fluterbev_fic: (Three Spirals)
[personal profile] fluterbev_fic
Summary: It is five years since Blair parted amicably from Jim, and left Cascade to start a new life in Ireland. At long last, Jim accepts Blair's invitation to spend the winter holiday season with him in his new home. Angst ensues.

Notes: This story is set in a place that I know very well, since I lived in the location depicted for nearly a decade. Now that I've left Ireland, I like to look back and imagine Jim and Blair in my old cottage, cuddled up in front of the fire, enjoying the peace with a couple of glasses of hot whiskey...

This is the first story in the Irish Saga.

Rating: NC-17

Acknowledgments: Thanks enormously to [livejournal.com profile] caarianna for the beta.




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Winner: Long Story (Slash)

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Honorable Mention: Post-TSbyBS Story (Slash)




Three Spirals
By Fluterbev

January 2007





First Spiral: Life

Frustrated and almost dying of impatience, Blair looked for the millionth time at the arrivals screen, and back again at his watch. Just as it had ten minutes ago - and ten minutes before that - the monitor informed him that the one o’clock flight from Shannon had landed.

It was now 1.45. What the hell could be taking so long?

Blair sighed, trying to school himself to patience. Security here at Dublin International Airport was far tighter now than it had been when he’d first come to live in Ireland, for global reasons that had little to do with the situation closer to home. Consequently that tended, these days, to slow everything down. But, Blair reasoned, Jim would have gone through passport control already, when his international flight had landed at Shannon, so in theory, this should just be a matter of picking up his luggage and going through customs…

Blair started suddenly, as a trickle of passengers came through the doors, some heading straight into the arms of waiting loved ones, and others progressing to the car hire desks and the exit. As a space cleared in front of him, Blair headed closer to the barrier, watching avidly as more passengers emerged.

And suddenly, there he was. A tall figure, dressed immaculately in slacks and a smart woolen overcoat, pulling a wheeled case behind him. His eyes unerringly located Blair in the crowd, the biggest shit-eating grin on his face that Blair had ever seen.

Unable to take his eyes off Jim, Blair moved towards the gap in the barrier on an intercept course. “Sorry… excuse me…” he muttered as he blindly navigated the crowd. A swathe opened before him suddenly, allowing him to reach the gap at the end of the tape just as Jim did. And, like two halves of a whole, they came together, Blair sinking into a hard bear hug that robbed him of breath.

Needless to say, he hugged back for all he was worth.

***


It was amazing, Blair thought a little while later as he drove them out of the airport, how easy they were with each other. Five years was a long time to be separated, after all; but in some profound way, it felt already as though they’d never been apart.

Five years ago Blair had come to Ireland on a whim, during a time in his life when he was trying to reestablish some kind of meaningful direction after one blow too many. And, for a myriad of reasons, he’d never left.

Back before he’d left Cascade, a legal challenge and some careful spin doctoring by the P.D. had redeemed his academic credibility. His only choice after his name was cleared was to decide whether to take up the offer to become a cop, to return to anthropology, or to go down a different path altogether.

It was during that period of profound indecision, and in the wake of unexpected personal tragedy, that he’d been invited by an Irish friend he’d known since his undergraduate days to work for a couple of months on a dig as a jobbing archaeologist. He had the necessary credentials – he’d studied archaeology as part of his anthropology degree, and had plenty of experience of the practical elements, having previously taken part in digs in various parts of the world.

Considering the state of flux he was in, the offer had been tempting in the extreme – there was something refreshing about the notion of getting away from it all, and working on something completely new. Jim, who’d proved - once they’d weathered the storm of their rift over the dissertation - to be a true and caring friend, had urged him to go. “It could be just what you need, Chief,” he’d said. And, finally reassured that Jim really meant it and would cope just fine without him, Blair had accepted the offer.

Blair had spent two months excavating at Douth, one of the three main Neolithic sites in the Boyne Valley, and by the end of it he’d become totally hooked – Ireland had him in its grip. After much careful soul searching, as well as several long distance telephone conversations with his friend during which Blair was mostly reassured that his leaving was not going to be experienced as abandonment, Jim had put Blair’s belongings in storage, and sincerely wished him well. And Blair had set about carving out his new beginning in a foreign land.

He and Jim had kept in touch, of course; by letter and e-mail. They’d even spoken on the phone every so often. Jim seemed generally pretty upbeat, not giving Blair any reason to doubt that he was totally fine about Blair leaving. He’d remained in Major Crimes, frequently regaling Blair with stories about the world he’d left behind.

During their sporadic contact, Jim rarely mentioned his senses, despite Blair’s admonition that he should ask for help if he had any problems with them; and from that, Blair had deduced that everything was fine. That chapter of their lives, it seemed, was finally closed. Jim had learned everything Blair had striven to teach him, and Blair had moved on to his next project – just as they had both known was inevitable all along. Their continued friendship, however, remained as the enduring legacy of their time together – and Blair wouldn’t have changed that for the world.

The only part of it Blair regretted was the fact that he and Jim had not had a chance to say goodbye face to face. And he had one further regret – that, no matter how much time passed and how much he enjoyed his new life, Blair missed Jim with all his heart. Sometimes, he longed to see Jim so much, he dreamed vividly that they were still together, standing shoulder to shoulder in the wild adventures that his subconscious invented; only to wake breathless and bereft in the morning light to the reality that an ocean – and an increasing number of years - separated them.

This was the first time, since Blair had left Cascade, that they’d actually gotten together in the flesh. Somehow, Blair had never quite managed to arrange a trip back to the States. And Jim, busy as always, had never managed to make it here - until now, that was, when he’d at last accepted Bair’s invitation. Consequently, Jim would be staying with Blair over the Christmas holiday, and was set to travel back to Cascade on December 27th.

It was clear, during the short time that had elapsed since Blair had met Jim at the airport, that despite their long separation, the indefinable spark that had bound them together as something more than friends was clearly still there. And, for Blair, Jim’s arrival had somehow eliminated something panicky deep within his gut; something that was always with him, but which he only now became fully aware of in its absence. Something that, now he knew about it, surprised him with its intensity.

He wondered if their reunion was anything like as profound for Jim.

As Blair navigated the heavy traffic on the M1 – always busy at this time of year, when the whole of the country, it seemed, headed to Dublin to go shopping – Jim alternated his attention on the landscape rolling past, and Blair. “So, you enjoying it here, Chief?” he asked. “It’s a little different from Cascade, huh?”

Blair switched on the wipers, dispersing a sloshing flurry of rain on the windshield. “Some things are exactly, the same, man,” he pointed out. “Cold and wet is my world. Frequently.”

Jim laughed, stretching out his long legs as far as they would go. He looked a little cramped in Blair’s Fiat Punto, even with the seat pushed right back, but he didn’t seem uncomfortable. “Yeah, well,” he said easily, “You’re not missing much back there. It’s just the same old, same old.”

Glancing sideways at his friend, Blair wasn’t too sure about that. A sharp pang hit his gut. I miss you, he thought, but he didn’t say it.

Seemingly unaware of Blair’s momentary dip in mood, Jim asked, “Hey, we’re headed north. I thought you lived in Dublin – that’s the address I’ve got for you.” Jim inclined his head back toward the way they’d come. “Isn’t that back there?”

“I work in Dublin.” Blair indicated, pulling out to overtake a truck meandering along in the inside lane. “UCD – that’s University College Dublin – is where I’m based. Mostly, though, I’m out on the site, and that’s kind of in between Dublin and where I live now.” He shrugged. “You do not want to know how expensive it is to rent or buy property in Dublin, man. Lots of people have places out in the sticks, and commute in. And commuting from the north is a lot easier to do since they built this motorway – depending on the traffic, it can take less than an hour, door-to-door, from my part of Cooley to the city centre.”

“Cooley?” Jim queried.

“Yep. That’s where we’re headed. Where my house is.” Blair smiled. “I’m a man of property now, Jim - I got the keys last week. You’re gonna love it!”

***


Jim seemed captivated by the impressive vista on the horizon as, a little less than an hour later, they skirted Dundalk to approach the moody, cloud-shadowed hills. Blair kept up a running commentary, enjoying being the tour guide. “That’s the Cooley Mountains – I live in the valley at the foot of them. Wait ‘til you see the view from my kitchen window, man. It’s awesome.”

“I never pictured you buying a house, Chief,” Jim remarked. “I guess I assumed you’d always be on the move; the eternal nomad. Buying your own place seems like a pretty settled thing to do.”

God, there went another pang in Blair’s gut. For the longest time, longer than anywhere else he’d ever lived, Blair had called the place he’d shared with Jim home. It was, in many ways, the most stable home he’d ever had.

Until now, of course.

Swallowing regret – really, he should be long over that by now – Blair plastered on a smile. “Yeah, well, it doesn’t have to be forever. It just makes sense to buy rather than rent, especially now it looks like I’ll be here for a while longer. UCD just renewed my contract for three more years, and there’s a chance in the next year or two that I might get a permanent position.” He shrugged. “Besides, Mom left me some money. It’s a good move to invest it in property, especially the way the Irish housing market is right now. And as much as I got a kick out of living in Dublin, it’s really great to get out of the city.”

Jim’s face had clouded at the mention of Naomi. “You know, Chief, I’m really sorry about what happened to your mom.”

Blair smiled at Jim, determined to move the conversation back to happier topics. “I know that, man. Your support at the time really meant a lot. But I’m doing okay, really.”

“I wish I could have done more.”

Jim’s quiet words, full of tangible remorse, caused Blair to look at him sharply. “What?”

“Maybe then,” Jim said, looking at him sadly, “you wouldn’t have felt you had to leave.”

“Jim, man, come on,” Bair protested. “We’ve talked this to death already. It was a positive choice, okay? A new start. We both needed that, after everything that happened.”

“I just wish…” Jim tailed off.

“Hey, man,” Blair said firmly. “Naomi’s death, right after the dissertation thing – well, I admit, it was a pretty difficult time for me. But you were great, man. A rock. There’s nothing more that you could have done, and I’ll never forget that you were there for me when I really needed you. And as for the fact that I left,” Blair turned right at the next roundabout, taking the road toward Cooley, while ruthlessly forcing down the traitorous sense of loss that lent the lie to his assertions. “Like we both agreed at the time,” he continued, “it was time for a change. I was given an opportunity, and decided to grab it. Sometimes, it’s just time to move on, you know?”

“Yeah, I know,” Jim agreed.

“And hey, we’re both doing okay, aren’t we?” Blair asked, a little plaintively; hoping fervently that it was as true for Jim as it was for him.

“Yeah, we are,” Jim agreed. “But… I can’t help it, Chief. I miss you, sometimes.” He grinned. “I don’t miss the hairs in the drain, though, or your farts.”

Bair chuckled, warmed through and through by Jim’s smile and teasing words. And he imagined, for a self-indulgent few seconds, that there was something more profound beneath the surface; something which mirrored the hidden truth in Blair’s own heart.

***


Finally at their destination, Blair cut the engine. Wordlessly, they both got out of the car, and Blair watched as Jim turned a complete circle, a look of wonder on his face.

“Wow,” Jim breathed, his breath condensing into mist in the cold, fresh air.

“Yeah, wow!” Blair beamed happily. “Isn’t it something?”

Truly, it was. The tops of the mountains – hills, really, by Cascade standards – had a light covering of snow. The winter sun was low in the sky, just beginning to set, and the rosy light it cast on the slopes of the hills transformed them magically from the cloud-covered monoliths they’d seen in the distance to imposing edifices of living color. The ruddy glow cast by the waning sun also infused the luminous, pale walls of Blair’s cottage, turning the lumps and bumps of uneven, whitewashed limestone as pink as the snow-covered summits.

The cottage was bordered by mature trees and fields, without another house in sight. Gazing round, Jim asked, “How much land do you have?”

“Nearly four acres,” Blair told him.

Jim looked over at the adjoining field. “You keep cattle?” he queried, eyeing the small herd grazing there.

Blair shook his head. “The field over to the side here, and the big one round the back, I hire out to a local farmer – the previous owners used to do it, so I just kept the same arrangement. The rest of the land, about an acre, is garden – okay, yeah,” he admitted, indicating the mature hedges and long meadow grass, “it’s pretty wild garden. But I kinda like it like that.” He shivered – an icy wind was making itself felt. “Hey, how about we go in, man, and warm up? I’ll give you the full tour tomorrow.”

Jim smiled; the morose reflections he’d alluded to in the car apparently banished by the beauty of this place. It seemed that the peace Blair always felt here had infused his friend too. “Sounds like a plan,” he agreed.

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***


Once inside, Blair showed Jim to his room and, while the other man took a shower, busied himself getting a blaze going in the huge fireplace. Then, luxuriating in the growing warmth and homely scent of peat smoke, he set a light under the pan of homemade soup he’d cooked earlier. Garlic bread went in the oven as Jim emerged from the bathroom, nothing but a towel wrapped casually around his hips, as he walked unselfconsciously toward his room to get dressed.

Blair grinned. How very like old times that was. And boy, he thought, eyeing his friend’s muscular physique. Jim still had it, the dog.

A little while later, they both sat on the couch in front of the fire, eating hot soup from earthenware bowls. “This is delicious, Chief,” Jim said around mouthfuls.

“It’s a little early for dinner,” Blair said. “But your body clock is bound to be messed up, with the time difference and all. I guessed you might be ready for some food.”

“You guessed right.” Jim glanced around. “This is a beautiful house, Chief. I can see why you bought it.”

“It’ll be even better when I finish unpacking,” Blair said wryly, indicating the pile of boxes stacked in a corner near one of the cottage’s two bedrooms. “Oh, and hey? How about tomorrow, we decorate for the season? There are mature holly bushes further up the lane, and there’s pine trees, ivy, and all kinds of stuff right here in my garden. We could go out collecting while I show you around.”

“That’d be great,” Jim told him. Finished with his soup, he rose and, taking Blair’s empty bowl as well, he carried them into the kitchen which formed one side of the large main room. While he was gone, Blair sat in warm contentment, watching the blazing fire.

When Jim came back, he sat so close to Blair that their hips and thighs touched. Casually, just as he used to do sometimes back when they both lived in Cascade, he placed an arm across the couch, encompassing Blair in its circle. Blair breathed a happy sigh and leaned his head back, relaxing onto firm muscle. At that sign of acceptance, Jim slipped his arm further around, holding Blair more obviously.

The whole thing was so perfect, so resonant of the easy, touchy-feely friendship they used to share; yet Blair could dredge up only trite words to utter. “This is nice,” he said inadequately, his gaze on the twisting flames in the grate.

“Yeah. It is.” Jim yawned widely.

Blair turned to look at him. “Hey, man, why don’t you go lie down? Get some sleep for a while?”

Jim’s eyes were closed, his head resting on the back of the couch. “Why don’t I just stay right here?” he murmured. “I’m warm. I’m comfortable” His hand, where it rested on Blair’s shoulder, squeezed. “I’m with my best friend. I’m exactly where I want to be.” He sighed, a long, luxurious exhale, his face going slack and smooth in repose; slipping, just as easily as that, into sleep.

Blair put out a hand, and tenderly smoothed Jim’s sleeping brow. “Yeah,” he whispered, his throat aching at the wonder of it all. “So am I.”

***


It was dark when Blair awoke, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee pervading his dreams; although the darkness had that indefinable quality which told him it was actually close to dawn. He was lying down, but he wasn’t in his bed, and it took him a moment to work out where he was - until memory returned with a rush.

After Jim had fallen asleep yesterday, leaning warm and heavy against Blair on the couch, Blair had stayed where he was for a considerable time, luxuriating in their cozy proximity. Eventually he’d risen, and had pottered around for a few hours, quietly unpacking some of his books and enjoying the peaceful aura in his house; a peace that was greatly enhanced by the presence of his sleeping friend.

As the night had progressed, and it became increasingly clear that Jim was out for the count, Blair had covered him with the comforter off the spare bed, and then settled in once again by Jim’s side to read for a while before heading off to bed himself. He must have fallen asleep there and, he presumed, Jim had covered him up in turn, once he’d finally awoken.

Right now, though, Blair was alone. Either Jim had finally gone to bed, or more likely (judging by the fact that he’d apparently made coffee) was out and about somewhere.

Blair was startled out of his thoughts when the door to the cottage opened suddenly, and a dark figure entered in a blast of cold air. “Jim?” Blair queried.

“Yeah, it’s me,” Jim confirmed. “I’ve been getting some wood for the fire.”

“Oh,” Blair said. “Okay.” He lay in shameless inactivity, relishing the comfortable warmth of his snug nest, while Jim busied himself clearing out the grate, and building up the fire.

The whole process was done in darkness, and Blair was reminded for the first time in an age of the wonder of sentinel senses. The familiar – yet long set aside - thrill Blair felt at Jim’s extraordinary ability suffused him suddenly, taking him by surprise with its intensity.

Oblivious, Jim continued in his task, methodically building the fire. A match was stuck, and paper lit. As the flames licked at kindling and crumbled peat briquettes, Jim retreated to the kitchen. In a moment he was back, a mug of coffee in each hand.

Blair took the mug he was offered gratefully. “Hey, sorry,” he said. “You’re my guest, man. I should be doing this for you.” Although the fact was, Blair had to admit, it was kind of nice to have stuff done for him for a change. It had been an eternity since he’d had anyone bring him even so much as a coffee – he had gotten so used to living alone.

Jim sank down beside the hearth, taking a sip of the hot liquid. “It’s no problem,” he said. “I’ve been awake for a while.” Turning his attention back to the fire, Jim added a couple of logs which, Blair could see, had been neatly chopped to size.

“You found the axe,” Blair noted.

“Yeah. I had a look around, and found your tools in the shed. This is an amazing place you’ve got here, Chief,” Jim said. “Needs work, though.”

“Work?” Sure, the place was old, but the previous occupants had done a lot of renovation, and Blair thought it was in pretty good shape, considering the fact it was 200 years old. “What work?”

Jim shrugged. “That flat roof, on top of the kitchen extension, that’s gonna give you some problems in the future. In fact, the main roof needs quite a bit of maintenance, too. Some of the window frames are rotten. And there are so many holes though the stonework it’s no wonder you’ve got a colony of mice living between it and the dry lining.”

“Mice?” Blair had heard scratching, sure, but he’d assumed the mice were mere occasional visitors, rather than roommates.

“Yeah.” Jim drank more coffee. “This is good,” he remarked, indicating his mug.

“It’s from Bewley’s,” Blair said distractedly. “In Dublin. Hey man,” he brought them back on track, “Do you think I made a mistake, buying this place?”

“Oh god, no! It’s incredible.” There was actually awe in Jim’s voice. “The peace and quiet out there, is just… profound,” he said. “The basic structure is more than sound – the walls of this thing are four feet thick, Sandburg. It’s not gonna fall down anytime soon. Overall, it just needs a little fine tuning. And did you know you had badgers living down your lane?”

Mollified – he hadn’t realized how much he loved this house until Jim had maligned it – Blair smiled. “Wow. No, I didn’t know. Cool,” he said.

“Yeah.” Jim grinned, back at him, looking ageless in the firelight. “Seriously cool.”

***


They spent the day exploring the area, visiting the archaeological wonders that had drawn Blair to Cooley in the first place. Standing at the epicenter of two concentric circles, which comprised the defensive banks and ditches of one of the ancient ringforts bordering his land, Blair watched with satisfaction as Jim’s face transformed to wonder at the profound connectedness of past and present.

Blair knew that feeling well – in his work, he lived it every single day.

Later, he photographed Jim, standing in a chamber formed by three upright monoliths, topped off by a huge, heavy capstone - the Proleek Dolmen, simply the better known of the myriad of ancient sites in this area. Like all of the other treasures he’d shown Jim today, this ancient tomb was just a short walk from the cottage.

After taking the photo – Jim had fooled around for the camera, flexing his muscles and pretending to heft the capstone aloft like Atlas – Blair urged Jim to stand out beside him. He handed Jim a small stone; a matching one in his own hand.

“What’s this for?” Jim asked.

“Local custom, man.” Blair pointed up to the top of the giant capstone, where a jumble of small, precariously balanced stones could be seen. “You make a wish, but don’t say what it is. Then, throw your stone up there. If it bounces off, no deal. If it stays, you get your wish.”

A wistful look crossed Jim’s face, and Blair looked at him quizzically. Then, Jim smiled, apparently having determined what to wish for. He hefted the stone, and skillfully threw it. And, just as Blair had suspected it might, it landed neatly, and stayed right where Jim put it.

“Slam dunk,” Jim told him smugly.

Blair narrowed his eyes. “You cheated, man.”

Jim shrugged, not even a fraction contrite. “My abilities are natural, Chief - you taught me that. I think, especially when trifling with traditional beliefs like this, that it would be dishonest not to use them. Disrespectful, somehow.”

The simple acceptance Jim expressed for his senses in that statement made Blair’s breath catch in his throat. He’d so far failed to ask about how Jim was doing sense-wise – to be honest, like a coward, he had avoided the subject; because he still felt some considerable guilt for leaving Jim to sink or swim. Though Jim, it seemed, had reached not only an accommodation with his senses, but had now embraced them.

Vowing to raise the topic later – after all, he really was concerned about Jim’s senses, and it would be good to find out just how well he’d really coped, in view of his quiet confidence - Blair turned to look at the dolmen. The stone in his hand felt rough, jagged; a piece of limestone, like the walls of his cottage.

For a moment, Blair wavered. The thing his heart most desired was something that could never truly come to pass. It was something outrageous, something totally impossible. Something that, no matter how much he desired it, he could never allow himself to ask for.

Then he shook himself. It was just local superstition – not a genie in a bottle. Even if he wished for that, it would never come true. Get a grip, Sandburg, he told himself firmly. Where’s the harm? It’s just a wish, right? It’s not like you don’t wish for it all the time, anyway.

Hefting the stone like a shot-putter, hyper-aware of Jim silently watching him, Blair wished fervently. That done he stepped back, took a running jump at the dolmen, and threw.

The stone hit the capstone neatly, clunking loudly against the surface. But then it rolled right off the other side, hitting the grassy earth with a muffled thud.

Damn.

A rush of intense disappointment washed through Bair, no matter how irrational that emotion was. The one thing he wanted so desperately – the one thing that would make his life complete – he could never, ever have. The ancient dolmen had confirmed it.

Not that that was really any kind of a surprise to him.

He shrugged and turned away. “Come on, man,” he said to Jim, his voice oddly despondent. “It’s cold out here. Let’s go back and get warm, huh?” And without another word, he turned to stride up the path which would take them back to the road.

“Wait.” Jim’s imperative command stopped Blair in his tracks, despite himself. Jim had moved round the dolmen, where he crouched to pick up the stone that had landed on the ground. He looked over at Blair as he stood. “This isn’t yours,” he said. He peered up on top of the capstone, his greater height allowing him to see more of the top of it than Blair could. “Yours is still up there,” he declared. “I can see it. The stone you threw must have knocked this one off when it landed.”

“You’re shitting me,” Blair said. “Really?”

“Really.” Jim came over, and deposited the stone he’d picked up in Blair’s hand. “Look for yourself.”

Blair didn’t even need to look – he could feel. This stone was rounded; smooth.

It wasn’t his stone.

Blair looked up at Jim. His friend’s eyes were warm, his expression oddly tender, as he looked back at Blair. “I guess,” Blair murmured, “that this means we both get what we want.”

Blair watched, mesmerized, as Jim’s gloved hand reached out, one scratchy woolen-clad finger tracing a gentle line on Blair’s cheek. “I guess we do,” Jim agreed, a smile in his voice. And he turned, taking point to lead them back to Blair’s house.

Blair followed, firmly subduing the poignant ache in his chest; knowing deep in his heart that, despite the declarations of the ancients, his deepest desire was really nothing more than a pipe dream.

The rest of the day passed in easy camaraderie, Blair managing to shrug off his odd mood in the entertaining company of his friend. On the walk back, they gathered evergreens to decorate the cottage with; holly branches, trailing ivy, fragrant pine and sprigs from various unidentified bushes and trees. When they got home, they strewed their bounty around, the seasonal spirit that accompanied their decorating inspiring both of them to good humor and teasing chat. Their labor complete, they retired to the couch to sip hot chocolate, liberally raced with Jameson’s Irish whiskey; catching up on old times as they listened to the sounds of a Celtic music CD that Blair particularly liked, warmed by a roaring fire fragrant with the smell of burning peat.

All in all, Blair had to conclude, it was pretty perfect. Even if it couldn’t last forever.

***


Blair drove them into Dundalk that evening, to take Jim out for dinner. They went to a small but surprisingly excellent Spanish restaurant near the town square, where they sampled the congenial chef’s specialty of paella, washed down with sangria.

Afterward, they retired to a nearby pub, to give Jim a chance to taste real Irish Guinness. Blair sipped mineral water himself – he was driving, after all. And he cautioned Jim to moderation as well. “I have something really special lined up tomorrow, man. We have an early start ahead of us, and you’re gonna need a clear head.”

“Oh?” Jim prompted. “What have you got in mind?”

“If I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise,” Blair told him. “All I can say, is that it’s something very few people ever get to see. Something so awesome, you’ll never forget it as long as you live.”

He refused to be drawn further, despite Jim’s wheedling and totally off-center guesses. And they were both soon distracted from discussing it further, when a group of people sitting beside them noticed that they were American, and asked them where, exactly, they were from; since several of them had lived and worked in the States at various points in their lives, and they nearly all had relatives there. Before Blair knew it, they were both drawn into a lively, intelligent conversation which spanned travel, politics, music, various careers and everything else under the sun.

This was what Blair really loved about living in this country, he thought happily, listening with amusement as Jim debated vigorously with their new acquaintances about how yes, damn it, Santana definitely knocked all kind of spots off of Frank Zappa. Blair loved the cultural willingness to reach out, embrace and include; the Irish tendency to find other points of view - and other people – endlessly fascinating.

Many anthropologists – including anthropologists who had taken a left-turn into archaeology like Blair – regarded that aspect of Irish culture as something worthy of academic study.

The Irish simply called it – ‘having the craic’. And, on the slippery slope of assimilation as he was, Blair felt absolutely no compulsion to analyze it further. Some things, especially things that you were actually a part of, should just be accepted as they were.

He only wished, in retrospect, that he’d had the same attitude back when he’d studied Jim. It would have saved the two of them a hell of a lot of grief.

***


They left the pub at around ten o’clock. By Irish standards, that was obscenely early – the place was just beginning to fill up when they bade farewell to their newly-met friends and relinquished their seats. But, in view of what was arranged for the following morning, Blair was determined that they should have an early night. The following day’s event was something that he was determined not to miss under any circumstances; especially as it was very likely they’d never get such a precious opportunity again.

Jim seemed to be in fine spirits, the Guinness and the chat having loosened him up nicely. Glancing aside at him as he drove out of Dundalk on the bypass, while the two of them bantered back and forth good naturedly, Blair was pleased to see that the tangible exhaustion Jim had carried with him off the plane had completely dispersed, replaced by relaxed contentment and invigorated good humor.

Back at the house, Jim flung a companionable arm over Blair’s shoulders as they prepared to negotiate the gravel path to the front door in the darkness. But, before they moved away from the car, they paused first to look up at the sky. And what they saw took Blair’s breath away.

The pitch-black sky was totally clear of cloud, the taste of frost hanging heavy in the air. And above them, the ethereal white swathe of the Milky Way forged a luminous path through brightly twinkling constellations. The night sky was so clear that the occasional satellite could even be seen, wending its silent way in orbit far above the earth’s atmosphere.

Captivated by the clarity and the magnificence of it all, they stood in silence; until the eerie cry of a night animal rent the air, disturbing their easy peace. “Jesus,” Jim muttered. “What the hell is that?”

Blair’s shivered, the arm he’d put about Jim’s waist tightening to pull his friend closer. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end, despite the fact that he was fully aware of the very earthly origin of the sound. “It’s a fox, man,” he said.

“Creepy,” Jim said.

“Yeah,” Blair agreed. “Some people think that the sound of a fox crying in the night is the inspiration that gave rise to the legend of the banshee. She’s an Irish spirit - ban meaning ‘woman’, sidhe meaning ‘spirit’ - whose nighttime cry heralds death. But don’t worry, man,” Blair added. “If you hear her yourself, it’s not you who’s going to die – just someone you know. And we both heard that, right?”

“Right,” Jim said, returning Blair’s one handed hug. “I’d like to say that’s reassuring, Chief, but it’s not.”

Blair smiled up at Jim in the darkness. “Well, maybe this will help. There’s another school of thought, where it’s believed that the banshee’s cry doesn’t herald literal death. It can also symbolize an ending and a new beginning. So, in that sense, hearing it can be interpreted as a positive thing.”

The cry echoed through the night once more – a lost, lonely sound in the darkness. “That’s a fox, though. Right, Chief?” Jim asked.

“Yeah,” Blair grinned at the slight uncertainty in Jim’s voice. It seemed the big lug was more than a little creeped out after all, despite usually being Mr. Rationality. “It’s a fox.”

Jim squeezed Blair tight. “Good. Let’s go in, huh?” And holding Blair close against his side, Jim steered him firmly toward the house, Blair chuckling at him all the while.

Once inside, they went through the motions of preparation for bed, taking turns to use the bathroom, and Jim helping Blair to lock up and turn out the lights. At last, they paused in the living room, an unfathomable glance passing between them in the half-light flooding out from the two open bedroom doors.

Blair felt a little awkward, for some reason; as well as strangely reluctant to say goodnight. So he found solace in practicalities. “I’ve set an alarm for six o’clock - I’ll wake you a little after that. Okay, man?”

Jim nodded. “Okay,” he agreed softly.

“Right, then.” Blair shuffled from foot to foot; steeling himself to say the words. “Goodnight, Jim,” he managed, finally. “Sleep well, huh?”

“You too.”

A moment later, neither of them had moved.

Then Jim spoke, breaking the strange impasse. “Oh, hell,” he said grouchily. “”Come here, Chief.” He opened his arms.

Without conscious volition, Blair moved into them.

It felt like coming home.

***


Blair cried out convulsively, unable to hold it inside. How many years had he longed for this? And now, finally, here they were. And Jim’s hands, Jim’s mouth, Jim’s body arching over him, filling him, was better than anything he could have imagined; so incredible, so overwhelming, almost more than he could bear…

“Sh, Blair. Easy. Hush,” Jim told him softly; his hands stroking, soothing, calming the fire. “Let me in, Chief. Trust me.”

And of course, Blair did. “With my life, man.” He breathed in pants, letting Jim work his magic, accepting this gift with all his heart. “I love you,” he said brokenly, as Jim finally slid home. “I love you, Jim.”

“Blair.” God, Blair had never realized; never known that his name could sound like that on Jim’s lips. “My Blair.”

“Yours. Yours forever.” Tears blinded him. Perfect. Too perfect. If he’d known, if he’d only known…

Jim moved, the pace achingly slow; and so, so tender; more tender than anything Blair had ever experienced. It touched something deep within him, something raw; breaking him open, stripping him bare. He cried out again, quivering and lost, frightened by the intensity.

“I’m here, Blair.” Jim unerringly found him, cradling him with arms and voice and lips; salving Blair’s vulnerability, holding him safe, even as he relentlessly enforced his pleasure. “I’ve got you. Let yourself go, Chief. Let go.”

Reaching out blindly, Blair clung to Jim, trusting him like he trusted no other; loving him like he’d loved no other. “Jim,” he panted. “Love you. Love you… you’re my life, man. You’re everything.”

“Blair,” Jim whispered huskily. “Love you… Love you more than life. My Blair… Mine forever…”

It was everything and more – so much more. Crying out ecstatically, set free by Jim’s utterance of eternal love, Blair at last found release; his body and soul enmeshing with Jim’s in perfect, synchronous ecstasy.

***


Blair woke from a deep, blissful sleep, sprawled across his bed, which was far warmer than usual. Firelight from the lounge flickered through the open door, providing the only light in the darkness, and he could hear movement in the kitchen.

That evidence of someone else in Blair’s space brought it all back. His heart jumped into overdrive, pounding erratically. Jim. He and Jim had… oh man. And then they’d… and as well as that he’d… and then Jim had…

“Hey, Sandburg!” Jim called out, amusement clear in his voice. “Stop freaking out! I told you I’d still respect you in the morning.”

And Jim had told him that, when the profound initial connection they’d shared had evolved into sheer, lighthearted learning and enjoyment of each other. Playful, loving teasing with hands and bodies and mouths and voices had continued right through the night, until they’d finally lapsed into exhausted sleep, snuggled close in each others’ arms.

Blair’s vivid recollection of their lovemaking was interrupted when Jim appeared in the doorway, the very picture of naked confidence, carrying two mugs of coffee. He put them both down on the nightstand, and leaned over Blair, prowling onto the bed and over him with feline grace, to capture his mouth in a predatory, nibbling kiss. “Good morning,” he murmured huskily. One hand found its way to Blair’s curls, caressing possessively. “Jeez, Chief,” Jim said, when Blair simply lay there dazedly, reeling from the sheer eroticism of Jim’s kiss. “If I’d known this would shut you up, I’d have done it years ago!”

“You’re such a dick,” Blair told him, amused despite himself. It seemed that, no matter the new turn their relationship had taken, some things hadn’t changed at all. Mutual insults and joshing were a way of life for them. God, Jim would fit in here really well; the Irish took great pride in the ability to do exactly the same thing – only they called it ‘slagging’.

Jim crept back under the comforter and, as Blair sat up, he found himself snuggled comfortably against Jim’s side, nestled close under one muscular arm; both of them sitting back against the headboard. “So,” Jim asked. “What’s this big surprise you’ve got planned, Chief?” He looked down at Blair. “It’s the winter solstice, right? The 21st December. I guess this is some hippy dippy new-age witchdoctor thing you’re taking me to, huh?”

Blair grinned. “Jim, this is about as far from new age as you can get. This is seriously old age, man.”

“You gonna tell me?” Jim prompted.

“That’d spoil the surprise,” Blair told him. “It’s better if it gets revealed as it happens.”

Jim leered at him. “You feel like revealing anything else before we leave, Professor?” he asked.

“I can’t say I’m not tempted,” Blair admitted, breathing a little quicker as one of Jim’s hands insinuated itself between his legs. “But we need to get moving, man.”

“I’m moving,” Jim told him, his hand emphasizing the point.

And so he was. “Ah,” Blair admitted, squirming as Jim unerringly found his hot spots once more. “Maybe we can spare a few more minutes.” After all, this was a pretty life affirming activity, and that was definitely in keeping with the theme of the morning ahead…

Not that Blair needed to justify it at all, even to himself. There was no denying the sense of rightness in this consummation of their long-unspoken mutual longing. It seemed that today was the dawn of more than one new era.

Sighing happily, he gave himself over to Jim’s hands.

***


The roads were icy, so Blair took it really easy getting out of the valley and back onto the main road south. They skirted Dundalk, and reached Drogheda just before 7.30 am, taking the turnoff at the signpost to Brú na Boinne and Newgrange just over the bridge.

Jim indicated the sign they had just gone past. “Isn’t that where you work? I remember you mentioning Newgrange”

“I work on one of the adjacent sites,” Blair confirmed. “Not at Newgrange itself – although I spend quite a bit of time at the visitor centre there.”

“Is that where we’re headed?”

Blair turned to flash Jim a grin. “Yeah, it is.” A flutter of excitement made itself known, both at the proximity of the other man, and the prospect of what was ahead. “You know what Newgrange is, right?” he asked, and at Jim’s blank look, elaborated. “It’s one of three major passage tombs in the Boyne Valley. A work of incredible engineering, man; over five thousand years old. It’s a thousand years older than Stonehenge; hell, man, it’s even five hundred years older than the pyramids in Giza. But the amazing thing, the thing that makes it so special, is that today – on the winter solstice – the inner chamber is illuminated by sunlight at sunrise.”

Blair looked again at Jim, trying to emphasize how special this was. “For seventeen minutes only – just today, out of the whole year - light is brought into the darkness. And the reason for that is because the people who built it had such an incredible grasp of engineering, as well as a deep understanding of the cycles of the year – primitive, Jim, those guys were not. There’s an opening over the doorway – known as the ‘roof box’ - which channels light down the long passage until it lights the inner chamber. And it only happens this time of year. Today, for the longest time, and two days either side for shorter intervals. ”

“Wow.”

“Yeah, wow! And you know what’s even more wow?”

“Go on,” Jim said. He was smiling.

Blair felt his own face stretch into a matching grin. “The big wow, is that we get to see it, Jim. There are only twenty places a year to witness the solstice sunrise from inside Newgrange. I put my name down for it years ago, before I came to live over here, back when I visited one summer. And this year, I won the lottery – which is a million-to-one chance, literally. Only you’re getting my ticket, man. Because I’m getting in anyway – I work there, and I’m one of the academics who got picked to go in this year.”

Jim did, at least, look suitably impressed; although Blair got the impression there was a hint of mocking laughter in his eyes. “What?” Blair demanded.

A warm hand descended on Blair’s thigh and squeezed, which made him squirm deliciously. “It’s just… it’s great to see you like this, Chief. Your enthusiasm for stuff like this. I’ve missed it.”

Keeping his attention on the icy road with an effort, Blair felt his face stretch into the sappiest grin he could imagine. “Yeah?” he said. “Well, I’ve missed you too.” He felt expansive, ebullient; in love with the universe.

But mostly, in love with Jim.

Blair kept his attention on driving after that, needing to navigate the twisty, icy road safely. But Jim’s hand remained where it was, heavy and hot on his thigh, and Blair’s euphoria made the miles fly past.

***


It was only just after 7.30 am by the time they arrived at the Brú na Boinne visitor centre, but the car park was already full. Not only that; for the last couple of miles there had been crowds of people wandering along the otherwise quiet, country roads, muffled in hats, scarves and heavy coats against the chill of the winter’s morning. People of all ages, walking in groups or alone; young, old, men, women, the devout churchgoer and the new-age hippy. All of them congregating to celebrate the turning of the year at Newgrange - just as their ancestors and forebears had for millennia.

As Blair and Jim walked from the car, through the other parked vehicles and thronging people toward the brightly lit visitor centre, Blair kept up a running commentary for Jim’s benefit, secretly delighted by the fact that Jim appeared to hang on his every word. “Basically, this whole area is a neolithic cemetery. But really, it’s much more than that – it’s a ritual site. The tombs are in alignment with significant turnings of the year. The southern passage at Dowth, for example, where I spend most of my time, is aligned with the winter solstice sunset, while Knowth may have associations with the equinoxes; although the phases of the moon seem to be significant in its layout, too. Newgrange, though, Newgrange is very clearly associated with sunrise of the shortest day of the year – today. The winter solstice. And that is why we’re here.”

As they walked in through the doors, a number of people – all of them friends and colleagues – greeted Blair. There was a festive atmosphere, the visitor centre closed to the public today, but full of milling archaeologists and other interested parties - including the lucky winners of the lottery. And all of them in high spirits.

Blair led Jim through the throng, introducing him as he went. “Hey guys, this is Jim Ellison, my friend from back home.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Blair’s friend Eugene greeted warmly, shaking Jim’s hand. “Blair told us his guest was an old friend. It’s good you could make it. He and I are the two staff members allowed in for the sunrise today – the rest are lottery winners like yourself.”

Jim smiled, giving Bair a glance rife with meaning only he could interpret. “It’s good to be here.”

Watching Jim as he slipped into easy conversation with his friend, Blair felt like the sun had already risen; shining high in the sky and bathing the two of them in its life-giving light.

***


There was a sense of ritual; a contradictory mixture of somber respect and joyful gaiety in the procession which made its way from the visitor centre toward their destination. Blair longed to take Jim’s hand in his own as they walked, but knew better than to do so where others might see. That reticence didn’t prevent the two of them from walking close together, though; bumping arms and shoulders as they moved, circling in each other’s orbit like a pair of binary stars.

The sky was beginning to lighten by the time they reached the gate up to the monument. Up on the hill, the mound of Newgrange stood out in sharp relief in the darkness, the quartz crystals covering one side of its surface lending it an eerie luminescence; the circle of standing stones which ringed it standing sentry like the silent spirits of the ancient builders.

As they got closer, other watchers could be seen. People who had gathered here from all over the country and further afield, thronging around the mound to participate in this ancient ritual; no matter that only a lucky few would be party to its inner miracle. No matter, though – the party outside the monument was just as important.

Music rang out from the crowd - tin whistles, bodhráns and other traditional instruments - heralding the imminent sunrise. The group who had walked up from the visitor centre congregated close to the entrance, and Blair glanced up at Jim, standing silent by his side. His friend’s flawless features were beautiful and ageless in the grayness, infused with a sense of the wonder that Blair himself felt.

From here, they gazed down into the valley, where the Boyne river could be seen as it flowed past this most ancient of places; just as it had millennia ago, when this tomb and the others nearby had first been built. The line of low hills on the horizon were capped with pink, the frost and the clouds in the winter sky imbued with a rosy glow from the sun as it prepared to begin its short circuit through the sky on this, the shortest day of the year.

The assembled had fallen silent, as if the majesty and the gravity of this timeless ritual had robbed them of voice. Their wonder and awe found its release only in the ancient music which filled the air, its twists and turns echoing the curves and spirals on the great carved entrance stone which stood in front of the entrance to the mound.

Finally, it was time. With only a gesture, Eugene led their small group inside. Blair preceded Jim up the wooden steps – a twentieth century addition allowing ease of access across the large kerbstones which flanked the entrance. And at last, they were on their way inside the tomb.

The steep passageway was lit by stark electric light, illuminating the way. Glancing back, Blair saw Jim stoop, ducking under the low wooden beams, which were placed there to reinforce the heavy orthostats which lined the passageway, before he had to duck himself – it was a tight squeeze in places.

Blair steadied his own steps by trailing a hand along the massive stones. As he moved along, he encountered the roughness of carved initials hacked into the stone - testament to the unthinking desecration of vandals who had visited this tomb two hundred years ago. He hoped fervently that, two hundred years from now, the activities of modern archaeologists would not be considered to be vandalism too, and that the conservation measures that they constantly took to respect the past would be sufficient to preserve this place for future generations to enjoy.

At last, their steep trek terminated inside the inner chamber itself. Blair moved straight ahead, to stand in front of a small alcove which led off the end of the main chamber. Matching alcoves lined two of the other sides, giving the inner tomb a cruciform shape.

Jim came to stand beside him and, as the rest of the group entered and arranged themselves around the chamber, Blair indicated the recess behind him. “Look in there, man,” he said. “See, on the wall there? The spirals?”

Jim looked and, a rapt expression on his face, reached out to trace the design cut into the stone there with his fingers. There were three spirals nestled together; two entwined, and a further one branching out from the centre. “I’ve seen this design before,” Jim murmured after a moment. “Something like it, anyway. In Peru.”

Blair nodded, delighted that Jim had made the connection. “You’re talking about Santo Domingo, right? The triple-spiral geoglyph cut into the valley floor?” When Jim nodded, Blair went on, “You know, variations of this symbol are found all over the world, in many different cultures. There are all kinds of theories about its meaning. In Ireland, the trinity is a powerful concept – the triple goddess, the holy ghost. But the one thing, man, that’s common to all the cultures where this is found, including Ireland?” Blair reached out, tracing the path along the spirals that Jim’s fingers had traveled a moment before, the slightly rough stone making his fingers tingle. “Life, death and rebirth,” he said. “The endless cycle, the turning of the earth. The sense of eternity that ties us all to the past, and enables us to reach out to the future.” He glanced back toward the passage they had walked down to enter the tomb. “That’s what this is all about, man. That’s what this is; why we’re here today.”

If Jim had any comments to make, they were silenced in the next moment when the electric light was extinguished, and the two dozen people in the tomb were plunged into utter blackness.

Breathless with anticipation, Blair waited, and waited, and waited. And at some point, as the darkness began to make way for a gradual lightning - when a pencil-thin ray of sunlight crept slowly, inexorably down the passageway they had all traversed to illuminate the inner chamber with the dim, natural light provided only by the winter solstice sunrise - his hand and Jim’s found each other, and grasped, and held on.

Shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand, they stood in silence to witness light being brought to the darkness, illuminating the ancient resting place of the dead with the life-giving glow of the sun. And they watched the light retreat just as slowly, gradually leaving them once more in the black womb of the earth, returning the chamber to blackness until the earth turned full circle once again.

***


Second Spiral: Death

They went for breakfast in a small, homely café in Slane. Blair got a huge kick out of observing Jim as he wooed the motherly proprietor, seducing her with his good looks and charm. And he watched with amusement when Jim’s expression bordered on ecstasy, as he tucked into a mountain of eggs, bacon, sausages, mushrooms, fried soda bread and potato farls, accompanied by chunky traditional brown bread, toast and marmalade, and a huge pot of coffee. It seemed that a full Irish breakfast approached Nirvana proportions for someone with an appetite like Jim’s.

Blair had debated showing Jim around the Boyne valley a little more; perhaps taking him over to Dowth to show him the dig he was working on, and maybe calling in on the way home to see the high crosses at Monasterboice. But the frequent, surreptitious touches they shared during breakfast - a brush of a hand across a sleeve, their knees pressed together under the table – made him ache for more of a different kind of touching. And the calculating, smoky look in Jim’s eye led him to the sure belief that Jim desired that too.

So Blair wasted no time after they’d eaten in getting them back on the road north. After all, he reasoned, they would still have plenty of days to continue the tour - as well as plenty of time to decide where they were going to go from here.

Damn. Blair kicked himself mentally at that latter thought. Too soon to think about that, goddamnit! Just for today, he wanted to hold onto the euphoria, without having to consider the inevitable decisions that would need to be made, now everything had changed between them.

Most of all, he didn’t want to consider how impossible it would be to continue it, with the two of them living in different continents.

***


The message light was flashing on Blair’s phone when they arrived back at the cottage so, while Jim disappeared into the bathroom, Blair went to investigate.

“Jim, I got this number from your boss,” the man’s voice on the machine – which Blair didn’t immediately recognize – said. “I’ve got some bad news, bro – it’s about Dad. You need to call me at the Providence Hospice, on 205 576 3232. It’s urgent, okay? Just call.”

“Stephen.” Jim had emerged from the bathroom, grim-faced, and confirmed with one word the realization of the identity of the caller Blair had come to.

There was a sense of something crashing down around them, something ending; but Blair had no time to deal with that. Seeing the worry in Jim’s face, he immediately got into gear. Replaying the message, he jotted down the number, and handed the phone to Jim. “Here you go,” he said. “The international code for the US from here is 001 – just insert that in front of the rest of the number.”

Jim took the phone, and dialed. Standing at his elbow, wanting desperately to convey support, Blair listened to the one-sided conversation as Jim spoke to the receptionist who answered the phone, trying to get hold of Stephen. There was a long pause when, after asking for his brother, Jim was put on hold.

Blair glanced at his watch – it was almost midday here, which meant that it was not yet 4.00 am in Cascade. He was about to suggest that maybe Jim should try back again later, when Jim exclaimed, “Stephen! I just got your message.”

The call was, now Jim had got through, brief and to the point. After it concluded, Jim looked across at Blair. “It’s my Dad,” he said, confirming what Blair had already deduced. “He’s sick. He’d been having some problems before I left, but I thought it was all under control. It seems it’s worse than any of us suspected.” Jim swallowed, his face pinched with grief. “He’s dying, Chief. He has a tumor, and it’s inoperable. I need… I need to go home.”

“Oh god,” Blair said, his heart aching for Jim’s pain. “Sure, man. Anything you need. We’ll get you on the next flight we can, okay?”

Jim nodded. “Okay.”

Wanting so much to see Jim through this every bit as well as Jim had done for him when Naomi had died, Blair offered, “Hey, I’m on vacation until the first week in January. How about I come with you?”

Jim smiled, a sad, slow smile. “I appreciate the offer, Chief,” he said. “But it’s not necessary.”

“Hey.” Blair reached out, grasped Jim’s hand. “I want to be there for you, Jim.”

“I know.” For a moment, their eyes met in a tender exchange of emotion. “Okay,” Jim said softly. “I’d appreciate that. Assuming we can get two tickets at this short notice.”

“Hey, man,” Blair assured him. “Leave that to me.”

The next few hours passed in a frenzy of organization, as Blair got on the phone, calling various travel agents, trying to change Jim’s return ticket and organize two seats on the first available flight to Cascade. Waiting for a call back from one agent, who thought there might be a possibility of a double cancellation on a flight leaving early the next day, he started to pack a bag.

And then, abruptly, stopped. “Shit.” He pounded the mattress in frustration with a fist. “Shit, shit, shit!

“Chief?” Jim queried, coming to stand in Blair’s bedroom doorway. Then, worriedly, “What’s wrong?”

Blair looked at Jim despairingly. “I’m such an idiot. Such a fucking idiot! I’m so sorry, man!”

Jim looked at him quizzically.

Running both hands through his hair, Blair said, “My passport, Jim. It’s not here! It was due to expire just after Christmas, so I sent it off to the U.S. embassy last week to get it renewed. I was granted dual citizenship in September, and I’m still waiting for my new Irish passport to arrive – I’m entitled to both an Irish one and an American one now. It should have been here by now – I expected it around the time I sent my American one off to renew it. But...”

“But it’s not.” The lack of expression on Jim’s face felt like a kick in the gut – this was how he looked, Blair knew, when he felt seriously let down.

Goddamnit, he was seriously let down.

Hating himself for doing this to him, when Jim clearly needed support, Blair could only croak, “Jim, I’m just… man, I’m really sorry. You know I’d come with you if I could, right? I mean,” he huffed a humorless laugh, “here I am, entitled to two passports, and I don’t have either of them. How ridiculous is that?”

“Yeah. I know.” Jim shook himself, and managed a weak smile. “Hey, Sandburg. Don’t sweat it, okay? I can take care of myself. It’s not your fault it hasn’t arrived yet.” And with one last, sad smile, he turned and left the room. And a moment later, Blair heard the outer door open and close, as Jim went outside.

Blair sighed. Jim might not be inclined to blame him for something that was beyond his control. But it was his fault, nevertheless, that Blair hadn’t remembered that little fact before getting Jim’s hopes up, only to so comprehensively dash them. Way to kick a man when he’s down, he chided.

Blair looked at the half-packed bag on the bed miserably. It seemed that he wasn’t going anywhere.

***


Annoyed with himself as he was, it nevertheless took Blair very little time to get himself together and back on track. Jim needed his help and support – Jim’s dad was dying, for God’s sake. Blair might not be able to travel back to Cascade with him, but he could certainly do everything in his power to speed Jim on his way, and support him while he was still here.

The one positive aspect of the situation they found themselves in was that it was much easier to find one seat than two, at such short notice and at this busy time of year. Consequently, one further call to the travel agent who had earlier indicated she might be able to find two seats pending a cancellation, had resulted in immediate confirmation of a single seat.

That done, Blair had nothing to do but wait anxiously for Jim to return. After their conversation in the bedroom, his friend had disappeared off outside by himself; his coat gone from the peg.

Busying himself with putting together some food – they wouldn’t need to leave to go to the airport for several hours yet – Blair watched the clock anxiously, casting frequent glances outside through the kitchen window, as he watched for his friend to return.

***


It was fully dark by the time Jim came back in, in a flurry of cold air. Blair hovered anxiously as he took off his coat. “Hey,” Blair said. “I got you on a flight, man. We’ll need to leave for the airport at around three in the morning.”

“Thanks, Chief.” Jim murmured. “I appreciate it.”

Blair wanted nothing more than to take Jim into his arms, but the rules had changed between them, it seemed. Jim appeared to be holding himself aloof; expressionless. It was what he did, when things hurt him – and now, since their dynamic had altered so profoundly the past few days, Blair had no idea how best to deal with it.

He took refuge in being what he’d been for the longest part of their relationship – a friend. “You doing okay?”

“Yeah.” Jim wiped a hand across his face – another characteristic worried gesture. “It’s just… if I’d known things were this bad with my dad, I’d never have come away.”

“Hey,” Blair told him gently. “I know that, man. I’m sure he knows it too. You can’t blame yourself for this.”

“I know.”

“So…” Blair asked carefully, “I’m guessing you and your dad, you’ve gotten some stuff worked out recently, huh?”

“Things have been okay.” Jim glanced at Blair. “Okay, more than okay. I guess the past few years we’ve managed to put some stuff behind us. Stephen, too.”

That was really good, Blair knew, considering everything. But it made the whole thing even more tragic, as well. “Jim,” Blair said. “I’m really sorry about your dad, man.”

“I know.” Jim looked exhausted.

“Are you hungry? I made some food. It’d be a good idea to eat before we head off, then get a couple hours sleep.”

“Maybe in a little while,” Jim agreed wearily. “I’m just gonna get a shower, first.”

“Hey, no problem. You need help packing?”

“I already did it.” Jim shrugged. “Didn’t really unpack too much, anyway.”

The sad resignation in that statement matched Blair’s own. He watched sadly as Jim went into the bathroom; then went into the kitchen with a heavy heart to heat up their dinner.

It seemed that this was over before it had even begun.

***


After they ate, Blair drove over to the local gas station to buy petrol and check the tires – determined that he’d get Jim where he needed to be without mishap. When he returned, Jim had built up the fire and was sitting on the couch, gazing into it.

Drawn to him like a moth to a flame, Blair came to sit beside him. “Hey,” he said gently.

“Hey, Chief.”

Blair knew he should suggest that they go lie down for a while – or that Jim should, at any rate, with such a long, unhappy journey ahead of him. But selfishly he didn’t; wanting desperately to prolong this moment – the two of them here, in his house, together.

Then he turned his head to look at Jim, and what he saw stirred him from his self-centered preoccupation. Jim looked lost, and unutterably sad.

Unable to help himself, Blair reached out a hand, and curled it around Jim’s neck. Unresisting, Jim allowed himself to be pulled toward Blair, leaning right over until his head came to rest in Blair’s lap. Blair slid a cushion underneath Jim’s head, and stroked fingers over fine-boned features and thinning hair, his touch light and loving. “Sleep,” he whispered. “I’ve got you.”

Jim sighed hugely, and closed his eyes.

Keeping watch, Blair held him in security and peace until it was time to go.

Blair didn’t sleep at all; savoring instead every moment – every hour - that Jim lay heavily across him on the sofa, dozing fitfully.

When the time came to leave they traveled to the airport in silence, speeding along without hindrance on empty roads through the somnolent countryside. Jim seemed lost in a place that Blair could not follow; no matter how hard he tried. Seemingly oblivious of Blair’s solicitous looks and fleeting touches, Jim gazed mutely out of the car windows; either traveling the path of his thoughts, or utilizing his sentinel-vision to see things that were impossible for Blair to see in the dark landscape outside.

Once they arrived at the airport, they were immediately engaged with parking, getting Jim and his luggage over to departures, and going through check-in. As soon as that was done, Jim got straight on the phone, calling Stephen for a final update on his father’s condition before he got on the plane. The call – which ascertained that there had been no change - took a considerable time to complete; right up, in fact, until the moment it was time for Jim to go through to the gate.

Standing beside the barrier tape, which led in a bright-ribboned path to their inevitable point of separation, they finally turned to look at each other.

“I guess this is it, huh?” Blair said.

Jim nodded. “I guess so.”

Jim looked so melancholy that it almost broke Blair’s heart. Once again, he was consumed with guilt that he was not able to accompany Jim – if ever there was a time his presence was needed, this was it.

But his guilt had no place here. Not right now.

Instead, he said, “Call me, okay? You know I’m here for you, right, Jim?”

“I know.” Jim smiled sadly. “Blair, it’s… it’s been great. I just want you to know, I’m really glad I came.”

“Hey, man,” Blair said, a lump in his throat. “So am I.”

For a moment they stood there, no further words suitable or even appropriate to mark their parting. Other passengers swept past them, flowing past the obstacle they formed in a frenzy of haste; but, in the proximity of their reluctant impasse, time stood still.

Then the spell broke. Jim opened his arms, and Blair moved into them, his arms reaching around Jim’s waist to squeeze back tightly. They stood for a moment, both of them breathing hard and heavy, holding on, clutching desperately.

Then they parted, and Jim turned. He moved off swiftly, going through the gate without looking back.

Left alone, Blair could still feel the phantom imprint of Jim’s arms around him, until the sensation gradually evaporated into oblivion.

Driving back to Cooley in the early morning, Blair felt fractured inside. He was brimming over with some unnamed emotion, which drifted out and obscured the world like mist. The strange, disconnected sensation was mirrored by the freezing, ethereal mist, which was hovering above his lawn when he arrived back at the cottage.

Part of it was exhaustion, Blair understood. He’d been awake for more than 24 hours straight, after all; and the previous night he’d had hardly any sleep at all. And part of it was anxiety, which manifested, as the long, lonely day drifted along and extended past the time that Jim should have arrived back in Cascade, in a tendency to hover by the phone; no matter that it stubbornly refused to ring.

Finally, around midnight, Blair took himself off to bed, exhausted and heartsick, to lie on sheets which still bore the evidence of the night he’d spent there with Jim. Curled up under the comforter, he hugged the pillow Jim had lain on to his chest, and fell headlong into a dreamless, black-hole of slumber.

The ringing phone woke him, sometime in the darkest hours of the night. Heart pounding, he sprinted out to answer it, throwing on lights as he went. “Jim?” he asked breathlessly, when he picked it up.

“Yeah, it’s me, Chief,”

Oh, thank god. “How are you doing, man?”

“I’m fine.” There was a pause. “The flight to Cascade was delayed at Shannon. I only got in a couple hours ago.”

“Oh, man!” Glancing at the clock in the kitchen, Blair could see it was after three in the morning. “You were what, six hours late?”

“Something like that.” Another pause. Then, “Did I wake you?”

“No, not really.” Then Blair admitted, “Okay, well, you did, but it doesn’t matter, Jim. I’m just really glad you called. Hey,” Blair asked, “Where are you calling from?”

“I’m outside the Hospice, on my cell phone. I can’t talk for long, Chief. I just wanted to let you know I got here okay.”

“Right.” Blair swallowed. “How’s your dad doing?”

“He’s holding his own, for now. Stephen and I are gonna take turns sitting with him, now I’m here.” Jim didn’t elaborate further, but the pain in his voice was unmistakable.

Once again, Blair felt horrendously guilty. “I wish I could be there with you,” he said. “If you need to talk, you know you can call, right? Any time, man. Day or night.”

“I know.” Another pause, then, “Chief, I gotta go.”

“I know.” Blair’s heart was breaking all over again. “Take care, all right? And I... I’ll be thinking about you.”

“I’ll be thinking about you too, Blair.” Jim’s voice was a whisper; a caress.

At least Blair wanted to believe it was. “Jim…”

“I gotta go – the battery’s nearly dead. I’m sorry, Chief.”

“Hey, it’s okay…” Blair began, but his words went unheard. The dial tone interjected, contact severed.

Saddened by yet another precipitous separation, Blair headed dejectedly back to bed.

***


For the next couple of days Blair drifted along, feeling oddly cut off from everything around him. Jim was in his thoughts constantly – it was as though his ghost remained at the cottage and in the places they’d walked, haunting Blair with the memory of everything they’d shared in the brief, magical time they’d spent together.

The overwhelming sense of limbo, of something unfinished, made it hard for Blair to engage with anything. He alternated between his concern and worry for Jim and the awful crisis he was dealing with, with vivid recollections of how it had felt to possess and be possessed. He constantly heard Jim’s voice in his head, murmuring remembered words of undying love to him - words he’d longed to hear for what felt like an eternity. And he experienced over and over, in his mind’s eye, the profound moment that sunlight illuminated the eternal blackness of an ancient tomb, his hand held in the warm, living hand of the man he loved beyond life.

For a brief moment in his life, Blair had had everything in his grasp; everything he’d ever wanted. He’d known, even at the time, that it could not continue – how could it, when they each led independent, busy lives, and lived thousands of miles apart across an ocean? But tragedy had ripped away even the small amount of time they might have had together. And the suddenness of Jim’s departure had robbed them of any real chance they might have had to fully reconcile their newly acknowledged love with the deep friendship they already shared.

And so, Blair waited for Jim to call. And he vowed to put behind him what had happened between them and move on, continuing to be the friend that Jim needed during this crisis and beyond. And he did not allow himself to hope that their friendship might ever again morph into anything more profound than that.

***


On the morning of Christmas Eve, Blair went shopping in Dundalk for groceries; so he missed Jim’s next call. He’d failed to give Jim his cell phone number – hell, when he wasn’t at work, Blair usually forgot to switch it on anyway, as he couldn’t get a signal in the valley where the cottage was – so the call came in to his house phone while he was out.

He listened to Jim’s clipped voice on the answering machine with a sinking heart. “My dad died a couple hours ago, Chief. Just thought you should know. Bye.”

Blair wasted no time. He called Jim on his cell, but it was switched off. He tried the loft, but got the machine – so he left a message. “Jim, hi, it’s me. Hey man, I’m really sorry about your dad. I know you’re gonna be busy right now, making arrangements and stuff. But you know you can call me, right? If you need to talk, Jim, I’m here. Don’t hesitate, all right?” Blair paused, the words he truly wanted to say snarled in his throat. In the end, all he managed in conclusion was, “Take care, man.”

Putting down the phone Blair stood, breathing hard; aching for Jim’s pain, and wishing with all his heart he could be there to comfort him.

***


Now Jim had gone, Blair had no particular plans for Christmas. They had been planning to spend it together, since Jim had not been due to leave until the 27th. Now that was no longer an option, Blair felt anything but festive.

But Christmas was an important occasion, here in this most Catholic of countries. And ever the anthropologist – despite the new path his career had taken – Blair was a great believer in participation in local traditions. Thus it was that he left his house late that night, flashlight in hand, to walk a mile and a half to the local church for Midnight Mass.

Sitting close to the rear of the church, Blair yet again felt like he was on the outside looking in. He’d only lived in this valley for a short while, and the faces of the assembled were unfamiliar to him; the faith they were here to celebrate something that Blair was not a part of, despite his eclectic tendency to borrow from the best of the beliefs he encountered.

It was only when the sign of peace was exchanged, in the form of handshakes, that something shifted inside Blair; curious looks and silent questions as to the identity of the stranger in their midst clear on the smiling faces of the people around him. And when mass concluded, he found himself inexorably drawn in, enveloped by the natural warmth and curiosity of his new neighbors.

Returning home afterward, his flashlight the only point of light in the unrelenting blackness of the Deerpark road, the music of the river accompanied him as he walked. Turning into his own lane, a badger scurried across his path, the shy beast revealed by the beam of the flashlight. The crisp air smelled of damp earth, manure and burning peat smoke; rich, countryside smells that already spoke of home to Blair.

It was perfect – except for only one thing. The one thing he couldn’t have.

***


Christmas day came and went, Blair spending it alternately reading by the fire, and in the garden chopping wood. It was during the time he was outside that Jim called again, much to his intense frustration. “Hey, Chief. Just calling to say hi, and Happy Christmas. Dad’s funeral is on the 27th. Hope you’re doing okay.” There was a pause on the recorded message, as though Jim had been choosing his words; but he’d evidently decided to go with the briefest option. “Bye,” the message concluded.

“Shit.” Annoyed with himself for choosing that exact time to go outside, Blair immediately called back, only to get the machine in the loft. “Hey, Jim,” he said. “Sorry I missed you, man. I’ll call you on your cell.” But Jim’s cell phone, maddeningly, was switched off once more.

Blair stayed in, after that, willing the phone to ring again. He tried calling Jim several times more, all to no avail. Finally he left a further message, informing Jim that he would not be around for most of the following day.

Blair went to bed that night in low spirits, vastly disappointed that they seemed fated not to even manage to talk to each other on the phone.

***


The next day, Blair had an early start. Some of the people he’d met at the church had told him about the local St. Stephen’s Day tradition; the annual walk by the residents of Ravensdale across the Cooley Mountains to Omeath, a village on the far side of the peninsula.

If Jim had been here, Blair told himself wistfully, he’d have loved this. As Blair walked up the twisting road which led up past Ravensdale House to Anaverna, and climbed over the stile which would take him up onto the path over the mountain, he breathed in cold, fresh air, and followed in the wake of the line of pilgrims who were already striding up ahead of him. Behind, yet more people followed in his footsteps; young, old, and every age in-between.

There were lone walkers like Blair, couples and whole families. There were groups who parted and re-formed, old friends meeting new friends, sharing chat, helping each other over obstacles, and passing around food and drink as they went. The atmosphere was festive and happy; the community spirit impressive in the extreme.

The day was crisp and clear, so that by the time Blair reached the summit, Carlingford Lough could be seen far below, glinting in the sunshine; the outstandingly beautiful vista taking his breath away. He stood there for a while, awed by the view; feeling utterly fortunate that he could live in this incredible place, making a living from doing what he loved.

Really, there was only one thing missing. And perhaps it was unfair anyway, Blair told himself, to have it all. This was probably as good as it would ever get – and it really was pretty damn good.

Finally, when he reached the road at the other side, Blair followed the rest of the procession of weary travelers into Omeath itself, and into a pub on the edge of the Lough.

Inside, the festivities continued for the rest of the day. Food and drink were consumed in vast quantities; and jigs, reels and songs from local musicians who had also made the pilgrimage filled the air. Alone in the crowd, Blair nevertheless found himself warmed by the sense of fellowship, and the unbridled fun which had been unleashed on the village of Omeath by the Ravensdale infiltrators – just as it had for centuries on St Stephens Day. And he allowed himself to be drawn out by and enveloped within it all, feeling a sense of incongruous belonging despite his melancholy preoccupation.

***


The next day was the day of William Ellison’s funeral. Yet again, Blair failed to reach Jim by phone; but that was really to be expected. He left a message of support, though, hoping beyond hope that Jim would at least hear it, and know that Blair was keeping him in his thoughts.

The following day, disaster struck. A heavy snowfall knocked down the phone lines, and packed ice made driving on the road which led out of the valley unsafe. Seething with frustration, unable now to talk to Jim at all, Blair had no choice but to sit it out.

He had to admit that the landscape was unutterably beautiful in the snow, however; no matter how frustrating his enforced isolation was. And all in all, he was doing pretty well. The power stayed on, and the water pump continued to work, despite temperatures well-below freezing. There was a never-ending supply of wood for the fire, and he’d filled up the freezer on Christmas Eve, so he had plenty of food.

He just wished that Jim was here to share this enforced downtime with him. And he sincerely hoped that his friend wouldn’t interpret Blair’s sudden silence as indifference or rejection.

***


At last a thaw set in so that, by the time Blair woke on New Year’s Eve, things were mostly back to normal. The phone was still out of order, however, so Blair drove out in the afternoon – around the time Jim would be likely to wake up back in Cascade - to find a place he could get a signal on his cell phone. Yet again, though, he was to be disappointed. “Damn it, Jim!” he exclaimed out loud, sitting in his car as he terminated the latest attempt he’d made to reach Jim on his cell phone number. “Where the hell are you?”

Unable to reach Jim in person, he left a message on the answering machine at the loft, telling him about the bad weather which had prevented him from getting in touch the past few days. And he couldn’t help it when a little bit of the longing and sense of loss that he’d felt constantly since Jim had gone home, crept into his voice. “I… I really miss you, man. I just want you to know I don’t regret… well, you know what I mean. It was really special, Jim. It meant a lot.” He hung up, though, before he could utter the words he really wanted to say; the words which betrayed the desperate longing which still plagued his every waking moment, despite every attempt he’d made to put it to one side.

Determined once and for all to shake off the air of melancholy which had plagued him ever since Jim had gone back to the States, Blair busied himself for the rest of the day calling in to visit various people he’d met over the Christmas period; neighbors who lived on the slopes of the Anaverna mountain, and in and around the townland of Ravensdale . It was a pleasant few hours - everywhere he went he was greeted warmly, and came away with more than one invitation to see in the New Year at various get-togethers.

In answer, he hedged and dissembled, and made no promises. While there was a certain attraction in celebrating the turning of the year with his new friends, he found he had a growing need to be in his own house. He did consider briefly inviting a few people over to his place, but in the end failed to take any steps to do so. If he was honest, there was really only one person he wanted to be with when the year turned; and since there was no chance of that, it was far better that he wallow in melancholy away from polite company.

Thus, by 11.55 that night, Blair was standing in his garden, wrapped in warm, heavy clothes against the chill. The sky was clear, reminding him so much of the night he and Jim had stood here just over a week ago, when they’d heard the howl of a fox in the distance.

Or perhaps it had been the cry of a banshee after all, considering what had happened after that.

“Jim,” Blair whispered, giving voice at last to the longing and grief that had been threatening to consume him. Standing here alone, he realized that he had no idea how he was going to deal with this. He longed for Jim with everything that he was, everything that he could ever be.

But Jim wasn’t here. And Blair wasn’t there.

The stars blurred in his vision.

A moment later Blair realized that midnight must have arrived, because a cacophony of artillery-like pops and bangs erupted in the distance. Turning around slowly, Blair could see that the entire horizon had become an encircling celebration of fire and color, of which Blair formed the hub. Some of the fireworks were miles distant, bright streamers erupting high in the sky; while others were closer, the glittering explosions visible just a moment or two before the sound reached his ears.

So much light, life, and joy around him; as he stood alone in the dark eye of the storm.

Light of another kind intruded suddenly, and the noise of an approaching engine. The flickering glow of headlights - the beam intermittently interrupted by leaves and branches - could be seen through the front hedge, as a vehicle turned into the long track that led up to Blair’s cottage.

Blair’s heart sank. He really wasn’t up for visitors right now.

The headlights blinded him momentarily as the car approached. It came to a halt, and the driver cut the engine, plunging the garden back into darkness.

Getting ready to greet whoever this unwanted guest was, Blair wiped his eyes surreptitiously, and prepared to plaster on a smile.

Then the car door opened, and the light inside the car came on, revealing the single occupant. And now he could see who it was, Blair forgot how to breathe.

***


Third Spiral: Rebirth

Blair watched in stunned disbelief, as Jim got out of the car and closed the door behind him, extinguishing the light.

Plunged back into pitch blackness, which was relieved only by the distant flickers and flashes of fireworks, Blair wondered for a moment if he was dreaming. If his longing had somehow conjured yet another ghost of Jim; one that was simply more visible than those that had accompanied him everywhere for the past week.

But the arms which found him in the darkness, and pulled him into a hard, desperate embrace, were very, very real.

Afterward, Blair couldn’t remember who had moved first, or how they’d gotten inside. All he knew, as clothes were parted and torn and discarded in the dim glow of firelight inside the cottage, was the heat of Jim’s body pressed insistently against his own, and the sensation of firm muscle and silky soft skin under his hands.

There was an unmistakable element of combativeness to their coming together; a furious desperation and apparently mutual determination to give no quarter. It manifested in seizing, pushing, sucking, biting; the two of them engaged in a timeless duel for the upper hand, as they each fought to be the one to force the other’s surrender to pleasure.

It was almost, Blair felt, as though they were engaged in a battle for their lives.

They didn’t even make it to the bedroom. The embers in the grate bore witness, when Jim’s greater strength finally forced Blair’s capitulation on the rug in front of the fire. Blair cried out convulsively, unable to escape the powerful restraint of Jim’s hands, as he was assaulted relentlessly with lips and teeth and tongue and brought helplessly to the brink of ecstasy. His struggles were nothing more than token by the time that Jim decisively pushed his way inside Blair’s body. And finally, their panting breaths and straining limbs forced the pounding heat inexorably to mutual, blazing euphoria.

***


Lying on the rug beside Jim in the aftermath, sweat cooling rapidly on his skin, Blair croaked out, “Why?” He didn’t need to elaborate – there were so many questions encapsulated within that one word, and Jim, he knew, would hear all of them.

“It’s more than nine years, Chief, since I met you.” Jim sounded angry; their furious rut apparently not having assuaged whatever beast was driving him. “And for the past five years, you and I have been apart.” Hard eyes, pale in the fading light, turned on him. “Life is too damn short, Blair,” Jim said. “I can’t turn my back on what I feel for you any more.”

Blair could perceive the grief under Jim’s anger; just as he’d felt the pain in his caresses. His own pain answered to it; a siren call he could not ignore. “So, what the hell do we do about it?” Blair demanded. Despair swamped him, even as he forced himself to utter the stark truth. “Unless you or I give up everything we’ve achieved, everything that we are…” his voice faltered, as the hopelessness of it all overwhelmed him. “I have a life here, man,” Blair said miserably. “A good life, that I built for myself. A life that’s moving forward. I can’t….” God, this hurt so much. “I don’t think I can go back to live in Cascade. Retrograde steps, man. It’s just not the right place for me to be. Not any more.”

“Just tell me,” Jim said shortly, “that what we have, this thing between us, means as much to you as it does to me.”

Blair sat up, and leaned back against the couch. He was shivering now, cold and reaction setting in. “Jim,” he hedged, trying to keep his head together despite everything, and wishing desperately that things could be otherwise. “You’re my best friend, man. But this situation… it’s impossible. You know that, right? I mean, your life is in Cascade, mine is here-”

Jim jerked upright, his anger still very much at the fore. He glared at Blair. “Shut the fuck up about the logistics, Sandburg, and how impossible it is, and tell me what you fucking feel, goddamnit!”

Blair felt like his heart was breaking. “I love you, Jim! I have never, ever loved anyone the way I love you.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “I want to be with you, so much, man. This week, after what happened, after you left, God, I was a mess. I’ve not been able to think about anything else but you.” Blair’s despair infused the confession he couldn’t help but make. “I love what I have here, but if I’m honest, if you asked me to go back with you right now, I’d do it in an instant. No matter how much I truly don’t want to take a step backwards, I’d be willing to give this all up tomorrow, man, if you just give the word. Because I just can’t imagine my life without you in it any more.”

“You gave it all up once already, Blair.” Jim’s voice was soft now. “You did it for me that time, as well. I won’t ask you to do that again. I won’t let you.”

“Then what the hell else can we do?” Blair yelled out, his own pain overwhelming him. “Because I’m telling you, man. I don’t have the answer to this!”

Jim reached out, the hot hands which framed Blair’s face matching the scorching intensity of his eyes – and the burning emotion in Blair’s throat. “All I needed, Chief,” Jim said earnestly, “was to hear you say it. For you to convince me that I’m not imagining how right this is – for both of us. And now that I’m certain of what we are to each other, I do have the answer.”

Blair felt cold and bereft when Jim’s hands fell away. Despite the emotional rollercoaster he was still riding, however, he couldn’t help but be admiringly distracted by the other man’s economy of movement and rippling muscles as he gracefully stood.

Towering naked and god-like above Blair, his skin rosy in the waning firelight, Jim put down a hand. “Come on, Chief. Get up. Let’s get warm, huh? I’ve got some stuff I need to talk to you about. But I think we should get comfortable first.”

Taking Jim’s hand, Blair meekly allowed himself to be hauled upright; hoping beyond hope that Jim truly knew where to go from here. Because wherever he led, Blair was more than ready to follow.

***


They took time out to take turns using the bathroom, both of them getting dressed in warm sweats afterward. Then, while Jim built up the fire and illuminated the lounge with flickering candles, Blair made coffee laced generously with Baileys; the latter being a New Year’s gift from one of his new neighbors.

Jim was already on the couch, staring into the flames which danced anew among the logs and peat briquettes in the grate. He took the mug Blair offered with a tender smile and, as Blair sat down beside him, held up an arm invitingly for Blair to slide in underneath.

Blair didn’t need to be asked twice. Nestling close to Jim’s side he sighed, luxuriating as the nearness of his lover, the warmth of the re-kindled fire and the hot drink chased away the icy chill which had set in deep in his bones.

They sat together in silence for a while, reconnecting and recalibrating; the frantic thunderstorm of their reunion swept aside to reveal balmy skies in its wake.

At last, Jim’s voice broke into the peace that suffused them. “Did you ever wonder why it was, Chief, that I accepted your invitation to come over here now, but not before?”

Blair shook his head. “I just assumed you were too busy in the past.”

Jim smiled ruefully at Blair’s answer. “Let me ask you another question,” he said. “You never came back to visit Cascade, either, once you arrived here. Why was that?”

I was working… the years just flew by… the time was never right… Blair could come up with any number of mundane explanations and excuses without even trying.

None of them, however, were the right one. And now was the time for truth.

“I thought,” he admitted, “that if I came back, I wouldn’t be able to stand leaving you again when the time came to come home.”

Jim’s silence in the wake of that confession spoke volumes. Suspecting already what the answer might be, Blair went on, “I’m guessing you felt the same, huh?” Not waiting for confirmation, he asked, “So, why now?”

Jim turned to look at Blair. “I’m not a cop any more, Chief,” he said. Holding up a hand to stall Blair’s inevitable outcry, he went on, “It was totally my decision. The minimum State retirement age for cops was lowered to 50 a couple of years ago. I’m still four years off that, but this year the Department offered a small number of early retirement places to cops of 45 and over with an exemplary service record. Kind of a reward for outstanding service. I applied, and I got it. I worked my last shift just over a month ago.”

Blair was shocked. “Why?” he asked. “Jim, being a cop was your life!”

“And it was a good life,” Jim agreed. “But you know – I’m tired, Blair. I’m tired of spending every day dealing with the many and varied ways human beings find to kill and damage each other. Plus, I’m getting older. I’ve got a few years on me yet, sure. I keep myself in shape – probably always will. But my current level of fitness won’t last for ever. The next logical progression is a Captain’s job. But that’s just not me, Chief.”

“Come on!” Blair was still shocked at the notion of Jim voluntarily giving up his vocation. “You’d be a great Captain! You have so much experience, and people respect you, Jim. And anyway, it’s not as if you’re not used to leadership, after your time in the Rangers. You’d have so much to offer, man!”

“Did you miss the part where I said I was tired,” Jim asked him amusedly, “and the bit where I said that wasn’t what I wanted?”

“Oh, man.” Blair had never imagined Jim as anything but a cop – this was going to take some getting used to.

He was about to ask what Jim planned to do now, but stopped. Sandburg, you klutz, he told himself. Isn’t that already obvious? “Okay,” Blair said finally, experiencing a profound sense of something falling into place, but determined nevertheless to be sure that there was no room for misunderstanding between them. “Tell me,” he demanded. “Why come here now, man?”

Jim reached out, and stroked Blair’s face gently. “Because, Chief,” he said, “I don’t need to live in Cascade any longer. After what happened last week, I’ve got even less reason to stay there; but even before Dad died, I made up my mind to come and find you.” He shrugged. “I’d have settled for friendship, if that’s all you were able to offer – we’ve been roommates before, after all.”

“This is not just friendship Jim,” Blair pointed out.

“No. It’s not. It’s everything I ever wanted,” Jim said, the words arrowing straight to Blair’s heart. “Everything I hoped for. Everything that I love. The place where I want to be.”

“Hey, man,” Blair said gently. “It’s the same for me.” Without conscious volition, they came together, holding on to each other tightly. "Welcome home, partner," Blair murmured.

In answer, Jim's arms tightened around him.

Blair had a vivid sense-memory, suddenly, of the sound of pebbles hitting stone. “We wished for the same thing at the dolmen,” he pronounced, his voice muffled by the hard chest he was mashed up against, “when we threw our rocks up on top.”

“Doesn’t it stop your wish coming true,” Jim murmured into Blair’s hair, “if you say what it is?”

Blair pulled back to smile at Jim tenderly; the love of his life, here with him, in his house, and the possibility of a future together in this place opening up before them. “Not if it already has, man!”

They went to bed after that; their lovemaking breathtakingly tender in comparison with the fierce, bruising coupling they’d engaged in earlier.

This time, Jim played the passive partner, allowing Blair free rein to explore and tantalize and excite. Awed by Jim’s strength and beauty, Blair gave everything of himself, wringing shuddering responses from Jim time and time again, utilizing his understanding of Jim’s sensitivity as a tool with which to shape his pleasure.

When at last Jim was nothing more than a mass of hyper-sensitized nerves, trembling helplessly at Blair’s touch, Blair filled him; slowly, carefully, lovingly. And when Jim broke at last, crying out in his extremity, Blair followed after just a moment behind, his own pleasure increased a millionfold by the pleasure he’d been able to give.

Afterwards Jim wept; huge, convulsive sobs which wrenched his strong frame in agonizing silence. The emotional and physical catharsis they’d shared, it seemed, had finally freed him to grieve for the father he’d lost, in the secure harbor of Blair’s arms.

Blair held him safe, his love for this man profound; aching for Jim’s pain.

***


New Year’s Day dawned bright and clear. The rising sun illuminated the Cooley Mountains with rich, warm color; the pale green of winter grass on the lower slopes, and every shade of brown imaginable - where the heather had died back for the winter - higher up.

Standing in awe at his kitchen window, Blair was once more transfixed by the beauty of the location his house was in.

Jim slept on, a profound rest which Blair suspected was the first real sleep he’d gotten in more than a week. Leaving him in peace, Blair took his coffee outside to amble around his garden; enjoying the sense of peace and rightness that Jim’s sleeping presence had filled him with.

Blair meandered here and there, eyeing the overgrown hedges around his land with the weary eye of someone who would have his work cut out, when spring came. Eventually, he found himself in the old byre – a stone shed half again as long as the cottage’s living space - which formed one end of the long building which comprised his home.

It was dim and dank inside; the floor made of pressed earth, and smelling of old straw and the peat which was stacked in one corner. The cottage itself, Blair knew, would once have had a floor like this, before its renovation. The inside walls would have been bare, whitewashed stone, just as these were, instead of the smooth dry-lining they now sported.

Half the byre had already been subsumed into the house – the guest bedroom, which Jim had first occupied, had once been part of this shed, until a previous occupant had walled part of it off and knocked a door through into it from the lounge. Now, Blair stood and looked, wondering what to do with the rest of the byre. Make it into a workshop? Renovate this end of the building, put in a proper floor and some windows, and make it into another room of the house? The possibilities were endless.

The light coming in through the open half-door was obstructed suddenly. Turning, Blair saw that Jim had come to find him. His friend was leaning on the doorframe, a mug of steaming coffee in his hand. He was dressed casually in jeans and sweater, his hair adorably mussed. “Good morning,” Jim said, a tender smile on his face.

Blair felt his own face stretch into a matching sappy grin, his stomach turning over deliciously at the sight and sound of the man he loved. “Hey,” he said. “Come on in, man.”

Unlatching the bottom half of the door, Jim slipped inside. He looked around the byre appraisingly, voicing Blair’s own thoughts. “What are your plans for this place, huh, Chief?”

Blair shrugged. “I’m not sure. I want to do something with it, though. I mean, look at it! It’s beautiful.”

Jim ran a hand over one of the huge stones which jutted out of the wall appraisingly. “It sure has potential,” he agreed.

There was an easiness about them both as they discussed possibilities, wandering around the shed and imagining out loud what it could become. A sense of everything in its place; of the ultimate homecoming.

A little while afterward, they wandered down the garden together, hand in hand. “See that, over there?” Blair pointed. “The hill just at the end of the lane?”

Jim nodded. “It looks out of place, somehow.” Jim glanced over at the mountains to the north. “It’s not part of that range – it’s just sitting on the valley floor.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Blair agreed. “It’s formed from a volcanic plug; from a volcano that would have become dormant over 60 million years ago. The hard inner core is all that remains, because the outer shell of softer rock has eroded away over the millennia.”

Jim nodded. “There are a few like that in the States. There’s one in New Mexico - I visited it once.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Blair agreed. “There is. Anyway, this hill is called Trumpet Hill. We should go climb it later, man. The view from the top is amazing. And what is also amazing, is that it features in the legend of Cu Chulainn. You ever hear of The Cattle Raid of Cooley?”

“Nope, can’t say that I have,” Jim admitted. His smile was indulgent, as though Blair’s lecturing tone amused him. “But I have a feeling I’m about to, Chief.”

That slight tendency to condescension had never deterred Blair, though, and it was not about to do so now, either. “Okay,” Blair said, launching enthusiastically into the tale. “The Cattle Raid of Cooley is the Irish equivalent of Homer’s Odyssey, or the Viking sagas. It’s an ancient tale, dating back to the iron age Celts, handed down orally through the generations, until it was first written down by early Christian monks in the 6th century. It tells the story of Cu Chulainn, the most powerful warrior of Ulster.”

“This isn’t Ulster,” Jim pointed out.

“Ah, very good, Jim!” Blair beamed. “You’ve done your homework.” As Jim rolled his eyes, Blair went on, “In antiquity, north County Louth was part of Ulster – although now it’s in the province of Leinster, and the border with Ulster is about five miles north of here. But I digress. In the tale, 9000 men of Connaught invaded Cooley. They were led by Queen Maeve, who was intent on stealing a prize bull. Although,” he sidetracked, “the bull referred to might not be a literal bull. Instead, it could be symbolic, pertaining to land or riches or power. Or perhaps it was a symbol of masculinity, since Maeve was trying to prove a point to her husband-”

“Chief,” Jim interrupted. “I don’t need chapter and verse, okay? Tell me about the hill.”

“Oh, right.” Blair blinked. “Okay, to cut a very long story short, the invaders were defeated by Cu Chulainn, who single handedly defended Ulster from the invading army by waging a guerrilla war against them, picking them off one by one, attacking at night when they least expected it. It’s said that for part of that time, this valley was his battleground. He stood on top of that hill, while the Connaught army massed below. And from there, he slew 100 men with every throw from his slingshot, for three consecutive nights.”

Jim shrugged. “Sounds pretty unbelievable.”

“What, that he killed a hundred men with each single shot, or that he fought them – and beat them - at night? Because, to me, that part of the story sounds like he had special skills. He’d have to have incredible eyesight, for a start,” Blair said pointedly. “Probably better than average hearing, too. Plus, he was the one the Ulster king sent out to meet Maeve’s forces, ahead of the rest of the army. But he was far more than a scout, man. He was the best of the warriors; the champion.”

“You think he was a sentinel,” Jim said. He was looking at the hill as he spoke, his telescopic vision probably allowing him to see the summit even from here.

“Well,” Blair admitted. “There’s no proof. But it’s possible.” He nudged Jim. “Hey, I’ve got an English translation of The Táin inside – the written account of The Cattle Raid of Cooley. I’ll find it for you later, if you like.”

“Thanks Chief,” Jim said, putting an arm around him, his eyes still distant, his thoughts seemingly lost in time with a possible ancient predecessor. “That’d be great.”

***


They ate a late breakfast, then headed out up the lane. Their path led them through the field at the end, and past yet another one of the ubiquitous ringforts that filled this valley. Finally they climbed over the gate at the far side of the field, to enter the wood at the foot of Trumpet Hill.

Sound was muffled under the trees, their footfalls deadened by heather and fallen pine needles. Heading west just over the gate, they reached the path up the hill, and made the climb in easy silence, enjoying the fresh, cold air on their faces and the increasing warmth of their exertion.

The summit was bare of vegetation; a naked expanse of rock which afforded a panoramic view to the Cooley Mountains on one side, and the Irish sea on the other. The day was so clear that other distant hills – the Dublin Mountains - could be seen far to the south across the sea.

“This is incredible, Chief,” Jim said, looking happy, healthy and supremely relaxed as he gazed around.

“Isn’t it?” Blair agreed. He reached out a gloved hand to take Jim’s in his own. “Cu Chulainn may or may not have been a sentinel, man. But I, for one, am glad that the sentinel who’s on top of this hill with me right now is you.”

They sat together facing the sea, finding a large rock that was big enough for the two of them to sit on if they pressed close together. And Blair luxuriated for a while in the perfection of it all – his intense need for Jim, come to fruition at last, in a place that he couldn’t help but love.

But he also couldn’t help it when a few niggling worries set in; practicalities which, now the first euphoria of Jim’s return had passed, simply had to be faced.

Breaching the silence reluctantly, Blair finally voiced his doubts. “Jim, you know that it’s not that simple for you to just move here? I mean, the only reason I managed to stay so long, is because I was invited over here to work, and my Department at UCD reapplied every year to get me a work visa. Now I’ve been here five years continuously, I’ve gotten my duel citizenship, so I don’t have to worry about reapplying every year. But you,” he turned to look at Jim sadly, wishing desperately that things were otherwise, “you don’t have a job, man. And unfortunately, I can’t exactly marry you, to bring you here that way.”

Jim didn’t look at all worried. “I’ve got it covered, Blair,” he said. “You’re not the only one of the two of us entitled to Irish citizenship.”

It took a moment for Blair to remember – and when he did, he could have kicked himself. He’d once known everything there was to know about this man, after all; as well as his family history. “Your mom’s parents – one of them was Irish, right?”

“Yeah.” Jim looked pleased – bordering on smug. “Her father was from County Waterford. Her family name was Gough.”

“So, as the grandson of an Irishman, you’re automatically entitled to Irish or duel citizenship, under Irish immigration law - the law that was set up to encourage the diaspora to come home. Oh, man! That’s incredible!”

Jim reached out, and pulled Blair towards him for a hard, dry kiss. “Maybe,” Jim said, “it’s just meant to be.” And the next kiss was anything but hard and dry.

***


That evening, in front of a fire which crackled and spit like a living thing, Blair asked, “So, what are your plans, man? I mean, I make a decent enough living, with the work I do. I’m happy to support you for ever, if need be. But I can’t imagine you sitting around and doing nothing for the rest of your life. It’s just not you.”

“Money’s not an issue.” Jim was lying behind Blair, the two of them spooned up together on the couch, his hands tracing abstract spirals on Blair’s chest. “I have my pension, and Dad left me a substantial amount in his will. And as for something to do – I have a few ideas.”

“So, what do you have in mind?” Blair asked.

“I thought, for a start,” Jim said carefully, “if you’re okay with it, that I’d do some work on this place for you; keep it running. Jeez, Chief; just keeping the hedges in order is going to be a full-time job, and you already have one of those.” Jim warmed to his subject, his enthusiasm clear. “Maybe I could renovate that old shed, and sort out the roof. This place needs some time and effort spending on it – as well as money, which I have plenty of, since Dad died. I can’t think of anything better to spend that – or my time – on.”

Blair smiled. “That sounds doable,” he said. “Mi casa es su casa, man. ‘Till death do us part, okay? This past week, this place wasn’t home without you in it. I want you to be a part of it, Jim. I want this place to be yours, just as much as it’s mine.”

“I can live with that.” The smile in Jim’s voice was obvious.

“So,” Blair prompted. “What else?”

“You hire your fields out to a farmer right now,” Jim went on. “I thought if he was willing to move on and find different pasture, that I’d farm your land instead. Get some animals. A few sheep, some cattle.”

“And chickens,” said Blair. “Definitely chickens, Farmer Jim!”

Jim chuckled. “Okay, chickens. You ‘egging’ me on, Sandburg, or do you think this is all a big yolk?”

“Oh, man!” The bad puns, and the tickling hands which incapacitated him, reduced Blair to helpless giggles.

When their laughter had finally passed, Blair voiced his final, lingering doubt. “I think we can make this work, Jim. I’m sure we can. But I have to admit, I’m not sure how open we can be about our relationship here. This is hardly San Francisco, man.”

“We’ll manage.” Jim didn’t sound at all worried. “There are problems for people like us everywhere, Chief. We’ll find a way to deal with it.”

Blair decided to follow his example. “Yeah. I guess we will. We always do, huh?”

Blair felt a kiss on the back of his neck. “You got that right,” Jim murmured.

The peace returned; the fire burning brightly in the grate, their bodies curled together. And the bright path of their future spiraled out ahead of them; lighting the way.



The End




Comments are welcome, but absolutely not necessary - all of my stories are offered freely and without obligation. If you do wish to comment below please sign your name/pseudonym if you are not logged-in to Dreamwidth or Open ID, or alternatively you can email me at fluterbev@gmail.com



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Date: 2007-08-07 12:32 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] klgrem.livejournal.com
*sigh*
Another wonderful, brilliant fic. Thanks for this. :)

Date: 2007-08-07 08:00 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Thank you so much! ♥

Date: 2008-03-17 07:02 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] missfaeagain.livejournal.com
Each story that I read by you just keeps getting better and better....hugs..

Date: 2008-03-20 05:46 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
What a lovely thing to say! Thanks so much! ::hugs::

Date: 2008-03-18 12:49 am (UTC)
starwatcher: Western windmill, clouds in background, trees around base. (Default)
From: [personal profile] starwatcher
.
::happy sigh of contentment:: I'd forgotten how much I like this story. I'm so glad that Blair found his own place, and that Jim came to him -- it makes them more equal, somehow. Very sweet and satisfying.

I suspect it's past midnight where you are, but it's still the 17th here, so --

Happy St. Paddy's Day!

And now I'm off to read the new one. (((hugs)))
.

Date: 2008-03-20 05:47 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Thank you so much! I am utterly delighted you like it so much ::hugs::

fb - three spirals (j/b)

Date: 2008-03-21 01:21 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kaleecat.livejournal.com
This was a wonderful story -- so visual & emotional. I closed my eyes & could see the Irish countryside, mourn the fact that I only saw it from a bus tour. The beauty and history of that fine country would of course draw Blair in, and I can so clearly see Jim growing and thriving in such a natural setting; thoughtfully tending their home & soaking in the spirit. Your metaphor of the three spirals worked so well to draw the story along from discovery to sorrow to home.

You always create such wonderfully, thoughtful stories of Jim & Blair. thank you for sharing them.

Re: fb - three spirals (j/b)

Date: 2008-03-23 10:31 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Thanks so much for this lovely feedback! Very much appreciated :-)

Date: 2008-06-23 06:53 pm (UTC)
nic: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nic
This was lovely! And it felt so real - I moved to Ireland a few weeks ago and already I have a sense of recognition even if I haven't been to the specific places you describe.

Date: 2008-07-11 01:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Thanks so much! Hope you're having a great time in Ireland - I do miss it.

Date: 2008-09-25 07:28 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] 1-mad-squirrel.livejournal.com
Lovely story. I so much want to see Newgrange. I wear the triple spiral on a silver amulet just about all the time. (See here (http://www.quicksilvermint.com/ancient-gallery.htm), last amulet on the bottom) Is your triple spiral icon sharable.

Date: 2008-10-20 06:32 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Hi there! Very belatedly answering your feedback here - huge apologies for the delay!

I'm really pleased you enjoyed the story - thank you for letting me know :-). As regards the icon, I've not shared it before, but I'd be happy to do so. Newgrange love should be spread :-)

Date: 2009-05-26 05:08 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ladyophelia14.livejournal.com
I love all your stories! I must admit, normally I just lurk, but I learned something great from reading your story. I had no idea, but apparently I am an Irish citizen! That's a great fact to know.

So, thanks for all the great writing, and for letting me learn something new about myself.

**heads off to send application for foreign birth registration**

Date: 2009-07-18 06:37 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Thanks for this nice feedback! Sorry I'm late replying - I didn't realise I had new comments :-)

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