The Anthropologist on the Edge of Forever

by Martha Taylor, soulcake[at]

The big sentry palm in front of the balcony doors desperately needed to be repotted. Roots were squeezing out over the sides and working their way through the drainage holes at the bottom, and it was getting to the point Jim suspected if he concentrated, he might be able to hear the clay pot groaning under the pressure of that inexorable growth. 

It was not a sound he was particularly eager to hear, though he didn't put it quite that way to Sandburg. What he did tell Blair was he was going to stop at Home Depot and pick up a new planter -- would Blair have an afternoon free sometime this week to help Jim wrestle a fragile, awkward, heavy pot from the truck to the elevator? 

Of course, having mentioned the project to Blair, it immediately became more complicated. 

"Home Depot? Aw, no way, man, you don't want to go there. I hate the way those huge chains are putting all the smaller places out of business. Besides, I know an old friend of Naomi's who can help us out here." 

"Sandburg, your mother is a wonderful woman, but I don't think I need to have my consciousness raised just to repot a houseplant." 

Blair waved him silent, laughing. "Hear me out. Maxfield's got a little garden shop about a half an hour this side of the state park, and he stocks a great selection of Italian terra-cotta. Way nicer than you could find at Home Depot. C'mon, Jim, you ought to at least check it out." 

Well, all right, maybe Sandburg had a point. The truth was, Jim wasn't crazy about huge chain hardware stores either. It might be worth driving a little farther and spending a little more money to find something really nice. Whether it would be worth suffering through yet another introduction to one of Naomi's crackpot friends was another matter, but Blair was beaming at him now as though the two of them were well on their way to single-handedly rescuing every mom-and-pop business on the western seaboard. He was even able to clear time this afternoon to ride out there with Jim, which was unexpected. Jim had been fully prepared to have to wait until after he'd turned in his grades next week. 

"Nah, I can use the break," Sandburg assured him. "If I have to read one more undergraduate essay butchering Levi-Strauss's "The Sacred and The Profane," I'm gonna end up profaning something myself, I am totally serious, man." He was already gathering up the bluebooks scattered all over the coffee table. "Let's do it." 

Jim hadn't realized he was grinning at Blair, but he must have been, because when Sandburg looked up, he caught his smile and reflected it back at him, dazzlingly. "What?" Blair asked, grinning. "What is it? You meant now, didn't you? If we wait any later we'll probably hit rush hour traffic getting back." 

"Now's fine, Chief." 

Blair cocked his head at him. "What are you so happy about?" 

"Just wondering how you managed to turn what should have been a little half-hour errand into an afternoon-long drive into the mountains." 

The afternoon was cool and bright, the sky scrubbed clean after a week of rain. Blair stopped on the sidewalk just outside the street door. "Everything OK, Chief?" Jim asked. "You do have time for this, don't you?" 

Blair turned to look up at him. His smile was gentler now, and his eyes reflected the sky. "I've got time. Just thinking it's a nice day for a drive, isn't it?" 

"Yeah, it is," Jim agreed, meaning it. 

The same breeze that had blown the rain away blew a lock of hair into Blair's face. Blair tucked the stray curls back behind his ear, and for no good reason at all, Jim reached out and tousled his hair again. "Thanks a lot," Blair grumbled, stepping backwards out of range and trying to look indignant through a sheepdog fringe. 

"Careful." Jim put a hand on Blair's shoulder to stop him as he came dangerously close to falling backwards off the curb. Blair swatted the hand away, but he stopped backing up. 

"You're a menace, Jim, you know that?" He pushed his hair out of his face again and lifted the grocery bag full of undergraduate exams with the other hand. "Just let me throw these in the trunk so I don't forget them in the morning." He turned and loped across to the center parking aisle where his Volvo crouched almost out of sight between two minivans. Jim shook his head and strolled up the block towards his truck. He had one eye on Blair the whole time, not quite consciously watching him wrestle with the key as he tried to get the trunk open one-handed. It had been sticking for a while now. He thought Blair had given up on using the trunk. He ought to give up on using the whole car. 

Reaching the truck, Jim unlocked door on the driver's side and got in, leaning across to unlock Blair's door. When he sat up again he looked back over his shoulder for Blair. 

Oh god.

It had all started with a garbage truck, he thought with the blank, stupid horror of utter helplessness, and now it was all about to end with one. 

Either Blair had finally gotten the trunk open or he had just given up on it and thrown the blue books in the back seat, because he was sauntering back across the street now. His eyes were fixed on Jim, and he was smiling, his hands up, completely oblivious to the city truck barreling down on him. His expression was as calm as Joan Collins' had been in that old Star Trek episode, just before Kirk let her die to save his own future. 

"Sandburg!" Jim was already out of the truck and running hard, but there was no way he could be there in time. "Sandburg!" 

Blair's eyes widened, but he was looking at Jim, not at his own approaching death. "Blair!" Jim screamed, just as the driver of the truck belatedly blew on the horn and hit the brakes. 

Only then did Blair turn his head and see. Jim heard the sound he made, not a scream, less than a gasp. Just a soft sort of 'click,' his throat closing up like a shut door. 

And then Blair was moving, one, two long steps, bounding out of the way like he had wings on his ankles and whirling around as the garbage truck rumbled past with the horn still blasting. "Oh, MAN," he exclaimed, shaking from head to foot and making frantic gestures with his hands, "Oh MAN was that stupid." 

Reaching him then, far too late to have done any good, Jim grabbed his arm and pulled him the rest of the way out of the street, not being particularly gentle about it either. "Dammit, Sandburg --" He saw Blair wince and released him fast. "I'm sorry. Are you all right?" 

"Yeah, I'm fine," Blair said, still breathing hard. "It's OK. I'm fine." 

OK? Jim wondered. OK? No, I don't think so, Chief, not by a long shot. But he clamped down hard on the angry words, not letting them out, turned and stalked back to his truck. It took Blair a few long strides to catch up. Jim heard him, but he didn't slow down and he didn't stop until he felt Blair's hand fall on his shoulder. "Hold up, man," Blair said gently. 

Jim whirled around. "You still want to go buy a planter this afternoon or not?" 

"Hey, Jim. I'm really sorry, but I'm OK, and I promise I'll be more careful." 

The wind was still blowing clean and cold. Blair reached one hand up and pushed his hair out of his face again, never taking his earnest gaze from Jim. "Are you all right?" 

"Fine," Jim snapped, looking over Blair's head. 

Blair put his hands on Jim's shoulders to stop him from turning away again and stood up on tiptoe, trying to make Jim look at him. "Don't give me that," he said gently. "Listen, Jim, I'm sorry I scared you, but getting all pissed off now doesn't do any good." 

Jim closed his eyes. He'd loved that old Star Trek episode when he was a kid. Captain Kirk's terrible choice of duty over love had been such a revelation to him. An escape from the pain of love, to tell the truth. Duty first, no matter how much it hurt, no matter what the cost. Because duty was clear, and you knew where you stood. It was something bigger than the vagaries of individual human beings, who could be stupid, or cruel, or careless. Who could stop loving you. Or who could simply walk away whether they loved you or not. 

What a time to discover that good old Captain Kirk had been absolutely one hundred percent wrong, because the future didn't matter. Duty didn't matter. The whole rest of the damned universe didn't matter. Blair Sandburg, right here, alive and OK, was all that mattered. Everything else was dreams and shadows, the sort of interesting concepts Blair could play clever semantic games with, but which had nothing at all to do with the important things in Jim Ellison's life. 

Jim pushed Sandburg's hands away and wrapped his fists in the shoulders of Blair's coat, holding him as though he might suddenly bolt. Blair was looking up at him with eyes that were wide and startled now. "You ever pull a stunt like that again," Jim told him calmly, "and I'll skin you alive. You hear me, Chief?" 

"Jim, c'mon, for the last time, it was an accident. I don't WANT to get run down on the street, you know?" 

Jim pulled him around and pushed him up against the side of the truck. "I don't know if that's good enough," he said helplessly, knowing he was being unreasonable. But right now he couldn't see how he could ever stand to let Sandburg go again. Not for five minutes. Not even for the thirty seconds it would take Blair to walk around and get in the other side of the truck. Jim had been unforgivably careless with a gift of incalculable value and fragility for so long, and he felt a superstitious terror that now he would have to pay for his carelessness. 

Worse, that Blair would have to pay. 

His head dropped, his heart black in his chest. He had seen Blair shot, kidnapped, beaten, drugged -- and still, somehow he had been able to accept the risks Blair was taking, because Blair was helping Jim to Do His Job, and duty came first. A close call with the city garbage truck, and suddenly nothing made sense any more. Jesus. What was he going to do? "Blair," he said, and the sound of his own voice lost and uncertain as a child's shut him up again. 

It was silent then, save for traffic noises behind them, and Blair, still breathing hard. 

"Hey, Jim." Blair's voice, when he finally did speak, was so gentle that Jim started to shake. "Hey, easy." He raised his hand and touched Jim's cheek with the back of his fingers. "C'mon, now. What's going on with you?" 

Jim only closed his eyes and shook his head. 

"No," Blair said softly. "That's not gonna work here." He raised his other hand so he could frame Jim's face, palms over Jim's cheeks and jaws, fingers curved gently at his temples. "Look at me." 

Jim blinked and then, just like always, he did what Blair wanted him to. He looked into Blair's face. His hands still held Blair, his strength and height and size keeping Blair's shoulders pinned to the side of the truck, but Jim was the one who couldn't stop trembling. 

"What can I do?" Blair asked. "How can I make it right?" 

Nothing. There was nothing in the world that could make this right. Jim had spent a lifetime constructing a philosophy that accepted the inevitability of loss, and suddenly it was gone. The solace of duty was a carcass now, nothing but dry bones bleached white by sand and salt. He could almost hear them rattling as the high desert wind of human mortality blew through his soul. 

Then Sandburg stood up on tiptoe and kissed his face. 

The brief warmth of Blair's lips at the corner of his mouth broke across Jim's heart like the cloudburst after a drought, and he staggered under the impact. Everything was swept away in the foaming, white-capped flood. Every corpse of every arid philosophy Jim had ever used as a shield against his life washed away to the sea. 

Blair threw his arms around him and held on tight, bracing himself to support Jim's weight, and when he was certain Jim wasn't going to fall, he laid his head on Jim's chest. It sounded like he was trying to tell Jim something, only he was laughing too hard to get the words out. 

Or maybe it wasn't laughter. Jim felt tears soaking the front of his shirt. "Oh man, Jim, " Blair gasped out at last. "Why do you DO that? Can you tell me why the hell you do that?" 

"Chief --" Jim said helplessly. He held Blair carefully now, hands spread wide against his back as Blair wept in his arms. "I don't know what you mean." He tried to sound indignant. "You're the one who doesn't have enough sense to look both ways before --" 

"Oh no," Blair announced. He pulled back and looked up at Jim, eyes shining as unshed tears reflected the bright blue sky. "No way, man." He wiped his nose hastily, sniffling. "It's just, everything's not about the end of all time, all right? Sometimes it's just little accidents, little mistakes, and they don't mean anything, got it?" 

"No," he told Blair truthfully. "It's the little accidents that change the whole world. Didn't Naomi let you watch Star Trek when you were a kid?" He bent his head and placed a careful kiss above Blair's left eyebrow, and when he straightened up, he had the pleasure of seeing a rare look of complete bewilderment spreading across Blair's face. 

"Get in the truck, Sandburg. We've got a long drive ahead of us."



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