Blair looked up at the loft and sighed very, very softly. His partner was not home - a blessing and a curse at the same time. He wanted to avoid the conflict that seemed to arise every time they were together, but at the same time wanted to see his friend. Although, Jim had been more of a landlord than a friend of late. Pushing aside the useless wish that his mother had never come to visit at all, that Brad Ventriss had chosen to go to Washington State U instead of Rainier and that Alex Barnes had been arrested and incarcerated for reckless driving before he'd met her, Blair opened the street door and trudged inside.
If he was being honest, it was his fault that Jim had come to the end of his patience. The burden of adjustment and management clearly rested on the Guide, and Blair should never have attempted to be more than that to his partner. Friendship clearly had no place in the Sentinel/Guide bond. Incacha had passed the way of the Shaman to him, and Blair had done his best to live up to that gift…but if he was honest with himself he had failed there too. Blair was always honest with himself - it was the only way to maintain his balance.
Miraculously, Simon Banks had come through for him - when he'd managed to fail so spectacularly as a Guide and Shaman, the police Captain had managed to find a way for the Guide to retain his post at the Sentinel's side. Blair no longer thought of Jim as a friend, no longer looked for the friendship of the people in Major Crimes, no longer looked for the support and assistance that his colleagues in the PD could offer him. He'd made that mistake once before, and it had led to Jim accusing him of betrayal and conspiracy. He never wanted to hear those words from his partner again.
The Academy was hard. Not the academic side of it - Blair had been in school far too long to be stumped by a class, even ones as intricate as the law and procedure classes he was taking now - not even the physical side of it - Blair was fit and the self defence classes were a welcome addition to his life. He didn't want Jim to feel that he was incapable of pulling his weight in the field. He was even coming to terms with the weapons training - he knew that if he failed that class he'd never be allowed to partner his Sentinel in the field.
It was the abuse that was so hard to take. Blair was a sociable animal - anthropology was his joy, not his subject - and the constant verbal abuse and shunning was taking its toll on a man whose self-confidence was already on shaky ground. There were a few rare incidents of physical abuse - one such incident resulting in a sprained wrist that Blair had been forced to seek treatment for. Luckily Sweet Roy's brother didn't bear a grudge and had the gym doctor treat it quietly.
He was sporting a few new bruises today, but knew that to put in a formal complaint would just make things worse. He could take whatever they dished out, because his goal wasn't to graduate and become a cop, but to graduate and become the partner that Detective Ellison needed. Doing it 'for Jim' was easier than doing it for himself. At the moment the only thing he felt like doing for himself was curling up in a little ball under the bed and hibernating for a century or so.
Blair sighed in relief and pulled out his keys with his right hand, the left still heavily strapped. Jim avoided him whenever possible, so the Sentinel had yet to realise the Guide was injured. To avoid an incident of 'blessed protector' Blair was also avoiding Jim, leaving little notes to the Sentinel to assure himself that the other man was ok. Jim sometimes replied, sometimes didn't, but Blair had decided not to fret. Jim was eating the meals that Blair was preparing and storing for him, so his diet was semi-healthy, and on the nights that Jim came home, Blair couldn't hear any signs of pain or discomfort from his roommate. He never emerged from his room - he had long since memorised the sounds of Jim's movements and breathing, though his senses were nowhere near as acute as the Sentinel's.
Blair opened the door and entered the loft slowly, slipping the backpack he still carried to the floor while he closed the door. He would take it into his room with his jacket - another thing that had changed. He never left personal items out in the body of the loft now, not wanting to encroach on Jim's territory. He'd once called it their territory, but the past few months had made it very clear who owned what around the loft.
Sighing again, Blair picked up the bag and walked to his room, the exhaustion that he felt dragging at every movement. He pushed the glass doors open and stepped into the small space that had become his haven from the world. The scent of the herbs that he kept on hand to combat the bruises and aches was a soothing welcome, and he glanced over at his 'medicine chest' with a frown. The box was kept closed to ensure the freshness of the herbs and prevent them from irritating Jim - the detective disliked 'that hippie dippy stuff' and refused to take it more often than not. Blair had left it closed this morning - had Jim been in here? Had he been hurt? Before Blair could do more than drop his pack next to the doors strong arms grabbed him from the shadows behind the doors. Blair struggled hard, throwing his weight forward and twisting. More arms joined the first pair and his hands met bare skin, sliding over slick oil and caked paints in bewilderment as he fought for freedom. A momentary loosening of the grip let him get partially clear of his unseen assailants, but a leg tangled with his and he fell, smacking his head into the edge of his desk. His vision darkened despite his best attempts to stay conscious and his last moment of awareness was a confused snapshot of a painted face and the sound of a language that was familiar, but not English.
Blair woke in a dark, cold place. He shivered and pulled his coat closely around his body, wondering why his head hurt and where he was. Memory returned with a rush and Blair frowned, sitting up cautiously. He was unrestrained and his captors were sitting nearby. They were spectacularly out of place against the crates and metal wall where they were leaning. The long dark hair that was braided back with traditional adornments for warriors on a raiding party complemented the fierce face markings painted on their dark skin. Traditional weapons rested on the floor beside them, and the loincloth of a hunter girded each groin. Handmade sandals were strapped onto their feet. There were four men in all - they regarded him with intent expressions, waiting for him to make the first move.
They were Chopec. Blair recognised them instantly, in fact he thought that the warrior on the left was one that had come to Cascade with Incacha two years ago. He looked around again, taking in the details of the space he had come to in. He was sitting on their blankets and sheltered in a group of crates that carried machine parts.
Blair touched his temple cautiously and winced. There was a cut there, clean and scabbed over, though it had bled a little. They had tended his wound, ensuring that he didn't get an infection. They had also unwrapped his wrist and replaced the bandage with a wrap that made his skin tingle a little - tribal medicine. Blair smiled over at the warriors and hoped that he wasn't about to get into trouble.
"Thank you," he said quietly in Quechua. He had learned the language after Incacha's visit, going to extra classes at the Uni to master the language. He could have asked Jim, but the Sentinel was still grieving and Blair didn't feel right about pressuring him to remember that time. The warriors' faces split into smiles.
"You speak the language of my people," one said in a low tone, approval in his voice, "You are indeed a wise Shaman."
Blair felt it best not to get into his shortcomings as a Shaman and shifted carefully to join the other four men by the wall.
"We are going to the village?" he asked and they nodded, "Is the Sentinel also travelling with us?"
He couldn't feel Jim's presence, and he was pretty sure that if the Sentinel had smelt his blood he'd be making his presence known in one way or the other. The Sentinel was very protective of his Guide. Blair just wished that Jim was just as protective of his friend. He took a deep breath and pulled his wandering thoughts back to the present. He'd given up on friendship, finding solace in duty and his determination to be the best Guide and Shaman he could be.
"Our Shaman, Sunacha had a vision," the second warrior spoke up quietly. They were stowaways without any papers at all - none of them wanted to be caught and Blair had signalled his acceptance and understanding with his softly voiced questions and stealthy movements.
"Sunacha felt that the Shaman of the Great City and Worldly Protector of the Chopec people was in danger. He saw that you would be safer in the village of your friends than in the Great City."
"But the Sentinel needs his Guide. My duty is to the Sentinel - my safety is not important," Blair protested, his voice no less intense for its low volume.
"The Sentinel is the cause," the third warrior spoke up, shocking Blair into silence. Jim was the threat to his safety? How was that possible? He searched the faces of the warriors and saw their conviction that they were doing the right thing. He would get no further information from them.
"When the boat docks, may I call the Sentinel? Tell him I am safe?" Blair didn't want Jim worrying. The warriors shook their heads and the fourth man informed Blair that they were under orders not to let him contact any of his tribe. Blair nodded his reluctant acceptance and settled into a half lotus against the wall, letting his eyes fall closed and breathing deeply to try and get rid of the headache he had awoken with.
He would have to wait for more information from Sunacha. He had plenty to think over between now and then, including the title that they had given to him. Sure, he had joked about being the Shaman of the Great City to Jim, but he'd never brought it up again. He didn't want to hear the ridicule that the Sentinel would heap on his head, as he did with every reference to 'new-age mumbo jumbo'.
The warriors exchanged knowing looks, smiling and nodding to each other happily. Despite the injury they'd done, the Shaman they had retrieved from the Great City bore no anger against them. His quiet movements and soft voice had conveyed his acceptance of their mission and compliance with their situation. This would be easier than they had thought. The warriors had worried that they would need to drug the Shaman with a potion that Sunacha had given them - something they didn't want to do. It was better for all concerned that the Shaman accepted his people's actions for now.
They'd left the ship silently, undetected, leaving no trace of their presence. Several times, the warriors had foraged at night, and Blair had followed their request that he remain in concealment. No doubt Jim would have been surprised, but Blair had only followed his partner into danger when his instincts were screaming at him - and that happened a lot in Cascade.
They'd slipped away into the jungle that skirted the city, and from there the warriors set a hard pace back to the village. Blair had put his head down and kept up with them through a combination of modern fitness and sheer will power. The police Academy might pride itself on its fitness standards for the new recruits, but it had nothing on the Chopec.
They had hunted and foraged on the move, stopping at nightfall to cook any meat they had caught. Blair fashioned a slingshot from the strips of his torn top shirt and was successful in bringing down a few small birds to contribute to the evening meal. He was also quick to spot edible plants, and a nimble climber, despite his fear of heights. The slingshot was a product of his misspent youth and several expeditions to the rocky plains of Africa. It didn't take him long to recover his mastery of the simple tool.
The four warriors found that travelling with their rescued Shaman - he was not their captive, despite the fact that they had stolen him away from his territory and duties - was entertaining at the very least. Despite his obvious exhaustion and ignorance that left him vulnerable to the many hazards of their jungle, the Shaman asked questions in a never ending flow, storing the knowledge and skills they gave him and using them aptly. They only had to tell the man something once and he remembered it perfectly, he learned the various skills they showed him in a matter of hours. His slingshot was an effective and simple weapon that he had mastered very quickly - his aim was deadly and accurate, never a wasted shot.
After a time that Blair had ceased to measure - he had no idea how long he'd been out on the ship before coming around, or how long the voyage had been, as the dark hold didn't allow him to judge night and day - they arrived at their destination. Dusk was falling rapidly as Blair stumbled into the village behind the warriors. The people around him were calling greetings to the four men he travelled with and asking questions rapidly. The men laughed and waved their friends off, heading to the Chief's hut in the centre of the village.
The noise was rapidly beating his energy levels down to nothing - they had travelled hard to finish their journey today and Blair was feeling it, despite the recent fitness training he'd endured. He was ushered into the Chief's home and presented to the people there. He let the anthropologist take over, replying correctly and memorising names and faces for later recall and study. Perhaps sensing his tiredness, the Chief scolded Blair soundly in the manner of a parent chastising a child for hiding his troubles.
Blair blinked up at the man. Surely they weren't serious. They didn't mean to claim a man they'd never met, a man from outside their village as family. Sunacha stood beside him, gazing at him with wise, expectant eyes and Blair bowed his head. He accepted the chastisement meekly, and stripped out of the clothes he'd been wearing - a now ripped pair of jeans, very grubby shirts and well-worn boots. He removed his underclothes as well, accepting the loincloth that Sunacha held out to him and put it on, tucking the slingshot into his waistband. Now stripped of his 'outrageous costume' and dressed 'properly' as a good child should be, Blair received the approval of his family and followed Sunacha to his hut, sliding onto a grass mat with relief and falling straight into a deep sleep.
His sleep was dreamless, restful. He woke in the morning long enough to eat the food Sunacha pushed at him, and then went back to sleep; sleeping the sun around to wake with the dawn the next day. He slipped away from the huts with his slingshot to take care of business and bathe at the side of the river, washing the last of the travel dust away. His beard had grown in and was past the itching stage now - so he decided to leave it. He could keep it trimmed enough to be clean and wouldn't have to worry about slitting his throat with a sharp knife every day.
"Good morning Sunacha," Blair turned from his reflection to smile at the Shaman standing at the edge of the trees. He had sensed the other man's presence without really knowing how he knew whom the person behind him was. Acceptance of new things was an important part of his make-up and Blair didn't worry about it.
"Good morning Andarko," Sunacha replied, "I see you have rested enough."
Blair accepted the new name without a blink. If Sunacha chose to call him by that name the tribe would accept him as one of their own. Naming was a powerful way to include a new member of the tribe, though Blair wondered if there were further initiation rites waiting in his future.
"Thank you for your patience," Blair smiled, "Your warriors are fit men - they are a credit to the tribe."
"They are," Sunacha nodded, "Though I was most displeased to see that they had injured you."
Blair touched the small cut that had almost healed over entirely. He shrugged and grinned at the Shaman before him.
"I struggled fiercely," he chuckled, "They did not expect that."
"You have a warrior's passion," Sunacha nodded, "That is good - the Great City needs a Shaman that is strong and cunning."
Blair bowed his head in acceptance of the comment and judged the time was right to find out just why he had been abducted to the tribe - for all the benevolence of the act. However he couldn't just come out and ask - it had been made clear that he was a child of the village, and even the boldest child didn't just up and take to task an elder over their actions.
"Sunacha - please tell me why you have brought me here. The warriors' spoke of a danger - I am worried that I will be too far away to do my duty to my Sentinel. My place in danger is at his side, as always."
There, that should do it - respectful yet clear. Blair's place was clearly defined and if he didn't get the right answer he'd return to it, no matter what the Shaman said.
"Come and eat with me," Sunacha said, "I will tell you all I saw in my visions."
Blair hung the three birds he'd felled on the way to Sunacha's hut in the proper place and then sat down. They would prepare the meat later, letting it hang for a little while would only benefit them. He accepted the mixture of insects and fruit with equanimity and ate slowly, reintroducing his stomach to the concept of tribal food. Whenever he was on expedition he ate with the people he was staying with, preferring to fit in by following the small customs. It had won him acceptance on many a field trip.
Sunacha watched with a twinkle in his eye, eating his own portion of delicacies from the jungle. When they were done he directed Blair to grab a woven basket and led the way off into the jungle, waving a casual goodbye to one of the warriors on the edge of the village as he did. Blair trod along carefully, watching the path and the foliage as best as possible, though he trusted Sunacha not to walk them into an animal trap or for that matter, an actual animal.
He was directed up into a tree to harvest some berries and leaves, picking under the Shaman's directions, using the knife that Sunacha handed him to cut the leaves free rather than pulling them off the branches. When the basket was full he was allowed to climb down and they walked on to a small stream. Sunacha sat them both down on a rock in the middle of the stream, indicating the Blair was to keep the knife and sheath that hung from a thin strand of leather around his chest.
"I saw many visions of Enqueri in the Great City after Incacha's passing to the Spirit world. Always a grey wolf, a powerful animal, accompanied him belonging to his Shaman. Whenever Enqueri chose a bad path the wolf fought to redirect him. Sometimes he could, sometimes he could not. With each choice the wolf became thinner, sicker, smaller," Sunacha said in a calm tone and Blair schooled himself to calm as well. He nodded to show that he was listening to the Shaman and held his tongue as best he could - once he started asking questions he knew he couldn't stop.
"I saw a future for Enqueri where the Shaman, exhausted by many battles with his own Sentinel - the one who should have pledged honour and obedience to him from the very first - passed from this world to the Spirit world, where he wandered the paths searching for his Sentinel for time unending."
"How did it happen?" Blair's heart seized, panic freezing him to the warm rock he sat upon. Had he been taken from his Sentinel's side at a crucial moment? Was Jim in danger even as he sat here?
Sunacha held up a hand, smiling gently. The young Shaman's thoughts were so easy to read - they crossed his mobile face and reflected in his eyes freely.
"Do not fret yourself, Andarko," he soothed, "Your Sentinel is in no danger. The wolf went to sleep, and never awoke again."
"If I am supposed to die in my sleep…" Blair frowned, not seeing the problem. As long as Jim was safe - that was his job, to ensure the safety of his partner. Hence the training at the Academy and his acceptance of a badge and gun.
"You are not supposed to die!" Sunacha thundered, real anger showing on his face - he leaned forward and slapped Blair sharply on the leg, leaving behind a red and angry handprint. Blair startled and cried out in pain, but made no move to get away, some instinct telling him that the refusal to submit to discipline would only make things worse.
"You are not listening! Open your ears!" Sunacha got up and grabbed the basket up, preparing to wade back into the shade-dappled water, "You will stay here until I return for you. Open your ears and eyes to the truth, Andarko!"
Blair watched the Shaman stomp through the water to dry land and off into the brush, leaving him alone in the jungle. When he could no longer hear the Shaman's angry footsteps he rubbed the stinging handprint on his thigh and sighed, stretching his back out and looking around. The water was a soothing sound and the jungle itself provided a kind of white noise in the form of insects and birds.
Open my ears and eyes, huh, Blair mused. He settled carefully into the half lotus that would let him keep his balance on the rock and steadied his breathing. He emptied his mind carefully, letting the sounds of the life around him and the elements beneath him fill him up instead. His skin tingled with the ripples of movement on the banks as the smaller animals and birds got used to his presence and returned to their water source. The breeze cooled him even as the sun warmed him. His heart slowed and his body lightened, the rock beneath him the anchor that kept him from flying off into the void.
"Hello young Shaman," the voice was warm and familiar.
"Incacha," Blair smiled in return, opening his eyes. He already knew the Shaman was standing in the stream before him, a hawk resting on his shoulder. He'd heard the ripples in the water change.
"I am glad you have reached me," Incacha looked very well for a dead man. Blair dipped his head in respect and then turned to look at the underbrush. It was quivering and rustling, as something large crept through it slowly. Blair gasped as his wolf slunk into view. It was indeed thin and sickly looking, though its eyes sparkled with blue fire.
"You are tired, young Shaman," Incacha said softly, "When I passed the Way to you, you shouldered your burden eagerly. Unfortunately your training was sadly lacking."
"I did my best!" Blair protested and got off the rock to kneel in the water beside the wolf, wrapping his arms protectively around its neck, "I did the best I knew how."
He buried his face in the wolf's neck; tears in his eyes, running slowly down his face. He felt rather than heard Incacha's approach and the gentle hand that petted his head only added to the tears.
"Yes you did," Incacha said, "You did your very best. The best you knew how. It is not your fault that you did not know all that you needed to. I have watched over you, young Shaman, and I am impressed at the way you let your heart and mind lead you. Your instincts are incredible. A lesser man would have failed. A lesser man would have lost his Sentinel and his mind long ago."
"I did ok?" Blair looked up, his face begging for some affirmation that his efforts had been seen and appreciated by someone. Incacha's face softened. He petted Blair and the silent wolf again and nodded, his smile warmth that bathed Blair's soul.
"You did more than that," Incacha confirmed, "And you are not done yet. Let Sunacha teach you, young Shaman. Let the tribe teach you, young Shaman. Let the Chopec heal you, as we once did your Sentinel. And when Enqueri arrives…let the tribe teach him as well."
"I will," Blair vowed, his heart lightening for the first time in what felt like eternity, "I will learn from the Chopec - all they have to teach me."
"And Enqueri? When he comes? Will you allow them to teach him as well? To guide you in reclaiming your Sentinel?"
Could he do it? Could he let someone else take over the care and protection of Jim, of the Sentinel while he stood by and watched? Did he really have a choice here? Things had been so bad between them lately. Blair was running on empty, his instincts no longer enough to hold them together. Sunacha would see to it that he was trained properly for his duty as Guide and Shaman. Part of learning was observation, but he was loath to give Jim over to someone else's care…
"…yes…" Blair whispered, "…I promise…"
Incacha caressed him once more, the approval radiating off the Shaman like a warm bath to Blair's cold soul. The wolf was leaning heavily into him now, resting against his body for a long moment.
"It is time to leave now," Incacha said softly, "But you will not go away empty handed. I give you this thought. In whose best interest is it that the Guide dies a lonely exhausted death? Without the Guide there is no Sentinel. Without the Sentinel there is a Guide."
Blair straightened slowly and returned to his rock, the wolf at his side. When he was settled it laid its head in his lap and sighed softly. Blair smiled at his spirit guide and closed his eyes once more, letting the jungle sweep him away again. The next time he heard someone approach it was Sunacha. The weight of the wolf's head had slowly disappeared and Blair returned from his trance feeling much better than his previous meditations had allowed.
Life became very busy for Blair.
He foraged with Sunacha, learning the cornucopia of the Chopec village and the remedies and rituals used by the Shaman while tending to his tribe. Several of these were possible in Cascade and Blair memorised them as best as he could, hoping that when they returned Jim would listen to him and let him help.
He hunted with the men, bagging several birds and a few snakes that ended up in the community meals the village held. While each family could and did gather their own supplies, the Chopec village ate a community meal at night. This ensured the tribes bonds to each other and allowed the Chief and Shaman to police and administer to the population.
The women taught him several craft skills that he found very useful as the days went by. He became the fastest weaver in the village, the plant fibres under his hands springing to shape with a life that was all their own. He learned to clean and cook his kills, a skill that he'd always enjoyed in Cascade, which explained why he did so much of the food preparation in the loft.
He learned to build a hut, and took his turn at sentry duty. He watched over the tribe's children and learned their games and stories. He became a favourite with the younger ones, who were fascinated by his curly hair and beard.
Day and night followed without remark. Blair's skin lost its pallor and tanned deeply in the first few weeks. In addition to this his face regained colour and lost most of the lines that had begun to mark him. He still went to bed exhausted at night, but each morning he woke with a little more energy than he had the day before.
Throughout it all, the tribe taught him. They taught him how to find strengths and weaknesses. They taught him how to value the gifts he had and the gifts of others. They taught him submission and dominance, and the subtle dance of power that held sway in true partnership. They taught him to laugh again.
When Blair realised he'd been absent from Cascade for a month he approached the Chief of the tribe - who was nominally his father - a fierce man with many scars and ritual markings. His name was Pico and he had always greeted Blair warmly, listening to his questions and doubts honestly and dispensing advice or a kick to the rear as needed.
"Pico," Blair fidgeted a little, his old energy making it hard to stand or sit still just as it used to, "I am worried about Enqueri. I would like your permission to send him a message."
"Did you have a vision last night?" Pico asked, his eyes narrow. He knew that Sunacha and Andarko were both spending some time apart from the village each day to meditate and explore the higher planes of Shamanic duty.
"No, I did not," Blair replied, looking up honestly, his face open to be read by the other, "But it has been so long…I don't want him to worry about me."
"You are too kind hearted, son," Pico shook his head and ruffled the wild curls that were longer than ever, "Your Sentinel is awaiting my summons. We were not so foolish as to take you away from the Great City without explaining where you were. Of course, we did not tell him right away…better he suffer a little first, that he might come to realise the prize he has in you."
Blair gaped up at his 'father' in astonishment. Until now he really hadn't considered what the people back in Cascade thought. His place at the PD was shot for sure now, and he had no academic future… he bit back a groan of despair and dropped his head.
"Son, you must learn to braid back your hair in a more fitting manner," Pico announced, sensing the distress, "Sit, sit. I will show you how."
"Yes father," Blair sat obediently, numb to the core as he considered that outside this tribe he had no place in the world. By their attempts to save him they had in fact condemned him.
"I instructed Enqueri to secure your place in the Great City," Pico said after ten minutes of braiding and silence, "My son, your people would not wish to deny you your place at his side."
"But how," Blair protested softly, respectfully, "When it is my absence that makes my place void. Our own laws govern Enqueri. He cannot disregard them so easily. Nor can I."
"There are older, more important laws than the ones which govern the life of the tribe - here or in the Great City. It is time that Enqueri recollected them," Pico patted Blair's shoulder and leaned back.
"Much better," he approved, "Much more fitting for a son of mine. Did you mind me?"
Despite the additional worry about his future, Blair felt the warmth of acceptance once more. Son was such a small word, but it meant a lot to him. Though he only called Pico father when they were alone and not actively engaged in the training Sunacha set out for him, the small claim to family warmed Blair right through.
"Yes father," Blair nodded, "Thank you for teaching me how."
"Enqueri will come soon," Pico soothed as Blair stood, "After your trials for manhood."
Blair nodded his acceptance and went out to his chore for the day - minding the village toddlers while their mothers went to a women's ceremony.
The wolf had come to him in his meditations today - the coat full of lustre and vitality. It was lean and fit and Blair had laughed happily, accepting its invitation to run. They had chased each other through the jungle tagging and pouncing like children. Eventually they had returned to Blair's rock and he lay upon it, the wolf on his chest, the two of them looking off to the right towards the village. After a long while, Blair had returned to himself, energised and refreshed.
Smiling, he slipped down into the water and walked quickly back to the village, his old bounce returned. As he neared the village he heard voices in the distance, calling worriedly. Blair stopped and stood perfectly still, eliminating his own noise in order to hear a little better. His time with the Chopec had taught him to use his senses more effectively - you didn't have to be a Sentinel to use your senses.
Voices were calling for one of the village children. Blair changed his course, jogging along in a ground-eating stride that minimised noise to allow him to track the searchers. He was moving parallel to the village now and kept his eyes peeled for the child. As he stepped into a clearing, Guiro - the warrior that had led those travelling to Cascade - emerged on the other side.
"Andarko, have you come from the stream?" Guiro asked quickly and Blair nodded.
"I was not searching for any sign until I was close, how long have you been searching?" he replied. Guiro looked around and sighed.
"Not long. We can find no tracks, though. The jungle has swallowed this one."
There was grief in his voice. Even though it was not his child, the loss would hit the tribe hard. The Chopec were a closely-knit community. Blair sighed and looked around. Guiro gestured for him to continue in a circuit of the village and he nodded, accepting the assignment - one you would give to a mature teenager that showed promise. They parted silently, and Blair resumed his jog, picking up the signs of the searchers now that he was crossing their path. The jungle was full of unusual sounds as the animals reacted to the search parties combing through their territory. There was a rustle in front of him and the wolf reappeared.
They stared at each other for a long moment, and then Blair nodded once, accepting the vision. The wolf turned and ran, Blair close behind. He followed closely, despite the rough terrain as the wolf moved towards the lost child. There must have been danger nearby as the wolf's hackles were well and truly up. It stopped suddenly and Blair stopped too, listening with all his might as he tried to catch his breath.
He heard the child crying and the low growl of the predator that had found it. Without pausing to think, Blair ran forward, scaling the tree in front of him and using the branches to move out into the clearing where the child was standing, frozen in fear and staring at the spotted jaguar that was stalking it from the edge of the clearing. There was a vine dangling nearby and Blair tested it for strength before moving closer to the child. The jaguar was tensing, ready to spring and the child stumbled backward, falling to the ground. Blair leapt, landing to crouch protectively over the boy, snarling wordlessly with his knife out and facing the jaguar, his free hand wrapped around the trailing vine.
Startled, the animal snarled, its tail lashing in anger as another predator usurped its meal. Blair met it snarl for snarl, his stance unwavering. He felt the child reach up and latch on - small arms and legs winding about his body and clinging tightly. The jaguar tensed again, determined not to let this meal escape. Its muscles rippled and Blair reacted, flinging both hands up to grip the vine and swinging his body up even as his arms pulled. The result was that he was left hanging upside down from the vine, above the enraged jaguars pounce, the child clinging for all he was worth. As his legs swung down again, Blair stretched out and caught a branch with his feet, pulling them over into the tree. The jaguar squalled its anger but Blair was already moving, dancing along the branches of one tree to the next, heading for the village, and sheathing his knife as he moved.
In the distance he could hear the search parties react to the noise. They were headed towards him, even as the jaguar below snarled and paced them, swarming up a tree of its own to try and catch the meal that was rapidly moving away. Unencumbered, it got ahead of them, intending to cut them off. Blair changed his course quickly, snarling at the predator like his spirit guide. The trees were thinning out and he was forced to the ground, running for all he was worth. A knife and a simple slingshot would not drive off the enraged predator behind him.
As he neared the edge of the clearing a golden blur burst from the trees and Blair howled, dropping down onto his back, rolling his legs up to take the impact, catching the jaguar on the chest. He used their momentum to continue the roll, awkward with his extra burden, and kicked out hard, shooting the startled animal over their bodies. The jaguar hit the nearest tree with a sickening crunch, its neck snapping on impact. Blair continued the roll, coming to his feet and whirling to face the animal, knife unsheathed, panting for breath as the wolf howled in triumph from the distance.
He jumped as the warriors and searchers appeared, yelling their jubilation and patting his back in approval. The child clung to him even harder, refusing to be separated from his rescuer and Blair wrapped an arm around him, patting his back gently, his breathing settling down slowly as the adrenaline wore off.
Guiro flung an arm around Blair's shoulders and led them back to the village, with several of the warriors carrying the dead jaguar behind. The city born Shaman was starting to feel shaky as they emerged from the jungle and was glad to hand the child off to its mother, who cried and laughed in her relief.
Pico and Sunacha both received him with smiles and approval, Sunacha handing Blair a gourd. The reek of it made him pause for a moment, and he sniffed cautiously, trying to identify its contents. Whatever it was, he'd be high as a kite from it. He looked at his mentor and father for a moment, and then drank obediently.
When he finally woke the next morning his arms bore the scars of his manhood and his chest was marked with the sign of the wolf. The skin of his kill was tanning at the edge of the village.
Jim looked at the darkened loft and shook his head. He'd been volunteering for night shift lately, taking stakeouts and extra duties to ensure that he was home when Blair was asleep, and that their schedules overlapped in the morning in such a way as to make it almost impossible to connect.
He hadn't wanted it to be like this. He never wanted to see Blair's slow and steady decline from an enthusiastic, passionate young man to the cynical, world-weary figure that now inhabited his place. Gone was the chatter, the energy, the quirky humour that had been so appealing in the early days of their friendship, replaced with silence and watchfulness.
As his control over his senses grew Jim had tried not to resent the level of attention that Blair lavished on him daily. They might joke about the house rules - or they had a long, long time ago - but Blair had even more rules about what Jim was allowed to eat, drink, touch, use and attend. The scientist had long lists of chemicals, substances and locations that were off limits to the Sentinel, and added to them on almost a daily basis.
Jim felt like he was expected to just submit to Sandburg's rules - as if he had no say in the matter at all. That pissed him off, and some of their more spectacular fights had occurred over the issue of control. He felt as if only the Sentinel existed for the young scientist. Jim Ellison was secondary to this equation. That had hurt - he thought that they were friends.
Blair had continued to monitor him though. Jim had no doubt that the young man was watching how much Jim ate of the - admittedly delicious - meals that were left in the fridge for him. He sometimes bothered to scrawl a reply to the notes that Blair left on the stair rail, often he just read them and tossed them aside. Once or twice he'd been startled by the younger man's knowledge of what was occurring in his life, but that had led to resentment as well, as if Sandburg was spying on him.
Work was a real chore at the moment. The bullpen was tense and Jim had to admit that his mood wasn't helping any. He was caught in a quandary of his own making. He wanted his partner at his side, working full time on the force, and at the same time didn't want to be under that kind of scrutiny day in and day out. Maybe once he got a regular paycheck Blair would move out. Jim couldn't say anything to lead him in that direction, though. His guilt over Alex and the fountain prevented him from ever telling Blair to leave.
He unlocked the door and stepped inside. The Volvo had been parked downstairs, so he knew his roommate was home, though Blair no longer left his things in the living area. Part of Jim was pleased that he'd finally got the point about tidiness in the loft, but a part was also disturbed by the idea that there was less of Blair around.
Swallowing a sigh, Jim trudged upstairs to his bed, forgoing the snack that Blair had probably prepared and left for him. He couldn't face another round of Guide Nutrition tonight, and he'd eaten with Brown and Rafe earlier as they reviewed the case notes for the stakeout.
Jim fell onto his bed, still fully clothed, and closed his eyes. He was asleep in moments.
The phone woke him. A glance at the clock showed that Blair was at the Academy, so Jim growled and got up, stomping down the stairs and snarling into the phone. It was Admin from the Academy. They were ringing to see if Blair was ill, because he'd missed his morning classes. Jim frowned and took the cordless out on the balcony, peering out to see if the Volvo was gone. It was.
He told the woman on the other end of the line that he didn't know where Blair was and hung up. Grimacing in distaste he headed for the bathroom to pull off his smelly clothes and climb into the shower. Ever since he'd come on line, Jim had found that he liked to bathe twice a day - to keep things from overwhelming him. He soaped and rinsed diligently and then stepped out, plucking a towel from the rack. He frowned and looked around. Sandburg hadn't used any of the towels in here this morning - they were all dry.
Jim shrugged and went to make breakfast. It wasn't his job to keep track of the other man's hygiene. As long as Sandburg showered before he came anywhere near Jim, he could do whatever he liked. A glance at the clock showed that it was closer to lunch than breakfast and Jim opened the fridge. There was plenty of fresh food and various ingredients for Blair's famous tortellini, but no ready-made snack. Deciding that his partner had finally given up his regimen of 'feed Jim healthy stuff' Jim pulled out the fixings for a sandwich and shut the door.
"Hey Jim, is Hairboy ok?" Rafe asked as he entered the bullpen that evening, "The Academy called here looking for him this afternoon."
"He's not at the loft, and his car is gone," Jim shrugged, starting to feel a little uneasy. Blair wouldn't just leave without first telling someone. Maybe Jim had missed the message he'd left behind.
"You don't know where he is?" Brown asked curiously and annoyance flashed across Jim's face.
"No, I don't know where he is. I'm not his keeper, you know," he snapped and switched the computer on with an angry movement. He didn't miss the comment Brown muttered as he turned away and bit back an angry retort.
"…not his keeper, just his partner…"
Simon called for him then and Jim slouched into the Captain's office closing the door and accepting a cup of coffee.
"What's going on, Jim?" Simon asked quietly, "Sandburg ok?"
"Why is everybody asking me that?" Jim growled, "I haven't seen him today. He left for the Academy as the usual time, I guess."
"You guess?" Simon frowned, "You don't know? You didn't hear him?"
"I was asleep, ok?" Jim snapped, "I don't watch over his every move. I'm not his keeper."
Simon didn't say anything, just looked down at his desk for a long time. Jim calmed down and felt a little foolish. People were worried about Sandburg that was all; there was no need to get worked up about it. H and Rafe were good friends of 'Hairboy' and had been staunch supporters of the young man in the past.
"Maybe he shouldn't join us in Major Crimes," Simon's sigh took Jim by surprise and he tensed back up again.
"What?" he exclaimed, "Simon, after all we went through…"
"Look, Jim, you obviously want nothing more to do with him," Simon sat up straight, fixing Jim with a glare, "You don't know where he is, if he's ok, and you obviously don't care. You've been nothing but hostile about and to Sandburg for quite some time. For months even. If you don't want him around that badly…maybe he should go somewhere else. Vice and Homicide have both expressed an interest…"
"What!" Jim fumed, "Dammit, Simon, he's my partner!"
"Not necessarily," Simon retorted, "He's a detective, graduating from the Academy as a part of a pilot program the brass put together when they thought they were going to lose him over the dissertation fiasco. He can be put anywhere they like, but seeing as our results are so good with him we got first dibs."
"I don't understand," Jim's confusion showed on his face and Simon leaned back, unsurprised that Jim hadn't looked too closely at the deal the PD was offering Sandburg. He'd seen the distance that Jim was putting between himself and his partner and had known that the day would come when Blair eventually gave up.
"Look Jim, that press conference may have shut the University up - though Sandburg's in a world of hurt financially over it right now - but no one from the PD was really fooled by that lie. We're cops, not kindergarten kids. The PD knew that there was something going on between you two - that Sandburg was providing you with an edge that the rest of them didn't have."
"Providing ME? Whose senses are they any way?" Jim protested bitterly. Simon growled under his breath in aggravation. After all this time Jim still didn't see what a gift he'd been given.
"Senses that are no use to you without the control and balance that Sandburg provides on a daily basis. Haven't you figured it out Jim? The Sentinel stuff may be under control in daily life, but in an emergency or while working them hard you need all the help the kid can provide you with. You may have told me you wanted to go back to pre-Sandburg - and by the way that's the most selfish piece of bullshit I've ever heard - but do you honestly think you can? You know as well as I do that things work better when he's around. End of story."
Jim couldn't honestly deny that fact so he said nothing, letting his face harden into a soldiers mask and folding his arms.
"When the PD realised that we were losing Sandburg over this mess the top brass stepped in with their deal. They'd been planning to offer it when he graduated from Uni, but that was obviously never going to happen. Sandburg makes the PD look good - he's smart, he's quick and he gets the job done right, and he did all that before he ever thought about joining our ranks. What will he be like as a cop?"
"Saint Sandburg," Jim drawled and Simon slammed a hand onto the desk in fury.
"After putting up with you all this time he bloody deserves to be. I'm going to ask him to accept assignment to another department. I won't stand for your abuse of him any longer. We may have urged him to take the job in order to partner you but I'll be damned if I watch you destroy a good man. You are dismissed."
Ears ringing, feeling numb, Jim left the office slowly, speechless in the face of Simon's anger. The whole bullpen had obviously heard the last part at the least, and studiously ignored the dazed Sentinel.
That morning, on his way up to the loft from a stakeout that had been boring and cold, Jim noticed that the Volvo was still gone. There was even a little safety glass on the ground where it had been parked, although one of the neighbours was in that spot now. Jim frowned and sent his senses up to the loft, searching the place for Sandburg's heartbeat. He hadn't listened for it in a long time - he'd been trying to re-establish some boundaries for the other man, and one of them was that the walls of his room were inviolate. Sure, Jim had found it difficult to sleep for a couple of weeks until he'd got used to the lack, but he was sure that in the end it was worth it.
No heartbeat. The loft was cold and silent. Jim jogged up the stairs, unease pricking across his skin. The air in the loft was stale, and after a moment he realised it seemed that way because there was no fresh Blair scent. Wondering when the hell he'd decided that his Guide smelled fresh, Jim went over to the glass doors and knocked, feeling foolish. He already knew there was no one home.
He pushed one of the doors open slowly and reached in, turning on the light. Blair's pack was on the ground beside the door, and Jim frowned. His partner took that thing everywhere except on a date, and he knew that since Blair had started at the Academy he hadn't been seeing anyone. Jim looked around at the neatly made bed and then the rest of the room. All of Blair's things were in place - his Guide had not left him. Jim checked under the bed for Blair's emergency pack and sighed in relief. Blair definitely hadn't left - the pack was lying in its spot, untouched.
Jim got up again and looked around once more. The medicine chest was open. Sandburg kept his remedies in that chest. With a frown, Jim noticed the large amounts of bruise ointments and relaxants. There was also a good stash of headache medicine in there. There was a roll of thick ace bandage beside the chest.
Jim started to feel sick. His partner was being hassled at the Academy - being hurt. He wasn't a clumsy man and while self-defence classes sometimes left bruises and bumps behind, there was too much in the chest to cover that. What really hurt though, was that Sandburg had covered it up and kept on going. He hadn't looked for help from Jim or his future colleagues. He hadn't turned to the friends he had at the PD, or his instructors for help.
Jim growled, deciding that the Academy was going to get a visit from Major Crimes and an attitude adjustment to match. He turned to go get the phone and get things moving when something leapt off the desk and into his awareness.
Blood. Blair had bled here. The scent suddenly overwhelmed Jim. He knew it was two days old and that his Guide had fallen and bled on the floor. Someone had smoothed the rug over the blood to hide it, and someone else had carried his Guide out, down the fire escape. Jim lost the scent and the trail in the alley - the garbage trucks had been through and destroyed the evidence.
Jim raced back up the fire escape and called Simon. Blair wasn't missing - he was kidnapped. And his Sentinel hadn't known. Hadn't - in fact - even noticed.
The clues were there in the loft. No note, no sign that Blair had prepared a meal for himself - the ingredients were there, so he had planned to cook at some point. The Volvo gone, safety glass left behind. His attackers had stolen the car and taken Blair with it.
Jim put out an APB on the car and paced the loft relentlessly. Simon was on the way with the team from Major Crimes. Jim started planning the investigation. They'd go through the Academy first - it appeared that some of the new recruits were not above 'culling' the intake to their own twisted standards. That would not do at all. When the morning shift came on they could start the long process of checking through the cases that Jim and Blair had worked - looking for a con that bore a grudge.
Simon's cigars tinged the air and Jim headed for the door. It was time to get his partner back. And when they had maybe it was time to hash the partnership out once and for all. Jim didn't want to lose his Guide, or his friend.
Simon had listened grimly to the evidence and set his men to work, checking the possibilities and upgrading the APB as well. Rafe and Brown were pissed - no one messed with a friend, and Blair was one of the best. When this was over and they had him back where he belonged, Jim Ellison was due for an attitude adjustment of the first order. The unfortunate trend towards 'Blair bashing' was going to stop, once and for all.
Once they were sure they had all the right information and the day had gotten old enough for the people they needed to see at the Academy to actually be there, Simon and Jim headed on out there. The Commandant was in his office and Simon had no trouble getting in to see him. They explained the facts of the case and the Commandant sighed, leaning back and folding his arms pensively.
"He has been having some trouble with his class mates. I was aware of it. I even spoke to him about it after he injured his wrist. He asked me not to interfere. He felt, and I agreed, that any external interference would do more harm than good," he shook his head, "He assured me that he would handle the problem 'in house' as it were and I gave him a two week deadline to do so."
"Hurt his wrist?" Simon asked in an ominous tone shooting a look at Jim. Jim realised that he was in just as much trouble for not knowing that his Guide had been injured in the first place as the Commandant was for not interfering the minute he heard about the injury.
"A sprain incurred in a fall. One of the recruits tripped him on the obstacle course," the Commandant confirmed, "He took the injury to his own doctor and assured me that he would have it checked again at a later date. It didn't require a splint, just wrapping."
"And that wasn't enough to make you take action?" Simon snorted, "How the hell did your instructors miss this? Or were they in on the whole thing?"
"No they were not," the Commandant snapped, "My staff have been monitoring the situation from day one. Sandburg is a brilliant student and deserves his dues. None of us here want to see him hurt."
"And yet…" Simon shook his head in disgust, "This isn't getting us anywhere. I want to see the cadets that have been hassling my detective and I want to speak to the instructors that witnessed the harassment."
"Very well," the Commandant conceded, "We'll hold Sandburg's place open until he returns. He may need to retake some of his classes if he's gone for too long. As much as I approve of his enrolment I can't be seen to be partisan in my dealings."
Simon nodded and got up. They shook hands and Jim followed him out into the corridor. As they headed for the small conference room that the Commandant said would be available to them for the day, Simon kept up a fuming silence. Jim was just as angry, but knew the minute the door shut there would be an argument.
"What the hell is going on with you Ellison?" Simon snarled the moment the door closed, "He's being hurt and you don't even notice? Or did you and just didn't care too much?"
"The hell!" Jim snapped, fury in every line of his body, "I didn't notice, ok? We haven't seen each other since he started here!"
"Since he started? That's been three months!" Simon roared, "What the hell is wrong with you? Are you mad?"
"Yes!" Jim shouted, "I'm mad! I'm trying to get my life back in order and give him his back as well so I pulled back a bit! What a god damned crime!"
"Yes it was," Simon's voice was quiet and defeated, "It was a crime. The man gave up everything he's worked for, over the last fifteen years. He does it without recrimination or expecting restitution and you expect him to be happy living under the stairs, isolated from his friends and colleagues, all in order to help you with a gift that you've repeatedly told me you don't want. And you know the worst part? I'm an accessory to this crime. I didn't push hard enough to ensure that he was ok and knew that he had friends beyond the almighty Jim Ellison, god's gift to the Cascade PD."
Simon shook his head and turned away from his stunned detective, going to sit at the table and look through the files that the Commandant had ordered placed there for their information. After a while Jim moved to join him.
Simon spent the day putting the fear of god and Major Crimes into the recruits with Jim sitting silently at the edge of the interviews. Whenever he sensed a lie he would signal to Simon who would change his tacks. He had them where he wanted them and confessing in minutes, showing no mercy to the men and women who had acted as judge, jury and executioner.
At the end of the day the Commandant called a general assembly, putting all the recruits into the largest lecture hall. Simon read the riot act out and the Commandant added his own message:
Sandburg had not held his tongue out of fear or weakness. He had held his tongue because he was a professional. He had held his tongue because in the field he knew that they would not be able to afford to continue this bigotry. He had held his tongue because at the end of the day he understood implicitly the way a team needed to work and as long as the consequences didn't affect anyone other than himself it was better to remain silent than hurt the team.
Due to their actions, those involved in the harassment would face an ethics review board. It was made clear that this was done, not at Sandburg's request, but in order to satisfy the PD that the people who would be joining their ranks were suitable material. Simon Banks' glare spoke eloquently. In his opinion they weren't.
As they walked in silence out to Simon's car - outside the interviews Simon had yet to speak to Jim - Simon's phone chirped and the Captain paused to answer it with the customary bark his men had eventually adopted as their own.
"Sir, it's Brown. I've found the Volvo," Brown's voice was tense, uneasy.
"Where?" Simon unlocked the car, shooting a look at Jim. The Sentinel raised an eyebrow and Simon tapped his ear, giving permission for him to listen in. He caught the eye of the Commandant and several recruits as they passed, all watching in fascination as Jim listened to a conversation that no one else but the man with the phone should be able to hear. The rumour would be all over the Academy by lunchtime tomorrow. Another nail in the bullies' coffin. Sandburg had indeed lied - at the press conference where he denounced his work.
"It's gone through the guard rail on Canyon Road. There's nothing left of it Simon - it burned out in minutes. One of the licence plates was thrown clear - the fire department contacted us. The driver is dead - he was thrown out and the car rolled over him. It's not Sandburg. We're trying to figure out who this guy is and where he was going."
"I'm on my way with Ellison. Can we preserve the scene?" Banks opened the car door but didn't get in just yet. The Ellison jaw and temple were in full flight over there.
"Yeah, we'll get them to hold for a while. The accident squad are checking things over too. How did it go at the Academy?"
"Sandburg sprained a wrist when he was hurt by his classmates. He's been pretty badly harassed here. Ellison didn't know about it - he hasn't seen his partner since the kid started here," there was a malicious gleam in Simon's eye. He'd make sure that Jim paid for his share in Sandburg's abuse. He couldn't just reassign Sandburg without some form of explanation. His team were the best in the city - one clue like this and they'd have the full story in no time.
Jim tuned out Brown's colourful reply and got in the car. Simon had made it clear that his behaviour was intolerable to him. The unit would be up in arms over this. Blair had been a tag along, then a mascot, then a full-fledged member of the team. No one was allowed to abuse him - not even his partner. He'd been on the receiving end of a few glares and muttered comments over the course of Blair's ride along for his treatment of the younger man.
Despite the fact that he'd just been dropped in it with his colleagues, Jim felt very little anger at Simon's actions. His guilt told him that their anger was justified. His actions towards his Guide were less than honourable, and he'd been a pathetic excuse for a friend lately as well. As annoying as Sandburg's attempts to control Jim's life and observe him microscopically were, the scientist did have his health at heart. Maybe Jim had been over reacting a little?
They had been unable to pick up anything at the accident scene that the investigation squad didn't have already. Jim had walked the scene several times, in defiance of Sandburg's usual advice and now had a rash to prove it. Sandburg had warned him about the toxins at a scene like this one and usually encouraged Jim to use his senses from a distance.
Simon had sent him home to deal with the rash, adding a few choice comments about 'stupid acts of teenage rebellion' as well. Jim had to acknowledge that disregarding Blair's advice had not helped any one and was forcing downtime he couldn't afford. Chastised and uncomfortable, Jim had cleaned himself off, anointed the rash and got back out there. Rafe and Brown had glared at him this time and sent him home again. No one wanted to deal with a zone caused by irritated senses. Jim had gone quietly because he'd skirted a zone just walking into the bullpen.
Banned from work, Jim brooded over his relationship with Sandburg, swinging from anger to guilt as he hashed out the past year together. He had been difficult and purposefully obtuse on occasion, but Blair had always been there, studying and watching.
Honesty raised its head at that point. Studying his reactions in order to prevent them and keep him comfortable. Watching his back, even when Jim was in his foulest temper, trying to keep him safe - getting injured as often as not while doing so. If Blair said 'don't do that' then he always said why and the reason was usually Jim's continued health and comfort.
The problem was that Jim felt like the only person important to Blair was the Sentinel. It was as if Blair was only hanging around because of the Sentinel and his paper… a paper that was now gone. There was no reason for Blair to hang around any more, even if he was studying to become a cop, to become Jim's official partner. As long as Blair was on the force, he'd be with Jim, still studying and watching the Sentinel. Wouldn't he?
Would he really stay? After all, he knew how hard the life was, he'd been living it for the last four years. Anything the job threw at him wouldn't be too much of a shock - he'd seen a lot in his observer days. But the paper had been his goal in life for a very long time. Could he just give that up and walk away from academia and all it offered? Jim didn't know, he hadn't asked, because he hadn't wanted to hear the answer.
Faced with that act of cowardice Jim got angry again. He hadn't wanted this to happen. Sandburg was supposed to protect his identity and keep the paper secret. Ok, so his mother had released it - or sent it to that publisher. Sandburg had tried to fix the mess, and then tried to tell him before it hit the fan. He hadn't listened too well…
The university hadn't helped matters. Blair had told them not to go ahead with their publicity too, but they hadn't listened at all. The case had gone from bad to worse, and when Zeller shot up the bullpen…
The press conference had taken Jim by surprise. He knew how much money Blair was being offered and the kind of accolade he was being given. He had never considered that Blair would turn it all away and destroy his life's work for the Sentinel… no, not for the Sentinel. He had done it for his friends. For Jim and the men and women at the PD who were under attack. He had destroyed himself for Jim. And what had Jim done? Gone along with Simon's news of an offer to the Academy and made jokes about a Blair skin rug.
Jim frowned around the darkened loft, his eyes adjusting automatically to use the light from the windows. Blair had shut down. A major life change had occurred and Jim hadn't even thanked him or asked if he needed help. The young man had become the perfect roommate, the only things of his in the main living area the decorations that Jim had agreed to display. Some CDs among Jim's collection and a few books on the shelves that Jim liked to read were the only personal effects of Blair's out here. Even his coat and pack were stored in his room now.
Blair had avoided Jim when it became evident that was what Jim wanted. He stayed in his room, out of the way. Jim hadn't found any fresh Blair scent on the couch or anywhere other than the kitchen and bathroom for weeks. Blair had given way to what Jim had unconsciously expressed. If it weren't for the fresh Blair scent in his room, Jim would have thought the young man was gone long ago.
Of course he was gone now. Whoever had kidnapped him had obviously realised that the two men were no longer inseparable. Guilt flushed Jim's cheeks and he sighed. He had been an ass. Studying Blair was preferable to no Blair. Surely he could put up with scrutiny in exchange for his friend's well being and comfort?
Speaking of comfort, how was he affording to feed himself and Jim lately? He had to be in financial difficulty over the Uni bills - he wasn't being paid at the moment and his resources had always been slender.
Jim grabbed a pad and pen and started noting lines of inquiry for tomorrow. He would find out what debts and legal challenges his friend was facing - ignoring the bite of guilt that asked why he didn't already know - and start planning how to help out with that. He was Blair's Sentinel and friend - even if Blair never saw the friend. He should have been helping out a long time ago.
Two weeks passed with no further trace of Blair or his abductors. The Academy informed them that Blair's place would be held open indefinitely, but that he was no longer eligible for graduation with this round of recruits. Several of those recruits had failed the ethics board and were dismissed from ranks. The one person who tried to sue was given very short shrift when the Academy made it apparent that they would air dirty laundry in court.
Rafe and Brown chewed away at the meagre clues like a dog with an old bone, but made no headway. Jim had tried all his snitches and come up empty, though Sneaks promised to pass information along 'gratis like' for the guy with good taste in shoes. Simon was forced to downgrade the investigation when no further progress was made. They had ascertained that the car thief was just an opportunist looking for a ride out of Cascade and not connected to the disappearance of the young man.
Jim spent some time cloistered with the DA and a private attorney - stretching his sick leave shamelessly to pursue a few inquiries of his own. The notes he'd made that night in the loft had sparked off a series of ideas that led to a very profitable side investigation. It didn't tell them where Blair was, but it gave Blair a place to go when he returned.
This didn't help the frustration level in the bullpen. The whole team was worried about Sandburg's condition and location. They knew the joke that he was a bit of a trouble magnet was untrue, but at the same time he seemed to have the worst luck of the century. The first day he'd had at the precinct officially it had been taken over by terrorists - if that wasn't indication that the young man and trouble were closely acquainted then what was?
Oddly enough, the information they wanted - Blair's location and condition - was faxed to them at the end of the second week. The cover sheet was addressed to Simon Banks, but the text was unreadable for him - being in another language. There was a third page covered with a variety of symbols and pictures that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.
"Ellison! Get in here!" Simon roared and the bullpen came to a halt. If he wanted you the boss yelled your name and the command 'my office'. Any change in that procedure was not good and Blair was at the front of their minds. Jim went barrelling in and gaped at the fax Simon held out to him.
"Do you recognise this?" Simon asked and Jim nodded, taking the text first and reading it through very carefully.
"It's from the Chopec," he shook his head in astonishment, "They got one of the tribe members who went to the city to fax this out to you. It's about Blair."
"What about him?" Brown asked from the door, and Simon glanced over to see all his detectives and Rhonda standing there, trying to hear. He waved them in and waited until they had settled a little before skewering Jim with the 'tell me everything' glare.
"Uhhh," Jim frowned, "It says that Blair is with them - the tribe recalled him to the village in order to complete his education and ensure his health. He is safe and they will inform me when he can return to the Great City. If we attempt to retrieve him before then there will unpleasant consequences for us."
"What makes them think his health was at risk?" Mike Tanner spoke up. Brown shot him an angry glance.
"Did you see the guy? He was losing weight and he had no energy at all," Brown sneered. Tanner bristled in anger.
"I was on night shift when the whole thing went down - so no, I didn't see the guy."
"Enough!" Simon interrupted, "Let's not get into this here. Jim, are you telling me that the Chopec are the ones that kidnapped Sandburg?"
"Yes," Jim was looking over the second page now, his face pale and tight, "And they did it to save him from me - he's been…confiscated."
"For crying out loud, Jim, he's a human being, not some toy of yours," Rafe snapped before anyone else could get into it. Jim looked up sadly and nodded.
"I know that. I guess I wasn't treating him that way though. The Chopec are trying to teach me a lesson."
"How did they know about this anyway?" Rhonda frowned, "I mean, they come from Peru, right? They can't have people living here, watching us can they?"
"no," Jim sighed, "they are a very spiritual people. they would have been watching the spirit plane. i guess that they saw something they didn't like and decided to protect Sandburg from me."
The soft words were hard to hear, but all the more credible for it. People shifted and looked at each other sidelong, communicating as only a close team could.
"Maybe you'd better explain the Sentinel stuff to us properly," Rhonda said a last, "And then we'll know what to do next."
Jim looked at Simon, who nodded his agreement and got up to shut the door. It was going to be a long morning.
Two very long months passed. Once Jim had explained the idea of a Sentinel and the role that Blair played in using the gifts Jim had found himself even further out of favour with his colleagues than before. They could not understand why Jim resented the help and expertise that Blair lavished upon him at every moment. Jim could not find the words to explain it either. It seemed petty to be whining that he wanted Blair to be his friend and Guide, but that was how Jim felt. His lack of words for the explanation made Jim angry and as usual he focussed that anger on his absent partner.
In the meantime, the Sentinel side of things settled down to a low level. Jim found that using his senses on the job was possible, but difficult, requiring a lot of energy and concentration. He was also ambushed once or twice in his own home by products he'd bought that were not on Blair's approved list. He'd bought them in a hurry; not having the time to go across town to the stores that Blair also approved and had suffered skin reactions and spikes as a result.
Simon had done his best to help, staying with Jim when he had a bad reaction and replacing the items that caused it with something from the list that Blair kept in a folder on his desk. Each time he hit Jim with a look that shouted 'grow up'. Jim had grit his teeth and accepted the censure, going into the lists in more detail to ensure further spikes didn't occur.
The folder was actually an accordion file that had everything you could imagine in there. Blair had put a lot of time, effort and observation into creating and maintaining this list. Jim felt a little ashamed that he hadn't noticed how dedicated Blair had been to the Sentinel and he worried that his sojourn with the Chopec would make Blair less inclined to care for the Sentinel in the future. He didn't mention that concern to anyone, preferring not to hear that his friends and colleagues hoped the same. The few times that Jim had sounded Simon out on the subject had shown that his boss was still intending to urge Blair to take a position in the PD with another department.
It was nearing Blair's birthday, and Jim was missing his friend more than ever when the second fax arrived. It was addressed to Simon again, and it requested that the Captain release Jim from his duties for two months so he could return to the Chopec and undertake some training of his own. Simon had fixed Jim with a steady look for a long minute, then nodded, authorising the leave to start whenever Jim could book a flight.
To the rest of the PD and the world in general the team in Major Crimes had wrapped up Blair's abduction case quietly. They had filed evidence from a protected source that Blair had been taken out of the country - final destination unknown. Jim's leave would close the case down as he went to retrieve his partner, acting on information from a foreign agency. The lies skirted the truth quite handily and Simon had no qualms signing off the reports.
Simon took him to the airport and dropped him off with another long look and a warning glare. He hugged Jim firmly and told him to 'pass it on to the kid' before heading for the exit, cigar firmly between his teeth. If Jim screwed up in Peru they wouldn't be seeing Sandburg again. Jim had better not screw up.
Blair looked up from the baby he was singing to as Jim stepped out of the jungle. His friend didn't look too good - though he was fit and breathing easily from the hike in, his skin was pale and his eyes shadowed. Jim smiled at Blair, and Blair smiled back, not stopping the song. This little one had kept the village awake several nights in a row in typical baby fashion and they were all taking turns to soothe and quiet the baby in order to let the rest of them get some sleep. Guiro, who was coming to relieve Blair also spotted Jim and smiled, moving to meet the village Sentinel and direct him to Pico's hut firmly.
Blair kept his head down and his song going, not interfering when Jim protested, wanting to speak to his Guide first. Guiro was insistent and then backed up expertly by Sunacha, who appeared to lend weight to the argument, attracted by the slightly raised voices. Pico had told Blair in no uncertain terms that Enqueri was to have no contact with him unless Pico himself authorised it first. Though Blair was no longer a child of the village his respect and honest liking for the Chief had urged him to comply. Pico had smiled at his 'son' warmly and rewarded him with a lesson in the village version of chess for the filial obedience.
Sunacha and Guiro converged on the singing Blair and he smiled up at them, letting the song peter out slowly. He'd been singing 'Smooth' to the babe, humming the guitar riffs in a deep voice. The song had probably guided Jim the last few miles - he'd been repeating it steadily for an hour, keeping his voice low and hypnotic to keep the babe asleep on his chest. He was resting just outside its parents hut, sitting on a grass mat they had placed for him and the other volunteers.
"And how am I supposed to match that? I am no songbird," Guiro mock scowled at his friend and Blair shrugged, a slight smile hovering over his lips.
"Tell it one of your stories - they always put me to sleep," he suggested cheekily and Guiro took the babe with a reluctant chuckle. He shushed mindlessly at the little bundle and rocked from foot to foot, glaring at Blair all the while. The young man wasn't worried - he'd seen worse from Simon Banks and Jim.
"Be off with you young Shaman," he growled, "Lest I forget myself."
Sunacha extended a hand and pulled Blair to his feet, taking his weight in an effort to relieve the pressure on his still swollen and very painful foot and ankle. He had saved the mother of this babe while she was gathering wild grain, taking the strike of the snake that was meant for her. Sunacha had spent days at his side, plying him with remedies and what comforts he could give. He didn't remember much beyond wild extremes of heat and cold, followed by an abundance of pain. His foot was still wrapped in the Chopec version of anti-venom and he could not bear much weight on his foot at all.
He slid onto his grass mat with a thankful sigh and suffered Sunacha's touch on his bandages stoically. His mentor smiled and offered him water before urging him to sleep.
"What about Enqueri?" Blair fretted, "I should at least say hello. He looked so tired…"
"Your father will attend to his needs tonight and give him a bed in the men's hut. You promised…" Sunacha trailed off when Blair held up a hand sharply. Even flat on his back and exhausted, Sunacha had learned his student had a truly formidable will.
"I keep true to my promise," Blair said softly, "I only want the best for my friend."
"You are a good man, Andarko," Sunacha patted his shoulder, "Rest now. In the morning Pico will bring your friend for a short visit. And in the evening you may sit with your Sentinel for a time before you sleep."
Nodding his acceptance, Blair closed his eyes, giving in to the fatigue that was still dogging his heels in the wake of the venom. The wolf was back to full health and stole into the hut to sleep with him, as it had for the last few nights. Blair found the spirit animal's presence to be very soothing and curled around it, carefully propping his swollen ankle on his good one.
He awoke an hour past sunrise and Sunacha helped him deal with his morning ritual before propping him in the doorway comfortably. He ate breakfast automatically, eyes scanning the movement of the village eagerly, looking for his friend. Guiro and the hunters stopped by briefly, teasing him yet again about his clumsiness and he rolled his eyes, trading good-natured insults with them until they were ready to leave. Several of the village mothers stopped by with their children, arranging for Blair to watch them later in the day - he was as popular as ever wit the children in the village, and his status as non ambulatory invalid had curtailed his food gathering duties..
Sunacha returned with plant fibres for Blair to weave, stating that he needed new mats and several members of the tribe could do with new baskets. They would trade some of their daily food gathering duty for the new items and Blair grinned. His skill at the weaving gave him a creditable trade now that he was laid up.
Pico appeared as Blair was contemplating crawling into the hut for some more water. Sunacha had left to forage and would not be back until the evening. Jim was following close behind, his eyes a little bewildered. Whatever Pico had said to the Sentinel was not what the man was expecting, that much was certain.
"Son, where is your water?" Pico scolded, "Surely Sunacha did not leave you without?"
The wiry man went into the hut and retrieved a water skin for Blair. He held up the one beside him sheepishly.
"I drained it this morning," he confessed, "I am thirsty today."
Seeing as his appetite for water or food had been low since the snakebite and they had to force victuals on him, Pico's large smile was excusable.
"Excellent," Pico crowed, "I will see that you have ample on hand. Do you think a few of your mother's nut breads will be welcome too? You know she worries about you."
"They will be welcome, Father," Blair nodded his acceptance with a smile and Pico strode off, waving Jim to sit down near his friend.
"You ok, Chief?" Jim asked in English and Blair nodded, shifting a little for comfort.
"Yeah, I'm fine. You look kinda tired though - have you been all right? Senses not acting up?" he asked, putting a hand out. Jim leaned away a little to avoid the touch and Blair dropped his hand back to his lap, hurt but trying to hide it as annoyance marred Jim's face.
"You know, there's more to me than the Sentinel, Sandburg," he snapped, "We used to be friends. Do you remember that, or was it all just a front to get closer to the Sentinel?"
As soon as the words were out of his mouth Jim regretted them. Blair paled even further, his pallor a shocking contrast under the deep tan. He watched as pain and misery flooded Blair's face before he dropped his head and let the braids in his hair swing forward to hide his face.
"I remember," he said in a low voice, "But Jim the friend left a long time ago - he got tired of me real quick. As long as the Sentinel needs a Guide I'll do my job to the best of my abilities. I guess the Sentinel is tired of his current Guide as well."
Before Jim could do more than blink as the pain filled words pierced his heart, Pico was back. He took one look at his son and rounded on Jim, ordering him back to the men's hut or out of the village until the sunset. He stood deliberately between Sentinel and Guide, glaring until Jim got up and trudged away.
Jim paced the men's hut, his thoughts in turmoil. It had never occurred to him that Blair felt that way. He was tired of the observation and tests, sure, but not tired of Blair. He'd missed his friend sorely - and that sense of loss had added an edge to his feelings. That Blair had also been suffering - had also been missing Jim had never occurred to the Sentinel. Some detective he'd turned out to be!
He thought over Blair's words once more and a second thought hit him. Despite the anger and distance Jim had put between them Blair had stayed out of a sense of loyalty to the Sentinel. Jim felt like banging his head on the wall. How had he missed that? Loyalty did not exist without some remnant of friendship - duty alone was not strong enough to weather the trials that Blair had faced. How had he been so damn blind?
Calling himself several kinds of fool, Jim turned to go and find Blair when Pico's orders rang in his ears. The Chief had welcomed him back last night. He had been sincerely glad to see the tribe's Sentinel, Jim was sure of that. However, he had informed the Sentinel that Andarko was off limits unless a member of the tribe was present until Sunacha gave his approval. Pico had outlined the rituals of courtship for the Sentinel, much as a father would for a possible suitor for his daughter.
Jim groaned and sank onto the grass mat he had been given. Incacha had once told him that if there had been a suitable Guide in the tribe, Jim would be expected to court the man, proving his worthiness and loyalty. A part of the Ranger had been very glad that there was no one suitable, not looking forward to taking the time away from his mission to follow such an old ritual. Now that the tribe had a Guide - who was apparently considered the son of the Chief, no less - the Sentinel was expected to follow the old ways. He would have to prove that he could provide for his Guide, physically and spiritually, while his Guide proved that he was capable of managing the Sentinel's gifts.
Jim rubbed a hand through his hair and stared out at the village before sending his hearing over to where he knew Blair was sitting, half hoping that his Guide would be whispering to him as the young man so often did when they were separated but within Jim's hearing range.
"…prove that I failed him," Blair was saying in a quiet voice. There was pain in his tone, but not anything that came from his physical injury. There was also a rhythmic rustling noise underlying his words but Jim dismissed it to concentrate on his Guide.
"Andarko, the Great City has many hazards, just as our home here does. Even Sunacha cannot remember everything without some aids," Pico's voice replied soothingly, "Enqueri cannot expect you to remember every hazard and remedy without help."
"It made him feel like an animal, trapped for my amusement. Nothing more than a pet," Blair protested hotly, "I never wanted that!"
"I have seen your enthusiasm for learning, Andarko," Pico laughed, "And while you are often insatiable, you are never rude. The tribe enjoys your scrutiny and questions. You bring fresh life to old tasks. The women tell me they never laughed so hard when you first began to weave with them."
"I still have so much to learn," Blair sighed, "I wish you had not called him so soon, Father. I will only fail him again. This time there will be no recovery - I can feel it."
There was a sharp slapping noise and his Guide gasped in pain, but made no other noise of protest.
"You will indeed fail if you think so," Pico's voice was sharp and rousing. After a moments silence, while Jim ground his teeth in anger that his friend had been hit like a recalcitrant child, Blair spoke again, his voice sure.
"Forgive me Father. You are right. I will not fail my Sentinel. I will stop wishing for the friendship of the past. I will move forward."
Pico chuckled and Jim swore he could hear the wild braids and curls that his friend wore being ruffled.
"Do not shut yourself off to friendship, son. It is possible that too, will revive in time. Now eat those nut cakes so I may tell your mother that you have done so. Or she'll be down here to feed you."
Blair chuckled and Jim heard the sound of eating, interspersed with the rustling noise that was so soothing and rhythmic…
Sunacha frowned at the still form and sighed. The Sentinel was indeed a stubborn man. He had spotted the too still form on his return to the village and hurried to Enqueri's side. As he had feared, the Sentinel had fallen into the void. Sunacha had tried all he knew - admittedly not much, but his pupil Andarko was most giving of his information of Sentinel lore - but he had failed to rouse the man from the void.
Looking up, Sunacha spotted several of the village teens - young men that would soon join the occupants of the men's hut upon completion to their own manhood trials. He called for them to fetch Andarko - warning them to carry the young Shaman carefully lest his injury cause him pain.
In a matter of moments Andarko was at his side and Sunacha moved back. He watched his pupil look over the frozen Sentinel, ignoring the tribe's Shaman and the watching youths. After a moment he leaned forward and placed his hand on Enqueri's chest, bringing the Sentinel's hand up to mirror the posture, holding it in place over his own heart. He spoke in a soft low tone, which was compelling none the less.
Enqueri took a deep breath and blinked, focussing on Andarko's face instantly, his eyes warming as they focussed on the Guide's face. Andarko kept speaking softly until he was sure Enqueri had returned from the void and then let go of Enqueri's hand, removing his own from the Sentinel's chest.
"What happened?" Enqueri scowled at the watching youth and turned his icy blue eyes on his Guide. Andarko shuffled back awkwardly, trying to sit comfortably.
"You zoned on hearing," he replied, "What were you listening to?"
Sunacha wondered how the Guide had known that without being at his Sentinel's side when the man had first fallen into the void. Sunacha was no veteran Guide, but the techniques he had learned should have pulled Enqueri back after a few minutes. There was no clue that the Shaman could see to indicate what had caught the Sentinel's attention.
"You," the answer was simple, "You were making a noise - it had a rhythm to it…"
"I was weaving mats," Andarko grinned, "You were hearing the fronds rustle as I wove."
"How did you know it was something Enqueri heard that pulled him into the void?" Sunacha asked curiously, and Andarko lit up. Sunacha had seen this before - ask the man a question about his Sentinel and his energy levels soared. He was truly proud of his Sentinel's ability and loved to tell people how accomplished the man was. It was a pity that the Sentinel didn't understand his Guide's enthusiasm.
"His posture told me - Enqueri tilts his head in a certain manner when concentrating on his hearing. It's a distinctive posture to me," Andarko caught the slight frown on Jim's face and stopped speaking, shutting down in front of them all. He bowed his head and bit his lip, chastising himself for the display of enthusiasm. Jim wasn't a lab rat or performing monkey to be paraded and boasted over.
"That is quite a feat," Sunacha didn't miss the frown and sent one of his own to the thick headed Sentinel, "You must have spent many moons learning your Sentinel's behaviours."
"It was the only way I could think of to keep him safe," Blair said softly, "In the early days we were often apart and I came upon him in the void once or twice. If I couldn't discover what had called him there I couldn't help him recover."
"Hmmm," Sunacha got up off the floor, "I think it is time you returned to our hut, young Shaman. It is time for your medicines and you need the rest."
At his signal the youths helped Blair up and away, leaving the Sentinel behind. Let the man reflect on that piece of information, and see if his behaviour tonight was any different. In the mean time his pupil needed to sleep and perhaps eat. His slowly returning appetite would be tempted by the fruits that Sunacha had gathered on his way back to the village - they were Andarko's favourites.
Jim came to visit again that evening, sitting where Sunacha indicated and looking his friend over keenly. Though Blair was still very pale and shaky, he was recovering from the snake venom quite satisfactorily. He was lightly muscled and the scars of manhood were raised bands on his biceps. The wolf rippled on his pectoral muscle and the wild tangle of curls and braids, combined with the neatly trimmed beard, gave him an otherworldly air.
"Do you wish to count his teeth and ribs?" Sunacha asked with starch and Jim jumped, startled. He met Blair's eyes shame facedly. His friend was smiling a little, but made no move to direct Sunacha's attention away from Enqueri.
"Sorry, Sandburg," Jim apologised gruffly, "How did you manage to get bitten by a snake?"
"He was protecting the mother of the babe you saw him singing to last night," Sunacha retorted, "The snake was angered by the disturbance of its resting place and attacked. She fell trying to get away and Andarko ran to pull her up. The snake bit him instead and he killed it with his knife. For three days we fought the spirits for him."
"Three days," Jim choked, "It was that bad?"
"It was," Sunacha confirmed. Blair was looking out at the village, apparently ignoring them both as he had been instructed to do by his mentor before Jim was allowed to approach. He was not to speak to his Sentinel - Sunacha would do that for him. The upside of this was that Blair didn't have to deal with Jim's accusations of this morning; the downside was that the Shaman would answer Jim's questions too honestly for Blair's liking. He didn't want all his faults and errors paraded in front of Jim, and at the same time feared that Sunacha would make him out to be more than he was.
Jim clenched his fists, but said nothing else on the subject. His Guide was not jungle trained, and that showed in this incident. Sunacha glared at him, as if reading his mind, and Jim thought it best to change the topic.
"Simon sends a hug," he told Blair, frustrated by the rituals that were preventing him from touching his Guide, "The whole team was frantic when we realised you were taken. The Academy is holding your place for you - you'll graduate with the next class when you come home."
"If he comes home," Sunacha replied, "It is not yet certain that Andarko can be spared to return to the Great City with you. The tribe can use him here."
"He is my Guide," Jim growled, the tone low and menacing. Sunacha merely blinked at him complacently, though Blair was tense and clearly struggling to stay silent. The elder Shaman swallowed a sigh - subtlety wasn't working - he would have to be blunt.
"He was," Sunacha corrected, "You must earn that right again. I notice that you make no effort to reclaim the friend that remained loyal to you despite numerous attacks and your betrayal of him. I notice that you show no concern for his comfort or well-being. I notice you do not inquire about his time with the tribe. The Sentinel needs a Guide, that is true, but does Enqueri need a friend? If not, then any Guide will do and one will be selected from the warriors for you. Perhaps one of the warriors in the Great City will do better than Andarko."
"Is that what you want, Chief?" Jim burst out in English, "Are things that far gone?"
Blair bit his lips and beseeched Sunacha with a look. After a long moment, pleased with the Sentinel's reaction, Sunacha nodded.
"I want to come home with you," Blair replied in English as well, "I want to be your friend and Guide again. I'm sorry I failed you Jim…"
Sunacha clapped a hand over his student's mouth, glaring at him and Blair dipped his eyes, submitting to the other man's censure.
"He is not a child!" Enqueri snapped, "By what right do you treat him so?"
"By right of mentor and guardian. Know this, Enqueri. The spirit world has shown me a threat to my pupil - one that was killing him as slowly as the poison of a rotting wound. That threat was you."
Blair heaved out from under Sunacha's hand, protesting wordlessly. Guiro was there in an instant, grabbing Jim by the arm and pulling him away. The Sentinel listened numbly as Blair hissed angrily at his mentor, disputing the mans words.
"The last time he was told he was a threat to me I died! He rejected me completely! Do you wish him to do that again? It's possible that one of the warriors of the Great City can Guide him but they cannot guard him! He is no threat to me! I am safe with him!"
"Do you deny the exhaustion of your soul? Your spirit animal was suffering - and that was only a reflection of your pain. Both Incacha and I…"
"Sunacha, he is afraid! His whole life people have called him a freak and told him his gifts were wrong and unnatural! He struggles to accept his gifts even as the Great City places demands upon them!"
"Did you call him a freak? Did you tell him his gifts were unnatural? Did you urge him to reject them?"
"No," Blair's sigh was as clear as if he was standing next to Jim, "I called him a throwback, and I made him feel like a freak by my watching and testing. But I never told him to reject his gifts. I only wanted to help him control and accept them."
Jim sank onto the floor of the men's hut - listening hard.
"Tell me young Shaman, if you had not watched Enqueri, do you think he would still live?"
"No," Blair's voice was firm, "There are so many poisons and dangers in the Great City. You or I would not feel them but the Sentinel is vulnerable. Cleaning his own home could kill him if he uses the wrong combinations. I only wanted to make him safe. I have failed though. Perhaps it is time I stood aside and let another take my place. One he will feel more comfortable with."
Sunacha didn't reply and after a while Jim realised Blair was going to sleep, his heart slowing and calming as his body relaxed.
Determined to prove that Blair was still very much wanted and needed in his life, Jim woke early the next day and joined the hunters. The Chopec hunted fairly regularly, though not every hunt was successful. They made sure to catch a variety of game, so as not to over hunt one particular type of food and upset the eco system around them. Enqueri was quick to pick up the trail of the pig they wanted to kill today and led them further afield than they usually went. With a Sentinel amongst them the prey was assured, so the hunt went faster.
They killed two pigs and Enqueri captured a small living monkey as well. It reminded him of Larry, the way it had harangued and teased them, shadowing their hunt with unusual curiosity. The hunters returned to the village and Jim secured the monkey's rear leg with a leather leash, and then inspected it for parasites. Satisfied that his gift was clean and healthy, he headed over to Sunacha's hut.
The Shaman was squatting by the fire, roasting a few birds, their feathers stacked off to one side to be made into decoration and weapons for the tribe. The Chopec recycled everything - there was always a second or third use for an object.
"You were successful in your hunt, Sentinel?" Sunacha asked and Jim nodded. He felt a low level animosity to Incacha's replacement that he couldn't quite explain.
"As were you, Shaman," he replied politely and Sunacha chuckled. Always the Sentinel forgot that the Guide was as skilled in survival as he - though maybe he had not been trained the same way. Sentinel's came with a fair amount of natural arrogance to them, which could be hard to bear for the rest of the tribe. Guides had to have thick skins and sharp tongues if they were to spare their Sentinel from the tribes censure.
"Andarko felled these with his slingshot yesterday," he corrected Jim. The detective swallowed his surprise. He knew that Blair had a good aim on him - he had thrown enough base balls, rocks and basket balls to save their hides and hit his mark every time - but he hadn't realised that the ability extended to slingshots.
Seeing as Sunacha had brought his Guide into the discussion, Jim now felt he could ask to see Blair, and did so respectfully. The Shaman eyed the monkey that was sitting relatively quietly at the end of the leash and frowned. It was not common for the Sentinel to bring live food to the Guide - meat that had already been dressed was the preferred gift.
"Andarko, are you awake yet?" Sunacha called and Blair made a sleepy noise of assent. There was a slow, heavy shuffling noise and Blair came into sight, crawling to the door and sitting with a sigh. The swelling on his ankle had gone down a little, though the skin around the bandage was still a very angry looking colour, mottled and livid.
"Hey Chief," Jim dropped into English and sat down near his friend. As this was their third meeting, Blair was allowed to talk to him, though the conversation would be very short. Jim didn't mind that too much, as Blair was looking still very tired. He seemed to have gained a little colour, much to Jim's relief. The man knew that there was no Western medicine to be had for miles and that snakebite was often deadly despite the Shaman and tribes best efforts. He would have to trust Sunacha's skill to care for Blair.
"Hey, Jim," Blair smiled, "Who's your friend?"
"He was watching the hunt this morning. I thought you'd like to meet him. He reminds me a little of Larry - the same manic energy," Jim grinned and Blair chuckled. The sound fascinated the monkey, who had been looking around quite fearlessly. It crawled closer to Blair and sniffed at him while the young man sat still and watched it. Though it was a wild animal, the monkey was not afraid of its surroundings or the humans that had captured it. Perhaps it was the smell of plants from inside the hut that had the animal so docile - it was waiting its chance to get inside and eat.
"He's not timid," Blair chuckled as the monkey reached out cautiously to sniff his extended hand over. Jim produced a couple of fruits he had picked and Blair fed them to the monkey, both men chuckling as it ate very tidily and then crawled closer to Blair to take the next piece.
"Andarko!" Sunacha said sharply, "It will be dirty and carry who knows what sickness!"
"Enqueri would never bring me something harmful," Blair replied serenely, his confidence in his Sentinel unwavering for all to see. Jim basked in the approval for a moment. Maybe this courtship thing was a good idea - they could rebuild the partnership together without the pressures of the job. Give themselves a solid foundation for when they returned to Cascade.
"You're not keeping it!" Sunacha sounded scandalised and Blair shared a grin with Jim. His eyes sparkled with amusement as he began to plead his case with his mentor.
The monkey stayed. Perhaps it liked the idea that the humans would feed it daily, or it was just curious about the tribe. Normally Blair wouldn't dream of taming a wild animal, but when he gave it an opportunity to escape two days after Jim had caught it, the monkey merely climbed a nearby tree and returned bearing fruits for its 'owner'. It seemed it had decided to stay and Blair didn't want to drive it off with cruelty - the only method he could think of to send it back to its family.
Jim and Blair had christened the simian Nosy for its funny little quirks and noises. It would ride on Jim's shoulder or sit at Blair's side, as the young man was still unable to put any weight on his foot. Jim had brought his Guide a thick branch that he had shaped as a walking stick and Blair used it to hop short distances - mainly for comfort stops. Nosy disliked the jolting movement when Blair was forced to hop in that manner and preferred to walk along on the ground, chittering encouragement.
Blair spent the time between Jim's visits playing with the monkey and teaching it to retrieve items at his command. Nosy became his hands and legs for a little while, and the tribe were amused at his antics. If he occasionally got into the wrong place and caused mischief, Blair was effusive in his apologies and offers of restitution.
Once Sunacha realised how useful Nosy was when it came to foraging for plants in hard to reach places he resigned himself to its presence at his pupil's side. Nosy slept with Blair and spent the majority of his day at Blair's side, riding with Jim for short trips only. The Shaman even petted the monkey when he thought no one was looking. Blair would smile and pretend not to notice.
Jim meanwhile continued to bring gifts and see to his Guide's ease. Whenever he was not on a sanctioned visit, Pico and the tribe had work for him to do. Each task had some element that had use for the Sentinel's gifts. When he mentioned them to Blair, his Guide would suggest a strategy or skill for him to use. At first Jim was irritated that his Guide assumed that he could not do without his advice, but eventually he realised that Blair was doing what he had always done - worrying over his health and comfort and trying to protect him. It was the action of a dedicated Guide, and a loyal friend.
Meanwhile, the courtship was proceeding well. Pico seemed pleased at his advances to his son, and the care Jim was taking to ensure Blair's recovery was as comfortable and painless as possible. Jim would offer a strong arm to Blair whenever the young man wanted to move from one place to another, and ensure he was comfortable when he settled.
At one community dinner, the tale telling turned to Blair's manhood rite - the killing of the jaguar that was stalking the child. The warriors acted it out and at the end the tanned hide was displayed for all to see. Blair was presented with the hide - it had been properly cured and the claws and teeth made into a necklace fit for a Shaman of his stature - and Jim had sat in silent astonishment.
His first reaction was fear. The manhood rites usually involved some danger and risk, but they didn't require the young men to take on a fully-grown and lethal jungle predator. His friend, his Guide could have been killed.
Jim looked up and met Blair's knowing blue eyes. His friend had read his thoughts so easily - he knew Jim so well - and was waiting for the lecture that he knew would come. Jim looked over at Sunacha and Pico and realised that they too were waiting for a reaction from him. The question was, would he let the fear govern his response, or would he be able to acknowledge the bravery and resourcefulness of his Guide.
"Do you think that move will work in the Great City?" Jim asked, a weak smile on his face. Blair chuckled, as did several members of the tribe. Even Nosy made the sound that was its version of a chuckle.
"Where do you think I learnt it? It was designed for two footed prey, not four."
This earned a round of approving laughs and banter as the community meal disbanded for the night. Jim waited until most people had left and then got up to help Blair stand. Between his support and that of his walking stick, Blair could make his own way to the Shaman's hut.
"This is very hard," Jim confessed in a low voice, "Chief…"
"I know Jim," Blair sighed, "It's hard for me too. We have to relearn everything. We need to learn to give each other some autonomy in the partnership - to not be so proprietary of each other."
"I…I'm doing the best I can," Jim sighed, easing his friend to the grass mat he slept on and ruffling Nosy's fur, "I'll never be happy that you're going into danger."
"I never was happy when you went into danger either," Blair pointed out, stroking the tail that was draped over his chest, the rest of Nosy cuddled into his neck, "But danger comes to those in Major Crimes. I could no more stand back and let you go ahead without me, than I could stand back and let Miccha be bit, or Sengai be eaten that day. It's part of who I am."
"I understand," Jim nodded. He glanced down at the ankle that was slowly subsiding and returning to a more normal colour. It was not the first injury his friend had received and it wouldn't be the last. Jim just wished it that way.
"I'm glad to see that getting better. When it's completely healed maybe you and I could go for a walk. Talk things over properly. No anger or fear, just honesty."
"I know just the place," Blair promised. Before they could say any more Sunacha was in the hut, fussing over his medicines and kicking the Sentinel out. Blair sighed - this courtship ritual was hard. Just as they seemed to make progress they were interrupted. For the first time since Blair had met him, Jim Ellison - the jaws on life personified - was offering to talk. Someone buy a lotto ticket.
With Nosy scampering through the trees above their heads, Blair led Jim along the jungle path to the stream and rock where he meditated. Though he still leaned on his walking stick for support, and could not run or move quickly, Blair was able to walk some distance with only minor discomfort. He was healing rapidly now that he had regained some mobility - there was nothing more wearing than enforced idleness.
Jim paused to take his boots off and his socks as Blair splashed into the stream and climbed awkwardly onto his rock. He hissed when his ankle complained and settled gingerly on his back, raising the injury by bending his legs and resting his calf on his knee.
"You're still wearing your Western clothes. I only just realised," Blair said in surprise as Jim joined him on the rock, sensitive fingers tracing the painful ankle in light soothing caresses.
"I carried their weapons, but I never adopted their dress," Jim said quietly, his eyes focussed on something only he could see on Blair's ankle, "I was still on mission when I crashed here."
Blair sighed blissfully as his ankle calmed its protest and relaxed against the rock. Jim left his place near Blair's foot and went to lie on his back as well, his head resting next to Blair's. They looked up at the canopy in silence for a few minutes, then Jim rolled enough to bury his face in Blair's hair and neck, one arm coming up enough to rub his fingers lightly over Blair's biceps, tracing the manhood scars.
"I love the way you smell," Jim mumbled, "I don't even have to dial up for it now."
"That's because I haven't been anywhere near Western hygiene in months," Blair chuckled lightly. Nosy dropped onto the rock and chattered at them before climbing over Jim to sit near them both. Blair brought his hand up to tug at Jim's hair, picking over it like a bird. Nosy joined in, grumbling under his breath.
"What are you doing?" Jim asked, half amused, half asleep. The attention was odd, but soothing. It felt good to be Blair's sole object of attention - not oppressive as it had been. The Sentinel could detect the affection and comfort being offered in the contact and soaked it up greedily.
"Social grooming," Blair told him, and Jim sighed, pressing his face closer for a moment.
"Can I talk to you? I need to say some stuff," he said after a while and Blair nodded, knowing that his friend needed him to listen, not speak.
"When I broke faith with you and read the first chapter of the thesis I…I started to think that maybe the friendship we had was a front…so you could get closer to your subject and get all that data. I started watching how you watched me all the time, and the rules and the way you monitored everything in the loft…you don't just have a couple of guidelines, there's a whole big file in your room - I've seen you go through it…I felt like you were just playing a part all this time and it made me angry…so when the thesis came up I really felt like you were going to leave…it was the end…but you gave it up and I figured you just didn't want to share it yet…you were joining the cops to make sure you could stay close…and when you got tired of me you'd just up and leave…I felt like Jim Ellison didn't exist for you - just the Sentinel."
Blair felt tears run down his face. He'd totally failed his Sentinel yet again. By keeping his research under wraps and not discussing every conclusion and hypothesis he head, he'd made Jim feel like there was a conspiracy in force - as if the detective was his own personal lab rat. When all he'd been trying to do was make Jim's quality of life a bit better.
"I…" Blair bit his lip and took a steadying breath, "Jim, do you remember wearing that new shirt to Steven's birthday party - right after the chapter thing? It was that dark green colour. Remember how you spiked at the party and we spent a day trying to get you back on line and comfortable? The spike was caused by the dye in the shirt. Your skin absorbed the chemicals and caused a reaction. So I spilt whiteout on the sleeve of the shirt and replaced it with that purple one…because the dye was a different type and it wouldn't hurt you just by wearing it. If the dye in a shirt can hurt you…there's so much in Cascade that could hurt you, maybe even kill you. I can't remember everything - the chemicals, the food additives, the plants and dust…I need to keep a record of it because it changes and so do your reactions. I knew you were watching me…I knew that you were angry and impatient with me so I tried to be the good tenant and stay out of your way…keep a low profile in your home…but Jim, it's your quality of life I'm talking about. I can't control what you come in contact with on the job, but I can give you a safe place to relax and recharge. I can't just stop doing that…it's my job…you're my friend and Sentinel…Jim, for me I only ever see one person when I look at you. That person is Jim Ellison. Jim Ellison is a man with an incredible gift and he asked me for help - to give him control. The only way I know to do that is to watch over him and give him whatever advice and assistance I can. I do it not because he is a Sentinel - though in the beginning it was like that - now I do it for my friend. For a good and honourable man who is sometimes overwhelmed by his gift."
Jim shivered and rolled closer, responding to the misery rolling off his Guide. Things were becoming clearer for him now. Instead of asking Blair what was going on and actually listening to the explanation he'd pulled his usual routine of anger and impatience. His friend and Guide had hung in there, doing what was right with a determination that was almost scary. Instead of pushing hard to get through the walls Jim was erecting, Blair had stood back, giving in to the unspoken request for some small area of space. That mistaken allowance of privacy had slowly driven them further and further apart.
"I want full access to the files," Jim said, "I want to be able to ask questions and get clear answers and be pushed into talking and listening. You don't take no for an answer any more. I never want to feel like this again. I never want to let you down. I never want to forget my friend."
"You got it," Blair nodded, putting his foot down and rolling a little closer, "I should have done that from the start…"
"No more blame," Jim hugged him awkwardly and then sat up, smiling at his friend. The lines of worry and tension were easing from his face, like clouds melting away from the sun. It was one of the most beautiful things Blair had ever seen. Nosy scolded when it lost contact with his hair and jumped on Blair's chest instead.
"No more blame, or guilt," Jim ignored the monkey, "A fresh start. We learn from our mistakes and get on with it."
"You got it," Blair promised. Jim grinned and was about to say something else when he turned his head, listening. Blair put a hand on his arm automatically, shushing Nosy with the other.
"Sunacha is looking for you," Jim said and slithered off the rock. He steadied his friend down, taking his weight off the bad foot and half carrying him to the dry land. He sat down to put his boots and socks back on, then stood up again. Blair accepted the offered arm and leaned on it rather than his walking stick. With Nosy leaping about in the trees over their heads they made their way back to the village.
When Blair started running again, he and Jim were sent out with a group of young men to teach them tracking skills. While Jim was able to show them the skill itself, Blair taught them the use of all senses to ensure that they found the track and then kept with it. They spent two nights out in the jungle with their students before returning to the village, the partnership in balance once more. Nosy went with them of course, providing them with a target to track on occasion, though Jim made it very clear that the young men were not to injure or scare the monkey in any way. It was Blair's and therefore Jim's in a way that was almost like marriage - whatever the Sentinel owned was the Guide's and whatever the Guide owned was the Sentinel's.
The bond was closer than ever before. Jim had learned to ask why and to accept the answer he was given. Blair learned to let him dispute the answer if Jim felt that his friend was working from a faulty assumption, and also to trust Jim to know what was a comfortable risk and what was not. The give and take was hard won at first, but as the last few weeks passed it became easier.
Sunacha and Pico were walking around with smug looks on their faces. Though the Sentinel and Guide had successfully courted each other the two men still lived apart. Jim was once more reaching his hearing out at night to monitor his Guide's heartbeat, and Blair was unconcerned at the lack of privacy this gave him. Sunacha had told his pupil that he was ready to return to the Great City, his training nearly complete. Only one more ceremony remained, and that was one for both Sentinel and Guide.
This left Blair with the question of his future. He had no qualms about returning to Cascade to work with Jim, but would he really have a place to go back to? Simon aside, there was no reason for the Academy to have held his place open for so long. The top brass at the PD would have surely closed down the offer they had once made - after all he'd been missing for quite some time now.
Jim had the answers to those questions, but Sunacha had forbidden him from speaking of their future together until this ceremony was over. They would leave the village at the end of it - head back toward Lima and on to Cascade from there. Jim had booked two open-ended tickets back for them, and cleared with Lima authorities the issue of Blair's passport. He had brought that in his pack for the young man, as well as a change in clothes. Sunacha had instructed that Jim discuss the future only when they were journeying back to Cascade and Blair had stopped asking about it.
Nosy would remain with Sunacha - Blair had already arranged that with the Shaman. Jim hoped the monkey would go along with that plan - he didn't see how they could manage to keep it in Cascade, though he would miss the funny little thing. In the meantime the two of them were engaged in various duties for the tribe, hunting further afield than most parties went, using Jim's senses to isolate game movement to their best advantages, as well as tracking the movement of other humans through the Chopec's pass.
Jim was very concerned when he picked up signs of a slowly moving convey of Westerners through the pass, moving heavy vehicles through the territory and surveying the resources as they did. He didn't want another Cyclops Oil incident. They cut short their patrol to return to the village and report to Pico, though Blair seemed less concerned than Jim.
"Yes," Pico confirmed, "That is normal for this season."
"Do they take resources from the land? Is this a problem?" Jim asked, flicking a glance to his frowning Guide.
"No, it is not a problem, though I wish they would not damage the land so. The trail they follow is old and their machines get heavier each year to get along it," Pico sighed, "I was going to speak to you about this Andarko."
"Huh?" Jim frowned and Pico put a hand on his sons arm. Blair blushed in embarrassment and looked at the floor. Some of Jim's tension eased - whatever his Guide had done for the Chopec it had only benefited them.
"Andarko is Shaman to the Great City and Worldly Protector of the Chopec. When the great Eye began killing the tribe, Incacha led our warriors to the Great City for justice. You avenged the tribe well, Enqueri, but Andarko was not satisfied. He spoke to many people outside the tribe to ensure that our territory was protected for all time. He even sent some of those people here to ensure the tribe was pleased with his great gift. Now once a year these men come to ensure that the land is indeed untouched by any but us," Pico patted his son on the arm, "I am blessed to have such a cunning and wise son."
"Andarko?" Jim was still unsure what Pico meant. Blair smiled and expanded the information for his friend.
"I got the Chopec pass and territory declared a protect habitat. Basically I got the lands deeds, resources and titles legally turned over to the Chopec for all time. In a court of law - by international standards - the only people licensed to remove the resources of this land are the Chopec people and their properly designated representatives. At the moment that's you, Jim."
"Not you?" Jim frowned, wishing he'd thought of it himself, "And why didn't you tell me you were doing this?"
"You were still grieving. I set the company in Incacha's name - as a memorial. I'm named as a co-representative, but Pico or his successor holds the final say, as it should be," Blair smiled and Jim hugged him close. Incacha would be proud that the man he had chosen to pass the Way to have protected the tribe so adroitly.
"Those rules hold no sway here, but in your world we are protected," Pico completed the description.
Blair opened his eyes and released his posture as Jim splashed into the water. He smiled as his friend climbed up on the rock and got settled, with Nosy climbing down off his body and over to sit on Blair.
"How did you find the court cases?" Jim asked out of left field and Blair laughed. He should have known that Jim wouldn't rest until he was sure the Chopec were secure.
"I know some people in environmental law that owed me a favour. They took Cyclops Oil to court pro bono and the company paid a huge out of court settlement fee. I invested most of it on the market - low to medium risk stuff that paid decent dividends - and the rest went to the international court fees. The corporation was easy to set up, and the investments pay for the retaining fees of a law firm in Lima, who keep an eye on our interests. I get reports from them, and whenever the Uni had an expedition pass through I'd authorise one of my friends to go in and do a face-to-face interview. We also have the auditors on retainer - they do an annual inspection to ensure there has been no poaching of resources. That report comes straight to me, and a copy goes to the lawyers as well. Chopec Incorporated has you as the Chair and me as the Director. I didn't want to disturb your grief and then it was all over. I have all the files and documentation at the loft…"
"At home," Jim corrected, "You have the files at home."
"At home," Blair smiled, "And I was going to stop in while we were here. I deal with the paperwork and when I get stuck I ask those friends I told you about."
"Worldly Protector," Jim smiled gently and Blair flushed a little, laughing in embarrassment. He shook his head in dismissal and Jim frowned a little.
"Don't do that," he murmured, taking Blair's hand, "Don't put yourself down, or dismiss your worth to others. You've managed to protect the tribe - in fact you did it back before you'd even met them personally. You did it for me - because they were important to me."
"Yes," Blair said simply, "And because it was the right thing to do. Besides its been fun - there have even been a few royalties from Hollywood in it. Some of the territory is apparently very photogenic and because we registered the land internationally the film industry has to get permission to be on the land. The royalties supplement the investments and it's all tied up in a way to make the cash available to the Chopec in an emergency - like if there was a disaster or something."
"The tribe is lucky to have you. I'm lucky to have you too," Jim smiled and hugged his friend. Blair melted into the hug, revelling in the contact that had once been so rare. Nosy squirmed out from between them and glared for a moment before going down to the water for a drink. Jim didn't care - he had missed his Guide and friend for so long he was going to make the most of this quiet time. He knew that Cascade would make things busy again, and in the village there were constant demands on their time as well.
Nosy shrieked and landed on their heads, soaking them in the water that was running off its fur.
"Nosy!" Jim roared and the hug broke up as Blair leapt up and after the monkey. Jim went after him and tackled him bodily into the water, making sure that he took the impact and released Blair so the young man could rise to the surface as soon as he wanted to.
"That's it!" Blair yelled and ducked Jim before heading for the shrieking monkey on the shore. Jim emerged laughing and spluttering and set out in hot pursuit, the three of them tagging and jumping each other with good will.
Tonight they would sleep soundly and tomorrow they would begin the preparations for the reclaiming that would end with their departure from the village. Sunacha had already told Blair that he was to return in two years time, and Pico had extracted a similar promise from his adopted 'son'.
Jim looked through the firelight at his Guide. The man was smiling and glowing with health and good humour. Though Jim knew that Blair would be sad to leave the tribe and the family that had adopted him wholeheartedly, he also knew his friend and partner was eager to get back to Cascade and their life together there.
Nosy was riding Blair's shoulder - the little monkey had never been more than a tails length away from his Guide in the last few hours as if knowing that his human was leaving soon. Jim hoped the little guy would stay with the village, because he knew that if Blair asked him to he'd help clear the monkey through customs. He was fond of it as well and its antics were all in good fun. He would even make a space in the loft available to it should things go that far.
Blair was wearing the skin of the Jaguar he had killed and the necklace of claws and teeth that Jim was already defining as a cultural artefact to the Customs officers in his head. He also wore his newly washed hair in a mixture of braids and curls, decorated with a few feathers and beads. His face was painted in the Chopec custom and his knife - also a Cultural artefact, officer - was strapped in place as befitted a man ready to defend himself and his tribe. His skin was a healthy bronze and muscles rippled under his skin with each graceful movement.
Jim wore the bandanna he had brought for the trip and his hiking clothes. His pack was resting to one side of the fire - Blair's clothes were in there as well, though he wished he could take this bearded warriors Shaman back to Cascade to show Simon and the team at MC. Sunacha had brought the clothes that Blair had been wearing the day of his kidnapping, washed and folded neatly, for inclusion in the pack.
The tribe was making its farewell, laughter ringing out frequently as Blair eased the way with anecdotes and jokes. Pico had bound their hands together with chords at sundown, symbolising the bond of Sentinel and Guide, and then the warriors had tugged on Jim's arm while Pico, his family and Sunacha pulled on Blair, trying to part them The bonds had held firm though, and when Pico cut the bonds and they tried again to separate the two men they had held firm to each other.
Sunacha pronounced the spirit world satisfied and Pico had decreed that they had fulfilled the ritual and pleased the tribe. Both men had promised to return in two years time to the tribe, and that they would come earlier if the tribe had need of them. With the formal part of the evening over the feast had begun, followed by skill contests and wild tales and legends.
Dawn silvered the sky to the east and Blair came to Jim's side. The older man shouldered his pack as Blair picked up the basket of supplies that Pico and his family had given him. The feast continued in the Chopec tradition - ignoring the travellers as they left. The tribe only said goodbye to the dead, to say it to the living was considered a curse, and although they had been celebrating a departure it was never mentioned outright. Even the promise to return in two years time had been couched more as a date for the future than a journey to be completed.
Blair followed Jim easily, the scar on his ankle the only sign that he'd been at deaths door two months ago from the snakebite. When they had reached the rock where Blair meditated he swung away from the path long enough to change into the torn clothes he'd worn on the trip to the tribe and place a flowering vine across the rock as a promise of his return to Sunacha. He caught up with a few easy jogging steps and Jim smiled.
"So," Blair bounced as of old, "Now that we're on our journey you can tell me about Cascade. Do I really have a place at the Academy still?"
"Yeah Chief, you're all set. Can you wait until we camp tonight? I'll tell you everything then," Jim promised, his own eyes sparkling at the bounce and the renewed zest that he saw in his friend. He made himself a solemn vow not to do anything that would lessen or erase that bounce ever again.
"Ok," Blair mock pouted, "If I have to."
"You don't have to, Chief," Jim caught his shoulders lightly, meeting his eyes head on, "You never have to do anything you don't want to."
Blair smiled and hugged his friend, recognising the vow for what it was and responding the way Jim would understand best.
Jim grinned at his friend as he settled by the fire. Blair had been very patient all through the setting up of camp and dinner preparation. He'd killed a bird earlier that morning and carried the carcass on a stick over his shoulder, letting the blood settle in the head. While Jim had made the fire and secured the tiny camp Blair had dressed the bird and put it on a spit over the fire, then carved it up when it was ready for eating. They had fallen into an easy silence during the day's hike, pointing things of interest out silently, conversing in gestures and pats.
Now Blair was fixing Jim with a look that clearly said 'spill it'.
"Ok, ok," Jim held his hands up, "Sheesh."
Blair laughed and threw a fruit at Jim that the detective caught easily and bit into, humming in appreciation. Blair sprawled out on the ground and waited.
"Well, Chief, a lot has happened," Jim sighed, "First of all the place at the Academy is still open. Simon and I went down there when you first went missing, before the fax arrived and we gave them holy hell. Several of the recruits ended up in front of an ethics board and not all of them passed."
"Aw man," Blair rolled onto his front and hid his face in his arms, "I was handling it, Jim. Honest I was."
"I know you were," Jim said gently, "And while I was kinda pissed that you didn't come to me for help or advice I understand why you felt you couldn't or shouldn't. Simon was real mad too - but at me, not you. He and the guys at MC have been administering a solid round of Jim Ellison ass kicking … and it's really done me some good."
Blair mumbled something about putting a stop to it because Jim's ass was SO his, and the Sentinel laughed and flicked the pit of his fruit at a muscled calf. Blair rolled onto his side, apparently unconcerned at the leaf litter now attached to his front, and raised an eyebrow.
"Secondly, I talked to the DA. I asked Marty - you remember her - about criminal proceedings against the publishing house and the Uni for releasing confidential information without the author or PD's consent. She was pretty eager to help out, and we got ourselves a bunch of warrants, confiscated a shitload of files and transcripts and to cut a long story short we won our case in a closed courtroom. Edwards was forced into retirement and I hired a lawyer on your behalf to file a damages claim. The Uni has cleared up your record. The publisher has paid a hefty settlement fee as well."
"I can go back?" Blair yelped sitting up and ignoring the money, "I can finish my studies?"
"Yeah," Jim grinned at the joy on his friend's face and then laughed as Blair got up and did the happy dance. He got up when Blair pulled at him and they congaed around the clearing before Blair tackled Jim to the ground in a full body hug.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you!" Blair choked and buried his face in Jim's neck.
"Aw Chief," Jim sighed as the hot tears ran over his flesh. He held Blair until the storm had passed and then sat beside the man until he was ready to look up again.
"I can do the closed society thing - it was ready before the Sentinel was. I can jump through their hoops while I'm waiting for the next Academy class," there was joy shining from the tear stained face, "You gave me my doctorate!"
"It was the least I could do," Jim smiled, "Chief, you never once asked me to go public. You never asked me to confirm that you were telling the truth. I didn't see it at the time, and I should have, but that was the clearest sign that you weren't selling me out. I'm sorry partner."
"It's in the past. No guilt, no blame," Blair reminded him with a blinding smile. Jim smiled back and they sat in silence for a while.
"That's not all," Jim straightened his back; "The team at MC cornered me in Simon's office when the fax arrived. I told them about the Sentinel thing. I explained my role and yours as best I could - and got another round of butt kicking in return for not trusting you and them better. They'll have questions for you when we get home."
"You did?" Blair smiled, "Wow. What a relief. Jim, the fact that you told them will only help in the long run. They'll understand any problems you might have in the field quicker - it could save your life."
"It did help a little," Jim confessed, "They would ask some very pointed questions at the scene and make sure I didn't get to close to stuff that they though was dangerous. Although I think Rafe and Brown knew about it before I told everyone - they kicked me out of MC that time I had the rash from investigating your cars wreckage…"
"My car?" Blair looked up from the fire, puzzled and Jim mentally kicked himself.
"Uh huh, the day you were taken - or the night you were taken some petty thief stole the Volvo. He wrecked it on Canyon Road - died in the crash and the Volvo burnt out. You'll need a new car, but what with the settlement from the publishing house and the insurance money you can afford to get something new," Jim knew he sounded hopeful - he hated Blair's classic cars, death-traps one and all - and Blair met his gaze ruefully.
"How about we go shopping together?" he suggested, "We can make a list of things we think I should look for in a car and then find it together. How's that?"
"Thanks Chief," Jim nodded, accepting the concession gratefully. He knew he had no real say in what Blair ended up driving, but a part of him still wanted to ensure the Guide's complete safety. They would struggle with this for the rest of their lives together.
"You're welcome," Blair grinned, his eyes glowing in the firelight.
The seatbelt light flipped off and Blair undid the restraint with a quick flick of the wrist. Jim had partially got his wish about taking the Shaman Blair back to Cascade for the team to see. Blair had kept the braids and beard, though he wore the clean clothes that Jim had brought for him. The knife had to be checked through in the luggage that went in the hold, but Jim had purchased a special container for it. They had also laid the skin and the necklace in the same container, along with Blair's worn native sandals.
People were thronging in the aisle, but Jim and Blair preferred to wait awhile, the Sentinel was sensitive to being touched by strangers after a long period of confinement and Blair was happy to act as a barrier for his partner until the aisle was mostly clear.
They went through to the secured baggage claim area for Blair's effects and then out the to the arrivals gate. Jim had called Simon with their flight details, so both men were expecting to see their friend at the gate. When there was no sign of the police captain they split up, Jim to go looking for their ride and Blair to the luggage claim for his friend's bags.
"Jim!" Simon's familiar shout got his attention and Jim turned to his friend with relief. He was tired and just wanted to get himself and his partner home. His smile faltered a little when he saw the crowd of people behind Simon. Rafe and Brown and even Rhonda as well as the rest of MC - or at least the people not on duty at the moment - were all thronging around behind the tall man, looking for Jim and Blair.
Simon was looking around behind him, trying to spot his partner while the others said hello and asked where Blair was.
"He went to get my bag while I looked for Simon," Jim explained, "He's headed this way now."
He spotted the strangely familiar form of Blair - looking even wilder in the mixture of native braids and Western clothes. Blair spotted the crowd and grinned, hitching up Jim's pack and his box and heading over. He noticed that Jim made no effort to call to him or indicate that he was there, and also noted the team from MC were still looking around for him.
Grinning broadly, Blair dropped everything in front of Simon and returned the hug that Jim had conveyed from the Captain two long months ago.
"Hey Simon, I owe you a hug," he announced to the startled man and Simon prised him off in shock, holding him at arms length with his eyes wide in incredulity.
"Sandburg?!" he laughed and Blair laughed back. The light went on for the rest of MC and Blair was mobbed - hugged and patted and his hands shaken.
"Whoa - Feral Hairboy!" H teased and Blair flipped his hair dramatically.
"And I've got the jaguar skin to prove it," he promised. Jim laughed and collected their gear as Simon got over the shock and began shooing them all out to the car park. Blair made plans for a potluck dinner at the loft the next evening and most people went away happy.
Simon was a little quiet as they navigated through the airport traffic, but once they were on the highway he looked in the rear vision mirror and met Blair's eyes.
"Sandburg - I want you to hear me out," he said in a no nonsense tone and Blair nodded, leaning forward a little to hear better. He put a hand on Jim's shoulder, feeling the tenseness of stiff muscles. Jim had a feeling he knew what Simon was about to say, but in all fairness had to let Blair at least hear the offer.
"I want you in Major Crimes," Simon started after a deep breath, "I want you working in my department, so don't freak out on me. I think you should consider taking a place elsewhere in the PD. I'm not sure that partnering you with Jim is a good idea. Some of the shit I've seen go down between you and Ellison makes my hair curl and my blood boil. I think that you need to get away from that. If you work with the PD in another department we'll still at least have access to your expertise."
There was silence in the car for a few miles, then Blair took a deep breath of his own. His fingers had been massaging Jim's shoulder lightly all the while and Jim wondered what his partner would say.
"Simon… thank you for your concerns. Two months ago I'd have taken you up on that offer in a heartbeat. But…I trust my friend. Jim and I are a team - we're partners and Sentinel and Guide. We've hashed a lot out in the past two months and I believe we will be fine. If you're sure you want me, I'll be requesting Major Crimes."
"It will be good to have you back, kid," Simon said as Jim's heart soared in joy. Blair laughed.
"You'll have to stop calling me that, Simon. I'm a man now and have the ritual scars to prove it."
Jim ignored the conversation, tipping his head back to sample that sweet, fresh Blair scent. His Guide's heartbeat filled his ears and his heat warmed his soul. They were home at long last.
Sentinel and Shaman Guide.
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