces, submerged like the forgotten riches of a sunken city.

A mosaic.

Blair caught his breath, the sight was so amazing - the juxtaposition of living and dead, preserved within a watery catacomb. The vital, lustrous fish, coexisting with the submerged work of an artist who had been dead for a millennium and a half. And in between the two, the ageless pan-cultural tradition, with its origins in prehistory, of casting coins and other precious objects into water to appease or ask favor from the gods.

Jim's hushed voice added narration to Blair's reverie. "When this church was built, Ravenna was a series of islands, like Venice. The coastline has receded over the centuries, and the sea is five miles away from here now. But this whole area is still pretty waterlogged. The older buildings, like this one, are gradually sinking."

"The floor level of this crypt is below the water table," Blair guessed, and Jim nodded. Then, turning to look at him, Blair accused, "You have been here before."

Jim did at least look, Blair had to concede, a little shamefaced at not having admitted it earlier. "It was after I left Peru," Jim confessed. "I was on R and R, traveled around for a couple of months, trying to get my head together. I visited France and Italy, then made my way across to Asia…"

Blair put the pieces together. "To Bali. Where you met Lila."

"Yeah." Jim rolled his shoulders, as though shrugging off the memory. "Something about this place..." He tailed off, then looked at Blair earnestly. "There are other churches in Ravenna, Chief. Other mosaics, far more impressive than this one. But something about this, the whole mystique of it…" Jim smiled wistfully, his eyes darting back to the pool, "Well, let's just say, I always wanted to come back here one day." His voice was a mixture of husky bashfulness at his admission, and some other, unfathomable emotion. "And maybe," he added, almost shyly, "show it to someone who'd appreciate it."

Following Jim's reverent gaze back down into the crypt, Blair focused in on the faces and patterns half-hidden by the bright coins, obscured at intervals by flashes of living gold threading through the water. The mosaic was shattered here and there, chunks of it missing, its story clear in places, unknowable in others. It reminded Blair, in a way, of Jim himself … a complex puzzle, yet only segments of the whole, elaborate picture ever being revealed. Who could have guessed, for example, that big, bad Jim Ellison had secretly yearned all these years to revisit an ancient piece of submerged, religious art? Or that he'd choose to share this experience with Blair?

It begged several questions, and ever the researcher, despite everything that had happened, Blair couldn't resist asking the one uppermost in his mind at that moment. "Does it look different to you this time? I mean, with your senses?"

Jim didn't answer right away, and for a few tense seconds, Blair was worried he'd overstepped the mark by indulging his curiosity. Jim could be pretty touchy about this stuff, and even though the dissertation no longer stood between them, the whole sentinel issue was still the elephant in their living room; the massive specter they had both been skirting around for weeks now, ever since the thing had blown up in their faces. But then Jim spoke, and Blair's fears were allayed. "It's amazing," he said, his voice dreamy. "I can get right up close to it. The colors seem so bright, it looks almost like it was made yesterday. I can see … god, Chief. I can see fingerprints in the glaze."

"Wow." Blair was seriously awed at that. "Can you tell if they're all the same prints? Or made by different people?"

Jim squinted, then shook his head. "Different. At least four different people, that I can make out. One pair of hands is small, like a child."

"Figures," Blair answered, awed yet again at the skill and analytical powers of the sentinel. "I guess the kind of high-status master-craftsman who would make something like this would have had people to help. Apprentices, assistants. That kind of thing."

"Yeah," Jim breathed, his attention focused deep under the water.

Wishing - not for the first time - that he could actually see what the sentinel saw, Blair instead reveled in the vicarious thrill of what Jim's senses had revealed. This was no longer just a pretty picture at the bottom of a pool. It was, instead, the endeavor of a team of artisans - at least four of them, including possibly a child - who had worked together to create this masterpiece more than one-and-a-half thousand years ago.

The wonder of the whole thing hit Blair suddenly, so that the pool blurred in his sight, golden light filling his vision. It was not just the amazing insight Jim was able to offer about the creation of this work which moved Blair so profoundly. It was the very fact that they were sharing this experience at all, given what had gone on. When their lives had fragmented into a million pieces during their latest brush with Zeller, Blair had believed that the profound attachment they had to each other had been destroyed for good. He had in no way envisaged that Jim would gather the shards of their shattered partnership, and bring them here to be reassembled in this incredible place.

Brimming with unutterable emotion, Blair impulsively reached out and fumbled for Jim's hand, half expecting to be rebuffed. But it seemed the day's surprises were not yet over, as Jim's warm fingers wrapped around his own, sure and purposeful. They fit, Blair noted as their fingers entwined, like two halves of a broken pot, jagged edges smoothed into perfect wholeness. And Blair realized, with the clarity of epiphany, that far more had been illuminated here today than just the ancient crypt.

Reaching into his pocket with his other hand, Blair pulled out a coin and tossed it into the water. He wished fervently, as he did so, for his heart's desire; but he believed deep within that his wish had already been granted. Beside him, Jim echoed the gesture, the fish darting away from the twin coins as they hit the water and sank. The light above the pool went out a few seconds later, and the two of them turned to leave, neither of them saying a word. But their hands remained eloquently entwined as they walked out into the sunlight.

The missing pieces of their own elaborate mosaic falling into place at last.

The End

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