It was raining, a soft, quiet drizzle that seemed appropriate. Small drops gathered on the surface of the display in the park, hanging for a few moments in the recesses of the many carved names across its black surface, before they gathered enough mass to run down the face of the monument like slow tears.
Jim closed his eyes and tilted his head back slightly, letting the rain fall onto his unprotected face. The cool water pattered on his skin, against his eyelids, and he could feel it catching in his eyelashes and hair, a few drops landing on his lips where he could taste the slight, normal hint of acid in them. His throat was tight with grief and he swallowed against it, forcing himself to look back down toward the exhibit he had come to see. In the edge of his peripheral vision Blair stood like a solemn guard.
He knew where the name was. Though he had gotten no closer than fifty feet away from the travelling exhibit, he hadn't needed to, and he still didn't. Unlike many of the other visitors and mourners, he hadn't brought flowers or a letter or some memento of the relative who had been lost to the Vietnam war. It wasn't even the thought of his cousin, whom he barely remembered having seen more than a few times at family gatherings, that had affected him so strongly he knew his voice would break if he spoke at the moment.
His sorrow had gone beyond that distant personal loss, filling him with a helpless despair. The sheer weight of all the names there was unbearable, the suffering and blood and death they represented only a fraction of the pain mankind had inflicted on itself. It was only a fraction of the pain he had seen and participated in himself, and even though he wasn't able to remember it all yet he felt the past moving under the surface of his conscious memories like an alligator hidden by muddy water. Borne to him in the salt scent of tears and carried in the sweet stench of cut and dying flowers laid along the base of the memorial was the hopelessness of love and inevitability of loss, and all his own buried despair rose to meet it.
Blindly he turned away, reaching to put his arm across Blair's shoulders, grateful to feel his friend's arm go around his waist in return. Indistinguishable from the other small groups of family or friends who wandered away from the Wall leaning on each other for comfort, the two of them moved aimlessly along the cindered path without speaking. The rain fell steadily, soaking the grass and darkening the ground, filling the air with the wet, clean smell of damp gravel and fresh pine. Overhead the clouds moved slowly, revealing occasional glimpses of sun that backlit pale, ethereal streamers of mist trailing below the darker grey masses unevenly covering the sky. Sheltered from the surrounding city by its trees, the park was an island of relative quiet and Jim welcomed the soothing influence of its peace and the warmth of Blair's closeness.
Not yet ready to return to the car and their lives, they walked until they drew near one of the park benches set back under a tree a few yards away from the path. They turned aside in silent communion and settled on the bench side by side, Jim releasing Blair with a gentle pat on the back. Sheltered by the canopy of the huge, old tree, the seat was dry and welcoming. Every now and then enough water would accumulate in the leaves overhead to come cascading down at once, hitting the ground with a splashing impact that made itself heard above the tranquil sound of the rain.
Blair pushed his wet hair out of his face and then tucked his hands into his jacket pockets, staring thoughtfully into the middle distance. "That was... intense," he finally said, his voice quiet with something close to reverence.
Absurdly glad that his friend had felt the experience as strongly as he had himself, Jim merely nodded, not yet sure his voice wouldn't crack if he spoke.
"So many lost," Blair mused sadly, then he turned his head to look at Jim. "I'm glad you didn't go," he said softly, the admission sparking defiant shame in his eyes.
Surprised, Jim shrugged, settling the curve of his back lower against the bench's support as he returned Blair's gaze. "I was too young," he replied awkwardly. "Otherwise I would have."
"Everthing would have been so different." Sandburg shook his head slightly, his eyes unfocusing as his imagination saw not only the past but what could have been instead. "Your senses would have been activated like they were in Peru, but your chances of surviving to come home...." A faint chill touched his spine making him shiver unconsciously.
Ragged ends of memory swirled through Jim's mind, elusive, terrifying, leaving bitter shards in their wake. Flashes of pain, unbearable sensory overload, endless loneliness, and the driving need to fulfill his mission and make the loss of his team worthwhile. The loneliness had been the worst part; he could still feel the ache of it waiting outside the safety of his friendship with Blair. Its shadow haunted him, killing his serenity with the knowledge there would come a time when fate would separate them and leave him with only the recollection of what it had been like to be whole. He drew a deep, shaking breath, trying to dispell the vision of anticipated loss by concentrating on the here and now.
Blair's chin lifted at the catch in that inhalation and his expression sharpened again as he focused on his companion, visually raking Jim for the subtle signs of distress.
Ashamed of the way he was haunted by the betrayals of his past all the more acutely under that calm scrutiny, Jim belatedly straightened out the slump to his broad, powerful shoulders and tried to remedy the slight downturn to the corners of his mouth. There was nothing he could do about the lost look around his eyes, he could feel the same helpless, lonely expression on his face that the Time magazine photographer had captured for their cover shot all those years ago. It was pointless in the end, Jim knew; his effort to seem unaffected spoke in a clear and eloquent language to the anthropologist. It was a language Blair had learned effortlessly, one he might never have known but for chance.
The Sentinel could see the frailty of that chance strike Sandburg all over again, creasing his smooth brow with disquietude. A trace of distress roughened Blair's voice as he said, "Even if you had made it back, you would have been so different I wouldn't have been able to reach you."
Answering the unspoken fear was easy for Ellison; the affirmation Blair required was no more than what he needed to say to combat the emptiness trying to encroach on his own soul. "You would always have been able to reach me." When he looked directly at Blair, Jim's gaze was deep and intent, as if he were looking through the windows of Blair's eyes to the soul living within. "There was always something missing, some empty, lonely part of me that nobody could reach." For a moment he broke eye contact, glancing away as if to gather his thoughts or his courage, a last drop of rain trickling down the long, smooth plane of his cheek. If not for the stinging in his eyes, it could have been a raindrop. His voice was low and uneven when he continued, "You made that stop hurting. Wherever I was, whoever I might have become, you would still be the other half of me."
Grey reflections of the sky around their haven's perimeter gave Blair's eyes a luminous brilliance as he stared across the small distance separating them, awe parting his lips to catch his breath. Jim could see his throat work a couple times before he was able to say, "The same goes for me, Jim, you know that, don't you?"
In wordless answer he gently slapped Blair's cheek with one hand, the touch half-caress. Insead of retreating after the contact, his hand slid back along Blair's jaw, underneath his hair to grip the back of Sandburg's neck. Shaking him gently by that hold, Ellison let the vastness of his own affection wash through his mind and chase the cold loneliness back to its cage, not caring that emotion softened his voice nearly to a whisper. "I know it."
Pulling his hands from his pockets, Blair reached out as he leaned forward, wrapping his arms around Jim and holding on as if instinctively trying to banish the last of the despairing melancholy seeping blackly through the Sentinel's spirit. "You know," he said, and the tremble in his words told Jim the rest of what was meant.
Tipping his head to rest his cheek on Blair's head, Jim let his tactile sense intensify until he could feel every nuance of the experience, from the differing textures between the colors in the weave of Blair's damp, flannel shirt to the individual twists in the curling hairs tucked underneath the side of his jaw. In the circle of his arms he held the solid warmth of Blair's body as as closely and tenderly as if it were the pure essence of their friendship. His hearing brought him the sigh of air moving through Blair's lungs, the swish-thump of his heart's steady beat, and the tiny sound of his throat closing as he swallowed against its tightness. Blair's breath rose to graze the Sentinel's throat with the evanescent touch of life, and Jim ached with sadness for its fragility.
Without conscious volition his hand moved from the back of Blair's neck up into his hair, cradling the beloved head close against his chest, enfolding the friend of his heart with all his will and infinitely gentle strength. He courted zoning out, trying to burn the memory of the moment into his body and soul so that no future could take it from him, but his knowledge of how fleeting the experience was kept him grounded in the present despite his desire to become lost in the sensations. Under his hands he could feel the reverberation of his own pulse echoing through Blair, as the cadence of his friend's heartbeat resonated within his own chest.
Whether Jim died that evening or fifty years hence, he wanted to be able to call this feeling back with perfect clarity again and again, even in his last living moments, and know each time that life was not merely empty existence. His fingers tangled in Blair's hair as the younger man shifted, pulling himself deeper yet into Jim's embrace. Closing his eyes against the returning bitter sting of salt, Jim tightened his hold, his great heart faltering for a moment when he felt the brief, deliberate pressure of Blair's lips against his breastbone. However much it occasionally seemed so, his life wasn't empty or pointless. Not so long as he could feel such love, and know it was returned in equal measure.
On the other side of the park the rain still drizzled down on a black wall of loss, stark reminder of broken promises. In a dry, quiet place, two hearts had no walls.