"It's About Friendship"
(Flight - Missing Scenes)
Notes: I dedicate this story to the series, The Sentinel, for having inspired us to seek to fulfill our own drive toward creativity by continuing the adventures of Jim, Blair and their friends. I also dedicate it to everyone on the SentinelAngst List, for giving bards a safe and supportive place to let our imaginations take wing.
My thanks go to StarWatcher for her continuing support as my beta, to Starfox for hosting my stories, and to Quietwolf, for helping me with her specialized knowledge of her beloved reptiles. She wants me to assure you that snakes are delightful, if much maligned, creatures and she sincerely hopes that the anaconda in this story won't simply perpetuate the stereotype of serpents as monstrous beings. Well…I hope she won't be too disappointed. ;)
Warnings? I don't think so, unless you have a snake phobia.
"The nearest town is one hundred miles west, through the mountains…"
Kimberly Ash, Botanist, UCLA
So…how did they get home from the jungles of Peru?
"What the…! Where's he going?" Sandburg cried out, surprised and dismayed to see the reflection in the side mirror of Ellison disappearing down the rough, rutted road, toward the fiery encampment. Blair kept an anxious watch but didn't see his partner coming back out of the smoke, and he was all too conscious that he had a truck full of people who needed to be driven out of the line of fire.
"Simon, take the wheel!" Sandburg called out as he hit the brakes as soon as he drew the bullet-ridden vehicle around a bend in the road that gave them some cover, about a quarter mile from the compound that was exploding in a series of fiery, cataclysmic blasts behind them.
"Sandburg! What are you doing?" Banks yelled in consternation as Blair leapt out of the cab.
Already loping back toward the village, keeping to the shadows, the young anthropologist called back over his shoulder, "I'm going to make sure Jim is okay. Get the people back to their village. We'll meet you there!"
"Are you nuts? Get back here!" Simon called, but Blair didn't bother turning around, only waved one arm in the air, a gesture of dismissal - a gesture to go. "Stupid kid," Banks grunted as he ran around the truck and climbed in. "Going to get himself killed," he added, muttering in frustration, torn between wanting to follow to ensure his men were all right, and having to stay and take care of his son and the innocent Indians.
"Dad? We should help," Daryl urged. "We can't leave them behind!"
"First, we need to get these folks away from here," Simon grated, carefully sensitive to his son's dignity by only underscoring the need to ensure their passengers were kept secure, though Daryl's safety and welfare were first and foremost in his mind. "Make sure they're safe."
Daryl stared suspiciously at his father, pretty much guessing who his dad really wanted to make certain was 'safe', and then glanced over his shoulder at the canvas-covered bed behind the cab. He could hear the high-pitched frightened voices of children, their parents trying to calm them, and he nodded. They didn't really have much choice.
"But is the village safe?" the boy questioned then, with a worried frown. "That's where they were captured in the first place."
"Yeah, I know," Banks huffed as he put the truck in gear, not having any better ideas and figuring the locals would know how to hide themselves, once they had a chance to prepare for possible danger. "Can you give me directions? You know where to find it?"
"Uh huh, yeah, I think so," his son replied as he looked around to get his bearings, and then pointed toward a fork in the rough dirt road. "Go to the left up ahead."
Jim had hung back to ensure his friends were able to get themselves and the villagers to safety, one man alone against more than a dozen of the enemy left standing. Blistering heat from the ring of fire around the destroyed compound seared the air, and he had to blink to clear his eyes from the sting of oily smoke as he squinted around the yard, seeking any remaining threat. The inferno raged unchecked, creating a whirling vortex of air sucked into the flames and spewed out again, as the oxygen was hungrily consumed and transformed into acrid plumes that swirled into a thick, unnatural fog. He'd only brought the crossbow, electing to move and strike silently rather than draw attention to himself with the racket of automatic fire. With scarcely time to think, he had to bring down a blond guy with a grenade launcher that was aimed after the fleeing Indians and North Americans. Wincing as the subsequent explosion of the small missile firing into the earth disintegrated the man, Jim raced to shield himself beside the relative security of an overturned, burned-out wreck. From there, he picked off two more desperadoes who were still firing after the escapees, and then another villain, all of them collapsing, instantly paralyzed by the curare-tipped arrows. He was just notching another bolt into the bow when the winds shifted, blowing heavy smoke over his position next to the half-demolished truck. It was dense, asphyxiating, and he doubled over, coughing raggedly to clear his lungs.
"JIM! Behind you!"
Ellison instinctively ducked and rolled even as bullets splayed through the air where he'd been, smacking into the metal body of the wreck. He brought his loaded crossbow up and fired, taking out another of the villainous drug overlords. That made about fifteen, he thought, amending the mounting tally in his head, as he kept moving in a crouched run, angling toward the voice that had called a warning and saved his life.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Jim growled as he slid into the lee of crates Sandburg had chosen to shelter behind.
"I'm your partner, remember?" Sandburg huffed, his eyes flickering around the scene straight from Dante's Inferno. "How many more of 'em are there?"
"Five, maybe more, still standing," Ellison replied tightly, as he, too, scanned the perimeter, using both sight and hearing to detect danger. "But I think the rest of them ran off when the bossman blew himself up."
Blair winced reflexively but gritted his jaw as he scrunched down to make a smaller target, and squinted against the dense fumes in the air. "How're your senses, man?" he asked, his voice low and husky with concern.
"Smoke's driving me crazy," Jim confessed with a grimace. "Burns my eyes and throat."
"I can imagine," Sandburg muttered, blinking against the sting in his own eyes. "Check your dials, Jim," he counseled. "Turn down touch a notch or two - that should reduce your sensitivity to the irritation, at least until we can get out of here."
His jaw clenched, Ellison nodded, and then grabbed Blair's sleeve, dragging him peremptorily back toward the jungle. Sandburg kept low and scrambled to keep up as they dodged around burning wooden shacks, tents and past the watchtower that was now engulfed in flames. It was a relief to reach the relatively cooler, fresher air of the damp rainforest, and they both hauled in great gulps of air, coughing to clear their lungs.
"I thought I told you that if you were going to come, I expected you to follow my orders," Jim snapped, his eyes blazing.
"Yeah, so? I got the truck started and everyone on their way, just like you wanted," Sandburg grumbled with a shrug, his eyes raking the burning camp behind them in case anyone followed.
Shaking his head, Ellison rolled his eyes. "You were supposed to stay with the truck. You'd be safer with Simon."
Giving his partner a quizzical look, his brows arched, Blair replied staunchly, "I don't think so, man. Have you checked reality lately? You're a one man wrecking crew! Besides, it's my job to back you up."
Not inclined to become mired in a useless spat about Sandburg's propensity to interpret orders to suit himself, Jim's lips twisted, but he sighed. "Okay, fine, but I want you to stay here."
"Where are you going?"
"To see if their radio is still functioning," Ellison replied as he prepared to move back toward the still burning remains of the camp.
"Like that's a hope," Sandburg sniffed the scorched, smoke-laden air. "I'm coming with you," he added as a matter of course.
"If you think I'm staying here alone in a jungle that could be crawling with bad guys, think again," Blair cut in, sharply. He was more concerned about watching Ellison's back than he was about the danger, but he knew he'd get a lot farther pleading fear than offering help.
Giving him an impatient, narrow look, Jim nodded sharply. "Just stay behind me."
"Ah, and here I thought I could take point," Blair teased wryly, but at Jim's humourless stare he grimaced and threw up his hands in fond exasperation. "Where else would I be, man?" he scolded as he pushed Ellison around to move out, back toward the inferno.
With silent caution, they crept around the blazing perimeter toward where the headquarters of the illegal operation had been. As they circled, the Sentinel didn't detect any hostiles in the near vicinity, but he could hear the sound of at least two trucks heading away, and he relaxed when he realized they weren't headed toward the Indian village. But, from what he could see as they moved past the battleground, they hadn't taken their curare-drugged colleagues with them, maybe believing them dead. Well, they'd be 'dead to the world' for another day at least. Satisfied that the remaining drug runners had run off to save their skin, he turned his attention to the wreckage of the camp. But his lips thinned when he realized the wind had carried the fire to every structure, and there was nothing left that wasn't burning or already charred black.
"You think the radio is more than a super-heated puddle of metal and plastic?" Sandburg asked quietly as he squinted through the smoke.
Jim rubbed his mouth and shook his head. "C'mon," he grated. "Let's get out of here." However, before taking their leave, and though intellectually of two minds about saving the lives of killers who held life so cheaply, they dragged the still unconscious men away from the still burning ruins and Ellison collected the crossbow bolts for future use, if needed. Then they made a quick check to see if there were any operable vehicles left in the compound, but only smoldering wrecks remained, so Jim led the way back into the jungle.
In the two hours since they'd been in the Indian village, the inhabitants scurried around, hastily packing what they'd take with them into the forest.
Simon, his weapon slung over his shoulder, glanced at them with a worried frown on his face and then returned his attention to the back trail. Having sent Daryl to help that woman, Kimberly Ash, he had climbed a tree to give him a vantage point over the village and the rutted road in from the distant compound. He honestly doubted that any villains would come charging after them, what with the drug manufacturing operation blown sky high; nor did he expect them to rush in, guns blazing, for the sheer satisfaction of killing those who had revolted against them. However, he'd learned long ago that it was best to be prepared, just in case. So, he stayed alert as their last line of defence, but he hoped the only figures he'd see lope out of the jungle would be his friends.
When he saw Daryl coming toward him, a flask of water in his hand, Banks climbed down to meet his son at the base of the tree.
"Thanks, son," he said gratefully, and then took a healthy swig. The heat and the anxious waiting had sweated him out, making him feel bone dry. Swiping the back of his hand over his brow to wipe away the persistent trickles of sticky, salty perspiration, he handed the flask back to Daryl, as he asked, "Where are they planning to go, do you know?"
"Kimberly says they'll hide in the jungle until they're sure the bad guys have moved on," his boy replied. "She's planning to go with them." Looking down the road, he challenged, "Shouldn't we be going back to help Jim and Blair?"
Shaking his head, Simon laid a reassuring hand on his son's shoulder. "Jim will have it well in hand, and he won't likely come back here by the road. It's a shorter distance through the forest. If we left, we might well miss them."
"You think they're okay?" Daryl asked, fear for them haunting his eyes.
Banks slung his arm around the boy and drew him close. "I'd bet on Jim Ellison any day," he murmured staunchly, though he'd feel a whole lot better when he saw both men again with his own eyes. "And Blair can handle himself pretty well, too. They got us out, didn't they?"
"Yeah, man, I couldn't believe it when I saw them," Daryl sighed. "I mean, I didn't think there'd be anyone around for miles who could help, and then Jim called my name and, like, there they were. I don't even know how they got here so fast!"
Banks smiled as he turned his attention back to the road. "They're good friends," he said quietly. "The best."
"You got that right," Daryl agreed with gusto.
Rubbing his son's back, Simon sighed. "I'm sorry I got you into this Daryl. I really am."
"Ah, that's alright, Dad," the youth replied loyally. "I'd rather be here with you, than back home and worried about you."
Surprised into a chuckle, Banks looked at his son gratefully and fondly clasped the nape of Daryl's neck. "You're a good boy, son, and I'm real proud of you. I guess I don't say that often enough, but I am."
Leaning into him, Daryl replied with devastating sincerity, "I love you, Dad. And I know I never say that enough; always mouthing off like some jerk. But I do, I really do. I was so scared when I had to leave you in that wrecked truck. Running like some coward. I…didn't know if…if…" But his voice cracked and he began to tremble.
"Hey, easy, son," Simon crooned as he dropped to one knee and folded the one he loved best in the world into his strong arms. "I wanted you to run, you know that. The only thing that mattered to me was that you get away and be safe. It's okay. We're going to be okay, Daryl."
Feeling self-consciously like a little kid, but reluctant to let go, Daryl hugged his father fiercely, but then he pulled a little away when he heard footsteps behind him. Looking over his shoulder, he saw it was Kimberly and a wiry, middle-aged Indian man; they both had packs over their shoulders.
"We're ready to go," she told them. "This is Chief Ingalla. He wants you to know that you're most welcome to come with us. He says he owes you the lives of all who live here, and that you, your son, and your friends will be forever welcome and honoured amongst his people."
Simon looked to the short, swarthy man and bowed his head in acknowledgement. "Tell the Chief that we appreciate that, but he owes us nothing. We're glad we could help," he said soberly, while she translated for him. When the wizened man nodded gravely, Banks continued, "We'll wait a while for our friends and then we'll find our way back to Lima. If you could point us in the right direction, I'd appreciate it."
Turning to the west, she lifted a hand toward the mountains that rose high against the pale blue, western sky. "The closest town is Morales, about a hundred miles in that direction. There's a rutted track part of the way, but it runs out after about thirty miles."
Simon quirked his brow and blew out a breath. "A hundred miles, huh?" he murmured. But then he smiled as he looked down at his son. "I guess this'll be the fishing trip of a lifetime," he teased. "Imagine the stories we'll have to tell when we get back home."
"Right on," Daryl cheered low, leaving no doubt as to his solid support. But then he teased back, "If Mom doesn't kill us both first for scaring her half to death."
Banks laughed and then held out his hand to Kimberley and the Chief. "We wish you luck and good health," he said formally.
"You, too," she replied, and then, when the Chief gestured to the bags they carried, added, "We thought you might decide to make your way home." As they laid the packs they carried at Simon's feet, she explained, "So we gathered a few things for you - food and other supplies, and a map, such as it is; I'm afraid it's all pretty basic." Looking at them with anxiety evident in her expression, she warned, "Be very careful - there are dangerous guerillas, rebels, who take refuge in the jungle. They will kill you if they catch you."
"Thank you for the supplies and your concern," Simon said sincerely, meaning it. However little, the gifts were a great deal more than the simple clothes on their backs. "When we get to Morales, we'll let the authorities know what happened here. I'm sure someone will come out soon to check that you're all fine, and either round up what's left of the criminals or ensure they've moved on. If you're ever in Cascade, Washington, you look up us, y'hear?"
She smiled and nodded as she and the Chief took their leave. But, just then, a little girl ran up to her and said something Banks didn't understand. Kimberly turned back, her hand on the child's head as she said, "She wants to thank you, as well as Jim and Blair, for saving her father, too."
Banks' eyes softened as he nodded to the tiny tyke. "Tell her that I'll give them her message, and also that she's very welcome; we're glad she and her daddy are safe now, too." When the young woman translated, the child smiled shyly, waved and scampered off to rejoin her family. In minutes, the village was deserted as the pack-laden Indians melted silently into the jungle. Simon drew Daryl back into the centre of the village, taking up a position by the truck they'd used to make their escape, where he'd have more cover if an attack did come, as well as the means of getting away close at hand.
"How long d'ya think it'll be 'til they get here?" Daryl asked quietly, once again worried about Jim and Blair.
"Oh, on foot, it'll take them at least a couple of hours," Banks replied reassuringly, hiding his own disquiet that his friends hadn't yet returned. "There's time yet before we need to be unduly concerned," he added with a sympathetic smile. "Don't worry, I'm sure they're alright."
But he breathed a huge sigh of relief when Ellison and Sandburg finally loped out of the jungle a very long half hour later.
Wanting to cover as much distance as they could before the sun set, they decided to leave the village immediately. They tossed the little gear they had - two packs, several more flasks of water that Daryl and Sandburg filled from the village well, two automatic weapons and limited ammunition - into the back of the truck. While stowing their supplies, they found two machetes left by the Indians for their use, and Jim hoped that also meant they wouldn't mind that he was keeping the crossbow and quiver of curare-tipped bolts. Beyond that, all they had was the clothes on their backs and their ingenuity. Ellison and Banks decided who would ride where: Simon in back with Daryl, to keep watch on their back trail, while Blair drove and Jim kept a lookout up front. The criminals might have taken off for parts unknown, but there were rebels and renegades in the Peruvian wilderness. While Blair hotwired the ignition for the second time that day, Simon muttered to Jim that they were a long way from being out of the jungle, in many more ways than one. Ellison gave his boss a sardonic look, but then grinned encouragingly as he slapped Banks on the back and they all piled into the truck.
"How much gas we got, Junior?" Jim asked as Blair turned the truck and headed down the uneven rutted trail to the west.
"Enough to go thirty miles in town," Sandburg replied wryly. "But, out here? Who knows? Depends on how many bogs, rivers and canyons we have to drive around."
Ellison shrugged and sat back, his attention returning to the jungle that surrounded them. When Blair glanced at him, and saw his partner frowning in irritation, he murmured, "Isolate the sound of the engine, Jim, and then set it aside."
Pursing his lips and squinting a little, the Sentinel cocked his head; a moment later, he nodded and relaxed. Blair quirked a satisfied grin but remained silent in deference to his friend's need to concentrate on determining whether the forest was safe or if there were threats nearby.
They lumbered and lurched over the uneven ground, following the heavily forested trail that led generally to the west but frequently diverted around natural obstacles. The route was so rugged that there was no way to travel much faster than five to ten miles per hour. Sometimes, it felt as though they could make better time walking, but they were all tired and could benefit from an easy ride before having to climb and cross over the mountains ahead. When the day began to wane, Sandburg asked quietly, "You want me to keep going, or should I keep an eye out for a place to camp tonight?"
Jim thought about it, considering taking on the role of driver once darkness fell, as he'd easily be able to navigate with the dim light of the distant moon and stars. But then he gave a little shrug. Pushing too hard wouldn't get them back to civilization all that much sooner, but would run the risk of wearing them all out. "It's been a rough couple of days," he finally replied. "We should probably hole up somewhere tonight, and get some decent rest. We've got a few hard days of walking ahead of us."
"Sounds like a plan," Blair agreed, and then hazarded, "Looks like your senses are back on line."
"Uh huh," Jim grunted and resumed his wary surveillance of their surroundings.
Sandburg grimaced, accepting he wasn't going to get more of answer, not at that point anyway, and turned his attention to watching the trail for a reasonable overnight stop. Half an hour later, just as dusk was making visibility a challenge, he pulled up near a fast-moving stream. "Maybe we could catch some fish to augment our food supplies," he suggested as he climbed out of the truck.
"Good idea, Chief," Jim agreed. They assembled rough poles from thin branches and vines, Jim quickly fashioning sharp wooden hooks with Sandburg's Swiss Army knife. Before long, they'd caught their dinner and Ellison figured they could risk a small fire to cook their meal.
By the time they'd eaten, doused the fire and washed up in the stream, it was full dark. Though Sandburg offered to take his turn, the other men knew he was uncomfortable with weapons, so Ellison bluntly told him that he and Simon would split the night watches. Before Blair could argue the point, Jim turned and slipped into the dark, taking the first watch. The younger man looked after him thoughtfully, staring sightlessly into the shadows, and then climbed into the back of the truck, where they would all sleep, well away from whatever snakes or voracious insects that might be attracted by their body heat or scent.
As he curled on his side, his arm beneath his head as a pillow, Blair bit his lip and considered Jim's behaviour over the past few - could it only be two days? Blowing a silent breath, he reflected on how Ellison had been brusque and remote, especially when his senses had been on the fritz, but he'd said he was glad Sandburg had come along, and he'd seemed sincere. So, had he been worried about his senses or mostly worried about Simon and Daryl and frustrated that his senses weren't helping? But it certainly seemed that the senses were back on-line, as strong or stronger than ever, so far as the anthropologist could tell. However, Jim was still refusing to respond to questions about them, and he still seemed a bit remote, even brusque. Again, 'cause he was worried about getting everyone home safe, or was something else going on?
Jim could often seem preoccupied, irritated or even, occasionally, moody, but Blair tried and failed to remember another time when Ellison had refused to discuss his senses. He'd grimace and sometimes whine about it, but he always broke down to let Sandburg know what was going on, realizing that this was the only way Blair could help him. So, Sandburg wondered, what had changed? Why was Jim putting him off now, especially when the heightened senses had been SO erratic?
Listening to the soft snores of Simon and Daryl, curled together in the far back regions of the truck, Sandburg grew drowsy and set aside his ruminations in favour of slipping into slumberland.
And dreamed of a wolf with startling blue eyes…
They reached the end of the road, such as it was, by midmorning the next day. Simon and Jim began to load up the backpacks, but Blair and Daryl were both heartily sick of being treated as if they were incapable of being of any help.
"You guys have to have your hands free to carry the weapons, and should be relatively unencumbered to move quickly, if need be," Sandburg observed as he unceremoniously took hold of the backpack slung over Ellison's shoulder and pulled it off, to sling it over his own. His eyes narrowed as he looked at the machete in Jim's hand. "Taking point, you'll need that," he muttered, but swiftly relieved Simon of the second weapon. "But you're just following our trail, so I'll take it, to help cut our path."
"What he said," Daryl drawled as he jerked a thumb at Blair and then held out his hand for the pack his father had taken.
The two older men shrugged and gave up the relatively light burdens without an argument. As Jim moved to take point, Blair started after him.
"Uh, uh," Ellison called over his shoulder as he waved the younger man back. "You stay with Daryl."
"But you might need me," Sandburg hissed, keeping his voice low as he looked back at Banks Junior.
Jim only shook his head sharply and again waved Blair back, as he slipped into the shadows of the trees.
"Okay, fine," Sandburg snapped, feeling frustrated. Frowning, he shook his head and tried to reason that Jim just didn't want Daryl left without an adult watching directly over him. And that made a kind of sense. But that wasn't the impression Ellison had given - the impression had been that he hadn't wanted Sandburg near him. Why? 'Cause it could be dangerous? 'Cause Blair would slow him down? Because he didn't want the company? Because he didn't believe he needed help with his senses anymore? His shoulders tight and his lips in a thin line, Sandburg waited for Daryl to come alongside and then walked with the youth into the jungle. Simon brought up the rear.
"Being treated like you're semi-useless sucks, doesn't it?" Daryl observed with a wry grimace.
"Huh? Oh, yeah, I guess," Blair replied, but then rationalized it all. "It makes sense that they should have the defensive positions. I mean, they know how to handle the rifles and Jim's downright scary with that crossbow. And they've both got military as well as police training. They just want to keep us safe."
"I guess," Daryl groused, wanting to be of more use.
Understanding the youth's desire to be of more help and less of an evident burden, feeling it himself, Sandburg replied, "Our job is to keep up and be careful. We also need to keep our own eyes open for any possible dangers - and we can help by setting up camp at night, and stuff like that."
"Why'd you come after us, anyway?" the youth asked then, the first chance he'd had to pose the question he'd been wondering about since Jim and Blair had walked into the Indian village.
Blair blinked at the question. "Well, we heard your chopper went down and figured you'd need some help. We couldn't very well just leave you guys out here, could we?"
"You don't see anybody else 'out here', helping to track us down or get us to safety. Dad says you're both really good friends," Daryl observed dryly. "He's right. "
"Yeah, well, not everyone has the skills Jim has, or has spent time in the jungle, like he and I both have," Sandburg shrugged. "We're just glad we found you alive."
"So'm I, dude," Daryl agreed with a grin. "You have no idea how glad!"
Ellison did well in finding pathways that rarely needed to be hacked out by the machetes, and Blair was grateful for that, as even limited slashing and cutting made his arm, neck and back ache. Insects droned and flitted and swarmed around them, an aggravating and constant irritation. Despite the heavy humidity of the rainforest, the heat was such that sweat poured from them, soaking their clothing, as they tramped through the dense foliage. When they stopped for a breather by a shallow creek sometime around midday, Sandburg dug out the jar filled with a familiar, bitter smelling unguent that he had found in one of the backpacks the evening before, and encouraged everyone to spread it over their exposed skin, to keep the insects at bay.
Jim scowled at the scent and Blair mumbled, "Turn down your scent dial. You're mostly using hearing and vision, anyway, right?"
Ellison gave him a sharp look, but then nodded before turning away to fill his water bottle in the stream.
Sandburg followed him while Daryl and Simon helped one another make sure their skin was coated, and squatted down by the water's edge. "Your senses still all back on-line? Everything okay?"
"Uh huh," Jim grunted as he stood, preparing to move off again. But Blair stepped in front of him. "Is everything alright, Jim?" he asked uncertainly. "You seem, I don't know, sorta pissed off at me."
"Everything isn't about you, Junior," Ellison replied distantly as he pushed past.
Frowning as he looked after the older man, Sandburg shook his head slowly. Something was wrong, but he wasn't sure what. Though, having traced the tension between them back to when he'd first noticed it in the loft, he wondered if Jim was upset about the offer of a field position on the team going to Borneo. But if it mattered that much, why didn't Ellison just say so? Chewing on his lip thoughtfully, he ambled back to join the Banks boys.
His lips twisted with ill-humour as Ellison loped through the jungle, once more taking on the role of advance scout to ensure the path followed by Simon, Daryl and Sandburg was clear of threat. He was irritated, verging on angry, but mostly with himself. He'd told Sandburg he was glad the kid had come with him, and he was - but that didn't seem to stop him from treating the younger man like last week's bad news. He stopped to listen intently as his eyes raked the thick forest for shadows where they shouldn't be, for colours that did not belong. It was all clear; no sign or sound of any rebels. Blowing out a breath, he looked down along his backtrail and tried to sort out his emotions. Why was he angry with Sandburg? The kid had offered to help him, and had kept his part of the deal despite having to face dangers no grad student should ever have to encounter. And now he had the chance of a lifetime to follow his mentor to Borneo, to work on a project that was evidently of no little importance in his world. Turning to pace through the heavy growth, the way becoming steep as the land rose along the flank of the mountains, Jim shook his head. He thought of Blair as a friend, especially in the months since Sandburg had moved into the loft. Shouldn't a friend be glad if his friend got a chance to follow their dreams?
'But,' Jim thought as he gritted his teeth, 'I thought I was his big dream. A living, breathing sentinel. The 'holy grail'.' Grimacing with no little irony and self-contempt, aware that his thoughts sounded petulant at best, he dug deeper inside, worrying at the hollow feeling that had been growing in his gut since Blair had told him the project could take him away for at least a year.
Could he handle his senses for a year without the kind of help and understanding Sandburg brought? Swallowing hard, he was very afraid that he could not. They still spiked or took a nosedive, with little or no warning. Or they had, until he'd agreed to give up his life and even his soul to retain them.
What did that mean? To give up his soul? Given that he was still alive, though the cost had been his life as well, he had to think it was somehow metaphorical as opposed to literal. God, he hated oblique and obscure symbolism; that was more Sandburg's area that his. Blair would probably have some idea of what it meant.
But he didn't want to talk to Sandburg about it - and at that thought, his gut twinged again. No, he wasn't going to reveal something so…personal to someone who didn't care enough to hang around. Who was ready to drop him like a hot potato when a better offer came along.
Hurt surged then, sweeping over the anger, and he bowed his head as he gripped a tree trunk. Just because he'd started thinking of the kid as a friend, maybe even sort of like a kid brother, didn't mean Blair saw him as anything more than his ticket to his dissertation and doctorate. They had a deal, and that's apparently all they had.
But he'd come to really trust Sandburg, as he'd trusted few others in his life. Had come to enjoy his company, and miss him when he wasn't around. Liked him, dammit. And…respected him. Which had come as a shock, because Sandburg wasn't the sort of person he'd thought would win his respect. Oh, not for being so smart that it was almost weird, but for being tough. For taking what life dished out and making a banquet of it. For being resilient and inventive when the chips were down. For being brave in the face of death itself.
And now it looked like Sandburg was just going to walk away. It was his right, certainly. But…but Jim knew he'd hoped that this friendship would last, especially since it had slipped up on him when he wasn't looking. When he hadn't thought to have such a close friend ever again. Had actually avoided such a relationship.
Cursing himself for a fool, Ellison blew another breath and returned his attention to the job at hand. First he had to get them safely across these mountains. Then he could worry about mourning a loss that hurt more than he'd ever thought it could; and about surviving his senses without the man he'd come to trust to guide him unerringly through the morass of heightened input and confusion.
Simon paused to swipe the runnels of sweat from his forehead and face, and to take a swig from his water bottle. Puffing a little, he shook his head, longing for a cigar and cursing the damn things at the same time. In reasonably good shape, he found endless tramping through thick foliage in debilitating heat and humidity taxing in the extreme, and he couldn't help but wonder if the other three seemed to be doing better because they didn't partake of the one vice he still enjoyed. Looking ahead, he caught glimpses of his son and Blair hiking resolutely in the wake of Ellison, who forged up the mountain further and faster along the virtually non-existent trail than any of the rest of them could manage. He could just barely hear the other two talking, Sandburg asking endless questions about Daryl's school, friends and recreational interests. Listening in, Simon found he was learning a lot about his son and, when it came to an already burgeoning interest in the opposite sex, more than he perhaps wanted to know. But the grad student seemed to be offering pretty good advice couched in teasing words and low exclamations that seemed to amuse Daryl.
Looking around, checking the backtrail, Banks found himself reflecting on the partnership of Ellison and Sandburg. Jim was a damned fine detective, but he'd been so thorny and irascible, his talents scarcely made up for his deficits - until the kid came along. Things had changed, a little here, a little there; and over time, Ellison had become easier to deal with, more amenable, less prickly. And there was no doubt that his incredible senses, though often unpredictable, were also miraculous and damned useful in their line of work. They'd gotten friendlier over the past almost year, especially once the loft became one of the regular venues for the biweekly poker game. But Simon would never have expected Jim to come after them, determined to find them and rescue them and committed to bringing them home safely, if it was within anyone's power to do so. Banks found his throat tightening with a gratitude so rich and deep, he wasn't sure how he'd ever find a way to express it properly. Hell, he and his son would have been lost forever if this jungle if Ellison hadn't shown up; Simon would have lasted less than a week in that damned cocaine factory before he'd gotten himself killed resisting the routine brutality and Daryl? Well, Daryl would have been somewhere in the jungle and he wouldn't have known if his son was alive or dead. But Jim had come, freed them all and the villagers too, like some goddamned superman. He was incredible, pure and simple.
And the kid? Sandburg? Well, he was just one surprise after another. By rights, he should have folded before he'd ever gotten started, what with nearly being blown skyhigh by the Switchman - though it had been his own initiative that had gotten him on that doomed bus in the first place. Helping Jim. And his first day on the job should have been the last; the man wasn't even getting paid, for pity's sake. But he'd faced down Kincaid. Not many men did that and lived to tell about it. Then, a gang working with a crooked cop had blown up his home, if a warehouse rampant with rats could be considered a 'home', Banks thought with a shudder. But Sandburg had taken it all in stride and pitched in to help solve the case, and had ended up organizing a seniors' self-help and support network in one of the worst neighbourhoods in the city. And Lash. Banks shivered with the memory of the stone-cold killer, crazier than a loon, maybe, but deadly, just the same. Simon hadn't expected to see Blair back after the nightmare of being the psycho's last victim and very nearly being murdered in his turn. But the kid had come back, and kept coming back. To help Jim.
Sure, the kid made mistakes; he wasn't trained. And sure he sometimes talked enough to drive a man crazy - but if a man listened, inevitably the grad student was saying something worth hearing. Good humoured, evidently blessed with the energy of ten ordinary people, Sandburg juggled his duties at the University, an active social life and pretty much fulltime hours at MCU, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. For Jim. There was no doubt in Banks' mind that everything that kid weathered and triumphed over, everything he juggled, was solely and simply to support one James Ellison, as best he could.
Was that why he was here? Because Jim was coming so that meant he would come, too? His lips compressed as he once more tuned in on the low, distant conversation up ahead; he got the impression that Sandburg was there with them because he, too, wanted to help rescue them. What had Daryl told him? That when Ellison and Sandburg had heard about the crash, they immediately made arrangements to come looking for them, because they could handle themselves in the jungle - and because they weren't about to leave either Simon or Daryl without help. That's what Blair had told his son. And Banks believed him. The kid had come to help them, not just to back up Ellison, though that had to have been a major motivator. Grimacing, Banks wondered why Sandburg would go out of his way to help them. Lord knew, he hadn't been easy on the grad student; hadn't really wanted him around and made no secret of the fact that he hoped Jim would learn how to handle himself without such specialized help as soon as possible. Yet, Blair considered him a friend. Or was it Daryl he was most concerned about? Had being a part of the Kincaid hostage situation created a kind of affiliation for those who'd been there? Certainly, Joel appeared to have a lot of time for the flamboyant, unusual young man. Rhonda seemed to have a soft spot for him, too. Banks nodded; it made sense to him that Sandburg would care enough about his son to come into Peru's jungles to find him. And that gave him a warm spot that spread through his chest. He'd never thought of anyone but himself being that concerned about his son's welfare. Made Sandburg almost seem like family. And how very odd was that?
When he overheard Sandburg telling Daryl they had parachuted into the jungle, he shook his head. Neither Ellison nor Sandburg had a lick of sense - and thank the good Lord for that!
But, following along the briefly trampled trail left by the others, Banks found himself reflecting that there seemed to be a certain degree of tension between Sandburg and Ellison that he'd not seen before. Typically, they acted more like brothers distanced by age but tolerant of one another, even vastly amused by the other's foibles. And he wondered if it was because Jim hadn't wanted Blair to come, knowing how dangerous the mission would probably be. Maybe. Ellison sure did seem protective of the kid. Yeah, that was likely it. Jim was never happy when Blair disregarded his direction to stay out of trouble, especially since the kid was usually only taking risks in the first place in order to back Ellison up in dangerous situations.
Despite the enervating effects of the humid heat and the steady upward slope that strained their legs and backs, making all of them ache long before the day's journey was ended, they made steady progress. By the time Ellison found a small clearing by a waterfall that he deemed suitable for their night's halt, he figured they'd covered at least half of the hundred miles to Morales. One more night on the trail, maybe two if it took longer to cross the rugged notch between the mountains, and they'd be home free.
Daryl and Blair staggered into the small campsite and collapsed panting on the ground. "Oh, man, I didn't think you were ever going to call a halt," Sandburg gasped as he pulled out his water bottle and took a good long drink.
"You're soft," Jim teased as he rummaged in the pack his partner carried to dig out a fishing line.
"Soft?" Sandburg squeaked, a disbelieving grin on his face, and then he turned to Daryl and they both broke into exhausted giggles. When Banks stumbled in a few minutes later, Blair warbled, "Hey, Simon, Jungle Jim says we're 'soft'. Whaddya think of that?"
Snorting at the 'Jungle Jim' jibe, looking very nearly wasted, the older man rolled his eyes; too tired and out of breath to even attempt a rejoinder. Ellison threw a superior look over his shoulder and cocked a brow at Sandburg as if to say, 'Well?'
"Okay, we're soft," Blair capitulated with a chuckle as he pulled another fishing line from the pack and pushed himself to his feet to join his friend by the swiftly moving mountain creek. Yawning, he wound the string around a long twig and then dropped it into the water. His voice lower, he asked, "So, uh, you still doing okay?"
"Uh huh," Jim replied but, though the response was little more than a grunt, his expression was less irritated.
Blair flicked a look up at him and then lowered his gaze to the water. "I was wondering if maybe you were, uh, bothered by Dr. Stoddard's offer of a place on his Borneo team?"
Jim stiffened and then willfully forced himself to relax. "It sounds like an important opportunity for you," he replied, noncommittally.
"Well, yeah, it is," Sandburg murmured. Looking up toward the mountains, he continued, "Dr. Stoddard is like the most respected man in his field in the world. And working on this project with him would make a huge difference in my future opportunities. It's like instant credibility. And, well, I'd get a chance to be part of the publication of articles and findings. The income's not bad either."
"Then it sounds like you should go," Jim replied neutrally, though only with considerable effort. That hollow space in his gut seemed determined to invade his chest.
Blair frowned pensively. Jim was bothered by it all, no doubt about it - that pulsing muscle in his jaw was always a dead giveaway. And, when Sandburg took the time to think about it, he couldn't really be surprised. Ellison's senses could still be pretty erratic, and that had to be nerve-wracking, if not downright scary. Leaving him to go to Borneo just didn't feel right.
But it was the first time since he'd started at Rainier ten years before that Sandburg found himself having to consider someone else in his decisions. The first time in his adult life that it might actually matter to someone else if he stayed or went wherever. It was an odd feeling to think he might be missed.
And then he began to think about how much he'd miss Jim.
That night, Sandburg insisted upon taking his turn at standing watch and, claiming he'd had the chance to sleep all of the previous night and the other men had to be tired, he also won the first vigil. Taking Jim's automatic rifle and slinging it awkwardly over his shoulder, he moved a little away from the campsite to sit on a sheltered boulder over the waterfall. With the full moon, it gave him a pretty good lookout point over the surrounding area. When he heard Simon start to saw logs almost immediately, and Jim's low snore not long after, he was glad he'd made his stand. They were only human, strong as they both were, and they needed their rest, too.
The hours passed uneventfully, but his mind was too engaged with his struggle to decide what to do about the Borneo offer, to feel the least bit sleepy. Round and round his thoughts went. First, he considered the work he was doing with Jim. Though he'd not told the older man, Blair knew he had more than enough data already to prove his thesis. Hell, the day Ellison had walked into his office, it was pretty much a done deal. Just by existing, Jim proved his theories about sentinels still manifesting in the modern world were right. But…he really liked working with the detective, though some of the things he had to deal with left him squeamish and, as often as not, scared stiff. But it was important, meaningful work. And he liked living in the loft - God, he loved living in the loft! It was home. And he'd never really felt like he'd had a home before. Most of all, he liked Jim. A lot. Oh sure, Ellison's rules were irritating, but they were also understandable. Jim needed order and quiet to soothe his senses. But the guy was SO amazing. Not just his senses but also the kind of man he was. Resolute and brave; bright and determined. Capable, and so committed to helping the defenceless and the innocent. Sandburg had never known anyone quite like him. And Jim had a killer sense of humour, so he was also fun to hang with.
Sighing, Blair told himself that, as good as it was, it couldn't go on forever. Jim was essentially a loner and sometimes it was pretty plain that he found having a 'hanger on', however helpful, a pain in the butt. And Simon had never made a secret that he was accepted in MCU on sufferance and only so long as Ellison needed his peculiar support. So, he couldn't really afford to disregard his own career interests. If he went to Borneo, he'd have the time to write his diss at night, when they weren't working on the site. And he'd have the advantage of learning from Dr. Stoddard, of being associated with that great man's name and work. If he didn't take this opportunity, he might never get another like it again.
So…why wasn't he jumping at it? Why had he been sharply disappointed when Jim had just shrugged and told him to go? Discouraged, Sandburg was no closer to a decision when Jim woke to the call of the alarm he seemed to carry inside his head. Sighing, feeling the day's stiffness in his muscles, and yawning, Blair found he was more than ready to stretch out on his own blanket. But though he fell asleep quickly, his dreams were vivid, giving him the impression of still being wide-awake.
Once again, the wolf with the blue eyes stared reproachfully into his gaze, as if disappointed in him. And this time, the wolf turned to lope away, but paused to check over its shoulder to ensure Blair was following him. For what felt like hours, they ran through a jungle lit by a strange blue luminescence, but Sandburg didn't find it the least bit tiring. He was curious, and conscious of a sense of excitement building in his chest. There was an air of mystery and, more, a kind of expectation, as if something profound was about to happen.
Suddenly, the wolf bounded up a short flight of stone steps in front of an ancient altar, and turned to face Sandburg. While the bemused grad student watched, the creature transformed before his eyes - into himself. Blinking, he gaped at the image as he asked, "Who are you?"
"The question is, who are you?" came the stern reply.
"I don't understand," Sandburg murmured, squinting at the image and trying to make sense of the dream or vision or whatever it was.
"You have come to a fork in your life path, young one; you must choose the direction you will take and the man you will become," his other self lectured.
"Yeah, I know," Blair concurred, bobbing his head agreeably. "But, uh, I'm not sure what to do. Can you give me a clue?"
The wolf/man spirit crossed his arms and lifted his gaze to the distant mountains. "The path you choose will determine your fate. One path brings comfort and pleasure; it is safe. The other path will test you and ultimately cost your life, even your soul."
"Oh, make it easy, why don't you?" Sandburg huffed as he rolled his eyes. "Which one is which?"
Clear, dark blue eyes locked with his. "You know the answers, young one," the other said quietly, the merest hint of a tolerant smile on his lips. All trace of humour vanished, though, as he continued, "You know what is the right path for you. But do you have the courage to follow it? And the love?"
Sandburg swallowed and his gaze dropped away. "I don't know," he admitted miserably. When he looked up at the other, his alter ego waved an arm imperiously toward some place behind him. Curious, he turned and found the ground had magically fallen away into a sickeningly sheer drop to what looked like infinity. Gasping in surprise, he stumbled back, his hand lifting to press against his thumping heart. "Oh, God!" he gasped. "I hate heights!"
"If you choose to follow your sentinel, you must jump."
"What?" Sandburg exclaimed, appalled. His eyes were wide with shock as he wheeled around to face the solemn version of himself. "You've got to be kidding me! Going over that cliff would kill me!"
"Following your sentinel will require your life and your soul," the other intoned. "Are you prepared to sacrifice so much for him?"
Heaving a breath, Blair shook his head. "I…I don't know."
"The time of decision will soon be at hand."
"What? When? Would you - "
But the spirit disappeared and mist swirled around him. He felt frozen, afraid to move and, in his terror, he jerked awake…to the dawn of another day. Startled, disoriented, unable to believe the whole night had passed, he panted for breath as he rolled to find Jim and drew a breath of unconscious relief to see his friend sleeping peacefully close by. Sagging back on his blanket, staring up at the lightening sky that was barely visible through the overarching trees, Sandburg wondered what the vision dream had meant, that staying with his sentinel would cost his life and soul. It had to be symbolic, right? It didn't mean he'd really die if he stayed with Ellison, did it? No, it couldn't mean that. But…what if it did? Swallowing, he shook his head. Even if it was symbolic, was he ready to give up everything that had ever constituted his dreams of his future to follow Jim?
Ellison had barely left the camp to take point, when he was back, stiff with tension, one finger pressed to his lips.
They crowded close and he whispered that he'd picked up the sounds of a rebel patrol close by.
"I don't get it," he grated, angry with himself. "I should have heard them long before now."
"It may be the waterfall," Blair suggested very quietly beside him, so softly neither Daryl nor Simon could hear him. "It's like a white noise generator - blocks normal sounds."
Ellison shook his head, berating himself for not having thought of that when he'd selected the site the night before.
"I didn't think about it, either," Sandburg commiserated, reading Ellison's expression and understanding his friend's self-castigation. "We're still learning about this stuff, Jim."
"Yeah, well, I'd better learn a whole lot faster," he snapped back. "Stay close," he told them all then. "I'll lead us around them."
When they moved out stealthily, Blair unconsciously laid a light hand on Jim's back, unaware of the impact his touch had in strengthening and focusing Ellison's control.
But Jim felt it and closed his eyes briefly against the sudden, unwanted shaft of pain in his chest, and the knowledge that he would soon lose this support and be on his own.
Keeping low and silent, following Ellison's lead, they crept through the dense foliage, the light perpetually dim as it filtered through the dense canopy of leaves high above them. Blair could feel the tension of the muscles in Jim's back and knew his friend was concentrating fiercely to find a safe path away from danger, but the guerilla soldiers were too close, and they could not move quickly without giving themselves away. They all knew, if they were caught, they'd be shown no mercy. Too many hundreds of people had vanished in this jungle, victims of the ongoing war of attrition. The rebels moved fast and only took prisoners if they held hopes of ransom - and even, then, the guerillas usually killed their hapless victims rather than release them. They could now all hear the raucous, arrogant voices jibing at one another in Spanish, so certain of their superiority and power they felt no need for caution as they tramped through the forest. At one point, Jim froze and his hand flew up in a command to stop. The voices were ranging closer. The Sentinel turned and motioned them all to hug the earth, seeking what cover they could under broad ferns. Wordlessly, Simon took a position that covered Daryl from anyone glancing their way, and Jim did the same to protect Blair.
One by one, twenty roughly-garbed, unshaven, and heavily armed men strode past their position, and it seemed they might escape detection. Sweat, from the oppressive heat, and tight, contained fear, slicked their bodies and soaked their clothing. The last rebel soldier was passing their hiding place when he called out a friendly insult to the comrade ahead of him, and the other man turned to reply; but his eyes widened as his gaze fell on the two ferocious-looking fighters crouched in the shadows. He shouted in alarm and brought his weapon up, even as the last guerilla in the line fell back and brought his rifle around to fire on them.
The heavy tropical air was suddenly split with the sound of racketing gunfire and the screams of wounded and dying men. The heavy scent of blood mingled with the rich rotting smell of vegetation and the sharp, pungent odour of sudden death.
The Americans had the advantage of surprise, and used it to full measure as the rebels jerked and crumpled under the assault of their barrage of bullets. Jim's weapon jammed, out of ammunition, and he lunged forward, rolling as he swept up the rifle dropped by the last man to pass their position. Simon's jaw was tight and his eyes blazed with the desperate need to protect his son as he sprayed automatic fire toward those that would kill them without hesitation. Blair covered Daryl's body with his own, pressing them both into the earth, arms ranged over their heads as the only shields they had. When Simon ran out of ammo, Jim covered him while the bigger man scrambled to obtain another weapon. Bullets tore through leaves, shredding them, and burrowed through bark or thunked heavily into the dark, damp earth.
"Back!" Jim shouted. "Move back!"
Sandburg grabbed the younger Banks by the arm and dragged him up, pushing the youth ahead to keep himself between Daryl and the ravaging bullets. Bent low, they ran like rabbits through the jungle, Jim and Simon crashing after them, turning to give covering fire as they ran. At first, the furious rebels were inclined to pursue them, to make them pay for the losses they'd incurred, but too many more stumbled and fell, wounded by Jim's and Simon's unerring aim. Until finally, someone called to them, and the pursuit was forsaken - at least for the moment, until the rebels could attend their wounded.
The Americans raced further into the forest, running full-out until the breath was tight in their chests and they panted for air, the heat their enemy now. And still Jim harried them along, urging them into a shallow stream, where they slipped and slid, falling on slippery stone but picking themselves up to hurry on. Finally, hours later and miles away from their narrow escape, Ellison called a halt and they all collapsed, gasping, to their knees and then, lacking sufficient energy to sit, sprawled on the ground.
"You think we lost them?" Simon finally managed to huff.
Jim's eyes narrowed as he concentrated, his head tilting to one side as he listened intently. His tense shoulders relaxed as he nodded, "For now."
"Dad!" Daryl cried out then, horrified, "you're bleeding!"
He scrambled to his father's side, but Simon shook his head as he hauled his son into a rough hug. "It's just a scratch. Don't worry," he soothed.
Blair scrounged in the packs for the basic medical kit that had been given them, taking it, a wad of linen bandage and a bottle of water to kneel by Banks. A bullet had gouged his left arm, just below his shoulder, and his arm was awash with blood though the wound was shallow. Sandburg muttered, "This'll sting," as he cleaned the injury, applied antibiotic cream and then rolled the bandage around Simon's arm.
Banks winced, but made no other sound as Blair tended him. When the bandage was tied off securely, Simon said with heavy emphasis, "Thanks, kid." Sandburg looked up into his friend's eyes and Simon held his gaze, glanced briefly down at Daryl, and then looked meaningfully back at the younger man. And Blair understood the gratitude was for more than binding Simon's arm.
"No problem, man," he said with a slight smile of reassurance. "Any time," he added, and Banks nodded, swallowing heavily as the big man tightened his jaw, also understanding the full measure of Blair's words.
Standing, Sandburg stepped closer to Jim, who was still concentrating to detect any hint of possible pursuit. Dropping his hand lightly on Ellison's shoulder to draw his attention, Blair murmured, "You okay?"
Nodding, Ellison looked down into his friend's eyes. "You?"
"Thanks to you, yeah, I'm good."
Jim crooked a half smile and shrugged. Looking up and around, he said, "We should keep it simple tonight; quiet, no fire."
"We've got water and food enough for the night, no problem," Blair assured him as he turned away to sort through the packs.
All four were subdued; they'd gotten off lucky and they all knew it. Instead of being captured for ransom or murdered outright, they'd escaped virtually unscathed. But they were miles out of their way and darkness was falling. They made a cold camp and shared out the dwindling rations in the packsacks. Daryl sat close against his father, with Simon's arm around him, while Sandburg and Ellison sat with their shoulders touching; all were quietly glad they were still alive. That night, Ellison took first watch, waking Blair for the second. Simon once again took the predawn vigil.
The next morning, Jim and Blair gathered bananas and other fruit from the wilderness to break their fast, and then Ellison led them on a wide, long loop angling very gradually back toward the west. With luck, they'd stay well out of the path of the rebels, who would no doubt be keeping a wary lookout for them, and aching for revenge. It added another day to an already long, grueling journey and cost them energy they could ill afford, for the most strenuous distance had yet to be covered.
The mountains loomed above them as they climbed up the increasingly steep slopes and the jungle began to thin around them as they traveled higher. Jim fashioned new bolts, not wanting to waste the limited supply of his curare-tipped arsenal on game. They needed food to augment the scraps of meat, stale bread and mangoes left in the backpacks. Meat and water were critical, but they could keep going for a while on the succulent plants, fruit and nuts they gathered from the forest with relative ease. Though it was yet early to stop, Ellison called a halt to the day's march when they came to a sheltered, slow-moving river. Leaving the others to try their luck at catching fish, he disappeared into the shadows on his own silent hunt.
Daryl was ecstatic to be the one to catch the biggest fish for their dinner and, to prove his usefulness, he borrowed Sandburg's Swiss Army knife and insisted remaining by the river to clean and fillet all three, while Blair checked and re-dressed Simon's wound. The younger man was worried about the possibility of infection, a very real danger in the muggy rainforest, but the antibiotic cream seemed to be working well. Jim returned shortly after with a string of squirrels, what looked like a chicken and a good-sized snake he assured them would taste like chicken once it was roasted. Daryl made a face but Blair, having eaten it before, looked delighted.
"I climbed a promontory for a good look around," Ellison told them. "And I think we're clear of the rebels, so we can risk a fire."
"Great," Simon sighed; he hadn't been looking forward to sushi and serpent tartar, let alone raw rodent.
Studying his companions, Jim couldn't help but see they were all growing weary. None of them were used to traveling constantly, especially under such adverse conditions, and it was beginning to tell. Simon looked wasted and, though he'd not once complained, his wounded arm had to be painful. Daryl wasn't getting enough to eat, and his face was growing gaunt. They needed the protein in what he'd hunted, not only that night, but the leftovers might be the only substantial food they'd have once they climbed above the rainforest into the mountain heights. When he looked over at Sandburg, he found his young friend watching him, and Ellison could have sworn Blair was reading his mind, the warm understanding in the wide blue eyes unmistakable.
"We'll be okay," Blair whispered with a soft smile, only loud enough for Jim to hear. "You're taking good care of us."
Bowing his head, wondering when he'd become so transparent, Ellison bent to the preparation of the meat, while Sandburg got a small fire started. Simon sat down on the ground beside Jim to begin plucking the fowl, a look of wry amusement on his face. Certainly, he'd not pictured such a scenario when he'd planned the brief holiday with Daryl - hadn't planned any of this, but it looked like they were going to survive, even if it was against all the odds. Another few days and they'd be back in civilization.
Once the small fire was burning well, Sandburg stood and walked past the older men to see how Daryl was doing with the fish. As he made his way toward the youth, he blinked, frozen in a moment's shock at what he was seeing. A huge serpent, an anaconda, was rising from the water behind the lad's back, its mouth gaping wide as it reared to attack. There was no time to think, to warn - only time enough to act. Racing toward Daryl and the snake that was easily big enough to swallow his young friend, Blair yelled, "Snake! Move!"
Startled, the two older men whirled around in time to see Blair dive to shove Daryl safely out of danger even as the anaconda lunged forward. Sandburg twisted, trying to get out of the way, but the wide jaw, lined with razor-sharp teeth, closed over his shoulder, biting into his upper chest and back, jerking him to a halt. Yelping, he smashed desperately at the serpent's massive head with a hard fist, but it felt like pounding a leathery rock and had about as much effect. Blood was soaking his shirt as the snake kept coming with breathtaking speed for something so large, and it coiled around him, squeezing and squeezing…
Jim and Simon rushed to help, their adrenaline surging and driving them past the shock of the attack and instinctive, atavistic fear of a serpent that had to be twenty feet long, its body as thick as a small tree trunk, and all of it sinuous muscle. Still, the ravenous creature, large as it was, could not have swallowed Sandburg; it had attacked prey that it could consume, and in the confusion might not have realized it had tackled an animal too large - or perhaps it was simply blindly enraged to have been foiled in its search for dinner, or even simply acting instinctually. However, whether confused or angry, there was no doubt it could kill Sandburg.
With furious urgency, desperate to stop the snake from crushing the young man in its relentless grip, they grabbed at the heavy, wet, smooth coil of slithering serpent, wrapping their arms around it to pry it from Sandburg's body. But it was massive and, though they cursed and heaved with all their might, their strength was not equal to its incredible power.
Seconds turned into minutes, speeding past, dragging with horrified despair, until time became meaningless.
Sandburg, pale from shock and fear, moaned inarticulately as he struggled against the crushing coils that had so swiftly bound him and dragged him to the ground. The pain, as the snake wound around him ever more tightly, was hideous, and the hungry anaconda had bitten him several more times in its efforts to subdue him, slashing wounds that streamed bright crimson, staining his clothing, the snake and the ground. Breathing became increasingly difficult and then impossible. His struggling against the serpent stopped as he fought now to simply drag in air, but his chest was so compressed, he was suffocating.
"J-Jim?" Blair gasped in agony, unable to move and barely able to suck in breath as the world began to darken around him. "S-sorry, m-man," he stammered, his words barely a wisp of air, knowing he was losing the battle, his rasping pants growing more frantic and shallower. "I c-can't…c-can't…"
But the words died away as his colouring deepened to a grayish-blue; his eyes widened, impossibly dark with fear and the desperate sure knowledge of impending death, his mouth open in a soundless cry of helpless protest…and then, his body went suddenly, totally, slack, as he succumbed to the darkness...
No longer fighting.
No longer breathing.
The wolf was waiting for him, and this time there was also a black jaguar staring at him with implacable green eyes. Blair didn't know what they wanted from him; he felt confused, disoriented. As if impatient, the big cat abruptly turned to lope rapidly through the blue forest and the wolf yipped at him before turning to follow. Not feeling as though he had any choice, curious, Sandburg ran after them. But, unlike his other dream, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't seem to run fast enough; he kept falling behind and he called out for them to wait for him.
He'd thought he'd lost them and he slowed, breathing heavily, gasping for breath as he looked around dazedly and realized that he was the one who was lost. He had no idea where he was and he struggled to remember, finally realizing it was a dream. Maybe. But it felt real, and the bands tightening around his chest were constricting painfully. "Where are you?" he rasped as he pushed himself sluggishly to his feet and stumbled onward.
Finally, just when he thought he couldn't go any further, he saw the two animals standing by a still pool of water, staring into it. Crawling now, he made his way to the edge and looked down, to see what so enthralled them, and his lips parted in astonishment. It was Jim. The pool showed shattered images of his friend in situations he didn't recognize; squinting, he concentrated hard, trying to understand. Jim blind, stumbling and, oh God, being shot! Jim in a prison; it made no sense. There was a fight, a big fight, people watching, shouting…and then Jim was walking away, looking so lost, hurt and alone. More scenes, fragments of action, hard to follow…but Blair began to realize that Ellison was struggling with his senses; his friend was vulnerable, alone and hurt. Badly hurt, again and again, with no one there - no one to help him or support him.
"No," Sandburg murmured, horrified by what he was seeing, scarcely aware of the heavy tightness in his chest as he panted for breath.
The pool disappeared, and in its place was the bottomless crevice he'd reeled away from - when? He couldn't remember. Blinking, he looked to the spirit animals and saw them morph into images of himself and Jim. They stared at him, as if waiting, but giving no hint as to what he should do. Shaking his head, Sandburg looked again into the eyes of the other him, and the remembered words echoed in his mind…
'You must choose.'
And, finally, he understood.
Though it was his life path, he wasn't choosing for himself, or not only himself. His choice had powerful, frightening implications for Jim, too. His breath was very tight in his chest, and he felt dizzy, but he couldn't worry about that now. That wasn't what was important. Jim needed him. Really needed him, as no one ever had. Jim. His friend. The man he admired and respected above all others. Maybe even loved more than he'd ever loved anyone else in his life. How could he choose safety for himself when it would leave Jim alone and at such deadly risk?
Turning back to the abyss, he nodded and prepared to push off the edge as he murmured, "I'm ready. I choose -"
"Daryl!" Jim yelled as he heard Sandburg's heart rate sharply increase, frantic and faltering, and he knew with icy certainty that they had run out of time. "Grab a burning stick of wood from the fire! Run!"
The youth tore to the campfire as the men continued to wrestle vainly with the serpent and then raced back, skidding to his knees by Blair's entrapped body as he held out the flaming stick. Jim grabbed it, shouting, "Get back!" as he slammed it against the snake's head. The creature reeled back from the heat so close to its eyes, slamming Simon and Jim to the ground as it rapidly surged away, uncoiling as quickly as it had attacked, retreating to slither swiftly into the safe, cool depths of the river.
Blair lay limp and lifeless, like a broken doll, upon the moist, matted green vegetation that thickly carpeted the earth. Ellison scrambled to him and flipped him onto his back, shifting to pull Sandburg's head and shoulders up against his chest, and then cupped Blair's cheek. "Breathe!" Jim commanded with desperate urgency. He could hear his friend's heartbeat thundering in an ever-faster and increasingly uneven rhythm, and then skip erratically, no longer too fast but now shockingly too slow, sluggish…failing to meet the needs of an oxygen-starved body. "NO!" he growled. Swiftly, he laid Sandburg flat as he rolled onto his knees and bent over his partner to tilt Blair's head back and open his mouth. Taking a deep breath, he covered Sandburg's lips to blow in life.
Simon, realizing the kid had gone into respiratory arrest, pushed on the young man's diaphragm to mimic exhalation. Again, Jim blew in a long breath and Simon pressed down, as Daryl anxiously watched, shivering with fear that they wouldn't be able to save Blair. More minutes passed as the two men kept up the rhythm, until finally, at last, Sandburg gasped and coughed violently, curling against the pain in his body, and moaning softly as he panted for breath, not quite conscious.
Once the kid was breathing, Jim turned his attention to the myriad shallow but hemorrhaging wounds. None were so deep as to be life threatening, but Ellison knew the anaconda's saliva contained an anticoagulant. If he couldn't get the bleeding under control, his partner might yet die. Calling to Simon to get Sandburg's shirt off him and to irrigate the wounds with water, he wheeled away and tore into the jungle, his sense of sight wide open as he searched for the peculiar moss he needed - one that would counteract the effects of the saliva and cause Blair's blood to clot. Minutes later - minutes during which he cursed silently in fury that it was taking him so long to find what was needed - he hurried back out of the shadows with thick handfuls of the wiry, gray-green moss.
Swiftly, he and Simon pressed the vegetation to Blair's wounds, their large hands spread wide to cover them all at once. Daryl swallowed hard as he stared at Sandburg's still blue-tinged, slack features and he crossed his arms tightly, rocking a little. "Is he…is he going to die?" he whispered, his eyes wide as he looked at his father and then to Jim.
"I hope not," Ellison grated.
And finally, finally, the bleeding slowed and stopped.
They tenderly washed the blood from his skin and covered the wounds with the antibiotic lotion Sandburg had used on Simon little more than an hour before, and then they bandaged the injuries securely. Ellison's throat tightened as massive bruises began to darken Sandburg's body, and he delicately checked to see if there were any broken bones, blowing a slow breath of relief to find no serious damage. Carefully gathering Blair back into his arms, Jim lightly rubbed his partner's limbs to stimulate circulation and to warm skin chilled by shock and near death. "C'mon, Chief," he murmured. "I need you to wake up." But Sandburg remained unresponsive.
Needing to do something useful, Simon took Blair's bloody shirt to rinse it out in the river and then hung it on a branch to dry. Then he went to his son and drew Daryl into a tight hug, so very glad his boy was alive - and so very grateful to the man lying unconscious on the ground nearby.
"Jim?" Simon queried, still scared for Sandburg's life, as he held Daryl against his side. "Is he going to be okay?"
Though Ellison was afraid of the possibility of brain damage, he refused to acknowledge it. Sighing, he replied heavily, "I hope so. But, uh, he's going to be in a lot of pain for a while. Maybe see what's in the medical kit that might help.
After rummaging in the pack, Simon muttered unhappily, "We don't have anything stronger than aspirin," as he pulled out a small bottle.
"That'll help," Jim replied tightly. "Could you dissolve some in water for me?"
Nodding, Banks crushed three tablets, added the grains to a partially filled bottle of water and shook it vigorously before handing it to Jim, who fed the basic potion slowly into his unconscious friend. Sitting down beside his son, Simon wrapped an arm around Daryl's shoulder, again drawing his shocked and sorrowful boy close.
"He saved my life, didn't he?" the youth stammered, tears filling his eyes as he looked from his father to Jim. "The snake would've swallowed me for sure, wouldn't it?"
Ellison's jaw stiffened, but he nodded tightly as he continued to ease the liquid past his partner's slack lips. Simon murmured softly as he rubbed his son's back, "Easy, son. It's over. You're safe and Blair will be fine."
Sandburg coughed as some of the liquid splashed into his trachea, and Ellison pulled him up, pounding on his friend's back to clear his airway. Once Sandburg was again rasping shallowly, Jim fed him more of the pain-relieving potion.
Blair's breathing faltered and then quickened. His lips moved faintly, and Jim barely heard him moan breathily, "Stop. Wait…where are you?"
"I'm here, Chief; right here," Ellison soothed, his heart aching at the anxious lost sound in Sandburg's voice. And he frowned as he gently stroked his friend's brow, wondering what visions or dreams were tormenting his sorely hurt partner. Blair's breathing was still wheezy, and he began to cough weakly, cutting off whatever he was saying in his delirium. His body twitched in small spastic convulsions as his muscles cramped and relaxed; and his painful panting was loud in the small clearing as the others watched in grim silence, feeling helpless in the face of his suffering.
An hour passed as, gradually, Sandburg's breathing grew easier, less forced, and Jim could hear his heartbeat evening out into a steady rhythm. Ellison chewed his lip, wishing Blair would wake up - terribly afraid his partner had gone without oxygen too long. Another hour passed as the younger man lay unnaturally still and pale in Ellison's arms, though Jim could feel his friend's muscles twitching weakly in reaction to the crushing they'd endured. Then Sandburg sighed, and his body seemed to relax.
"No," Blair whispered hoarsely, his voice but a wisp of air, barely audible. "I'm ready," he breathed. "I choose -"
Jim's heart clenched as Blair's voice cut off and the younger man again trembled weakly. Worried about what choice Sandburg thought he was making, Ellison begun murmuring softly, cajoling his friend back to consciousness.
Sandburg's colour was still pale and clammy from shock when he blinked and opened his eyes. "H-hurts to…b-breathe," he gasped, at first seeming confused, but his gaze cleared as he stared up at Ellison. One hand moved, slowly, fumbling, but found its way to Jim's shirt, and Blair caught a wad of cloth and held on tight.
Ellison covered his partner's hand with his own as he smiled unsteadily. "I know," Jim soothed reassuringly and then brushed the damp curls from Blair's pallid face. "But nothing's broken…you'll be okay. Just rest now."
Blair's lips twitched in a ghost of a smile despite the pain that still filled his eyes, and he managed a bare nod before he let sleep take him.
Simon and Daryl sagged with relief. "You're sure?" Banks demanded. "He'll be all right now?"
"Yeah," Jim replied, his voice husky with emotion as he held Blair securely, not yet ready to let him go and lay him upon the blanket by the fire. "He'll likely hurt like hell in the morning, and feel a bit dazed from blood loss, but he'll be fine."
When Blair woke not long after dawn, he found Daryl watching over him, the youth's face sober with his intense scrutiny. "Hey," Sandburg murmured, wincing as he pushed himself up.
Reaching out to help him, Daryl urged, "Take it slow, man! How're you feelin'?"
"Uh, not too bad. Bit sore," the grad student replied with a grimace that belied his brave words. "Hungry, actually." Looking around the campsite, he spotted Simon by the river, fishing, but Ellison was nowhere to be seen. "Where's Jim?"
"Checking the perimeter," young Banks told him. "Man, he will be some glad to see that you're okay! We were all scared, but I've never seen Jim so intense as he was after you were hurt! Hey, he made some tea for you that he said would help."
Turning to the fire, Daryl reached for a hollowed-out gourd that was hung by vines tethered to sticks, high enough above the flames to not burn, but close enough that the water it contained would eventually boil and, once the tea was steeped from the leaves Ellison had gathered, be kept warm. Smiling a bit bemusedly at the lad's description of Jim's behaviour, Blair accepted the hand-fashioned improvised mug, sniffed the brew deeply and then sipped at it.
"Mmm," he murmured, gratefully. It was soothing and refreshing at the same time, and Sandburg knew it contained natural analgesic properties. He smiled to himself, thinking that Jim put on a pretty good act about not knowing much about herbs, but the older man had obviously learned a thing or two about organic remedies from the Chopec.
Seeing that he was awake, Simon returned to the campfire to squat down beside him, and handed the younger man his slightly shredded shirt. "How're you doing, Blair?" he asked soberly as his gaze searched Sandburg's face for signs of strain.
"Okay," the young man returned with a lop-sided grin. Bowing his head, embarrassed by the naked gratitude and concern he saw in Simon's eyes, he added, "It's all a bit hazy, though. I don't remember much of last evening."
"Might be just as well," Banks Senior rumbled. "You were hurting pretty bad."
"You saved my life, Blair," Daryl cut in then, wide-eyed and solemn. "Thank you."
Sandburg shrugged and regretted the movement, but hid his discomfort at the pull on his wounds and sore muscles. "No sweat, Daryl," he assured the youth with a warm smile. "You'd've done the same if you'd seen the danger first."
"Me?" Daryl exclaimed, his uncertain tenor rising an octave. "I would have run so fast the other way, you wouldn't've seen me for dust, dude."
Chuckling, Blair shook his head. "You know, I seriously doubt that," he asserted evenly and then took another sip of the restorative herbal tea. When Banks offered him some cooked fish on a large leaf, he took it gratefully.
Daryl searched Blair's face, looking for any sign that he was being teased and, seeing only sincerity, he flushed a little and bowed his head, pleased by the confidence Sandburg had in him but a little overwhelmed by it.
When Ellison returned moments later, he loped to the fire and squatted by Sandburg, reaching out to grasp his friend's uninjured shoulder. "You're looking a bit better this morning," he observed, warm affection in his eyes.
"Uh huh," Blair mumbled as he swallowed. And then he held up the gourd, as he said, "Great tea, Jim - just what I needed. Thanks."
Ellison caught the twinkle deep in Sandburg's eyes, and knew he might be in for some future ribbing about his esoteric and, until now, well hidden knowledge of herbal remedies. But, genuinely delighted that Blair was still alive to tease him, he simply grinned and nodded. Then, taking in the others with his gaze, he reported, "I didn't detect any sign of hostiles. I think we're okay to stay here another day - "
"Why?" Blair asked and, when they all turned to look at him quizzically, he belatedly realized they were accommodating him. "Oh, well, hey, I think I can travel - maybe not as fast as the last few days, but we've got so far yet to go, we should keep going. If I lie around, I'll only stiffen up more."
"You sure?" Jim asked with a frown.
"Yeah, if we take it slow and easy," he insisted as he held out a hand for Ellison to help him to his feet.
But his legs felt like stiff blocks of wood, and his back and chest protested vehemently. When he paled and swayed, Jim unceremoniously, but gently, eased him back down to the ground.
"You know, on sober second thought," Blair said with valiant aplomb, flushing with embarrassment to know he was holding them up, "a day lounging around would be good."
The next day, though he was still a bit shaky and certainly very sore, Sandburg insisted that they had to move on. Jim took point and kept a constant monitor on Sandburg's condition, pausing for breaks whenever he detected any signs of tiring or strain in his partner's breathing or sub-vocal mutterings of pain. But, even at the easy pace, they soon left the jungle behind and were climbing up a moderately strenuous grade toward a pass between the mountains. Knowing they were more vulnerable in the open, Ellison opened his senses further, widening his area of surveillance for any hostile observation. Blair moved up close behind him, frequently either touching him or murmuring softly to keep him grounded.
As they climbed, Jim couldn't help reflecting back on the terrors of the struggle with the huge reptile and then of the effort to get Sandburg breathing again. For a time, he hadn't been sure if his best friend would live or die - and, for the first time, he consciously realized that Sandburg was just about the best friend he'd ever had. His chest tightened, and sorrow flashed in his eyes to think that Blair was really going to go to Borneo, because Jim had no doubt of how much he'd miss the friend, as much or more than he'd miss the help with his senses.
With a sharp sense of sadness, he then noticed the effortless way that the kid seemed to know what he needed to remain focused and grounded. Sandburg was quietly assisting him to maximize the extraordinary clarity and much improved control that he'd experienced since his vision, days ago now, just as he'd been giving solid support since the day they'd met. It all felt…right, somehow. As if Blair's presence was… integral to what he was as a sentinel.
Jim felt a deep, hollow ache to think that Sandburg didn't feel it, too - couldn't feel it, or the kid wouldn't be planning on taking off for who knew how long. Maybe forever. Sighing, Jim lifted his head and squared his shoulders. No matter how hard it would be to see his partner leave, there wasn't much he could do about it, except learn to live with the emptiness that would be left behind. For a moment, anger flared - at himself, for having unwittingly come to care too much, for becoming too dependent - and he wondered if he'd ever learn that he was destined for a solitary existence. He'd been managing well on his own before the heightened senses had surfaced, and had pretty much convinced everyone that he was an inveterate, self-avowed loner. Yeah, he'd done a real good job of hiding how much he craved friendship and meaningful affiliation - how much he needed to matter to at least one other soul. His silent, hidden grief that Blair was on the verge of leaving wasn't all about the senses, not by a long shot.
Behind him, Blair was also thinking about the nature of friendship and, most particularly, how it applied to Jim and their partnership. Neither of them had ever before considered that their deal of convenience and mutual benefit would be anything more than transitory. He frowned to himself, thinking about how easily Jim had said he should go to Borneo, should do what was right for himself. But he had also picked up different messages during this long, hazardous journey. Jim had been remote, almost brittle, at first. But now, especially after the dramatic events of by the river, he'd changed again. Sandburg's throat tightened, deeply touched to know that his well-being meant so much to the older man. His memories of all that had transpired were dim at best, but he had heard Jim cursing the serpent with real fear in his voice - fear for Blair's life. And he had snippets of recollection of Ellison holding him close, calling to him. Daryl had said that Jim had been 'intense', whatever that meant. Probably worried sick; maybe scared; certainly, doing all in his power to help. And Jim had searched out the ingredients and prepared that herbal tea for him…an act of generous consideration and care. And yesterday? His friend had been the soul of patience and solicitude as Jim had helped him exercise his stiff, unresponsive muscles.
Sandburg bit his lip as he followed Ellison up the steep incline, scrambling a bit to keep his balance and trying to disregard the pull on his bruised body and wounds. He'd had strange dreams about a wolf and a jaguar most nights since they'd left Cascade, dreams that he didn't remember all that clearly, but which haunted him. It didn't matter, though, he decided, if he couldn't remember the details. What was important was the decision he'd made. He felt as if he carried a burning ember deep inside, that he had to safeguard and nurture - an ember of commitment, maybe even of destiny. An ember of a friendship such as he'd never known before - a relationship to another person, other than his mother, for whom he'd do just about anything to protect and support. He had no idea how long Jim would need or want to have him around, but for so long as that might be, Blair had decided he would be there for his partner. If that had career implications, or even posed serious danger given Jim's line of work, then that was just the way it would be. He'd take the risks because Ellison was worth it.
Simon and Daryl brought up the rear. They didn't say much to one another, most of their breath needed for the climb, but they touched often, more than they ever had before. This journey had taught them both that nothing could ever be taken for granted and Daryl, particularly, had come to understand that life was fragile. Whatever conflicts he and his Dad had in the future, he knew he'd never be as thoughtless or self-centred, as angry or deliberately cruel as he'd been too often in the past, as he'd sought to punish his parents for his despair at their breakup. Life was too short and could be snuffed out in an instant. He loved his Dad, and he never wanted his father to ever have cause to doubt that. And Simon? Well, he just wanted to get his boy home, where he'd be safe.
As the day began to wane, Ellison searched for some kind of shelter on the increasingly barren stone of the mountain pass. There were no trees, just scrub brush, and the wind was cold at the higher altitudes. They couldn't make better speed, not only because of having to cut Sandburg some slack, but also because they were all suffering from the thinner air and were likely suffering the effects of oxygen deprivation, like headaches. He knew he was; the dull throbbing behind his eyes was relentless. Finally, he spotted a fissure in the rocky cliff that loomed over them and, investigating, he found it led into a small cave. Checking the ground for prints or other signs of occupation, and listening intently, he decided that no other creature had already claimed it.
They gathered dry brush to carry inside for a small fire to warm them through the night, and then broke out the rations of cooked meat Jim had caught, it seemed much longer than two days ago. Weary to their bones, they pulled out the thin blankets and huddled together to share as much body heat as they could as the night grew dark and the wind blew colder.
The next day, Jim woke them at first light, eager to finish their journey through the wilderness. Not bothering to rekindle the fire, though they all felt stiff and chilled, they finished off the last of their supplies of meat and fruit before beginning what they all hoped would be the last day of their long, arduous journey. Sandburg wasn't the only one who stifled moans at the protest of sore muscles, as they pushed themselves to their feet and slipped out of the small cavern. The sky above was clear, the wind less harsh, though still cold. Aching, footsore, they started out with grim determination, but the travel became easier as the day, and their bodies, warmed up. Onward they climbed toward the crest of the pass, helping one another up and over great blocks of tumbled stone…and then they were heading downhill with a last burst of energy, knowing the end of their trek was near at hand.
Finally, late in the afternoon, stiff, sore, and very weary, they trudged into the outskirts of the small mountain town of Morales and occasioned quite a stir amongst the locals, who were astonished at their filthy and ragged appearance. Before long, they found themselves ushered into the stone building that housed the constabulary. It didn't take long to make it clear that they wanted to be connected to Captain Sandoval, in Lima. Three hours later, the good Captain arrived in a chartered plane to pick them up at the local airfield, which was little more that a stretch of rough grass and small rocks. Four hours after that, they were back in Lima, and finally able to fully relax in comfortable hotel rooms, luxuriate in hot baths, and collapse into sleep until noon the next day. When they woke, they found clothing had been bought and left for them by the dedicated police officer, with the compliments and thanks of the nation of Peru for having broken up the drug manufacturing operation and rescuing an entire village of people.
They spent the afternoon recounting their adventures to Sandoval, who promised to ensure that action was taken to check on the welfare of the villagers, as well as search for the criminals who had escaped. Somehow, though they didn't doubt his good intentions, Simon and Jim rather doubted those men would ever be captured.
Before they headed to the airport for their late, overnight flight back to the States, Simon insisted on taking them all out for a magnificent dinner. When the rare vintage he'd ordered was poured, he directed that a little be served to Daryl, too, which made the youth sit up proudly and feel grown up. Then, Banks murmured, his voice thick with sincerity, "I'm not much on long speeches or flowery words, but I remember reading a poem by Kipling once, that talked about 'the thousandth man'…a man that would stand by you, when all others forsook you. A man who would be a staunch friend and ally; who could be counted upon to walk the roughest road by your side." Swallowing hard to contain his emotion, he continued, "Daryl and I are blessed to know two such men, and we salute you." With that, he and his son raised their goblets to toast Jim and Blair. As they clinked glasses, he added, "Thank you for coming for us - and for saving our lives."
It was the middle of the next afternoon before the final connecting flight landed in Cascade and they all made their way back to their respective domiciles. Bone-tired, scratched and bruised, twelve days after they'd left, Jim and Blair were only too grateful to be home. As they ambled into the loft, heading for the refrigerator to get a couple of cold ones, Sandburg noticed the flashing red light on the answering machine. When he punched it, they heard the voice of Dr. Stoddard's secretary, advising Sandburg that if he was still interested in joining the project team going to Borneo, they needed to hear from him as soon as possible.
His throat tight, Jim handed his friend an uncapped bottle of beer. As he lifted his toward his lips, he said as evenly as he could manage, though he couldn't quite make eye contact, "Guess you should call them back."
Blair looked up at him, feeling uncertain, even diffident. His expression was open, vulnerable, as he replied quietly, "Well, actually, I've already decided not to go." When Jim turned to gape at him, unable to hide his surprise, Sandburg continued, hesitatingly, a little embarrassed, "This sentinel thing…you know, it's more than just a research project. It's about friendship." Nervously, he laughed a little, as he added, "I just didn't get it before."
Jim was unaware of how his expression softened and began to glow with a kind of peace as he smiled, bowed his head and nodded. Swallowing back the tide of emotion - relief, but more a deep sense of joy - he nodded again as he smiled almost shyly into his partner's wide, earnest gaze, and said softly, "Okay."
Blair's uncertainly melted away as he saw what his decision meant to the older man, and he relaxed, knowing he had made absolutely the right choice. Following Jim out onto the balcony, leaning against the portal he observed admiringly, "You know you were really something out there in the jungle, man. I've never seen you so focused, so in control. It was pretty amazing." As he gazed at his friend, he added, "You never did tell me how you got your powers back."
"They just came back," Ellison replied with a contented smile as he looked out over his city.
Chuckling lightly, Sandburg moved further outside, to stand beside Jim as he challenged lightly, "Why do I get the feeling like you're not telling me everything?"
"Because I just don't have the energy to talk about it right now," the older man replied, but he was still smiling and seemed more relaxed that Blair had ever seen him. Gesturing with his beer bottle to encompass their private world, Jim added, "We're home. Let's enjoy it."
Smiling, wondering if Ellison would ever reveal what had happened in the jungle that had triggered the return, even the strengthening, of his extraordinary senses, Sandburg bowed his head in deference to his friend's wish for peace and privacy. 'We're home', Jim had said, and Blair felt a flush of warmth at the words. Jim included him here so casually and matter-of-factly, as if it were abundantly obvious that the loft was his home, too; a simple statement, but one that took as given their affiliation, and their friendship. Looking back up at Jim, he held out his bottle to clink Ellison's as he toasted, "Welcome home, partner."
Jim gazed at Blair thoughtfully, not missing the significance of the simple gesture. Something had changed during their journey, something fundamental. Sandburg's statement was almost proprietary, signaling his acceptance of the right to welcome Jim back to their shared home, acknowledging that it was his home, too, not just a temporary place to live for a while - and that they were partners, no longer of convenience, but bound by friendship. Ellison let the words and the sense of well-being they brought wash over and through him, giving him a sense of permanence and stability, as they eased the perennial ache of loneliness in his soul and filled up the hollow in his heart.
But he was startled out of his reverie when he heard the jaguar's snarl; he looked back into the loft and up to the balcony where his spirit guide was poised, the green eyes piercingly sharp as they held his gaze. He stared back, not really understanding, but figuring that it was all part of what his life was now, what he had willfully become. A Sentinel. But the idea, and the senses, no longer unnerved him - no longer left him feeling wholly unequal to the role and the responsibility.
Turning back to his best friend, reassured and gladdened by his partner's presence, he looped an arm around Blair's shoulder. Come what may, he wouldn't have to face the challenges alone - they would meet the future on its own terms, together.
The Sentinel finally knew he wasn't alone any more.
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