The first thing that Sydney was aware of was a dull ache throbbing through her torso. It wasn't unbearable, just annoying, and with that came the feeling of being pulled back into sleep, despite feeling as though she had slept for eternity already. She was exhausted, her body feeling too heavy to breathe, let alone move. Without moving a muscle, she tried to work out her bearings, retracing her steps in her tired mind. Where was she? Her eyelids still felt so heavy, and though she could hear things happening around her she couldn't open her eyes. The last thing she remembered was being in Columbia searching for an Incan idol which was rumoured to be traded there, but she couldn't remember anything past setting off into a cave. She tried to force herself to be more aware, to open her eyes at least, but it didn't work, her eyelids were simply too heavy.
Giving up on her visuals, she turned to her other senses for dependence. Sound presented nothing more than bird calls and rustling, the inevitable rainfall of the rainforest – she could be anywhere, though the fact that she felt relatively dry told her she wasn't outside. Her nose filled with the heavy aroma of the jungle, humid and hard on her lungs which longed for cool air to breathe. Touch...someone was touching her – her forehead, to be more exact. She could feel the warm touch of clammy skin against her forehead and then it was followed by a coolness – soft touch of cloth against her, and water. But the hand was still there, holding the cloth, brushing ever so gently against her skin. She knew those hands. She trusted those hands.
She supposed that she must have started fighting against her eyelids again, as she heard another sound among the heavy rainfall nearby. "Syd? Syd, can you hear me?"
There was only man in the world who called her 'Syd', or at least, only one she would allow to do so. Nigel. Nigel was beside her. Nigel was spreading cool water against her forehead. Why? What had happened? She tried to ask him, but her voice came out in a low moan instead.
"Sydney?" Nigel's voice came again. He was watching her unconscious body like a guard dog, and hearing the moan his head had snapped up quickly. He found another moan falling from her lips and he stood up from the stool he was seated on, letting it tumble from underneath him as he moved closer to the makeshift cot her body was laid upon. "Sydney, can you hear me?"
"Ni..." she whispered.
"Shh," he whispered back. "It's ok, take it slowly, just open your eyes."
He stared at her closed eyelids, wondering if she had at least that much strength. Her eyes flickered at first, but there was a slither of those ebony eyes visible for a moment, and then completely. Her eyes were unfocused as they looked around her, no doubt taking in their surroundings. He could understand that confused frown on her face – after all, when she had lost consciousness they had been in a cave, and now they were in a makeshift tent. He wet the cloth again and dabbed it against her forehead, carefully bringing it down on to each of her cheeks and the base of her neck as well. "Good," he said softly. "How are you feeling?"
"What happened?" she asked, her voice sounding shaky.
"You don't remember?" he asked.
She said nothing, and found no strength to shake her head.
"We found the Idol," he told her, and her eyes glimmered in recognition. "I've got it in my pack, wrapped up in all our spare clothes. I didn't know how many layers it would need to stop it hurting someone again so I thought better safe than sorry."
"Hurting someone?" she questioned.
He nodded. "You, actually," he told her. His voice was soft and steady, but she could hear the underlying concern in his tone. "You picked up the Idol and some kind of force took over you. I tried to get you to put it down, but it was impossible. It started sucking out all your energy. By the time I figured out how to distract you long enough to drop it, I thought it had sucked the life out of you. Then you collapsed, and well...here we are," he said, looking around them.
"Where?" she asked.
"Not far from the Cayapyas River," he explained. "I got you out of the cave but didn't know the first thing to do after that, luckily some hunters were passing and bought us back to their village. The language barrier is shaky at best, but I managed to communicate that we needed a place to stay and that you were hurt. They're quite hospitable, the Epera tribe."
"The Epera's?" she asked.
"I know, I was surprised too!" Nigel exclaimed. "I thought most tribes had fled to join the Ecuadorian communities because of the violent displacement, but some are still here. It's very isolated, from what I can see, unless you're in as deep in the jungle as we were, you can only access their village by water."
She was looking more exhausted now than she had when she woke a few moments ago, and he laid the cloth on her forehead, balancing it for a moment before withdrawing his hand. "We've been here for two days," he explained, when her exhaustion prevented her from matching his enthusiasm for their unintended discovery.
She frowned. "Was I-"
"Unconscious, the whole time?" he finished for her. "Yes, worryingly so. The Epera's know something of a legend, I explained about the Idol but not that we had it with us, I couldn't understand exactly but they kept assuring me that you would be fine after resting. They regretted to tell me exactly how long a rest you would need."
She felt more aware now, less tired but more exhausted. Her limbs were heavy still, and she had no energy, which made sense with what Nigel had just explained to her, but she no longer felt like she needed to go back to sleep. With her awareness of her situation came the awareness of Nigel. He looked as bad as she felt – heavy dark circles under his eyes, his hair filled with dirt which had been caked in by the rainfall. He looked in desperate need of a warm bath and a long sleep, but his eyes were the worst – they were dark with concern, weary with relief. With all the strength she could muster, she raised one of her hands from where it lay across her stomach onto his arm, the most of a gesture she could manage with her current state.
"You look tired," she said quietly.
"Honestly, I am," he admitted. "I haven't slept much. The rain is deafening when you're trying to sleep and at night the jungle always seems louder. Aside from that, every time I tried to lie down I kept moving to check you were still breathing." He tried to sound a bit humoured on the last comment, but she could tell that he wasn't amused at all. It was his way of denying the real reason why he'd stayed up for the past two days keeping watch over her.
"Thank you," she whispered, barely audible over the rain.
"Anytime," he smiled back, placing his hand over hers. "Although, preferably, not for this again, ok? It wasn't nice to see you like that."
"I'll try," she mumbled.
He held her gaze, their hands linking together. For a moment, he stared at her as if he had been afraid he'd never see her again. It was an odd thing to see in his eyes, something she'd never seen before. She'd caught some questionable glances from him, but never one like this. It was enlightening. He leaned forward a fraction, as if he were about to move considerably closer, and then quickly moved back. "I'll get you some water," he told her. "You must be thirsty."
She nodded numbly, wondering what had just happened. There was something much stronger than relief in his features, even now as he fumbled around in the other side of this tent they were in. When he returned to her side, he was holding something else as well as the water, and he gave her a shy smile about it. "This should help with your energy levels, make you feel a bit more awake."
She looked down at his hand, ignoring the small cup of water and looking to the dark substance he held out on a piece of cloth. "Is that-?"
"Chocolate," he nodded. "They farm it the cocoa beans here. It's not the same as you'd get in America, definitely much darker, so it's probably good that there's only a small amount."
She smiled, and he tried to help her to sit up so that she could take some water first. Her mouth felt dry and furry where she'd been asleep for so long, and she could only imagine how sore her throat would be. As much as she anticipated the cool drink she craved, as soon as she lifted her head from the cot beneath her she felt herself drain instantly. Nigel caught her upper body and supported it, but she still bowed her head under the pressure of the weakness. "Whoa," she mumbled.
"You ok?" he asked her.
"You need to sit up to drink the water," he told her.
They remained that way for some time, Sydney waiting to see if her strength would return, but instead she just felt dizzier the longer she was upright. "No," she shook her head. "No, this isn't happening," she decided, attempting to lie down again.
"No, Syd, you need to drink something," Nigel insisted, thinking for a moment. "I've got an idea."
He pulled her into a complete sitting position so her head spun dramatically, however as she swayed he moved behind her, putting the water and the small package of chocolate onto the small table beside them. With the fog in her mind, she felt very little connection to what was happening, or perhaps it was the fact that it was Nigel making the movements that installed the disbelief in her. She felt herself falling backwards slowly, in a controlled manner that radiated from an arm that came to rest across her stomach. Seconds later, she was leaning against Nigel's chest, his legs pulled up either side of hers so that she could use them for supports if need be. She smiled softly, enjoying the feeling of warmth that it created – a comfortable heat as opposed to the stifling, muggy air of the rainforest.
"How's that?" he asked her.
"Much better," she said quietly, keeping her head rested against his shoulder to avoid the dizziness.
"Here," he whispered, and she opened her eyes again to find him holding the cup of water in front of her. Clumsily, she managed to drink some without spilling any over either of them and when she had finished the cup he replaced it at their side. She certainly felt better for having a drink, but wasn't willing to tempt fate with moving around any more than she had to. Besides, she was comfortable with Nigel.
"That's nice," she contemplated.
"Try some of this chocolate," Nigel urged lightly. "It should make you feel better."
He passed it into her hands, and just the aroma filling the air made her feel perkier. She bought it to her lips and at the last moment, her arm dipped, dropping the sweet treat from her fingers. She mumbled an expletive and sighed. "What is happening to me?" she asked aloud.
"It's ok," Nigel assured her. "Whatever that thing did to you, it took everything out of you. It might take some time to feel normal again."
"Great," she mumbled. "Can't even do anything for myself."
"At least you have me," he said jokingly.
"Yeah," she smiled, resting her tired hand on his knee. "What would I do without you, Nige?"
"I perish the thought," he said. "Although, you'd get into significantly more trouble, I fear."
"I always get out of it, don't I?" she mused.
"Not this time," he told her. "Syd, a few more seconds and that Idol could have..."
He didn't need to finish the thought, they both knew what he was going to say. It could have killed her. It could have drained more than just her energy from her body. There had been many near death experiences that they had shared, but she could feel in her lack of movement that this was one that was too close. Her amused question before was now completely serious – what would she do without Nigel? Again, he'd managed to save her. But that didn't erase the fact that she'd almost died.
"It didn't," she said quietly. "I'm still here."
To cement himself to that, he wrapped his arms around her. Considering his position was already holding her upright, his hold was somewhat possessive, attempting to reassure himself rather than her. She didn't fight his arms – she would never fight Nigel on anything. But instead dragged one arm up to rest over his, keeping his arm in place in case he was overcome by his usual doubts. They'd shared relieved embraces before, and friendly hugs, and this was neither. This was something different. There was a reliance, a need, a desperation. His arms were strong around her, holding them both in the present where she was alive and they were together. His face was close to hers, his cheek nestled against her head, which she failed to notice until he moved it across her hair.
"Nigel, it's ok," she told him gently.
"No, it's not," he insisted. "You could have-"
"But I didn't, because you were there."
"Syd," he said with exasperation, that special way that only he said her name.
"I'm ok, Nigel," she assured him. "I'm tired, but I'm ok."
"I'm just..." and there it was, the hesitation that usually caused him to back away. "...going to...stay like this for a while, ok?"
She nodded, turning her head so that her face pressed into the gap between his neck and shoulder. "As long as you don't mind me going to sleep, that's fine by me."
Sydney and Nigel stayed with the Epera tribe for eight days before Sydney was strong enough to make the trip back home. They wanted to be sure she would be able to handle the walking and the intense heat of the rainforest without collapsing so they waited in their hospitable care. Sydney found it hard, of course, considering the language barrier of which she had no knowledge at all, but Nigel had worked out enough to speak about essentials and understand the basics of what they spoke to him. She watched him as they packed up to leave, as one of the tribe leaders was speaking with him.
The leader put his hand on Nigel's shoulder and was speaking in a deep booming voice, and then beckoned Sydney over to join them. She did so, noticing that Nigel was shaking his head ever so gently as if to dissuade her from this. She noticed his too late, though, as when she realised he was trying to tell her not to, she was already within reach of the tribe leader, who took one of her hands, and one of Nigel's, in his own.
He spoke no more than three sentences at Sydney's estimation, and with each one, Nigel's skin turned a more furious flushing red. When he was done, he placed their hands together and held them tightly, before releasing them. The pair looked at one another for a moment and then dropped their hands. Quickly, they left the small village.
"Nigel?" Sydney asked after a few moments. "What did he say when he was holding our hands?"
Nigel mumbled something, turning away from her.
Nigel sighed and turned to face her. "He said...that...uh...that is to say..."
"He-said-that-he-and-his-ancestors-look-upon-us-with-much-joy-to-see-such-devotion-and-that-our-union-is-a-great-blessing-to-the-world-and-that-he-blesses-our-future-children-with-strenght-and-kindness-so-that-this-love-can-be-shared," he rushed into one sentence, his words blending into one another as he flushed with embarrassment again. "Or something like that?"
Sydney stared at him for a long moment, and then her brain clicked into gear.
"Nigel, did the Epera leader just marry us?"
Nigel mumbled. "I think we should be heading east-"
"He may have done," he admitted. "I'm not entirely sure."
"You're not sure!"
"I'm not an expert in Epera traditions," he defended. "He was either blessing a union he already thought to be in place or he was setting one in motion. I can't be sure until we get back to the university to research it."
"And in the meantime, we may or may not be married?"
"Now do you understand why I was trying to tell you not to come over!" he challenged her back.
They stared each other down, and then burst out laughing at the absurdity. When the laughter died down and they begun heading in the direction that Nigel had previously indicated, Sydney nudged his shoulder with her own. "I could think of worse husbands, you know," she told him playfully, just to see the redness fill his cheeks again.